Saint or Sinner? Rethinking the Language of Our Christian Identity

by Michael Kruger

Throughout the letters of the New Testament, the people of God are called lots of things. They are the “elect” (1 Pet 1:1), “faithful brothers” (Col 1:2), “beloved” (1 John 2:7), “children of God” (1 John 3:2), a “holy nation” (1 Pet 2:9), and most of all they are called “saints.”

Conspicuously absent from this list is the term “sinners.” There is no place I am aware of where the church, the people of God, are collectively called “sinners.” Moreover, an argument can be made that there is no instance in the New Testament where a believer is referred to as a “sinner.” The closest is Paul’s well-known reference to himself as the “foremost” (or “chief”) of sinners in 1 Tim 1:15. But, the context makes it plain that Paul is using this terminology to refer to his old life as a persecutor of the church. He says, “formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” (1:13).

Now, of course, this does not mean that Christians do not sin. Indeed, Christians do sin, and sin in ways that are much deeper and more serious than we often realize. This is the whole point of Romans 7 where Paul laments the fact that he often does what he does not want to do. The entire Christian life is a struggle between the new self and the old self, and the latter often wins out. Paul can even refer to himself as a “wretched man” (Rom 7:24).

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But, here is what is interesting. As Paul diagnoses his own law-breaking he concludes that whenever he sins, it is not the real Paul that is doing it. He declares, “So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (7:17). And again, “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (7:20).

Do not misunderstand what Paul is doing here. He is not trying to conjure up some excuse where he is not guilty of these sins by reason of having a schizophrenic, split personality. No, Paul knows he is culpable for these sins. But, in the midst of doing so, Paul is keen to make it plain that it is not the new Paul that is sinning, but the old Paul. In this sense, he can say that when he sins, he is not his true self.

Put another way, Paul’s identity is bound up in the new man that he has become in Christ…

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