Christians Stop Calling Yourselves Sinners


Billy Joel famously confessed in song,

“I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints

The sinners are much more fun—only the good die young!”

Overlooking his obvious false dichotomy between saints and fun and his full-throttled embrace of sin, we can give Joel credit for seeing something that many sinners and saints equally miss: Saints and sinners are two distinct groups of people. In this distinction, Billy Joel is being quite biblical.

These two categories, in fact, are biblical categories by which all of humanity can be divided.  The Bible makes this distinction in various ways: darkness/light; believers/unbelievers; children of God/children of the devil; and saints/sinners.  The New Testament does not call Christians sinners.

Did you hear that?  Christians are not addressed as sinners by the writers of the New Testament.  Christians are called saints. See Paul’s address to the Corinthians for a clear and very common example:

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours…

If Christians are saints, and not sinners, then why do Christians refer to themselves so often as sinners and almost never as saints?  I came up with four possible explanations. You may think of more (or better) explanations. Here are my four thoughts:

First, we Protestants have a lingering discomfort with the catholic traditions (Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox) because of their veneration of the saints. Variously, these traditions pray to the saints, hold feast days in their names, and revere certain saints above others. Indeed, these catholic traditions do not use the word saint to refer to all Christians set apart by the gospel. Rather, they use the term to refer to super holy Christians (or something like that).  So, the catholic traditions employ the term in a way we don’t like. We, in turn, choose not to use the term much at all.

Second, we are simply too aware of our own sins, individually and collectively, to think of ourselves as anything but sinners.  We know we have sinned terribly against the Lord.  We know that we still fall short of His glory. Thus, we think of ourselves as sinners.  We call ourselves sinners because we know that is what we have always been.

And all of this is true of course. We were born sinners.  We still sin.  Thus, in a very real sense, we are still sinners.  We feel the tension Martin Luther expressed so well: Simul iustus et peccator [at the same time, we are righteous and sinners]. Our problem is that the apostles and writers of the New Testament refer to Christians as saints, not sinners. Our experience makes us feel like sinners. (So, Paul would call himself the chief of sinners, yet he referred to believers in the churches as saints).  There is serious tension.

Third, let’s be honest—we are not comfortable being called saints. Going by the name sinner is easy. It sounds humble—“I’m just a poor sinner.”  It relieves our responsibility (and even guilt?) somewhat because we can identify with every other Christian who knows he, too, is just a poor sinner.  We commiserate.

Such thinking might also build a certain level of defeatism into our spiritual psyche.  When it comes to exercising spiritual discipline in the morning, it’s easier to slide into sinner mode than saint mode.  When it comes to fighting temptation toward lust, laziness, or lack of evangelistic zeal, we have an easier time consoling ourselves of our failures when we think of ourselves as failures—as sinners.

But the New Testament thinks of us differently. Peter, for instance, reminds his readers,

“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

Wow, that’s a high calling!  Peter and Paul tell us we are saints, holy, royal, and chosen. They do not say we are sinners, partly because (as a biblical category) sinners are condemned (see Paul in Romans 3:7, Peter in 1 Peter 4:18).  Mostly, they use saint as a reminder of our high calling in Christ.

Fourth, we might be confused about the term saint. What does it even mean?

Basically, a saint (‘agion) is a person who is sacred, holy, or “set apart.”  It does not mean super moral or super righteous Christians.  All Christians are called by God, set apart from the world.  We are no longer in the darkness, but we have been transferred into the light, into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son.  As such, we are saints by God’s calling.

The Apostle Paul explains this concept in Romans 6:12-14:

Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.  Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.  For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace (ESV).

Paul is borrowing temple language. In the temple, there were instruments set apart for use in temple service. What was the difference between a

Fan of saints not sinners

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(Yes, I’m a saints fan!)

firepan in the temple and a firepan used, perhaps, in a pagan temple?  Nothing, materially speaking.  But everything in a spiritual and theological sense!  One was pleasing to almighty God and used for worshiping him.  The other was abhorrent to God and used to commit idolatry against Him.

Paul reminds us that we are called (set apart, saints) to be useful in worshiping God, not to be useful in the idolatrous practices of our past (or those present in the world).  We should remember our calling to be set apart. We should remember, as Paul told the Philippians, to let our lives be lived in a manner worthy of the gospel to which we have been called.  Today, we are to be instruments useful to God, set apart for His good purposes. We are His saints today. Therefore, we must go and be useful for God.

The distinction between saint and sinner is not essentially moral. Neither the saint nor the sinner is perfectly holy in moral terms. Yet, one is characterized by his sinful desires; the other is characterized by his holy desires.  One is characterized by idolatrous and fleshly practices; the other is characterized by godliness and usefulness to Christ and the gospel.

Billy Joel, it seems, got two things right. There are sinners, and there are saints. Which one are you today?

