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Clinging to a Counterfeit Cross

Clinging to a Counterfeit Cross

by James P. Shelly


Saint or Sinner?

Whenever we use a Biblical term in a non-biblical sense it is dangerous, and the consequences can be perilous. The term "sinner" is a prime example of this principle, for when we search the Scriptures to discover how the term is defined it is evident that it has a contrary meaning to that which has been generally assumed, i.e., anyone who commits a sin is a “sinner.” In truth, Scripture draws a clear line of distinction between “saint” and “sinner” and in proclaiming that “we are all sinners,” believer and unbeliever alike, this distinction is removed and even as we are warned in Scripture, “What God has joined together, let not man separate,” Mark 10:9, we would argue that it is equally dangerous to join together what God has separated.

Martin Luther, in the 16th century, coined the Latin phrase, “Simul justus et peccator,” which translated means, “righteous and at the same time a sinner.” He meant by this that although we are righteous in Christ, we still have sin in our life. That this is the case no sane person would disagree. However, using the term “sinner” in this way, as we will attempt to illustrate, deviates from the Biblical use of the term.

The Hebrew word for "sinner," according to the Theological Wordbook of the O. T. is, Chatta'—Sinners, sinful. The masculine noun, hatta' appears eighteen times in the Old Testament. It designates a habitual sinner who is subject to punishment because of his or her practices."1 In the Greek the word sinner is a(martwlo/$ (hamartolos). The Greek-English Lexicon defines it as, "A person who customarily sins – 'sinner, outcast.' ‎‎a(martwlo/$ ‎may refer to persons who were irreligious in the sense of having no concern for observing the details of the Law. Such people were often treated as social outcasts."2 (emphasis added) The Theological Dictionary of the NT states:

The sinner is the man who does not allow God supreme authority over his life and who withholds from Him total dedication and obedience....It need hardly be said that this implies a new gulf of unfathomable depth right across humanity. This is the gulf which separates those who are ‎e)n Xristo=|‎ (in Christ), and who are thus rescued from the power of ‎a(marti/a‎ (sin) and brought into His possession and the service of God, from those who are still "under sin" or "in their sins," neither knowing God nor serving Him. This gulf is deeper than that which existed between the righteous and sinners prior to the coming of Jesus, for it is not created or maintained by men, but has arisen and continually arises from the act of God in Christ."3 (emphasis added)

We find the word closely linked in Scripture with the term "ungodly":

"Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful" (Psalm 1:1).

"Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous" (Psalm 1:5).

"For the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the ungodly shall perish" (Psalm 1:6)

"If the righteous will be recompensed on the earth, How much more the ungodly and the sinner." (Proverbs 11:31).

"knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane..." (1 Timothy 1:9) (all italics added).

We find in these verses that the term "ungodly" and "sinner" are used interchangeably. The sinner is ungodly—the ungodly is a sinner. The Greek word for ungodly is asebes—"'impious, ungodly,' 'without reverence for God,' not merely irreligious, but acting in contravention of God's demands;"4 It is to be "irreverant, i.e. (by extension) impious or wicked."5 If a believer is a "sinner" then it would be equally true that a believer is "ungodly," or "wicked." However, we find in Scripture, that believers are referred to as the "godly" which is obviously the antithesis of the "ungodly":

"He keeps the feet of His godly ones, But the wicked ones are silenced in darkness…" (1 Samuel 2:9 NASB).

"But know that the LORD has set apart the godly man for Himself..." (Psalm 4:3).

"O love the LORD, all you His godly ones! The LORD preserves the faithful And fully recompenses the proud doer" (Psalm 31:23 NASB).

For the LORD loves justice And does not forsake His godly ones; They are preserved forever, But the descendants of the wicked will be cut off" (Psalm 37:28, NASB).

"Preserve my soul, for I am a godly man; O You my God, save Your servant who trusts in You" (Psalm 86:2, NASB).

"...then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment..." (2 Peter 2:9).

Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path (Gal. 6:1)

(italics added in all the above)

We see then that the "godly ones" are the "faithful," the "righteous," those who trust in, and serve God, in contradistinction to the ungodly, the wicked, the unrighteous, and unfaithful.

