The Myth of the Christian “Sinner”

One of the most common, unbiblical myths in Christianity is the Myth of the Christian “Sinner”. Almost universally and everywhere I hear (or read of) Christians referring to themselves as “sinners”. A common sentiment is the well-worn phrase, “I’m just a sinner like everyone else”. Or, “I’m just a sinner saved by grace”.

Yet Christians — those that are truly born again by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ — are never called “sinners” even once in the entire Bible. Such a belief that Christians are called “sinners” is not only patently unbiblical, it is unhealthy and downright dangerous to the cause of righteousness, both personal and in the church.

Now at the outset let me say that I am not saying Christians never sin. They can and do sin, sadly and opposed to God’s will.

What I am saying is that you will not find even one verse in the Bible that calls Christians “sinners”. Not a single one. So what are they called? “Saints”. More on that later.

The Greek word for “sinner” is “hamartolos”*, meaning “devoted to sin, a sinner, not free from sin” or “pre-eminently sinful, especially wicked”. One can see from this definition of “hamartolos” that such a condition should not biblically describe a Christian. “Hamartolos” is found 45 times in the New Testament. Not a single time is it used to describe a Christian. Not even ONCE.

Some are quick to point out that Paul called himself the “chief of sinners” in 1 Timothy 1:15:

(1:15) This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”

To misuse this verse and use it as a means to make the argument that Christians are called “sinners” is to violate the meaning of the verse in its context, as well as the original Greek. Further, it is wrong to create an entire doctrine out of one verse.

First, looking at 1 Timothy 1:15 in its context, Paul in the verses preceding verses writes:

[12] And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry, [13] although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. [14] And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.

Verse 13 makes clear that Paul is speaking of his former life as a “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man”. He is making a clear point that God’s grace was exceedingly abundant in his life to not only save him from such a miserable state but also place him in the ministry!

Verse 16, right after the “chief of sinners” verse says, “However, for this reason I obtained [note the past tense] mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life.” Paul continues in the “past tense” vein speaking of how God by His mercy took him from his former life as the chief of sinners!

Furthermore, if indeed Paul at the time of this writing called himself — the “chief of sinners”, then he would be disqualified from the ministry, based upon the righteous standards he describes for those in ministry just two chapters later!

The Greek word for “chief”, “protos”, means “first in time or place, in any succession of things or persons” or “first in rank”. Someone has used the anology of a star track athlete who broke the school record in the mile race. When he returned to his Alma mater 25 years later, he was surprised to find that no one had beaten his time. He can rightly say, “I am the record holder in the mile race at my high school”. Notice that he uses the present tense. Never mind the fact that that today he has middle age flab, huffing and puffing just going up the steps (poor guy). He still IS the chief record holder in the mile race. His trophy is still in the case. He still tops the list in the record books. He won that distinction.

The fact is, Paul was pointing out God’s rich mercy in his case as the record holder as a sinner to bring encouragement to people to come to the Lord of mercy.

Even if 1 Timothy 1:15 could be interpreted as Paul identifying himself — present tense — as the chief of sinners, it is improper to build an entire doctrine making the case that Christians are “sinners” out of just one verse.

Well, I’ve made my point (the first of three). Every single time the word “sinner” is used in the New Testament it NEVER is used in reference to Christians. Ever. That means it is patently unscriptural for Christians to call themselves (or any other Christian) a “sinner”.

So, what are we called? Ah, now we come to the wonderful part!

Before I get to that. It’s important to clearly understand that everything good that we receive from the Lord is given not upon our own worthiness or merit. It is given by grace, through the perfect merit of Jesus Christ and HIS worthiness. It is ALL of grace:

[8] For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, [9] not of works, lest anyone should boast. [10] for we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which He prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” Eph 2:8-9 NKJV

Romans 5:1-2 NKJV

[1] Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have° peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, [2] through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.

The Grace of God is about what a loving God does for me, completely undeserved. Someone has said that Grace of God is undeserved favor in the face of deserved wrath. It is given on the grounds of the perfect life and righteousness of Jesus Christ. It is enjoyed by simple faith in Christ and His righteousness.

