Sinner or Saint?

1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus. – Ephesians 1:1 ESV

1 Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints1 Corinthians 1:1-2 ESV

1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi… – Philippians 1:1 ESV

If you’re like me, you probably have a difficult time considering yourself a saint. In our day and age, that word has taken on a certain connotation that virtually eliminates any hope of it applying to us. After all, just look at the dictionary.com definition:

any of certain persons of exceptional holiness of life, formally recognized as such by the Christian Church, especially by canonization

Exceptional holiness of life. That phrase makes it sound like a saint is a member of some kind of elitist segment of Christianity. By definition, it’s a relatively small group, made up of over-achieving, super-spiritual individuals who have earned the title by virtue of their exceptionally holy lifestyles.

But the only problem with that definition is that it is not biblical. Nowhere in the Bible do we see the word “saint” used as a label for the spiritually elite. In fact, the vast majority of times it appears in the New Testament, the word “saint” is used to refer to any and all members of the body of Christ. In almost all of the letters Paul wrote to the various churches he helped to start, he addressed his readers as “saints.”

Even when writing to the church in Corinth, Paul reminded them that they were “called to be saints…” – in spite of the fact that they were displaying anything but saint-like characteristics. This was a church in turmoil. It was marked by disunity and dissension. They were willingly tolerating immorality in their midst.

To make matters worse, they were using the gifts given to them by the Spirit to claim spiritual superiority over one another.  And yet, Paul reminded them that they were all called to be saints.

But what does Paul mean when he refers to them as saints? To understand Paul’s meaning, we have to look at the Greek word Paul used when writing his letters. It is hagios, and it is most often translated as “holy” or “saint.” It literally means “most holy thing” (Outline of Biblical Usage).

The words saint, sanctify, and sanctification all share the same Greek root word.

saint = hagios

sanctify = hagiasmos

sanctification = hagiazo

In the opening salutation of his letter to the Corinthian church, Paul used two of these words in addressing the congregation there.

…to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints – 1 Corinthians 1:2 ESV

The word sanctified has to do with consecration. In the Greek, it was used to refer to something that had been set apart as holy. In the early church, it took on a very specific meaning: “to separate from profane things and dedicate to God.” That was clearly Paul’s meaning when addressing the believers in Corinth, Ephesus, and Philippi. These people had been set apart or sanctified by God for His use. They belonged to Him. And Paul expected them to live their lives in keeping with their new standing as God’s possession.

Run from sexual sin! No other sin so clearly affects the body as this one does. For sexual immorality is a sin against your own body. Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body. – 1 Corinthians 6:18-20 NLT

It’s obvious from the content of Paul’s letter that the believers in Philippi were guilty of committing sins. They were a divided church, arguing over such things as whose baptism was more significant based on who performed the baptism. They were fighting over bragging rights as to who had the more flamboyant and spectacular spiritual gift. And while Paul clearly recognized their many sins, he addressed them as saints.

He wanted to remind them that their status as God’s children had nothing to do with the nature of their spiritual gift, the pedigree of the one who baptized them, or the impressiveness of their religious resume. No, he told them:

…because of him [God} you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” – 1 Corinthians 1:30-31 ESV

There were saints because they had been set apart by God. Their status was not based on their accomplishments. They had not earned their way into God’s good graces. Which is why Paul told them there was no reason for them to boast. Their standing before Him had all been His doing, and it had all been made possible by the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Paul wanted them to see themselves as saints. Yet, they suffered from the same spiritual schizophrenia we do. There wasn’t a day that went by without a reminder of their own sinfulness. And Paul knew there were two ways they could address this problem. One was to ignore their sin altogether by discounting or dismissing it as unimportant or even non-existent. The apostle John addresses this fallacy.