So then, the use of the term "sinner" in Scripture is that which defines those who are walking in rebelliousness to God's will. They are the impious, the ungodly, the profane, the unholy, the wicked, the irreverent, the unfaithful, the lawless, those acting in contravention of God’s demands. It is not used in the sense of one who commits a sin but of one who habitually practices sin or lives under the dominion of sin, which is the antithesis of the biblical description given of the Christian. Again, we read in 1 John 3:9, "No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God." (Note: John does not say ou du/natai a(martei=n, 'cannot commit a sin,' but ou du/natai a(marta/nein, 'cannot be a sinner'. An act is different from a state of sin.)6 If a "sinner" then, as defined by Scripture, is one who habitually practices sin, then we would have to conclude that it is a misuse of the term when referencing the believer in Christ. That is not to say that the believer never sins (1 John 1:8), but that is not what constitutes a sinner from a biblical perspective.

It is evident that the Jews in the time of Christ considered all those outside the covenant of God as sinners (Luke 6:31-34). With many, their error was not in making the distinction, but rather in their failure to recognize that they themselves were not living righteously before God and were, therefore, sinners even as the gentiles. When Jesus says to the Pharisees in Luke 5:32, "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance" he was not speaking of those Old Testament saints such as Zacharias and Elizabeth who were said to be "both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless" (Luke 1:5, 6) for they were already in a state of grace at that time and were thus living faithfully before God in the expectation of the coming Redeemer. They were not sinners but saints.

This "sinner" mentality is further exacerbated by statements such as Luther's that "even the best of persons, even the titans of virtue in the Bible—Abraham, David, Peter, and Paul—sin all the time." (See, e.g., Luther's Works, 19:47-48, 23:146.) However, with all due respect to Luther, it is simply not possible to reconcile this statement with Scripture. In regards to Abraham God says, "Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws" (Gen. 26:5). It is said of David that he "did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, and had not turned aside from anything that He commanded him all the days of his life, except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite" (1 Kings 15:5). David's sin was dire but to conclude that he sinned all the time is not warranted. Peter was guilty of grievous sins—he denied Christ (before the resurrection), he "played the hypocrite" in Antioch, but generally speaking the charge that he sinned all the time is not justified by Scripture. Peter admonishes his readers in 1 Peter 1:14-16, "Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, 'be holy, for I am holy.'" After hearing such words, if Peter were sinning all the time the charge could be made that he continued to play the hypocrite, which we know is simply not the case. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4:4, "For I know of nothing against myself." In 1 Corinthians 11:1 he says, "Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ" and in Philippians 3:17, “Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern.” This hardly sounds like the words coming from the lips of a man that was sinning all the time. The truth is, we could probably count on two hands the actual sins recorded in Scripture in regards to any one of these "titans of virtue in the Bible." Anything more than this is mere speculation. We read in Galatians 6:1, "Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself" (NLT). If Christians are, in general, sinning all time would they not all be on the wrong path, thus leaving no one to gently and humbly help to restore the others?

Luther's key passage in making his argument that we are both saints and sinners at the same time, was primarily that of Romans 7:14-25. He interpreted that passage as Paul speaking of his own experience as a Christian. We cannot go into detail here as to why we reject his interpretation, however, in Chapter 14, Sin and the Misinterpretation of Romans 7, we believe a strong case is made against Luther's interpretation with an ever increasing number of Biblical scholars who agree, as did nearly all the early Greek fathers. Joseph Agar Beet wrote, "It is worthy of note that this is the earlier opinion (that Paul was not speaking of himself as a Christian), and was accepted by nearly all who spoke as their mother-tongue the language in which this epistle (Romans) was written."7 So then, not only is Luther's argument contrary to what we find throughout Scripture, the foundational passage on which he built his argument is unstable as well.

In Galatians 2:17 Paul says,

"But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin? Certainly not! 'For if I build again those things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor. For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God'" (emphasis added).

