“I’m not perfect, just forgiven.” “The only difference between Christians and non-Christians is that we’ve accepted God’s gift of forgiveness.” Ever heard anything like these? Stuff like this is a common sentiment. Everyone’s a sinner, and Christians are just sinners who’ve had their sins cleared from their record before God. There is also a strong reluctance among many Christians to call anyone “righteous” or “holy,” even when the Bible does. And on one hand, there is a valid point here. There is nothing about the believer’s own nature that makes him better or worse than an unbeliever. We all start from the same, utterly sinful ground. Even after we’re saved or have been saved for years, we deal with many of the same sins as everyone else, perhaps equally or worse on some of them. In and of ourselves, we are just as insufficient as all the rest.
But there is something very important we must not forget. Even though we are no better off than anyone else by ourselves, as believers we are not by ourselves at all. Instead, we’ve encountered the living God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, and we have been brought into close fellowship with Him. His own Spirit lives inside us and has given us a new birth from above. So we are not—we cannot possibly be—the same kind of human that we were before, and by extension people who do not believe are still. We are, to quote Paul, part of a “new creation.”
This is not my idea, though. I did not come to this conclusion by applying my own logic to salvation. Instead, when I was first ran across someone saying this, I was struck by how profoundly Biblical it is. To understand why, I’ll start with the basic literal meaning of this post’s title. Statistically speaking, the Bible calls believers as saints all the time. Want a list? Here’s one:
Rom. 1:7, 16:2, 1 Cor. 1:2, 6:2, 14:33, 2 Cor. 1:1, 8:4, Eph. 1:1, 1:18, 2:19, 3:8, 3:18, 4:12, 5:3, Phil. 1:1, 4:21, Col. 1:2, 1:12, 1:26, 1 Thess. 3:13, 2 Thess. 1:10, Phil. 1:5, Heb. 6:10, Jd. 1:3, Rev. 5:8, 11:18, 13:10, 19:8. This list is not exhaustive, and does not even count the times believers are called “holy,” which is the same Greek word as “saint” in adjective form.
Yet in comparison believers are called sinners only very rarely (maybe Gal. 2:17, 1 Tim. 1:15, Jas. 4:8, 5:20). So the word the Bible usually uses for us literally means “holy person,” which is basically the opposite of a sinner.
Of course, this isn’t just a word game. The whole point of justification—God’s declaring us righteous—is that we are now legitimately called righteous by God. And if God can call us righteous, who are we to disagree (see Rom. 8:33-34)?
But still, a good question would be why we are called holy and righteous if we do indeed sin. Even though the Bible rarely calls believers sinners, Scripture also clearly acknowledges that we still have sin, even serious sin, in our lives (Ps. 143:2, Matt. 18:15, Jas. 3:2, 1 Jn. 1:8, 10, 5:16). The answer to this lies in Jesus Christ (what doesn’t, really?), what He did and who He is for us. Our righteousness is based on the faithfulness of Jesus, the God-man who lived in our place (Rom. 3:21-22, Gal. 2:16, Phil. 3:9). And this holiness, this perfect rightness of life before God, is not just a balance credited to our account. Jesus did not only make us righteous in God’s court documents. By the Holy Spirit—who is the Spirit of Christ, after all—living in us, we actually share in this righteousness in our inner self, the depths of who and what we are (Rom. 8:4, 10-11, 2 Cor. 5:21, Gal. 2:20, 5:22-23). We are being transformed from glory to glory (2 Cor. 3:18), really being conformed to the utterly holy, pure, and blameless image of Christ (Rom. 12:1-2).
Because of all this, we are truly saints, not mere sinners. Yes, we do sin, but that’s not our identity anymore. After Paul listed practically every kind of sinner in the book, he said, “some of you used to be like this. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11). For in Jesus we stand before God holy because of the life Christ lived for us by the Spirit and the life He now lives in us through the Spirit. We are no longer merely dead in our trespasses, performing only filthy rags of righteousness, but we are alive in Christ (Eph. 2:5) and produce real righteousness by God’s power (2 Cor. 9:10, Phil. 2:12-13). In sum, the old has gone, the new has come, and we are new creation.
As a final note, I do not address this issue for the glory or dignity of us believers. I do not need to vindicate us. That is God’s prerogative. I address this for the sake of the Word and for the sake of Christ’s work. God’s Word testifies that our Father gives us a good place, a real rightness, and a pure holiness. God is a good Father who gives good gifts to honor His children, and the Biblical authors wanted us to know that. Moreover, this is a matter of what Jesus has accomplished. He lived, died, rose, and ascended for the sake of our salvation, every part of it. To make us righteous Jesus died like a sinner. To downplay the actual change He has made for us in light of the effort He took to accomplish salvation is quite unfitting. So for the glory of God alone and on the basis of Scripture alone, I repeat: By grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, we are saints, not sinners.