This morning, my thoughts were taken back to a conversation and a follow-up letter I wrote to an individual who, after one of my sermons, was uncomfortable with the thought of Christians still being labeled as sinners. I thought I would share some of the follow-up letter I wrote to help those (1) who may, like this individual, recoil against this notion because our sins are forgiven, or (2) who may struggle with assurance because, though they believe themselves to be a Christian, they cannot completely reign in their sin. Below is the a portion of the letter:
I wanted to thank you for speaking with me about your concern over my use of the term “sinner” in my sermon on Sunday without some other adjective like “forgiven” or “saved by grace” attached to it. I appreciate and applaud your instinctive impulse that we have a new identity in Christ. In our conversation after the service, I mentioned to you the famous latin phrase from Martin Luther “simul iustus et pecator” which means “simultaenously saint and sinner” or “at the same time righteous and a sinner.” The reality is that, before God, Christians are completely righteous. We really are “saints” (holy ones). That is the new identity we have in Jesus Christ. And that, I believe, was your contention and instinctive response to my use of the word “sinner” with regard to Christians on Sunday. And it is an absolutely correct response. If I didn’t emphasize the new identity we have in Christ clearly enough, thank you for correcting me. In the context of the passage, which was dealing with legalism and the false belief that we can behave in certain ways to make ourselves righteous before God, I was trying to point out that the only righteousness we have is an “alien” righteousness given to us by Jesus Christ (By “alien” I mean a righteousness or right standing before God that is not our own. It is foreign to us because it was given to us by Another. )
But I also believe that, while in identity we are “saints,” in practice we are still “sinners.” And as forgiven sinners we still need to be reminded that our only hope for forgiveness is the fact that we have been “saved by grace.” Not saved through any means of our own and not saved through some particular religious system. And so as forgiven sinners, we have no basis to judge or be prideful toward unforgiven sinners. We have done nothing to earn the new identity we have in Christ, it is a free gift to us, and were it not for God’s grace and mercy to us, we would remain unforgiven sinners as well. The fact is that as human beings we all are sinners in practice. But some of us are forgiven sinners because of our faith in Jesus Christ and the mercy of God.
So I think it is important for Christians to recognize that this concept of “simultaneously saint and sinner” is true of us. This realization does not attack the assurance we have of salvation in Christ, but it actually strengthens it. For if I held to the belief that I was no longer a “sinner” in any sense of the word, when I found myself sinning, then where would I be? I would be concerned for my eternal security and questioning whether or not I am truly a saint. But if I recognize that I am “simultaneously a saint and a sinner,” then I can be confident that my sins do not affect my status and identity as a saint.
In the end, holding to the belief that I am no longer a sinner is only going to make me miserably insecure. On the other hand, when I am able to believe that because of my unity with Christ I am a saint despite of my sins, then I have a security that cannot be shaken. Because then my security rests in Christ alone and not in me. By accepting this doctrine of “simultaneously saint and sinner” I don’t have to question whether or not I am a saint when I prove to be a sinner by my sinning.
It is hard to emphasize all of this in every sermon, but you have helped me to realize I need to be more careful in this area. And though our identity in Christ was a huge point of emphasis in the Colossians sermon series we went through earlier this year, that was months ago and some people listening to me on Sunday likely were not present for those sermons.
I am including an excerpt from a book by Jerry Bridges, the author of the modern classic, The Pursuit of Holiness and a staff member with the Navigators for over 50 years. In this article he says the following:
“We should always view ourselves both in terms of what we are in Christ, that is, saints, and what we are in ourselves, namely, sinners.”
I think that is a good way of saying it. And do not forget this quote from the Apostle Paul who also new himself to be a sinner as well.
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. (1 Timothy 1:15)