Here again we see the contrast between a "sinner" and one who "lives to God." The ministry of Christ frees us from the law. However, Paul argues, if this freedom is a freedom to remain as sinners in practice would it not therefore make the work of Christ an advancement for the cause of sin? If a government official were to come to a city and proclaim to the people that they were no longer under the civil laws which govern the city, freeing the people to live as they will, would it not be considered a great evil? Likewise, if the work of Christ in freeing us from the law would result in lawlessness would it not also be considered a great evil and an advancement for the cause of Satan rather than God? If freedom from the law is freedom from righteousness then the spread of the Gospel becomes a ministry for the expansion of sin rather than that which impedes it. Would we not have to say then that the law is superior to Christ in ministering against sin? At least the law constrains men from acting out the desires of their sinful hearts. However, Paul says, "Certainly not! For I through the law died to the law, not that I might remain a sinner, but that I might live to God." He confronts the issue again in Romans 6:1, "What shall we say then, shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Shall we continue as sinners? Again, his answer is an emphatic, "Certainly not! How can we who have died to sin live any longer in it." Christ is a minister of righteousness in that He sets sinners free from the dead letter of the written code of the law that it would instead be written on their hearts, by the Spirit, and thus it becomes a living, loving, spiritual letter which effectually governs the life producing, not a righteousness like filthy rags (Isa. 64:6), but a righteousness that is pleasing to God (Isa. 64:5). When John says in 1 John 3:10, "He who does not practice righteousness is not of God" he is saying in essence, he who remains a sinner is not a Christian. We would have to conclude then that the man who lives to God is no longer as defined by Scripture, a sinner.

1 Peter 2:24, speaking of Christ, states, "...Who Himself bore our sins in His own body, that we, having died to sins might live for righteousness." Here, Peter declares that the primary purpose of Christ's work on the Cross was that of converting sinners to saints; those living for sin to those living for righteousness.

Romans 5:6-8 says,

"For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. ...But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life." (emphasis added)

Paul uses the terms, ungodly (verse 6), sinner (verse 8), and enemies of God (verse 10), interchangeably. He uses these terms in the past tense; when we were still without strength, were still ungodly, were still sinners and enemies of God, Christ died for us. However, now in Christ, we have strength (Eph. 3:16); we are godly (2 Tim. 3:12); we are saints (1 Cor. 1:2); we are friends of God (James 2:23).

Jesus says in Luke 6:32,

"But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back" (emphasis added).

Christ says even sinners do good to those who do good to them. However, you being saints are expected to exhibit a love that far exceeds that of the mere sinner. "But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil." In these verses, Jesus is making a clear distinction between "sinners" and the "sons of the most high," and he makes this distinction on a practical, ethical level.

In John 9:31, the man healed of blindness says,

"Now we know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does His will, He hears him"(emphasis added).

The contrast here is between sinners and those who worship God and do His will. Peter echoes this same thought in 1 Peter 3:12, "For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their prayers, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil." Again, the contrast is between those who practice righteousness and those who practice evil. 1 John 3:22 states, "And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight." This is in agreement with the Apostle James when he states that, "The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much" (James 5:16). And again, "But know that the LORD has set apart the godly man for Himself; The LORD hears when I call to Him" (Psalm 4:3) (emphasis added). These verses state that God hears the believer because he is a worshiper of God; He does His will and keeps His commandments. God hears the "righteous," the obedient, the "godly man." However, the only prayer God hears from the sinner is the prayer of repentance through faith.

When Scripture speaks of judgment, it is on the ungodly and the sinner:

"For the LORD knows the way of the righteous, But the way of the ungodly shall perish (Ps 1:6)."

Here, Scripture contrasts, not two positions, but two ways in which men walk; The way of the righteous saint, and the way of the ungodly sinner.

"But the heavens and the earth which are now preserved by the same word, are reserved for fire until the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men (2 Pet. 3:7)."

"Now if the righteous one is scarcely saved, where will the ungodly and the sinner appear?" (1 Pet. 4:18) (emphasis added).

"Now Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about these men also, saying, 'Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of His saints, to execute judgment on all, to convict all who are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have committed in an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him'" (Jude 14-15) (emphasis added).

This verse refers to the ungodly sinner. Obviously, it is not suggesting that there are godly sinners, but that all sinners are ungodly and will come to judgment.

"The destruction of transgressors and of sinners shall be together, And those who forsake the LORD shall be consumed (Isa. 1:28) (emphasis added).