If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. – 1 John 1:8 NLT

If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts. – 1 John 1:10 NLT

Paul was well aware of their sins and was not afraid to address them about it. He wanted them to acknowledge their sins, but he didn’t want them to view themselves as sinners. They were saints. They had been set apart by God for His use. As the apostle Peter put it: “you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession” (1 Peter 2:9 NLT). And Peter went on to say, “As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:10 NLT).

Now, there are those who would argue that we still need to view ourselves as sinners. You may have even heard someone refer to themselves as “a sinner saved by grace.” While there is truth to that statement, it often carries an unhealthy emphasis that does more damage than good. We already have a natural tendency to dwell on our faults and failures. We live with an achievement-based mindset that makes every sin we commit seem like a step backward in our spiritual journey.

Paul would have us focus on the positive side of the ledger. We are saints. We have been set apart by God. He sees us as holy and righteous because of the finished work of Jesus Christ. That’s why Paul was always “Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead” (Philippians 3:13 NLT).  He refused to dwell on the past. And he wanted the Corinthian believers to understand that their sins were a byproduct of their past nature, not their new life in Christ. So, he reminded them:

Don’t you realize that those who do wrong will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Don’t fool yourselves. Those who indulge in sexual sin, or who worship idols, or commit adultery, or are male prostitutes, or practice homosexuality, or are thieves, or greedy people, or drunkards, or are abusive, or cheat people—none of these will inherit the Kingdom of God. – 1 Corinthians 1:9-10 NLT

People who live like this aren’t heirs of the Kingdom of God. They aren’t saints. And while this news probably left a few of the Corinthians wondering about their future status, Paul immediately reminded them:

Some of you were once like that. But you were cleansed; you were made holy; you were made right with God by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. – 1 Corinthians 1:11 NLT

Something had happened to them. They had been sanctified by God. They had been set apart as His own possessions and were now considered as saints, not sinners. They had been cleansed, made holy, and restored to a right relationship with God. Now, they were to live like who they were: saints.

But some might say that Paul referred to himself as a sinner. In fact, he called himself the chief of all sinners. And they would use his letter to Timothy as proof.

This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” — and I am the worst of them all. But God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners. Then others will realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life. – 1 Timothy 1:15-16 NLT

Paul wasn’t wallowing in his sinfulness. He was simply suggesting that his past sin was an example of God’s incredible mercy and grace. Nobody had a worse pedigree when it came to sin. After all, Paul persecuted the church of Jesus Christ, actually putting Christians to death in his zeal to eradicate this radical sect called The Way. But God had mercy on him. God set Paul apart as His possession and dedicated him to His service. Paul never forgot his past, but he refused to let it identify him. He was no longer a sinner. He was a saint.

Paul told the Corinthians, “such were some of you.” At one time they had been sinners outside the fold of God. They had been enemies of God. But that was in their past. Now, they were saints, and they were to live like it. Paul was not calling them to live lives of perfection, but to recognize that they had already been perfected by God. They had been cleansed, made holy, and declared righteous by God.

In 1701, Isaac Watts penned the following words and put them to music.

Alas! and did my Savior bleed
And did my Sov’reign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?

Was Isaac Watts wallowing in his “wormness”? Was he suggesting that he was still a sinner? The answer lies in the rest of the lyrics to this great old hymn.

 

Was it for crimes that I had done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!

Well might the sun in darkness hide
And shut his glories in,
When Christ, the mighty Maker died,
For man the creature’s sin.

Thus might I hide my blushing face
While His dear cross appears,
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
And melt my eyes to tears.

But drops of grief can ne’er repay
The debt of love I owe:
Here, Lord, I give myself away,
’Tis all that I can do.

Like Paul, Isaac Watts was describing his past condition. He had been a helpless, hopeless sinner, guilty of crimes against a holy God and sentenced to death. But then, God showed him grace and showered him with His love in the form of Jesus Christ. And, as a result, Isaac Watts was able to say, “the burden of my heart rolled away.”

He had become a saint. The burden of sin was lifted. The debt had been paid. The guilt was removed and replaced with the joy of having a right standing with God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

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