I grew up in an evangelical Baptist church. I frequently heard Christians describe themselves as sinners. My impression was that the more godly people genuinely felt this to be true about themselves, and it pained them. The less godly seemed to see it as a piece of evangelical orthodoxy; a doctrine to be believed in some abstract sense but not worth worrying about. It could always be trotted out as an excuse for bad behaviour.
Of course, we also believed in salvation so we would describe ourselves not just as sinners but as sinners saved by grace. I thought this was a biblical, humble way to regard ourselves.
A few years ago, by now in a charismatic church, I found some people corrected me whenever I referred to myself as a sinner. "No, you are a saint", they said. At first I thought they were just being picky over words, or perhaps adopting the latest fad or minor heresy to blow in from the Atlantic.
I learnt that this idea was coming from the teaching of Neil Anderson. By this time I had developed an aversion to whatever was the latest book that everybody was reading; I had found that if everyone in the church recommended a book then I was sure to find it either oversimplistic or just plain wrong. However, I later bought a copy of his book Victory over the Darkness and found it convincing, if rather overstated in places.
Anderson's basic point is that Scripture frequently refers to the unsaved as "sinners", and frequently refers to the saved as "saints". It never uses "saint" to refer to a special group of Christians. Thus we can immediately say that the common biblical word for those in Christ is saint, not sinner. At the very least our common usage should reflect Scripture.
Anderson then goes on to examine the few places where Scripture uses "sinner" in connection with Christians. The first is the well-known statement by Paul in 1 Timothy 1:15,16. He argues that Paul is here referring back to his previous life before he met Christ. This may be true.
There are two mentions by James in 4:8 and 5:20. Anderson argues that these refer to unbelievers in the church. I am not convinced. I think it is safer to regard these as references to a person's behaviour rather than their standing before God.
There is also Galatians 2:17 to consider - Anderson does not mention this one. It seeems to be talking about someone whose behaviour contradicts his confession of Christ. Taking this and James together, the picture is that it is seriously inconsistent but not impossible for a Christian to be a sinner.
I therefore believe that it is quite wrong for Christians to habitually refer to themselves as sinners, even saved sinners. The term should only be used when referring to persistent rebellious behaviour, not lapses from perfection. Those who regard themselves as being in a state of permanent rebellion in spite of confessing Christ and apparently serving him need either to repent of their sin and put things right with God, or gain a clearer understanding of the wonder of the new birth.
I seem to have ended up in the same position as Anderson, although via a slightly different route. For me a crucial verse is Romans 5:19 "For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous." There is a clear contrast taught here between sinners (in Adam) and the righteous (in Christ). It leaves no room for us to regularly call ourselves sinners and think that by so doing we show our humility. On the contrary, we show our ignorance of the new birth.
There is some interesting stuff on the FAQ page of the Freedom in Christ Ministries website. Several of the articles go over the same ground as the book referred to above, but perhaps in more technical detail in order to satisfy theologians. In addition to material on our position in Christ and how we should respond to this in our everyday life, there is some discussion on defeating the enemy. The hot topic of the extent to which demons can affect Christians is covered. The FICM position on this appears to be that those in Christ do not need 'deliverance ministry' (as unbelievers may sometimes require) but may need help in understanding amd using their own ability (in Christ) to withstand attack and fight back. They therefore stand somewhere between those who seem to deny that demons can affect saints at all, and those who are always looking for demons under the bed.
Scripture quotation from New International Version
Back to bible home, Becoming a Christian, Received the Spirit?
created 21 Jan 2009