Saints and/or Sinners: The Desiring God Conference for Pastors 2014

It appears that I wasn’t the only one thinking about the identity of the Christian believer at the recent Desiring God Pastor’s Conference on union with Christ in terms of whether believers are simultaneously saints and sinners or simply saints who sin. My question (one of my sentences blended with others) was one of many fielded by the conferences plenary speakers John Piper, Michael Horton and Sinclair Ferguson [Audio here: 3:30-14:25]. I asked,

“If we are definitively “in Christ” and no longer in Adam (Ro 5-6), are we not definitively saints and not sinners?”

The answers were a bit mixed and appeared combined with some uncertainty and I wish I could have pushed back a little more to clarify what I was intending. My basic reason for asking the question is, to use Sinclair Ferguson’s phrase later in the panel, I think we live far under our privileges as Christian believers. And I wonder if one of the reasons we do this is that in trying to keep us from the errors of Christian perfectionism we undercut our glorious gospel identity. In no way was my question an attempt to minimize the radical nature of sin or the struggle of indwelling sin that resides within every believer.

Dr. Piper got at what I was after in speaking of his friend that came out of a homosexual lifestyle and became a Christian. This man would not let Piper use homosexual as a noun for him because this is not who he was. At conversion this dear man knew that his identity had fundamentally switched no matter what his struggle with a particular sin might be. The sin did not define him anymore. His name had changed.

And I am not certain that we should use “sinner” as a noun for any Christian. Dr. Ferguson, in his earlier talk at the conference, discussed baptism as a “naming event” and the fact that Jesus was baptized into sinners in Adam so that we might be baptized into him. Romans 5 and 6, which Ferguson beautifully unpacked, is clear that Christians have been taken out of Adam completely and placed into Christ. It is not a one-foot in and one-foot out deal.

In fact, many Reformed types don’t seem to bat an eye at speaking of those “in Christ” having undergone a fundamental identity switch in several categories, but we seem hesitant on the sinner/saint category. (I think primarily because of Martin Luther’s maxim simultaneously saint and sinner, Simul iustus et peccator, that Dr. Horton mentioned.)

We are not children of wrath and sons of God. We are not in the dark and in the light. We are not dead in sin and alive to God. We are not servants of the prince of the power of the air and servants of King Jesus. We are not slaves of sin and slaves of righteousness. The transfer is fundamentally complete in all of these categories even though our experience varies. So are we doing a disservice to our gospel identity when we don’t make the transfer from sinner to saint definitive?

To get back to Piper in the Q&A, Christian evangelicalism is indeed infected with those who minimize sin. The Osteenization of Christianity makes those with a high view of sin want to do all they can to preserve the seriousness of sin and to keep us from a chipper view of sinful men and women apart from Christ or a passive attitude toward making war on indwelling sin. Those in revivalistic parts of the charismatic movement who speak of walking weeks at a time without sinning cause the same reaction from those who will not deny the lingering tentacles of sin on the best of days. These super-rarely-ever-sinning-Christians are walking on the precipice of breaking the Apostle John’s warning in 1 John 1:8: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” These are aberrations. However, it is also the charismatic movement that seems to have a focus upon the identity of the Christian believer that the Reformed camp could use a bunch more of.

Nowhere can I find New Testament writers calling God’s people sinners.

That is except possibly one place.

Paul called the people of God, even at their worst, saints (see those Corinthians in 1 Cor. 1:2), but he did speak of himself as the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). I wonder though if this was more of a reference to all that Christ saved him from than a reference to his self-consciousness as a Christian believer? This appears intended more to demonstrate the radical lengths God’s vastly gracious gospel goes in saving sinners no matter what their sins than in defining the fundamental identity marker for the Christian believer. Paul was deeply conscious of what God had saved him from and what God had saved him to.

It is good for us to remember who we were apart from Christ and who we are in Christ. The structure of Paul’s letters demonstrate that it is imperative we remember both. There are those in charismatic circles who seem to want us to forget entirely who we were and those in Reformed circles who seem to minimize who we are. Rehearsing the fact that you were a child of wrath reminds us of all that we have been saved from, and remembering that we are sons of God reminds us of what we have been saved to. Both are critical. Otherwise Paul wouldn’t structure his letters to remind us of these realities in the way he does. Nor should Christians only do one at the exclusion of the other. Depressive defeatism and overly optimistic triumphalism are both errors.

Piper thought this question might be contextually dependent: if you are a pastor surrounded by those who are continuously walking around defeated you need to emphasize saint, and if you are a pastor surrounded by those who walk around treating their sin lightly you need to emphasize sinner. I understand what he is getting at, but I’m not certain this is correct. I don’t know that Paul thought that this was a contextual issue.

Paul may go a little more Romans 1 and Ephesians 2:1-3 and jump into warning mode on those who minimize their sin, but I’m not certain he would—at the identity level—call true saints sinners. Would he name them presently in categories that belong both to their sinful past and their eternal inheritance? Wouldn’t this obstruct the privileges of the believer as God’s beloved sons in the family with big brother Jesus? Paul didn’t keep his beloved churches from sin by labeling them as simultaneously inside the realm of sin and inside the realm of righteousness. I don’t see him calling believers simultaneously saints and sinners, but I do see him reminding believers of who they were and who they are now.

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones summed Paul’s appeal to the people of God in his use of indicatives and imperatives in the phrase: “Be who are!” And from what I’ve been seeing lately, this does not mean, be a sinner and a saint. Rather it means, be a saint, and put sin to death and put righteousness on accordingly.

You have a new name. You are new creation. Act like it.

But I admit: I’m still working through this. Thoughts?

6 thoughts on “Saints and/or Sinners: The Desiring God Conference for Pastors 2014

  1. Dane, these are great thoughts. I think Luther doesn’t mean sinner in this phrase so much as what our identity is but more of what our experience is. Our identity is secure in Christ…righteous! However, our experience is that of a sinner as we struggle to fight to believe God and turn from sin. This short article goes a little further and says this better…http://liberate.org/2012/09/21/the-theological-dictionary-simul-iustus-et-peccator/

  2. I know this is old, but I’ve been wrestling with this saint/sinner divide for so long. So many thoughts, and I wanted to ask your opinion. And basically in question form.

    Did Paul sometimes refer to himself in ways apart or separate from Christ? So that, “(of myself) I am the chief of all sinners”?

    Because I love my identity in Christ. I really do, and can’t say enough how much happiness I draw from that. And I see this problem potentially, that in refusing any label of sinner, I may be doing it in a desire to be something of myself independent from Christ. The emphasis being there on OF MYSELF. Do I still want to have a name for myself? Of myself? Because I know that’s not what Paul wanted.

    So, did Paul sometimes refer to himself in ways apart/separate from Christ? Any thoughts? Feel free to question me if I haven’t made sense at all! Peace =)

    • Sorry, and should have added concerning 1 Tim 1:15, that it’s because of Paul’s almost strange usage of “I am” here when “I was” was used in the previous verses. Would have made more sense to say “I was the foremost” but he didn’t do that.

  3. BJ, thanks for writing this. It is helpful to think through and I tend to agree that Paul’s structure of indicative first and then imperative helps us to see that Paul is emphasizing what God has done for us in Christ. Although it doesn’t definitively answer the question, it is useful to point out, as you have done. Thank you. One question, you mention 1 Tim 1:15 and the present tense nature of what Paul writes, but I was wondering what your thoughts are on James 4:1-10? Specifically, James addresses these believers, in their need of repentance from sin, as “adulterous people”, “sinners” and “double-minded”.

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