Here, the sinner is equated with the transgressor and one who has forsaken the Lord.

"Behold, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with both wrath and fierce anger, To lay the land desolate; And He will destroy its sinners from it" (Isa. 13:9) (emphasis added).

This verse does not refer to different kinds of sinners, but states that all sinners will be destroyed.

"For surely I will command, and will sift the house of Israel among the nations, as grain is sifted in a sieve; yet not the smallest grain shall fall to the ground. All the sinners of My people shall die by the sword...'" (Amos 9:10) (emphasis added).

This last verse alone would seem to settle the issue. Here God speaks of the sinners among His own people. The obvious inference is that some among His people were sinners while others were not. The sinners are the fruitless chaff separated from the righteous grain (Matt. 3:12). We have no reason to believe, in light this verse, that the same fate will not befall sinners who profess to be Christian.

When discussing this topic the verse that is most often brought up is 1 Timothy 1:15. Paul states that he was the chief of sinners. "This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief." Many would argue that since Paul is speaking in the present tense he is humbly speaking of himself at the time. But is this what Paul is actually saying in this text? Are we to believe that Paul, by using the term "chief of sinners" was actually claiming that he saw himself, at the present time, as the most sinful man among all men? A greater sinner than Nero who was notorious for his despicable behavior? Did he see himself more sinful than any man in all of Rome, or even those Jews who took part in the death of Christ? A man walking in the Spirit more sinful than these at the present time! If this was his meaning his statement would not be one of humility but of lunacy. In truth, it would be an insult to the Spirit of God and a mockery of His inward work in the believer. No, he was certainly not claiming that he perceived himself, at the present time, a greater sinner than all other men, but he was, as the context reveals, referring to his past (v.13) before conversion. "...although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief." Paul's main point is found in v. 16 "...I obtained mercy, that in me first Christ might show all longsuffering as a pattern to those who are going to believe in Him for everlasting life." (emphasis added). In other words if Christ would be so merciful to save Paul, a persecutor of the Church, a blasphemer, an insolent man, the chief of sinners, he would be merciful to any man who turns to Him by faith. Paul is, in the present tense, the "chief of sinners" in that he ever remains the chief example of how exceedingly gracious God is in the salvation of the repentant sinner irrespective of his past. Matthew Henry comments on this verse:

The chief of sinners may become the chief of saints; so this apostle was, for he was not a whit behind the very chief apostles (2 Cor. 11:5), for Christ came to save the chief of sinners. It deserves to be received, to be believed by us all, for our comfort and encouragement. The mercy which Paul found with God, notwithstanding his great wickedness before his conversion, he speaks of, for the encouragement of others to repent and believe (v. 16). ...It was an instance of the long-suffering of Christ that he would bear so much with one who had been so very provoking; and it was designed for a pattern to all others, that the greatest sinners might not despair of mercy with God. Note here, First, Our apostle was one of the first great sinners converted to Christianity. Secondly, He was converted, and obtained mercy, for the sake of others as well as of himself; he was a pattern to others. Thirdly, The Lord Jesus Christ shows great long-suffering in the conversion of great sinners.8

When we come to understand the biblical meaning of the term "sinner" we find that when James says in James 4:8, "Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded, and in James 5:20, " Let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins," he is referring to the unsaved. John MacArthur, in reference to James 4:8, states,

Obviously, such a characterization indicates unregenerate people and they are even called, as you will remember, in verse 8 sinners, sinners...a really technical term in the New Testament referring to those who do not believe the gospel and who live a life of disregard for the law of God and manifest flagrant sin.9

In reference to the attitude of the NT writers regarding sinners, Kittel's (TDNT) states:

This is the same as that of Jesus except that the cross keeps the NT writers from regarding only others as sinners. Hence harmartolos is uncommon outside the Synoptists and does not occur in Acts, while in John only the Pharisees use it. For Paul it is a strong term that he applies to himself, signifying rejection of God's lordship. The new feature is the absence of any frontier between sinners and the righteousness, the new frontier being between those who are still subject to sin and those who in Christ are rescued from sin and put in service to God. This is a sharper frontier, but it involves no sense of superiority, since believers do not magnify themselves as righteous but magnify the grace by which they are righteous and seek to point all people to this way of grace, since it is for them too10 (emphasis added) .

