This is the last post in this series. I’m excited. Not because it’s the last post but because the best has been saved till last. In this post, I will seek to explore the concept of Christian identity. This clear sense of identity is fundamental to all human experience and without it, we feel lost. Some would say that our desperate need to ‘find ourselves’ and secure that clear apprehension of who we are as being sinful. That it is the ego looking at itself, trying to define itself and to some degree even worshipping itself. There may be some truth to this. However, could it be possible that our longing for identity is not necessarily sinful; rather it reveals the reality and effect of sin? In other words, the search and the deep longing of the human soul to secure a true sense of identity exists because sin has separated us from God, each other and even to some degree our own self. Maybe we had something, lost it and our souls are seeking for it. Therefore the search and the deep need isn’t what is sinful, it’s a result of sin; how we go about finding it is what could be sinful.
So let’s explore the final question in this series.
Should Christians Identity as sinners or saints?
Identity always dictates activity. In the story in Luke 18, the tax collector identified himself as a sinner while the Pharisee a righteous person. Due to the self-identification of both men, it was the tax collector that received God’s mercy.
“… the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Lk. 18:13 ESV)
While the tax collector rightly identifies as a sinner in need of God’s mercy, the question follows of whether or not he continued to identify himself as a sinner after he received God’s mercy? Or did it change? For Christians that have received God’s mercy, how are we to identify ourselves – Saints or Sinners?
Let’s kick off by looking at the dangers of over-emphasising one over the other and then see if we can land somewhere that is helpful.
- Over-Emphasised Sainthood
The New Testament time and again describes believing Christians as saints. And oh what a name we have received. This is not to be confused with the Roman Catholic view of a saint that separates Christians into three categories of ordinary believers, priests and saints. Rather it simply suggests any and all persons that are ‘in Christ’. All believing Christians are described as saints, not those super holy, miracle-working believers. Scripture tells us that those who trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation and are faithful to him are saints (Eph. 1:1; 1 Cor. 1:2) The Apostle Paul continually addressed his Christian audience describing them as saints (Phil. 1:1; Col 1:2) And scripture calls us to live out our ‘sainthood’ (1 Cor. 6:11; Eph. 2:1; 1 Pet. 1:15-16) over and over again reminding us of who we once were but are no longer because we are made new (Eph. 2:5; 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal 6:15). It is within this new identity in Christ, that one finds joy and peace in God’s holiness and desires to be conformed to Christ and live like Christ. It is God who grants us this identity as a saint and by it, we are comforted knowing that in his calling us saints we are in his hands secure because of Christ’s person and work.
Yet when this aspect is overemphasized, we can lose sight of our need for ongoing grace and mercy for the ongoing sins we do commit and hurt others by. We can forget our need for ongoing repentance. That constant turning away from sin and turning to Christ our gracious saviour. We can also forget our need to ask each other for forgiveness acknowledging that our sin is not only against God but also each other. An over-emphasis of the Christian identity as a saint can lead into idolatry which leads us away from reality and away from our deep need for Christ, his Word, his people and his grace and mercy.
- Over-Emphasised Sinfulness
Likewise, our acknowledgment of our sinfulness serves others and us greatly. As we have seen while the power and dominion of sin are broken by Christ’s work, the presence of sin in our lives remains and we battle and fight seeking to kill the deeds of the flesh every day. This is a good thing. A necessary thing. Realising the battle is won but not complete helps us to continually look to Jesus (Heb. 12:1-3) and run to his abounding fountain of grace. We are reminded again and again of our daily need of his mercy and his daily giving of it. It humbles us. It softens us. It changes us in how we relate to God, to others and even ourselves.
Yet in the same way, some Christians idolise their sainthood others idolise their sinfulness. I remember once saying, “hello you great people” to some Christians at an event this past year. The reply I got was somewhat unexpected. They responded, “We’re not great. We’re totally depraved”. To which I sarcastically responded with a cheesy grin and a sneaky wink of the eye, “Well not anymore if you’re in Christ Jesus hey”. They had over-emphasised their sinfulness. We are to acknowledge our sin not be defined by it or live under the dominion of it.
So how are we to identify ourselves as Christians?
Martin Luther wrestled with this question and eventually landed on the formula “Simul Justus et Peccator”. What does it mean?
