Saint or Sinner?


On the surface, asking whether we are saved sinners or sinning saints may appear to be splitting hairs, but the ramifications of the answers are vast. Too often we judge our status based on recent behavior. If we go through a time of significant sinfulness, we view ourselves as hopelessly trapped by the dominion of sin. Likewise, if we experience a time of spiritual growth and restraint from sinful behavior, we are more prone to see ourselves as worthy of the designation “saint.” We need to build our identity upon the definition of Scripture rather than upon our feelings about, or analysis of, our lifestyle.

Sinner or saint? While a fair examination of Scripture finds both descriptions, the point of this session is to find out why and in what sense we are both saints and sinners.

The New Testament describes Christians as growing in holiness while also struggling with sin. Yet our struggle with sin doesn’t undermine our firm standing before God when we have trusted Christ for salvation (see Romans 5:9-11). Because of our new identity in Christ, we’re called to be holy because God is holy (see 1 Peter 1:16). Holy means “separated out for a special purpose.” We are separated out from others simply in that others haven’t been reconciled to God through Christ. Saint means “holy person” or “one who is separated out.” So we’re saints in that we’ve been separated out for special purposes: worshiping God, abandoning sin, and living in ways that draw others toward Christ.

Christ is the ultimate Saint because the rest of us fall short of the perfection He attained as God in human flesh. Yet Christians are identified with Christ by grace through faith in Him. Our identity is radically changed.

But how are believers changed? The short answer is: over time and through experiences. One major change is that we learn a new way to decide what is good. We’ve acknowledged that God’s righteousness (His standard of what is true, just, and good) is now the goal of our life. After all, a true commitment to Christ involves repenting of our failure to live up to God’s righteousness and receiving the gift of righteousness in Christ.

Look at the difference between the rich young ruler (see Mark 10:17-23) and Zacchaeus (see Luke 19:1-10). The ruler was unwilling to repent from valuing money and its benefits above God’s righteousness. His life didn’t change because his fundamental values remained unchanged. Zacchaeus, on the other hand, decided to repent of his primary pursuit of money and, in exchange, acknowledge his need to live according to God’s righteous standards. He received grace and forgiveness from Jesus but also a fundamental shift in how he perceived his life purpose. Internally, his values had already shifted to the point that he began pouring out his estate to those he had wronged.

We shouldn’t presume that Zacchaeus went on to live a sinless life. However, we can see that his fundamental understanding of life had radically changed. He had a new understanding of himself and his purpose because Christ had offered him new life.

This is why James emphasized the manifestation of faith in a person’s behavior (“faith without deeds is dead”; see James 2:14-26). James meant that a Christian’s life can’t possibly be void of righteous behavior. Growth in righteousness may at times seem stagnant, but there’s always some evidence of transformation in a believer’s values and behavior over a significant period of time. If our life is void of righteousness, we can’t have repented of our past life in favor of valuing God’s righteous standard. In other words, we wouldn’t really be believers. We are fundamentally changed only when we genuinely come to faith in Christ. And if we have genuinely come to faith, our prospect for life after death will always be changed and, here in this life, our life in Christ will always be changing.

Calling ourselves saints doesn’t ignore the sin in every believer’s life. Believers still sin. This diminishes neither the holy standard God has set nor the sinfulness of believers who fail to meet that standard. Although believers sin, faith in Christ changes a person so radically in God’s eyes that the title of saint is appropriate.

Taken from

1 comment

  1. Thanks for this. I’ve been in recovery for about 19 months – with varying periods of success. Lately I’ve been very focused on all of my shortcomings and faults- so much so that I hav a hard time believing I’m worthy of God’s love and care. This passage has been a great help to me. I have a tendency to get stuck -I think my own self-criticism and self-loathing has held me back from accepting the real love and mercy that God has shown to me. I really hope to be able to move beyond this and focus my energy others rather than on self.

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