It is as Paul says in Titus 3:2-6,

"…speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all men. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior..."

Do not speak evil of others, Paul says, for you yourselves were once sinners even as they. You have nothing in which to boast. For the only difference between you and the sinner is what God's grace has accomplished in you.

The distinction between the saint and the sinner is that the sinner lives according to the flesh, the saint according to the Spirit (Rom. 8:4). The sinner is living in his sin, while the saint is putting to death his sin (Rom. 8:13). There remains a great fixed gulf between the two. It is in humility that we understand that it is "...not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast." We are not to be as the Pharisees who say, "I thank my God I am not like other men." Although we are separate from sinners by grace, that same grace, through faith, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, can unite saint and sinner as beloved brothers. When we see our enemies as potential brothers we find that what Jesus commanded in Matthew 5:44 comes to greater light, "But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven." In other words, put on the character of your Father. For if a holy God reconciled us to himself while we were yet His enemies (Rom. 5:10), how much more so should we who were once sinners seek for the reconciliation of our enemies.

Why is this distinction between saint and sinner of such importance? First and foremost because Scripture makes such a distinction. Secondly, to refer to saints as sinners or to proclaim that "we are all sinners," as if there were no moral distinction between Christians and unbelievers, minimizes the powerful work of God in our sanctification, diminishing His glory in salvation. Third, the Christian is in need of all the support possible to aid him in his battle against sin that he might be victorious. To flippantly make statements such as "we all sin every day" does nothing to the edification of the soul. When a pastor speaks in this way what is the young Christian to think when in his immature state he thinks of sin in only its grossest forms; fornication, drunkenness, adultery, etc. ? If his pastor is "sinning everyday" does he not presume it to be acceptable to do likewise? This can lead to a perilous complacency, with lowered expectations in regards to overcoming sin in his own life, placing a stumbling-block in the narrow way (Matt. 18:6). How contrary to the solemn words of Christ,

If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire (Matt. 18:8, 9).

The term "sinner" is used of believers primarily to guard against self-righteousness, those puffed-up on behalf of one against the other, who boast of their own "good works." However, it is God Himself that is most concerned with keeping us in a constant state of humility, and therefore, if using the term "sinner" were effective to that end, surely the Spirit would have used it in that way throughout Scripture, but, as we have observed, this is simply not the case. In truth, it is the cross that keeps the believer humble and he will remain so as long as he keeps Christ and Him crucified in the forefront of his mind. For it is impossible for the spiritual man to look upon the cross with a proud look.

We would argue as well that the term "saint" keeps us humble in that it brings with it a deep sense of our own unworthiness of the title as we continue in our struggle against sin and the flesh. Without question, in contrast to the holy character of God, we feel like wretched creatures at best. Those who have come into union with the Most Holy have no need of anyone telling them they are sinners to keep them humble. They know that to whatever extent righteous has become actual in their own character, is not by anything inherent in their natural state, but rather solely through the gift now inherent in their spiritual state; the Holy Spirit of God. The Christian knows that it is no longer he that lives, the natural man, the sinner, but rather Christ Who lives in Him (Gal. 2:20), thus making him a saint. Christ has redeemed the sinner from the penalty of sin (past), the rule, or lordship of sin (present), and the presence of sin (future). He is our righteousness, our sanctification, and our redemption and therefore He alone receives the glory! Adam Clarke writes,

As we perfectly know that a good tree will not produce bad fruit, and the bad tree will not, cannot produce good fruit, so we know that the profession of godliness, while the life is ungodly, is imposture, hypocrisy, and deceit. A man cannot be a saint and a sinner at the same time. Let us remember, that as the good tree means a good heart, and the good fruit, a holy life, and that every heart is naturally vicious; so there is none but God who can pluck up the vicious tree, create a good heart, plant, cultivate, water, and make it continually fruitful in righteousness and true holiness.11

