Have you ever heard someone say, “I’m just a sinner saved by grace”? The phrase has two main purposes: either we use it to express humility or to excuse our behavior. But, did you know that Scripture nowhere calls Christ’s followers sinners? Let’s take a look at what the Bible says about sinners in order to get a grounded scriptural understanding of what a sinner is. Then we’ll examine some other titles Christians use to refer to themselves as well as others within the family of God.
We find the first reference to sinners in Sodom where it says “the men of Sodom were wicked exceedingly and sinners against the LORD” (Gen 13:13). In the time of Samuel, God told Saul to “utterly destroy the sinners, the Amalekites” (1 Sam 15:18). Throughout the books of poetry, we see the righteous encouraged not to “stand in the path of sinners” (Psa 1:1), that sinners will not stand in the assembly of the righteous (Psa 1:5). After all, one sinner destroys much good (Ecc 9:18). Solomon taught his son not to be enticed by sinners (Prov 1:10), since they will get what they deserve (Prov 11:31). Wickedness, adversity, and the adulteress subvert the sinner (Prov 13:6, 21; Ecc 7:26), and his wealth is stored up for the righteous (Prov 13:22; Ecc 2:26). Even if they live a long time, you should not allow your heart to envy sinners (Ecc 8:12; Prov 23:17). Rather, like David, we should seek to convert sinners to God’s path (Psa 51:13). We hear the Psalmist begging, “do not take my soul away along with sinners” (Psa 26:9) since they will be consumed from the earth (Psa 104:35; Isaiah 1:28; 13:9; Amos 9:10). In the end, they too shall die (Ecc 9:2), or perchance if they live to see it, the day of the LORD will terrify them (Isaiah 33:14).
In the Gospels, we find sinners often mentioned with tax collectors. These were the people that Jesus was calling to repentance—the people with whom the Pharisees and scribes did not want to have anything to do (Mat 9:10-13; Mark 2:15-17; Luke 5:30-32; 19:7). They called Jesus a friend of tax collectors and sinners (Mat 11:19; Luke 7:34; 15:2) because he was always spending time with them. Sometimes, they even accused Jesus of being a sinner, but then couldn’t figure out how he was able to do miracles since “We know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is God-fearing and does His will, He hears him” (John 9:16, 24, 9:31). But, why did Jesus dine with sinners so often? He explained his rationale in the three parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son (Luke 15). In each case, the main point is that “there is more joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7, 10, 32). One time, when Jesus was eating at Simon the Pharisee’s house, a woman came in “who was a sinner,” and she anointed his feet with her tears (Luke 7:34-39). This woman repented of her sin, and Jesus pronounced her forgiven. Likewise, in a parable Jesus told, a tax collector and a Pharisee went to pray, but the former in his repentance beat his chest saying, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner” (Luke 18:13). This does not mean that Jesus thought it was good for these people to be in sin, but as it turned out, they were the ones who had the humility to listen to what he said and actually change. Even so, Jesus condemned the shallow love of sinners when he said, “For even sinners love those who love them” (Luke 6:32-34; cp. 13:2). In addition, just before he was arrested at Gethsemane, Jesus said, “the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners” (Mat 26:45; Mark 14:41).
Before moving on to look at some other more positive titles that we should use for ourselves, let’s briefly consider what the rest of the New Testament says about “sinners.” Making our way through the Epistles, we find Paul defending himself against being falsely judged a sinner (Rom 3:7). We were sinners when Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). Through Adam’s disobedience, many were made sinners (Rom 5:19). In one place Paul elevates Jews saying, “We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles” (Gal 2:15). The sinners are lumped in with the lawless, rebellious, ungodly, unholy, profane, and murderers (1 Tim 1:9; 1 Pet 4:18). Christ himself was holy and innocent and separated from sinners (Heb 7:26), even though in his passion he endured such hostility by sinners against himself (Heb 12:3). Thus, James calls sinners to repentance with the words, “Cleanse your hands, you sinners…be miserable and mourn and weep” (Jam 4:8-9). In fact, the one “who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (Jam 5:20). After all, in the end, judgment will fall on the sinners for the harsh things they have spoken along with their ungodly deeds (Jude 15).
I am hard-pressed to find a single reference to “sinners” in a positive light. Only two come close. The first is from the Psalms where David says God “instructs sinners in the way” (Psa 25:8). Yet, this is not really saying anything positive about being sinner; it is saying something positive about God for graciously teaching even the wicked the path of justice. The other reference is in the first epistle to Timothy where it says, “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all” (1 Tim 1:15). Here the Apostle Paul identifies himself as the chief sinner, almost reveling in his low place. But does Paul still think of himself as a sinner or is this merely who he was when Christ saved him? Is he still the foremost of all sinners? To help answer this question, not only for Paul, but also for other first generation Christ-followers, consider the following table. In it you can clearly see how the authors of the Epistles identified themselves in their greetings.
From this we can observe that those who wrote epistles most commonly referred to themselves as “apostles” (eleven out of twenty times). An “apostle” is a special designation or office that Jesus conferred on his original twelve and then later on Paul. It means “sent one” or someone Jesus individually commissioned. The second title they called themselves was “bond-servant of Christ” or many translations simply put “slave of Christ” (seven of twenty times). Now this is a humble identifier because it emphasizes how subservient one is to another’s will. It achieves the same result as when Christians say, “I’m just a sinner.” In fact, calling yourself a “slave of Christ” sounds even more humble to me. “I’m just a slave of Christ.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say those words. But, this is not the end of the story.
We’ve looked at how various authors identified themselves, but we have not yet seen what they call those to whom they are writing. Consider these references:
“The church” (1 Cor 1:2; 2 Cor 1:1; Gal 1:1; 1 Thes 1:1; 2 Thes 1:1, Phm 1:2)
“Saints” (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:2; 2 Cor 1:1; Eph 1:1; Phi 1:1; Col 1:2)
“Beloved,” “beloved son” (Rom 1:7; Phm 1:1; 2 Tim 1:2; 3 John 1; Jud 1)
“Chosen,” “the chosen lady,” “those called” (1 Pet 1:1; 2 John 1; Jud 1)
“Faithful” (Eph 1:1; Col 1:2)
“Brethren,” “sister” (Col 1:2; Phm 1:2)
“True child in the faith” (1 Tim 1:2; Tit 1:4)
“Fellow worker,” “fellow soldier” (Phm 1:1, 2)
“Twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad” (Jam 1:1)
“Those who reside as aliens” (1 Pet 1:1)
“Those who received a faith of the same kind as ours” (2 Pet 1:1)
Is this how you think of yourself? Consider how optimistic these designations are. We are the saints, the beloved, the chosen, the faithful. We are brothers and sisters, God’s true children in the faith who are fellow workers and fellow soldiers. This is how we should think of ourselves and one another—not as sinners, but as saints and beloved. Although this may seem like a trivial little study, I assure you how you think about yourself has major consequences on what you actually do. If your primary identity is “just a sinner,” you will likely make allowances for sin in your life. You will not seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness (Mat 6:33); rather, you will give up without a fight. However, if your identity is built on the fact that you are a beloved saint, you will find yourself more inclined to live up to this name.
I realize we also have the danger of falling into pride, and Scripture clearly tells us “not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think” and “do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves” (Rom 12:3; Phi 2:1). Perhaps we should take a cue from the apostles when they thought of themselves as “slaves of Christ” but called their fellow Christians “saints” and “beloved.” This way we preserve the humility without setting ourselves up for failure.