Monday, 26 October 2009

saints or sinners?

By all accounts the book on marriage by Harvey Dave, 'When sinners say I do' is first class. I have not yet read it but people whose judgements I respect and have read it recommend it highly, not least my wife, who insisted on quoting little snippets to me while I was trying to read something else.

Perhaps it's a latent animosity to the book generated by wifely interruptions that prompts this criticism. I don't like the title. Oh I know why the writer has chosen it. He's pointing out that flawed people marry and so it demands lots of effort and lots of forgiveness and lots of trusting in God. For these reasons his title makes good sense.

Well what's my problem? My problem is that Dave uses a title for Christians that the Bible seldom if ever does. Have you noticed the NT is not in the habit of referring to believers as 'sinners'? Christians are saints not sinners. When Paul writes his letters to various churches he does not say 'To the sinners in Christ who live in...', instead he says, 'To the saints in Christ who live in...'.

Paul wants the believers to whom he writes to think of themselves as saints (God's holy ones) not sinners. Why? Well, when we think of ourselves as sinners there are two likely outcomes. One, we are likely to live up to our title. Give a dog a bad name... . Two, we are likely to excuse ourselves for our sins: 'after all, I'm only a sinner'.

Paul insists that we recognise the difference grace has made. Writing to the Corinthians he says:

1 Cor 6:9-11 Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. 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.

There is never an excuse for sin. We can never fall back on our background, our habits, our nature, our circumstances or anything else. We are washed, sanctified, justified. We are saints, God's holy people and we ought to live, we ought to be inspired to live, according to who we now are.

Tell a drunk he's just a drunk and he will live as a drunk. Tell him he is a human being and ought to know better and it may make a difference.

The NT approach to Christlikeness is always, 'Be what you are'. You are washed, live as someone washed. You are sanctified, live as sanctified. You are a saint, live like a saint. This is no counsel of despair, it is an incentive to live all the potentiality of the new creation we are in Christ in a fallen world.

Will we fail. Yes we will. But we will pick ourselves up and start again. How will we do this? We will look at our failure and say to ourself, 'this is not the true me, I don't need to be like this, I don't need to lie in the gutter, I am a new person, I have died to this life and have a new life, I am a saint and will live up to my calling by God's grace.' This is the biblical way of triumphing in faith.

Am I nit-picking about the title of the book, yes I am. Buy the book and read it, the author would no doubt amen what I have just written. But I am not nit-picking about the main point. Think like a saint not a sinner. Think of yourself as a saint and not a sinner.

Every time you fail talk to yourself and say,

Rom 6:1-11 What shall I say then? Am I to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can I who died to sin still live in it? Do I not know that I have been baptized into Christ Jesus and this means baptized into his death? I was buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, I too might walk in newness of life. For if I have been united with him in a death like his, I shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. I know that my old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that I would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if I have died with Christ, I believe that I will also live with him. I know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So I also must consider myself dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.


Matt said...

1 Tim. 1:15

That's all. :)

John Thomson said...

Hi Matt

Yep that was a verse I thought about. I expect there will be others I haven't. I do think in 1 Tim 1:15 Paul's emphasis is on his preconversion self - v 13 'formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent' and, v16 ' I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.'

The point stands anyway, doesn't it. The overwhelming direction of Scripture is on seeing ourselves 'in Christ' and all this means.

Matt said...

I guess 1 Tim. 1:15 isn't all. :)

Many an NT Wright reader seems enthusiastic about this position of late. I think Wright's reading of Romans 7 is eminently sensible, and all that you say about the dynamics of the Christian's ethical struggle is right and proper.

At the same time, there is something to be said about the very fact that the struggle goes on at all; that there is still the need for eschatology.

I found Barth's 'The Resurrection of the Dead' fantastic on this.

To be 'in Christ' on this side of death and on this side of Christ's return, is different than being 'in Christ' will be at his return.

Another angle might be to say, that for as long as we still need to regularly confess our sins, then in some sense we must be 'sinners'.

There is a danger of getting bogged down in discussion of the semantics of the word 'sinner'. I agree that we need to think of ourselves as saints, as you describe, but I want to add myself that we mustn't forget the (shadow, passing, but still powerful) reality of our fleshly natures, the world and the devil. If we do, we risk sounding ... dishonest, shallow, slighty unreal - that's how I hear it. No offense :) I don't want to be defeatest or downplay the superior reality of our state 'in Christ' compared to any reality the world can offer, I just find that I do sin, that this is a reality in my life, and I want to confess. So, when someone tells me that I'm not 'a sinner', while I know what they're saying I think that there's more to be said.

John Thomson said...

I agree. Well put.

Ed said...

Simul iustus et...?