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).
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.
If so, then this explains (at least partially) why Paul is so keen to refer to believers as “saints” (literally “holy ones”) at the beginning of almost all his letters. Paul is not naïve about the fact that Christians still sin, and sin in major ways (indeed, his letters are often about their sins!). But, 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.
And when our true identities are understood rightly, it actually affects the way we view (and respond to) our sins. We might think that the best way to appreciate the depth of our sin is to think of ourselves primarily in the category of “sinners.” But, this can actually have the opposite effect. If we think of ourselves only as “sinners” then our sins are seen as something rather ordinary and inevitable. They are just the result of who we are. Sure, we wish we didn’t sin. But, that’s just what “sinners” do.
If we instead view ourselves as “saints,” then we will begin to see our sin in a whole new light. If we really are “holy ones” then whatever sins we commit are a deeper, more profound, and more serious departure from God’s calling than we ever realized. Our sin, in a sense, is even more heinous because it is being done by those who now have new natures and a new identity.
And it is this “cognitive dissonance” between our identities as saints and our sinful actions that leads us to repentance. We repent because these sins are not ordinary and expected. They are fundamentally contrary to who God has made us to be. It is this tension between our identities and our actions that is lost when we cease to think of ourselves as saints.
In the end, I am not suggesting that Christians can never refer to themselves with the word “sinner.” If rightly understood, this can be fine. But, we should also be keen to think of ourselves as saints. After all, when Christ returns that is what we will be. In glory, there will be no sinners. Only saints.