8. Saint or Sinner
As we continue to look at our identity in Christ, we must settle on how we will fundamentally view ourselves during our stay on earth. Our central characteristic, love for God and others, is a standard that is virtually impossible to attain. Thus, we often find ourselves falling short of loving God and others. Are we sinners who are forgiven, or saints who still sin? When we go to the very foundation of our identity as Christians who still reside in a fallen world, do we find depravity or righteousness?
- Individual Aim: To consider your status and nature based on the Scripture’s definitions of saint and sinner.
- Group Aim: To review and evaluate the nature of a Christian as it relates to sin and righteousness.
Read Session 8: Saint or Sinner.
Complete Biblical Exercise: 1 Peter 1–2 beginning on page 70.
On the surface, asking whether we are saved sinners or sinning saints may appear to be splitting hairs, but the ramifications of the answers are vast. Too often we judge our status based on recent behavior. If we go through a time of significant sinfulness, we view ourselves as hopelessly trapped by the dominion of sin. Likewise, if we experience a time of spiritual growth and restraint from sinful behavior, we are more prone to see ourselves as worthy of the designation “saint.” We need to build our identity upon the definition of Scripture rather than upon our feelings about, or analysis of, our lifestyle.
Sinner or saint? While a fair examination of Scripture finds both descriptions, the point of this session is to find out why and in what sense we are both saints and sinners.
The New Testament describes Christians as growing in holiness while also struggling with sin. Yet our struggle with sin doesn’t undermine our firm standing before God when we have trusted Christ for salvation (see Romans 5:9-11). Because of our new identity in Christ, we’re called to be holy because God is holy (see 1 Peter 1:16). Holy means “separated out for a special purpose.” We are separated out from others simply in that others haven’t been reconciled to God through Christ. Saint means “holy person” or “one who is separated out.” So we’re saints in that we’ve been separated out for special purposes: worshiping God, abandoning sin, and living in ways that draw others toward Christ.
Christ is the ultimate Saint because the rest of us fall short of the perfection He attained as God in human flesh. Yet Christians are identified with Christ by grace through faith in Him. Our identity is radically changed.
But how are believers changed? The short answer is: over time and through experiences. One major change is that we learn a new way to decide what is good. We’ve acknowledged that God’s righteousness (His standard of what is true, just, and good) is now the goal of our life. After all, a true commitment to Christ involves repenting of our failure to live up to God’s righteousness and receiving the gift of righteousness in Christ.
Look at the difference between the rich young ruler (see Mark 10:17-23) and Zacchaeus (see Luke 19:1-10). The ruler was unwilling to repent from valuing money and its benefits above God’s righteousness. His life didn’t change because his fundamental values remained unchanged. Zacchaeus, on the other hand, decided to repent of his primary pursuit of money and, in exchange, acknowledge his need to live according to God’s righteous standards. He received grace and forgiveness from Jesus but also a fundamental shift in how he perceived his life purpose. Internally, his values had already shifted to the point that he began pouring out his estate to those he had wronged.
We shouldn’t presume that Zacchaeus went on to live a sinless life. However, we can see that his fundamental understanding of life had radically changed. He had a new understanding of himself and his purpose because Christ had offered him new life.
This is why James emphasized the manifestation of faith in a person’s behavior (“faith without deeds is dead”; see James 2:14-26). James meant that a Christian’s life can’t possibly be void of righteous behavior. Growth in righteousness may at times seem stagnant, but there’s always some evidence of transformation in a believer’s values and behavior over a significant period of time. If our life is void of righteousness, we can’t have repented of our past life in favor of valuing God’s righteous standard. In other words, we wouldn’t really be believers. We are fundamentally changed only when we genuinely come to faith in Christ. And if we have genuinely come to faith, our prospect for life after death will always be changed and, here in this life, our life in Christ will always be changing.
Calling ourselves saints doesn’t ignore the sin in every believer’s life. Believers still sin. This diminishes neither the holy standard God has set nor the sinfulness of believers who fail to meet that standard. Although believers sin, faith in Christ changes a person so radically in God’s eyes that the title of saint is appropriate.
One part of having their identity fundamentally changed is that believers receive “gifts” with which to serve others. God gifts each believer uniquely for His service. We will discuss spiritual gifts in the next session.
Read 1 Peter 1:3–2:3. Also, review “A Method for the Biblical Exercises” beginning on page 17.
Observation — “What Do I See?”
1. Who are the persons (including God) in the passage? What is the condition of those persons?
2. What subjects did Peter discuss in the passage? What did he assert?
3. Note the sequence in which Peter made these assertions. (You might number them in order.)
4. What did Peter emphasize? Are there repeated ideas and themes? How are the various parts related?
5. Why did Peter write this passage? (Did he say anything about ways he expected the reader to change after reading it?)
Interpretation Phase 1 — “What Did It Mean Then?”
1. Coming to Terms —Are there any words in the passage that youdon’t understand? Write down anything you found confusing about the passage.
2. Finding Where It Fits —What clues does the Bible give about the meaning of this passage?
- Immediate Context (the passage being studied)
- Remote Context (passages that come before and after the one being studied)
3. Getting into Their Sandals—An Exercise in Imagination
- What are the main points of this passage? Summarize or write an outline of the passage.
- What do you think the recipients of the letter were supposed to take from this passage? How did God, inspiring Peter to write this letter, want this passage to impact the recipients?
Interpretation Phase 2 — “What Does It Mean Now?”
1. What is the timeless truth in the passage? In one or two sentences, write down what you learned about God from 1 Peter 1–2.
2. How does that truth work today?
Application — “What Can I Do to Make This Truth Real?”
1. What can I do to make this truth real for myself?
2. For my family?
3. For my friends?
4. For the people who live near me?
5. For the rest of the world?
Read Session 9: Spiritual Gifts.
Complete the Life Inventory: Spiritual Gifts exercise beginning on page 118.