Throughout the letters of the New Testament, the people of God are given lots of names. 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.”
Absent from this list is the term “sinners.” To the best of my knowledge there is no instance in the whole New Testament where the church, the people of God, are collectively called sinners. Nor is any mention of a believer referred to as a “sinner.” The closest is Paul’s well-known reference to himself as the “chief” of sinners in 1 Tim. 1:15. But you must always read scripture in its context. The context in 1Tim. 1:15 makes it plain that Paul is using this terminology to refer to his old life as a persecutor of the church. Two verses earlier 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. Of course, they do. But just because you sin does that make you a sinner?
I saw our cat sleeping in our garage yesterday, when I saw her this morning she was still the same – she hasn’t become a car.
Now Paul laments about the struggle he was experiencing between his old self and new self. He says in Romans 7 that he does what he does not want to do. And what he wants to do he does not do. Simply put, you know that you shouldn’t eat too much ice cream, but you carry on eating more anyway!
But as you read on Paul identifies the root cause of the problem: “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.
If so, then this explains why Paul gladly refers to believers as “Saints” (literally “holy ones”) at the beginning of almost all his letters. (Rom. 1:7; 1Cor. 1:2; 2Cor. 1:1; Eph. 1:1; Philp. 1:1; Col. 1:2) He wants Christians to think of themselves in regard to their new natures, not their old. They are saints who sometimes sin, not sinners who sometimes do right.
If you’re a Christian, isn’t it time you threw off the identity of “sinner” and embrace the identity of “saint”? Sinners are God’s enemies, but you are now God’s child. You are holy and blameless before Him (Ephesians 1:4). May you embrace your new identity and live in faithful appreciation for what God has given you.
Saints, Christ is now living in you. (Galatians 2:20)