Saints or Sinners?
(digging deeper)

When presenting the Bible study entitled "Who I am in Christ," as found here (questions) and here (answer key), we were later sent a letter raising a mild concern. Though the person overall agreed with the message behind the study, they thought it incorrect that I would say that God never refers to a believer in Jesus Christ as being a sinner. The exact wording of their concern is as follows...

    I would pick a bone with one detail: that the scriptures never use the word "sinner" to refer to saints. See Psalm 25:8; 1 Timothy 1:15; James 4:8, 5:20.

The following is a response to this statement and a look at each of the referenced Bible passages.

Four verses seem to imply that a believer can also be referred to as a sinner. While four out the thousands of verses in the Bible might seem insignificant, if they do clearly teach this, they should not be dismissed out of hand. We will consider each of them in detail, beginning with the lone Old Testament reference&ldots;

Psalms 25:8 Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in his ways. NIV

This verse nowhere states that "sinners" is being applied in present tense to believers. The context of the psalm is David speaking about God's goodness. Within it, David speaks of both the saved (those who will never be put to shame) and the lost (those who will be put to shame). He also refers to the fact that he had committed sinful acts as a believer ("forgive my iniquity, though it is great." Psalms 25:11). Again, we do not dispute that believers commit acts of sin (saints who sin). The Hebrew word translated "iniquity" is commonly used to refer to acts of sin by both believers and the lost all throughout the Old Testament. On the other hand, the word translated "sinners" is found 19 times throughout the Old Testament and, without question, every other usage of it pertains to the lost. David, himself, used it a number of times to show the contrast between saint and sinner (saved and lost or righteous and wicked). For example...

Psalms 1:4-6 Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away. 5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. 6 For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish. NIV

Note that David says that no sinners will be in the assembly of the righteous, speaking of identity rather than actions.

It is safe to say that David in Psalms 25:8 was showing how good God is, by referring to the fact that he instructs sinners in his ways, while they are still lost and not seeking after him. Commentator Adam Clarke, speaking on this verse, said it this way...

Because He is good, He will teach sinners, though they deserve nothing but destruction: and because He is right, He will teach them the true way.

Keil and Delitzsch reflect the same...

God condescends to sinners in order to teach them the way that leads to life...

The Geneva Notes merely state that this 'instruction,' that David is speaking of, is God "call[ing] them to repentance."

In like manner, David speaks of his obligation, as one of the righteous, to speak of God to 'sinners,' or the lost, to bring them to repentance (Psalms 51:13). Believers were once all sinners saved by grace, sinners who heard the instruction of God to repent and seek him. But that is past tense, we are no longer sinners but now saints (or "the righteous") - who are still being taught by God (see Psalms 32:8) to not sin.

Leaving the Old Testament, we'll begin with Paul's letter to Timothy.

1 Timothy 1:15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-of whom I am the worst. NIV

A quick reading of this verse, with Paul (a believer) speaking of himself, seems to be a saint referring to himself as a sinner. But context is everything!

1 Timothy 1:13-16 Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. 14 The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-of whom I am the worst. 16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. NIV

Notice that Paul is referring to himself as he used to be. Verse 13, "I was once" and "I was shown." Verse 14, "was poured out." Verse 16, "I was shown." The entire context of the phrase Paul quoted in verse 15 was the past - his identity as a sinner prior to being saved by Jesus Christ. Verse 16, which really repeats part of verse 15, shows the past tense nature of his 'sinner' statements even more clearly. [It could be argued that the Greek verb translated "am" could be past tense (as it is sometimes translated), but in fact it would read strange because the whole statement is in the past).]

James 4:8 also needs to be considered in context...

James 4:4-10 You adulterous people, don't you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. 5 Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely? 6 But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble." 7 Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. NIV

James is clearly telling these professed believers to show fruit of their salvation. In this he is quite similar to the message of John the Baptist...

Luke 3:7-8 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. NIV

James emphasized repeatedly that true faith has works that flow from it. In His grace, God gives believers the ability to draw near and to submit ourselves to God (and produce fruit). James' call to "Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded," was a call to the unbelievers within this fellowship to repent and turn to God - to stop being fence sitters, professing one thing and doing another. Again, the focus of the word sinners was on those who were not (yet) believers.

The final passage to consider is found a few verses later...

James 5:19-20 My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, 20 remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins. NIV

Much is encompassed in this short passage, a passage that often gets a superficial and man-centered reading; one that has man turning the sinner from the error of his way. Read the passage again from a more literal translation...

James 5:19-20 My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, 20 let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. NASU

James 5:19 is likely speaking of one of the brethren ("any among you"), a believer who has fallen into error ("strays from the truth"). Put another way, it's speaking of a saint who sins. [Some hold that this passage, all along, speaks of an unbeliever, who continues to stray from the truth. The language also allows for that, which makes the rest all apply even more easily to unbelievers, "sinners".]

The end of verse 19 speaks of a person who "turns him back," or in-other-words brings correction to a believer who has sinned or erred from the truth. [Or, if held to be in reference from the beginning to the unconverted, this would speak of a person bringing a message that leads an unbeliever to repentance.] It is the mark of a believer that they would be corrected by whatsoever means God accomplishes it, whether directly by His word (Hebrews 4:12), by the church body (Matthew 18:17), or by any other godly believer. A sinner refuses correction, a saint heeds it. [An unbeliever converted becomes a saint who heeds.]

Proverbs 15:10 Stern discipline awaits him who leaves the path; he who hates correction will die. NIV

Verse 20 is a message of comfort for the one who has been corrected, the saint who has heeded correction (spoken of in verse 19). Consider what message of comfort is available to a believer.

Note that "He who turns a sinner from the error of his way" accomplishes:

  1. saving the sinners' soul from death [death could not be in reference to the present state of a back-sliding believer, because if he is a believer he has already (past tense) had his soul freed from death, with nothing more that can condemn him. e.g. Romans 8:1]

  2. covers a multitude of sins

Is this a message that the believer is to take comfort that another believer accomplished this? By no means! The corrected believer is to take comfort in being reminded that it was God who is "He who turns a sinner from the error of his way" - even though He may (and does) work through believers.

Both the context and the sequence of thought in this verse appear to favor a third possibility, namely that the assurance of pardon is offered to the person who is brought back. It is more natural to assume that both the assurance of salvation and the assurance of forgiveness are offered to the same person, namely the converted sinner. (UBS Handbook Series. Copyright (c) 1961-1997, by United Bible Societies)

Not only does God remind that it is His power which brought the sinner to repentance (to turn), but He continues in telling them that as one who was former a sinner, but now a saint, God covered his multitude of sins. This covering was accomplished in it's entirety at the cross and appropriated by faith when the sinner was converted. It is not something needing to be done again and again, it was completed. What a comfort, for the believer who falls into sin or error, to know that because of his new identity that God no longer sees him as a sinner! The multitude of sins, which every believer will commit as a saint, is covered forever by the blood of Jesus Christ.