God, solely upon the basis of grace and the perfection of Christ’s righteousness, makes and calls us His children (John 1:12, 1 John 3:1), He through that same grace calls us saints. The Greek word for “saints” is “hagios” meaning “most holy thing, a saint”. The word “hagios” is used in the New Testament 219 times. 161 times it’s used to describe that which is holy, i.e., the Holy Spirit, the temple, the holy city, etc. 61 times its translated “saints” or “saint”.

The core idea of “holy” in reference to God means that He is entirely “other” and transcendent. No one or no thing is God, except God alone. All that He is and does owes itself solely to who God is in His holiness. When spoke of others, holiness speaks of some one or some thing that is completely set apart for God and his purposes. In the Old Testament, common objects were made holy when they were dedicated to the Lord upon the altar. They were called “holy” by virtue of the holy altar, not the inherent value of the object itself. Most important of all, we are holy because GOD makes us holy. HE sets us apart in His holy mind and heart unto Himself for His holy purposes.

We are called “saints”, or “holy ones” or “set apart ones” because of God’s righteous decree. This is not because of our intrinsic worth or merit, it is based purely on the loving grace extended to us through Jesus Christ. It comes from the hand and heart of a holy God. It is all about HIS goodness and holiness and not our own. And He alone receives the glory that His due Him as God.

1 Corinthians 6:19 declares, “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?” Notice the core concepts:

  • Our body is a temple of the Holy Ghost, “whom you have from God“, and
  • You are not your own – we belong to God
  • Verse 20 gives the reason: “For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.”

We all know that the Corinthian church was messed up, backslidden, worldly, carnal, fighting, arrogant, proud… and Paul greets them in his first epistle with, “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Corinthians 1:2a).

So you see, my friend, everything good in your life is brought to you from the heart and hand of God. Including what He calls you: a saint.

By God’s doing you are justified, forgiven, pure, born again, made His child, a joint heir with Jesus Christ and called to be a saint (Romans 1:7).
The tragic thing about saints wrongly calling themselves “sinners” is when they do so they are identifying with sin and the work of Satan, not grace and the finished work of The Lord Jesus Christ. Further, it is actually thinly disguised pride. It is a shaking a prideful finger in the face of a Holy, gracious God who calls us holy and saying to Him, “not so.”

However, when you recognize that you are indeed a saint, based upon the grace of God through Jesus Christ alone, you identify with grace and the work of God. I can’t think of anything more humbling than understanding that you deserve to be called “sinner”, reprobate and foul, only to discover that by God’s amazing grace He lifts you out of the miry clay and calls you His child (1 John 3:1), totally blessed (Ephesians 1:3), not condemned (Romans 8:1), sanctified (1 Corinthian 1:2), a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17), the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21), a trophy of God’s grace (Ephesians 1:6 and 2:7)….

CALLED TO BE A SAINT (Rom 1:7, 1 Cor 1:2).

On All Saints Day (November 1), I like to greet my Christian friends by calling them “Saint so and so”. Saint Mike, Saint Cathy, Saint Ted. On one occasion, when I greeted one sister in the Lord in this way, she looked down, rather embarrassed and said, “Well, I don’t know about that“. To which I said, “Are you born again?” She said, “Well, yes.” I said, “GOD calls you a ‘saint’, get over it and enjoy it!” I then shared some of this truth with her that I am writing now. I could see the light bulb going on as I shared with her this glorious truth.

Dear Ones — Saint of the Living God — lift your eyes from yourself and look in the face of your Loving Savior. It’s all based upon the basis of the beauty of HIS holiness, righteousness and perfection. Don’t look to your own failure, look to Christ’s success. Jesus Himself said, “Apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). It’s all Jesus, all Jesus, all Jesus. That’s how we entered the new life, that’s how we walk through it, that’s how we are glorified and live forever with Him.

It’s all of grace. All of it. Even what He calls us: Saints. Children of God. Chosen ones. Dearly loved.

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*There is another Greek word, “opheiletes”, that can be translated sinner. With the exception of one verse — Luke 13:4, which isn’t about Christians, anyway — it is universally translated “debtor” and not “sinner”.

CC by-nc-nd 2013,2017 Mark D. VanOuse
This article is under a Creative Commons copyright license. www.DailyInChrist.org
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