Sinner or Saint

Sinner and/or Saint Overview

Even citizens of Israel were called sinners in the scriptures. That is to say, members of God’s chosen nation were called sinners. Therefore, Jews were called sinners as well as Gentiles. Thus, a child (son or daughter) of God is in the church due to faith in Jesus Christ; yet, one could not rightly conclude that such a person cannot be called a sinner based upon his/her citizenship in church.

The words sinner and saint are not necessarily opposites. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The context under which they are used largely determine their meaning. For example, biblical principles generally use the word sinner to have the following meanings:

1. One who commits sin

2. One who is under the penalty of sin because they have not accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour

In the sense of (1), all are sinners since all have sinned and come short of the glory of God even those who have accepted Jesus Christ. That includes those who were called saints in the Old Testament (Psalm 30:4; 106:16; 1 Samuel 2:9) and saints who died (Matthew 27:52) before Christ came. In the sense of (2) all who have not accepted Jesus Christ are sinners. Yet, one could have accepted Jesus Christ and still commit sin in a time of weakness (1 John 1:8-10); in that sense he/she is a sinner (one who commits or committed sin).

So the answer to the question as to whether one is a sinner or saint or both depends on what one means by sinner. If one means (1) above then a believer is both a sinner and a saint. If one means (2) above then a believer is not a sinner and is only a saint. So if one says “I am a sinner saved by grace” that statement is correct if he/she is using the word sinner in the sense of (1) but incorrect if one is using the word in the sense of (2). In either case the key is that he/she understands that if he/she sins, God expects repentance (1 John 1:8-10).

The word saint in the Old Testament emphasizes one’s commitment to the Word, Will, and Way of God; the word sinner indicates the lack thereof. The word saint in the New Testament emphasizes one’s faith in Jesus Christ; the word sinner indicates both (1) and (2) above. It is best that the believer refers to himself as a saint in most circumstances. Yet, if one chooses to emphasize the fact that he has not yet obtained perfection but does occasionally sin and come short of God’s glory, then use of the word sinner may be appropriate.

Sinner and/or Saint More Details

In a sense one is a saint when he does the will of the Lord; he is a sinner when he does not do the will of the Lord. Here the word sinner simply emphasizes that one has not yet attained perfection. The word saint emphasizes that one is concerned with and focused on attaining perfection. Under the New Covenant that concern and focus should be on accepting and following Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Some suggest the word sinner is restricted to one who habitually or customarily practice sin. But the scripture says if one breaks one law one is guilty of all. Does that not make one a sinner, even if one physically breaks only one law? How many times does one have to sin to be a sinner? Does not the Bible say just once? Did not Paul understand this (1 Timothy 1:15; Romans 3:7)?

In 1 Timothy 1:15 Paul says “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save [Luke 9:56; 19:10] sinners; of whom I am chief.” Paul also identifies himself as a saint (Eph 3:8). Also he identifies himself as least among the saints (Eph 3:8) and least among the apostles; yet, his calling himself least does not mean he is not a saint or an apostle. Here we have the contrast between chief and least. In both cases, Paul was exercising humility regarding his imperfections in relationship to other persons. Paul seems to not have minded identifying himself a sinner when he was emphasizing his imperfection before (1 Timothy 1:13) and after (Romans 7:14-25) his conversion. For certainly he therein identifies himself as one who sins which is one definition of a sinner. In other words he identified himself as one who commits sin (1 Timothy 1:13-15).

Paul was humbly recognizing his past sins as well as the fact that he had not yet reached perfection (Philippians 3:12-14).  This imperfection was in the sense that he did not always do that which was good to do (Romans 7:14-25, James 4:17). In no way was Paul saying he was under condemnation. In no way was Paul saying he was not righteous (2 Cor. 5:17-21). He was simply acknowledging his imperfection. He did not mind applying the term sinner to himself although he usually applied the word saint to the believer.

Some say that Paul in 1 Timothy 1:15 was only referring to what he said in 1 Timothy 1:13 when he refers to himself as chief among sinners. They say the phrase “I am” in verse 15 does not mean present tense but rather past tense. That is, some say he was not including his present state of imperfection as described in Romans 7:14-25. Judge for yourself what Paul is saying!

Some suggest that those believers who refer to themselves as sinners are doing so to justify their weakness in sinning. Of course, that could be the case or not be the case depending on the mindset and heart of the person referring to himself as a sinner. Moreover, one could speculate that a person who does not identify himself with being a sinner, whether stated or not, could be neglecting to recognize the sins he commits and God’s expectation that he repents from his sin.

James also mentions sinners in James 4:8; 5:20. Was James only speaking of the unsaved in using the word sinner in those verses?

Sinner and/or Saint Conclusion

Some people may mind applying the term sinner to themselves. That is their personal right and I certainly will try to respect that right. Indeed, it is best to emphasize being a saint in contrast to a sinner as that is certainly what the Bible does. Yet, to occasionally remember and remind of where God has brought one from and one’s continued fight to overcome sin (Hebrews 12:3-4) is also appropriate less one or others forget the importance of repentance.

Yet, I will also ensure that we all understand the importance and value of repentance from sin, both before and after conversion, whether called a sinner or not. The importance and value of repentance is clearly evident in Jesus letter through John to the churches of Revelations 2 (e.g., Rev 2:5, 16).

There are some who use the phrase sinners saved by grace. It is probable that they use the word sinner therein in the sense of (1) above rather than (2) above. It is probable they do so to acknowledge their person yet includes flesh. Now then if a person uses such a phrase in an attempt to justify unrepentant sin then that person should be warned of the importance of repentance.

The word saint simply emphasis the saved new creation aspect of one’s life.

Indeed, when one usually says a person is a basketball player whether that person is a professional basketball player or plays for some school, league or other organized entity. We generally don’t refer to those who only play basketball on the playground as a basketball player. Yet, a person who plays on the play ground may refer to himself as a basketball player to indicate that he ocassionally plays basketball. For example, he might say to someone “I am a basketball player and not a football player” or he might say “I play basketball but not football” thus indicating he is a basketball player without explictly using the phrase basketball player. If that is how he sees himself then that is his right as he is technically a basketball player. Others may see him that way as well and may refer to him as such. We should always be mindful that the meaning of a word depends on the context in which the word is being used and the point being communicated in using the word.

Sin and Salvation

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