We Are Saints Who Sin

Believers are “called to be saints” (Rom. 1:7), i.e. we are saints by His calling. Notice that Paul writes “to the saints” in Ephesus (Eph. 1:1), and Philippi (Phil. 1:1). A saint is not someone who has earned their lofty title by living a magnificent life or achieving a certain level of maturity. In the Bible, all believers are described as “saints,” which means "holy ones" (e.g. 1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1). Being a saint does not necessarily reflect any present measure of growth in character, but it does identify those who are rightly related to God. In Scripture, believers are called “saints,” “holy ones,” or “righteous ones” more than 200 times. In contrast, unbelievers are called “sinners” over 300 times. Clearly the term “saint” is used in Scripture to refer to the believer and “sinner” is used in reference to the unbeliever.

Although the New Testament teaches that believers can and do sin, it never clearly identifies the believer as a “sinner.” Paul’s reference to himself as “the worst of sinners” seems to contradict his teaching (1 Tim. 1:15,16). Despite the use of the present tense by the Apostle, however, there are several reasons why Paul is referring to his pre-conversion opposition to the Gospel.

First, the reference to himself as “sinner” is in support of the first half of the verse, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). The reference to “the ungodly and sinners” a few verses earlier (vs. 9) along with the other New Testament uses of the term “sinners” for those who are outside salvation show that the “sinners” whom Christ came to save were outside of salvation.

Second, Paul’s reference to himself as a “sinner” is immediately followed by the statement: “But for that very reason I was shown (past tense) mercy”(v. 16), clearly pointing to the past occasion of his conversion. Paul, the worst of sinners, uses himself as an example of God’s unlimited patience. Because of his past action, Paul considered himself unworthy of what by God’s grace and mercy he presently was, an apostle who was in no respect, “inferior to the ‘Super-apostles’” (2 Cor. 12:11).

Third, although declaring that he was the “worst” sinner, the apostle at the same time declares that Christ had strengthened him for the ministry having considered him “faithful” or “trustworthy” for the ministry to which he was called (vs. 12). The term “sinner,” therefore, does not describe him as a believer, but is rather used in remembrance of what he was before Christ took hold of him.

As believers we are not trying to become saints, we are saints who are becoming like Christ. Being a saint is part of our positional sanctification. In no way does this deny the continuous struggle with sin. Christians can choose to sin, and many are dominated by the flesh and deceived by the devil. Because they sin, we want to call them sinners, but what we do does not determine who we are. Telling Christians they are sinners and then disciplining them if they don’t act like saints is counter-productive at best and inconsistent with the Bible at worst. Believing who we really are in Christ determines what we do.

Dr. Neil

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