Language is important. The language we deploy shapes our imagination of how we perceive the world and ourselves. Christians, committed as we are to an ontological and moral realism in creation, have a peculiar interest in the way we use language. We hope that our language reflects the order God has created, preserved, redeemed, and will one day prefect, all for the sake of his Son. This is a humble project; the finiteness of our creaturely minds, and the disordering of our hearts, makes us dependent upon revelation to be to understand the world. The way Christians speak of themselves and the world around them is contingent upon God’s revelation to us in Christ Jesus, the one through whom and for whom all things were made. It is the particular work of the Holy Spirit to renew our minds, thereby freeing us to attend to and participate in this moral order.
One contemporary linguistic glitch in the Christian world today is the way in which Christian’s are described as “saints and sinners”, or using the term coined by German reformer Martin Luther, simul iustus et peccator. This phrase seeks to capture the ongoing presence of sin in a believer’s life, alongside the reality that in Christ they are cleansed and renewed. It gives account of one’s experience besides gospel truth.
It is curious to note though the absence of the term “sinner” in Paul’s description of Christians. Whilst “saint” is used throughout the Pauline corpus to describe Christians, including six of Paul’s introductions (Romans 1.7; 1 Corinthians 1.2; 2 Corinthians 1.1; Ephesians 1.1; Philippians 1.1; Colossians 1.2), the term “sinner” is nowhere used to describe those who belong to Jesus. This is not to deny the ongoing presence of sin in a believer’s life. The task of sanctification and perfection is ongoing. Sin may mar our lives, but we are charged with presenting our bodies in worship for the renewing of our minds, the re-ordering of our heart as St Augustine would put it. We who live according to the Spirit no longer live according to flesh; we are to walk in the light, and not the darkness. What is most true of us is not sin, because it has no mastery over us. Despite the presence of sin in my life, I am not sinner, but a saint who trusts that the same God who justified me will bring that work to completion in my sanctification. The gospel shows me that I am much more broken and stained by sin then you could ever imagine;. Yet his grace has appeared; God has adopted me as his child, declaring me to be a saint of the Most High.
It seems then that the description of saints as sinners is a category error. Archbishop Glenn Davies comments that:
“Clearly the Bible affirms the presence of sin in the life of the believer will continue until their death, but this is not to be equated with the term ‘sinner’. […] To use the term ‘sinner’ is to fly in the face of the whole teaching of the Bible, that those who belong to God’s people are ‘the righteous’ and not ‘the wicked’.”
The Apostle Peter, following the lead of Psalm 1.5, uses this dichotomy of wicked/sinner against the righteous in his first letter:
‘If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinners?’ (1 Peter 4.18)
Biblically and theologically, we are dealing with two diametrically opposed categories: saints and sinners. Those in Christ, and those outside of him. To be a sinner, is to be, as Luther described it, self-enclosed – incurvatus in se. But conversion and repentance is the beginning of a reordering of our love. Apprehending Christ’s work of salvation done to me and for me, we cease being curved in upon ourselves, as we are sanctified in him. Clearly then, Christians can only belong to one of these theologically laden categories.
If language matters, then the practice of describing believers as “sinners” is dangerous. We are allowing our experience to drive our theology. The reality is that through our union with Christ, we are ontologically and theologically speaking freed from slavery to sin. As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins described it, “I am all at once what Christ is, ' since he was what I am”. If anyone does sin, our advocate in heaven is able to cleanse us, and the perfecting work of the Spirit continues to redirect our desires towards Christ. I take that the part played by regular confession in corporate worship inducts into this dynamic of sanctification and grace; us we hear the call to repent, make confession of our sins, and assured of our forgiveness, we respond with praise and thanksgiving to our God and his Son who freed us and cleansed us by his blood. When we call one another “sinner”, we fly in the face of this glorious gospel truth: that Jesus, the friend of sinners, died my death, securing my adoption by our heavenly Father. We are saints of the Most High. For Christ's sake, will you stop calling me a sinner?