Simul is the word from which we get the English word simultaneously, ‘at the same time.’ Justus is Latin for just or righteous and Peccator means sinner. So Luther in trying to distinguish the Christian identity landed upon the idea that we are ‘simultaneously just and sinner’. R.C Sproul in his teaching on Luther and the Reformation notes that Luther,
“…was saying from one perspective, in one sense, we are just. In another sense, from another perspective, we are sinners; and how he defines this is simple. In and of ourselves, under the analysis of God’s scrutiny, we still have sin; we’re still sinners. But, by imputation and by faith in Jesus Christ, whose righteousness is now transferred to our account, then we are considered just or righteous. This is the very heart of the gospel.”
(For more go to http://www.ligonier.org/blog/simul-justus-et-peccator/)
Martin Luther sought to hold these two realities in tension, not over-emphasising one at the expense of the other. So this can be helpful. Now for some, this may be sacrilegious, but I tend to push back a little on the identity of a sinner. When I consider the writings of the Apostle Paul he tends to use the language of past tense when referring to sin. (Rom. 6:17; Gal 1:23; Eph. 2:1-3; Eph. 2:13; Col. 1:21; 1 Pet. 2:10)
Ephesians 2:1 comes to mind where Paul outlines the absolute depravity of human sinfulness yet he begins by using the past tense of
‘And you were dead in the trespasses and sins.’ Eph. 2:1
And one of my favourite scriptures in all the New Testament,
11 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. 1 Cor. 6:11
Paul consistently reminded Christians of their new identity in Christ and called them to live out of it. “That’s not you any more Christian. You are made new”. Paul had no problem calling sin out in the Church. But he also reminded Christians time and again of their new identity and called people to believe and recognise who they now are in Christ as one of the great means of overcoming sin. In fact that most common description of Christians in the New Testament is those that are ‘In Christ’. It is used over 200 times.
While sin may still describe some of our activity, ‘sinner’ does not have to define our identity. Yes, we must acknowledge our sin. Yes, we must repent of it, seek forgiveness and trust the Spirit to transform us. We are not free from sins existence but we are free from its penalty, it’s power, its tyranny and mastery. We are made new and, “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Col. 1:13-14)
Pastor Rick Warren has a saying I’ve always resonated with
“To know who we are we must know who’s we are”
Like every abandoned child that longs to know their true biological parents in order to know themselves, we too need to know who’s we are in order to know who we are. And as Christians, we are those that are in Christ. We are no longer slaves of sin and darkness, but SONS AND DAUGHTERS of the living God. That’s who we are. So when we sin the gospel calls us to repent and turn away from it. Additionally, it calls us to turn to Jesus in faith, not just for mercy, though it is needed, but also for affirmation of our identity. That we are who he says we are. That we remain God’s child and he loves us and adopted us as his kids. A choice he made long before we ever stuffed up.
5 he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will Eph. 1:5
29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers Rom. 8:29
Longing for a sense of identity is not wrong, nor sinful, it is necessary. But our true identity can only be found in the one who made us. Our true identity can not and does not come from our self. We do not find who we are by looking within. No! We find who we are by looking down. We look down into the scriptures through which God screams ‘MINE’! And we look up to the heavens and thank God for making us his.
Spurgeon recounts a story from Augustine
In his pre-Christian life, St. Augustine was ensnared by sexual lust, but after he surrendered his life to God, he gave himself single-mindedly to the work of Christ’s kingdom. One day an old mistress of his approached him on the street, seductively suggesting he follow her home. Augustine was cordial but turned her down. It occurred to her, “Maybe he forgets who I am,” and she said to him, “Augustine, it is I!” “Yes, I know,” Augustine replied, “but it is not I.”
In summary, much of this debate has centred around sin and answering the question ‘Are we saved sinners or sinning saints?’ It is here that I affirm that the ‘Saints by Nature’ movement get many things right. I hope I explained my disagreements clearly, thoroughly and with grace and kindness. Yet I also hope that I highlight where I agree. I agree that we have a new identity in Christ. That we are God’s children, forgiven, loved and secure in him. I agree that we should therefore identify ourselves as such, even when we sin. And probably even more so when we sin because sin brings with it its cousins, shame and guilt, which cause us to hide from God rather than run to God receiving assurance of his love and grace towards us as his kids. We may be sons and daughters that struggle. We may be God’s kids that sin. But we are his kids. That’s who we are and who we will always be for in the words of the Apostle Paul,
38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Rom 8:38-39