When we use the term "sinner" of both believer and unbeliever alike, in essence calling light darkness and darkness light, we send a mixed message to the world. The Church is to be a holy and distinctly moral people in all their conduct (1 Pet. 1:15). We are to "Come out from among them And be separate, says the Lord" (2 Cor. 6:17). We are to be "Children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom we shine as lights in the world" (Phil. 2:15). We are to be, "Imitators of God as dear children" (Eph. 5:1). We are to walk even as Christ walked (1 Jn. 2:6). To persist in proclaiming that we are all sinners blurs this clear line of demarcation so strikingly drawn in Scripture. Let us therefore cease to lean on our own understanding and humbly submit to the Word of God for the edification of the Church, the benefit of the world, and to the glory of our heavenly Father. Since the Scriptures never use the term "sinner" in reference to the believer, would it not seem wise for Christians to likewise refrain from doing so? Or do we think ourselves wiser than God in ministering to the saints? We would also argue that expressions such as "we are all sinners" or "we all sin everyday" tends to lessen the blow and severity of sin giving us comfort in it rather than the deep conviction which aids in our overcoming it. Furthermore, what is to be expected of a sinner if not the practice of sin? Likewise, what is the natural fruit of the saint but that of righteousness? The title of saint brings with it the expectation of holy and godly living and therefore communicates to our hearts that which is required of us as God's children. On the other hand, the title of sinner, according to Scripture, brings with it nothing but the expectation of sin resulting in the fiery wrath of God in judgment. We read in Psalm 104:35, "May sinners be consumed from the earth, and the wicked be no more." To pin a label of such dire consequence on a Christian is not, as we have seen, God's doing but man's and despite its wide spread acceptance in the Church we would humbly reply, "Let God be true and every man a liar" (Rom. 8:4).

Righteousness vs. Self-righteousness


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Comments (14)

Topic: Saint or Sinner?
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Elaine van der Merwe says...
Thank you so much for this wonderful article. I have hunted for some time on line for this balanced and honest teaching, and at last found it in Chapter nine - Clinging to a Counterfeit Cross. I would love to have the book!

8th December 2014 1:44pm
Tom says...
I disagree, I think "saint" is more likely to make me proud of my works, compared to "sinner" which reminds me of my constant need of a saviour, Jesus, who makes me a saint through HIS works. I agree that we are set apart to do good works, but I can't live a life in constant fear of living up to the saints and apostles. I'd rather live a life of good works, through my faith, and leave everyone else to God, instead of praising God that 'sinners will be consumed from the earth'.

That said, I don't think Luther ever intended one to be viewed as more important over the other, he meant for them to be simultaneous, not mutually-exclusive. Also consider Luther's, and even God's love of the paradox, Jesus - all human, all God, the cross itself, death = life. I don't doubt you're biblical backing for 'sinner', meaning 'ungodly', but this in itself trivializes the matter for people.
7th November 2015 6:10am
James - Webmaster says...
When you say, "I think 'saint' is more likely to make me proud of my works," when at the same time saying "Jesus, who makes me a saint through HIS works" you are making a contradictory statement. If it is His works why would that make you proud of your works? As stated in the article, the Holy Spirit is the One most concerned with keeping us in a state of humility yet He uses the term saint in reference to believers 98 times in Scripture whereas the term sinner is never used once. It would seem that your disagreement is with the Holy Spirit as to which term is most effective in keeping us humble. You say "I can't live a life in constant fear of living up to the saints and apostles" yet Scripture clearly commands us to live up to that standard; 1 Corinthians 11:1 Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ. 1 John 2:6 He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked. Ephesians 5:1 Therefore be imitators of God as dear ... Read More
9th November 2015 5:05pm
Tom says...
Just because Scripture commands us to do something, it doesn't mean we ourselves actually have the capacity to do it. Of course I will try to live up to Scripture, but Luther's struggle was reconciling his inherently imperfect nature, with the fact that Scripture calls Christians saints. Sure, Luther didn't use 'sinner' to mean what Scripture defines, but how else can he discuss the effects of Original Sin? If you for a second you take Luther's "definition" of 'sinner', then you'll understand he's referring to humanities inherent sinful nature. He never meant it in opposition to Scripture, in fact he himself outlines that he doesn't intend it to mean 'ungodly'. What I said was not contradictory because they are two different lines of thinking. I feel as though when you call someone a 'saint', it suggests that it's through their own works that such merit is received, it makes it easy to forget Christ. Rather, by ... Read More
9th November 2015 7:02pm
James - Webmaster says...
You say, “Just because Scripture commands us to do something, it doesn't mean we ourselves actually have the capacity to do it.” Why then does Paul say in 2 Thess. 3:4, “And we have confidence in the Lord concerning you, both that you do and will do the things we command you” ? When Paul says “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” he certainly was not telling them to do something that they did not actually have the capacity to do because he himself, a man with the same nature as you and I, was doing it. Jesus says in Matthew 5:19, “Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” In Luke 6:46 he says, “But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say?” and in Matt. 5:29, “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more ... Read More
12th November 2015 8:21am
Tom says...
I don't really have a reply in that clearly your knowledge of Scripture is much better than mine :). In that way, I thank you for your responses, they've been helpful in my journey of faith and theology. I don't doubt I project my understanding of human nature onto Scripture and agree it's not a healthy habit. We clearly have very different approaches to faith and understanding how Scripture translates into every day life. If anything, I think we can be glad this topic of discussion doesn't conflict with the salvation we have through Christ. I do understand that I've a lot to learn about submitting to God and his revelation in Scripture, yet even in my flimsy use of language I feel Luther did bring a lot of clarity to aspects of faith that otherwise might never have. I guess my closing point is that regardless of how we frame 'saint and sinner', or 'saint or sinner', Luther's writing is a call to not forget our inherent imperfection, while ... Read More
15th November 2015 4:07am
Conan Hatch says...
Becoming a Saint is not the sole preserve of a few but is a reality for all people who have repented of their sins and accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior.