Why It Is Important to Identify with the Persecuted Church: 3 More Reasons


In my prior blog post, I noted that there are at least 5 reasons all Christians should identify with persecution. First, the New Testament says that all Christians will be persecuted, and the persecution could take several different forms, from the mild mocking and name-calling to the more severe imprisonment and execution. Second, Christians are united in one body. Thus, attempts to distinguish between those who are “really” persecuted and those who are not introduce artificial division in the body of Christ.

All Christians Face PersecutionThis leads to the third reason all Christians ought to identify with persecution: Unity in the body of Christ. Throughout the New Testament, there is a constant urging for Christians to live in unity. Jesus famously prayed for us all to be one (John 17:19-20ff.). In John 17:23, He asks the Father to perfect us in unity so the world might know the reality of His appearing.

Christians who have the Spirit of Christ have also a longing for unity within the body of Christ. The Apostle Paul manifested this reality to the church at Ephesus. In Ephesians 4, Paul urged the Ephesians to preserve the unity of the Spirit. He continued further to say that the work of the church is directed toward building up the body of Christ “until we all attain the unity of the faith.”

On this basis of unity within the body of Christ, the writer of Hebrews commands Christians to “Remember the [persecuted] prisoners, as though in prison with them, and those who are ill-treated, since you yourselves are also in the body” (13:3).  The connection between persecution and the unity of the body of Christ is unmistakable. It is as plain as it is well-pictured by the human body itself. If you have a leg injury, it impacts your entire body. Drop a 10 lb. weight on the little toe of your left foot, and your entire body will respond accordingly (even if not appropriately).

So it is supposed to work within the body of Christ. There is a unity of the body which insists that the persecuted be noticed—that they be “remembered” as though we were actually in the prison cell with them. We are commanded always to identify with suffering saints in unity within the body of Christ.

Fourth, Christ is present in the midst of the persecuted—and what Christian does not long to be where Christ is? Christ, of course, is always present with His people, but the New Testament emphasizes several occasions in which Christ distinctly promises to be in the very midst of His gathered people. Christ promises His presence when His people gather together to practice church discipline (Matthew 18:20). He is present when His people gather to worship (1Corinthians 14:25). He is present when His people are making disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:20). He is present when His people minister to other Christians in need (Matthew 25:40, 45). And He is present when His people are suffering persecution.

Consider the conversion story of Saul. In Acts 9, Saul—breathing threats and seeking vengeance against followers of Christ—is suddenly confronted on the Damascus Road with the reality of the living Christ. When Christ appears to Saul, He asks him a curious question:

Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?

Notice, the Lord does not ask why Saul is persecuting the church or my people. Jesus asks Saul, “Why are you persecuting Me?”  Jaroslav Pelikan explains it this way,

“Saul—together with the long line of his descendants—may have supposed that he was attacking the miserable adherents of a wretched fringe movement (14:22); but here the ultimate target of the rage and the violence (28:31) identified himself as none less than ‘Jesus, whom you are persecuting.’”

Christ is clearly one with His suffering saints. Our Lord undoubtedly cares for all humankind, but He must hold particular affection for His very own children who are harshly abused for the simple reason that they belong to Him. The martyred saints have no problem making the connection. In Revelation 6, martyred saints are pictured as being in the presence of Christ crying out, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”

And the answer they are given, apparently, is that the Lord will indeed avenge their blood on the heads of those who persecuted them, but He must first wait until the full number of martyrs is complete. One gets the sense from Revelation 6:11 that the reigns of history are at least partially held in reserve until an appointed persecution is complete. At which time, Christ will free His white horses to ride upon the clouds descending upon the earth to exact perfect justice against those who opposed Him by persecuting His body (Revelation 19). What Glory!

Finally, the fifth reason all Christians ought to identify with the persecuted is that the persecuted are blessed people! According to the New Testament, the kingdom belongs to the impoverished and the persecuted (see the first and eighth Beatitudes, Matthew 5:3, 10). Does it sound strange to call persecution a blessing?

It’s a strange and hard thought for my American Christian ears to hear, but it is true nonetheless that persecution is considered a blessing in the New Testament.

Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:10)

Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your China Christians persecuted persecution blessing matthew 5reward in heaven is great for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:11-12)

Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials (James 1:2).

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.” (1 Peter 4:12-14)

Failure to identify with the persecuted represents a failure to recognize the blessed life in Christ. Surely, more than a few health-and-wealth, prosperity prophets have hauled in tons of followers and loads of cash by promising their hearers a “blessed” life. We know how wrong such preaching is, but are we altogether right about what it means to be blessed on Jesus’s terms?

Identifying with persecution may help us realize what abundant life really is as promised by our Lord. Don’t all Christians long for the abundant life Jesus said He came to give? Somehow, that abundant life includes both persecution and blessing. May the Lord grant us faith to embrace and receive all that He has to offer us.