How should a Christian view themselves? As primarily a saint? As primarily a sinner? As both? Does it even matter? While the Bible does refer to believers as saints, we do still sin. I view myself as a saint AND sinner. Simultaneously, I am both. As believers, we are in the process of transformation and have not “arrived” yet. I feel that maintaining this “both/and” or “already, but not yet” balanced perspective about ourselves is critical for the spiritual life.
In the categories to the right, you can see a “God-centered vs. man-centered theology” section where I share some of my views on this issue in more detail. I also appreciate and recommend this article: Amazing Sin, How Deep We’re Bound – Finding the courage to trust in Grace. If I could force you to read it, I would! It will give you an excellent idea of where I am coming from.
I spent a number of years in a branch of evangelicalism that had a strong emphasis on our saintly status as Christians. We were taught that we should not think of ourselves as sinful. Sometimes the congregation would yell out “We are saints!” It was even taught that Christians could go weeks or months without sinning. Initially, we enjoyed the positive outlook of this type of theology. But the problems became evident all too soon. We observed a lot of pretense, and rationalization of sin. Ironically, we observed more sin (not less) compared to other churches we’d been a part of. This theology sounded good “in theory” but seemed prone to fail when the rubber hit the road.
When discussing this issue with my “saintly” Christian friends, we seem to be like ships passing each other in the night. Our perspectives are so different, we just can’t sync up. Awhile back, I posted a quote by CH Spurgeon on a social networking site, and one of my “saintly” friends took issue with it. Some friendly back and forth dialogue followed. Below I have pasted it for you to peruse. I’ve changed the name of my friend to “Eric.” I do want to emphasize that although Eric holds to this “saintly” theology, he is a very genuine Christian and living a consistent Christian life. Perhaps this theology can work for some people, but my experience was that it more often led to hypocrisy and self-deception.
The CH Spurgeon quote that started it:
The saints are sinners still. Our best tears need to be wept over, the strongest faith is mixed with unbelief, our most flaming love is cold compared with what Jesus deserves, and our intensest zeal still lacks the full fervor which the bleeding wounds and pierced heart of the crucified might claim at our hands. Our best things need a sin offering, or they would condemn us.
Eric: Laura, pretty challenging stuff to see how that fits with versus such as “be Holy because I am Holy” in 1 Peter 15-17. Does God call us to be something we can not be? And references in 1 Thessalonians 2:10 and 2 Thessalonians 1:10 where God’s people are called holy. Can we be sinners and Holy at the same time? Are we redeemed only in position and not in actions? I lean towards our works being like filthy rags in the unregenerate but holy and glorifying in the regenerated and sanctified. Not by what we have done but by what God has done in us. Is it wrong to expect Christian’s to act, think and behave as God considers them to be? Does not the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit enable victory over sin in deed in addition to our redeemed position?
Laura: Hi Eric! My thoughts….The apostle Paul, even at the end of an illustrious Christian life, saw himself as the foremost of sinners. (Note that I Timothy 1:15 is in the present tense – of who I “am” chief, not “was” chief.) Paul also made it clear that he had not yet “arrived” and was still reaching towards a spiritual goal (Phil 3:12-14). In I Cor 10:12, Paul indicates we should be suspicious of our own spirituality. “Let him who thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall.” It is so easy to be self-deceived. We need to be on guard. A maturing Christian should never become smug, satisfied with their progress, or think they’ve “arrived” on a higher spiritual plane.
The more we become like Christ, the more sensitive we should be to remaining sin in our lives. It is like a paradox – the holier we become, the more sinful we feel. This also seems “logical” to me as well – Like Isaiah in Isaiah 6, as we get closer to the holy and perfect God, it should humble us and make us more aware of how we fall short. Not the opposite! Only when we have a realistic view of ourselves (although regenerated, we are fallen and sinful creatures still) can we have any hope of progressing in holiness. Although regenerated, I feel that even my best works are tainted by sin. Yes, they can bring God glory. But rarely (if ever) are my motives 100% pure. Ulterior motives abound…pride, in particular is so insidious and gets us all! So, I hope this explains a bit where I am coming from….
Eric: Thanks for the post Laura. I agree that as we mature our sin grieves us more and that we have sinful attitudes and actions that are yet to be revealed so we are yet to be perfected and will not be this side of heaven. However, I do believe that through the power of the Holy Spirit we are capable of a degree of Holiness in character and actions lest we take the attitude why bother if we are never going to be perfect. I also feel that Christians should be defined by their holiness through the power of Christ and the Holy Spirit and not by our sin. Sin should no longer define me as I am a child of God.
It is a shame that we sometimes accept our sin as fact which gives us an excuse from holy thoughts and deeds. I’m not on Spurgeon’s side with this one. It sounds like he is saying as Christians, we are bound by our sin. I am on Paul’s side. Should our sin increase so that God could show His Grace even more, may it never be! I am just learning to live and walk daily in God’s forgiveness here on earth as well as in the hope of future perfection. I tend to live only in the hope of future perfection and neglect the reality that I should live as forgiven and victorious each day.
Laura: Hey Eric. I agree with you that holy living is imperative (and possible!) for the Christian. But I think we are each coming at this from a different perspective or starting point. We agree in the conclusions, but our way of getting there is different. I don’t think Spurgeon was saying we are bound by our sin. I think he was just trying to give us a grasp of God’s awesome holiness and how we fall short even in our best. Note Spurgeon is referring to the good we do…even our faith, love, and zeal for God falls short of what God deserves. That doesn’t mean we give up or use it as an excuse to sin. In fact, for me it has the opposite affect!
When I see myself for the wretch that I am compared to God, it leaves me awestruck at His mercy and grace through the cross. This motivates me to want to honor my Redeemer through holy living. I do accept my sin as a fact, and this helps keep me on guard, humble, focused on Christ, and relying on the Holy Spirit to live a holy life. When I start to focus on my goodness and my holiness, that is usually when I mess up big time!
Spurgeon was indeed a very holy man, yet he saw himself as very sinful. Besides Paul in I Timothy 1:15, I also think of Isaiah (Isaiah 6:5) and Job (Job 42: 5-6) who both saw themselves as vile in the sight of God. “Woe is me” cried Isaiah. Yet, they were all upright men who served God. It is a strange irony. Yet, I see it as a realistic view that helps keep one on the path of holiness. I am still working through this, but like Martin Luther, I see myself as simultaneously saint and sinner.
Eric: I agree we agree to some extent and I would say our best is significantly short of God’s nature and what He deserves and that we should not think ourselves higher than we are. However, I also know that we tend to live out our view of themselves. If we consider ourselves sinners without a firm view of holiness at the same time then we are considering ourselves something that God does not consider us and we will tend to live consistently below what we are capable of in the area of holiness. True holiness is not proud or self serving but a fruit of our relationship with Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. I view saying “Christians are sinners” in absence of an inclusive statement about holiness similar to viewing one aspect of God’s nature without regarding the others. For example God is Love but He is also Just and Holy and Judges sin. Similar to receiving Christ only on faith and without repentance.
-Our dialogue essentially finished at this point. As you see, we were going in circles, neither of us quite understanding the other.