When Paul addressed the churches in Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians and elsewhere, he called the believers in Christ, "Saints".

Great article. Thanks.
10th March 2016 4:31pm
Bob says...
Thank you for putting this together. If you don't mind, I would help with the small section on Amos 9:10, or rather the conclusion thereof ..... "sinners among His people the Church". Trying to construct the process: people are born (of water) as the seed of man (Adam), with a sinful nature, separated from God. God so loved the world that He gave His son Jesus (the Word, seed of the woman, without sin, obedient to the death) for our reconciliation unto Himself, by grace, through faith, to those who accepted His gift (believe in His son). This choice is commonly called being "born again" (of the Spirit). Upon this event, the "old man" (sinful nature, called a sinner) dies, and we are given a new nature (of the Spirit) and our identity is now in Christ, called saints. At this point, we are part of His people the Church. We now, in our daily living, have a new option - either say yes to the Spirit or say no, or put differently, choose to embrace ... Read More
15th March 2016 10:25am
James - Webmaster says...
Thanks Bob, I appreciate you pointing that out. It was an oversight on my part as I referred to the Church in the popular sense of a place where people gather, both believers and unbelievers, rather than in the biblical sense of the true people of God. I have corrected it.
15th March 2016 2:45pm
Bob says...
Thanks James. Really appreciate your reading of my comment. Want you to know it was not my intent for you to change anything. However, your response fits perfectly.

God bless.
17th March 2016 6:49am
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* Luther's Works 19:47-48, 23:146 (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1955)

1. Harris, Archer, Waltke "Theological Wordbook of the O. T." :(Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), p.278

2. Greek-English Lexicon Based on Semantic Domain. Copyright © 1988 United Bible Societies, New York.

3. Gerhard Kittle, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, (Wm. B. Eerd mans Publishing Company; 10th edition) 1977.

4. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, (Thomas Nelson), p.651

5. Strong's Exhaustive Concordance, James Strong, Ungodly man (Thomas Nelson, May 21, 2003)

6. The Pulpit Commentary, 1 John 3:9 (Hendrickson Pub, October 1, 1985)

7. Joseph Agar Beet (1902), St. Paul's Epistle To The Romans, Nabu Press (September 27, 2010)

8. Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible, Matthew Henry, 1 Timothy 1:15, (Hendrickson Publishers, 2005)

9. John MacArthur, Drawing Near to God, Part 2, (

10. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Gerhard Kittle, (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; 10th edition) 1977.

11. Clarke's Commentary: The Holy Bible Containing the Old and New Testaments, Matthew 7:17 (Abingdon Press 1977)

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