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“Saints” or “Sinners”?

Bill Donahue from DrBillDonahue.com (http://drbilldonahue.com/2011/02/the-gospel-according-to-rembrandt/) replied to my first post, and I thought what he said deserved attention. He said:

Interesting name. Is that what we really are? I read the gospel and we are referred to as saints in every letter to the churches. Never are we addressed as “justified sinners” — I think you are stuck there. Romans 5:1 is for us today. Freedom. We are justified saints, and we sin, we are not justified sinners. We are saints who sin, justified by faith.

Here’s what I have to say in response:

Hi Bill,

Thanks for the comment.

It is true that the New Testament calls believers “saints.” The Greek word used is αγιος, which is a substantive adjective meaning “holy ones.” So the question is: How is it that we are holy? If it is an inherent or infused holiness, then you are right and I should change the name of the blog. But if it is Christ’s righteousness which has been legally imputed to our accounts that explains why we are called “saints,” then there is a difference between our still-sinful condition (which produces sinful actions) and our legal status before God. This is what Paul is getting at in Romans 4:5 – “But to the one who does not work, but trust God who justifies the wicked, his faith is imputed as righteousness.” Notice that God does not justify saints. He justifies wicked people.

That is not to deny the reality of sanctification – the process whereby God conforms us more and more to the image of Christ. But sanctification will never be complete in this life.

There is also the testimony of John in his first letter: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” and “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” So if by “saints” you understand us to be inherently righteous or holy, then there is an obvious problem with what John is saying here. But if you mean that our legal status is that of “saints” because Christ’s righteousness has been imputed to us – even though our sinful actions come from our still-sinful hearts – then what John says makes perfect sense.

I hope that helps. And if you’d like to continue the dialogue, please let me know.

Chris Caughey


2 Responses

  1. I get the theology, and your deeply Reformed perspective. I am not referring to our standing what took place in the order of salvation. I am simply referring to the label. Believers are NEVER greeted in letters “To the Justified Sinners at Ephesus.” That’s all. I’m NOT debating the reality or process of justification (though various theologians debate the nuances of the order, process, etc.– not what i care to do). I am saying the identity in Christ — the label you are assigning us is not what the NT writers call us. So, despite the fact you are very bright, I’d rather go with their labels instead of your. We are not Justified Sinners in Christ, we are Justified Saints who were sinners. Once Justified, we are no longer sinners by identity. All your references to “justified” are past tense — we “were” (look at the Greek and the context). — “Saints” and “brothers/sisters” are the two most common forms of address to believers in letters of the NT. In Paul it is “saints” in Jude “dear friends” in John “dear friends” in Peter also “friends” in Philemon 1:1,7 it is “friend” and “saints” in Hebrews 3:1 “holy brothers” — and so on. (WOW — Holy Brothers, not Justified Sinners!) Count “brothers” in James (15), 1 Thess (17) and Acts (over 45). Then count “Justified Sinners”. Good luck. NOWHERE is the church addressed as “Justified Sinners” when our identity is in the mind of the writer. We are not “just a bunch of saved sinners” as a Reformed pastor-friend of mine recently said to his congregation. (This mishap is not limited to Reformed brethren, to be sure.) Don’t let a theological system, however noble, get in the way of the Bible. 🙂 Say hello to Mike Horton for me.

    • Thanks for the response, Bill,

      So how do you understand Romans 4:5? Who does God justify? Does that not teach “simul iustus et peccator”?

      Also, I’m not sure you’ve taken account adequately of significance of the term “saints.” Is the holiness described by the term infused or imputed? I mean, to simply keep announcing that the Bible calls us saints doesn’t convince me that I’ve got it wrong. What does that term mean?

      I’d also like to hear what you do with 1 John 1:8-10.


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