Are We Sinners or Saints?
Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the Lord! Let us lift up our hearts and hands to God in heaven: “We have transgressed and rebelled . . .” Lamentations 3:40-42
I’ve heard Christians described as Sinners, Saved by Grace, and I’ve heard others object, insisting that we are Saints Who Still Sin. Do we identify ourselves by the old life and the continuing reality that we still struggle? Or, do we identify ourselves only by our new life in Christ? Does it matter? As with many theological disputes, there are verses to support both sides, so here, I’ll explain why I think it’s important to recognize that we are both sinners and saints.
When we come to know Christ, we are absolutely born again into a new spirit life (John 3) which will last for eternity. We are new creations in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). We were once in darkness, but now we walk in the light (Ephesians 5:8). We are now saints (Ephesians 2:19), which is our eternal identity.
However, despite our new spirit life or sainthood, while we live on this earth, we retain a deeply flawed flesh life, which has continued evil desires (Romans 7:18). Our flesh life wages war on our spirit life (1 Peter 2:11). Though we are saints, no one, not even St. Paul, is made perfect in this life (Philippians 3:13). We all still struggle with something (James 3:2).
To live the life that Christ desires, we must remain aware of our identity as sinners as well as saints. To turn from the old to follow Christ (Luke 9:23), we must recognize our struggles so that we may abandon them. We must daily, put to death the deeds of the flesh life, walking in the spirit life (Romans 8:13). For the disciple, this is not optional. Every day, we should know exactly what it is that we are abandoning to follow Christ.
The danger, is that we err in recognizing one life over the other. In the extreme of insisting that I am a sinner, I may wallow in the fact that I struggle with addiction. I guess I’ll just always be an addict. Maybe I’m forgiven, but I’ll never be free, so I’ll just embrace it.
The other error is no better though. If I insist I am a saint and no longer a sinner, I become prideful and blind to my struggles. I may sin a little, but I’m just not an addict anymore, so I don’t need to go to work at recovery. Today’s passage insists though, that we must continually examine ourselves to understand exactly how we wander from God in our sin. Ignorance of our struggles is not bliss, but destruction.
The definition of a sinner is: one who sins. The definition of an addict is: one who has struggled with addiction. An adulterer has committed adultery. Coming to Christ does not undo the fact that those things have been our life struggles and it does not mean we are no longer sinners, addicts, or adulterers. In fact, if we don’t continually work at abandoning those behaviors, and if we insist we are only saints, we will either return to those destructive behaviors or we will embrace a blinding pride that makes us worse than before.
I long for the day when I am no longer a sinner, but that is not going to happen in this life. The truth is, I still struggle, and I still desperately need Christ daily. When I fail to realize my ongoing need, I fail to turn to Christ daily, because I think I no longer need him like I once did.
What our new life in Christ means, is that now, we daily have the choice to live in the freedom of the spirit, in which case we will grow life, or, we may again become enslaved to the flesh, growing destruction (Romans 8:13, Galatians 6:7,8). Christ sets us free to follow him, but we always have the option of returning to the old life. We are both sinners and saints, which we must remain continually aware of, so that we may abandon our sin to embrace Christ. It is only in doing so that we find true life in him.