In recent times I have heard an increasing number of evangelicals object to referring to Christians as ‘sinners’. “Christians are not sinners anymore,” we are told, since “they have been made new in Christ“.
Before reacting too fast, we need to understand what is being said and what isn’t. Most often nobody in this conversation is denying that Christians continue to commit actual sins. As a well-known Bible passage clearly states:
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.1 John 1:8-10
It is not only self-delusion to believe in one’s own sinlessness, but it is a personal attack on God’s character. God’s evaluation of humanity is that we are such hopeless sinners that only a sinless saviour from heaven could rescue us. And so evangelicals have long described themselves as ‘forgiven sinners’, ‘sinners saved by grace’, and ‘not good, just forgiven’. The point is to highlight God’s grace in saving us. Rather than being a club of really good and moral people, God’s church is a collection of wretches who have been rescued from their own wretchedness by Jesus.
But the focus of the “Christians are not sinners” position is different from this. The emphasis here is in the fact that Christians have experienced a profound shift in identity. Christians used to be sinners ‘in Adam’, but now we are a new creation ‘in Christ’ (2 Corinthians 5:17). It is pointed out that the New Testament doesn’t make a habit of labeling Christians as ‘sinners’. Instead we are routinely called ‘saints’ and ‘holy’, since that is the status that Jesus has won for us. We must embrace this new status, just as Scripture teaches:
‘…count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.’Romans 6:11
What all this amounts to is a rejection of a famous formulation made by the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546). He once stated that a Christian is “at the same time, both righteous and a sinner“. Those of the “Christians aren’t sinners” position complain that this is sheer contradiction. Those two categories are mutually exclusive: you can either be a “sinner” or “righteous”, but not both at the same time!
Yet I am not convinced. I believe that this way of thinking about sin and Christian identity commits at least four errors. Some of these errors have technical labels, so allow me permission to use a bit of jargon and then I’ll explain what I mean in each case.
1: Category Errors & the Law of Non-Contradiction
A category error is when something is analysed in terms that simply can’t apply to it. For example, saying “the number five is red” confuses the categories of number and colour. Less obviously, the “Christians aren’t sinners” position confuses the categories of action and identity by treating them as one and the same.
Luther did not transgress the law of non-contradiction by saying that Christians are simultaneously sinners and righteous. His point was that Christians remain righteous in God’s sight (identity) even when they commit sin (actions). This is not a contradiction. Rather, the two points complement one another.
The wonderful news of the gospel is that even when we are committing sinful acts, our relationship to Christ maintains our righteous status in God’s sight. Jesus’ righteousness is imputed to all who have faith in him, meaning that Jesus’ personal level of righteousness counts as if it were our own. Those in Christ can no more be condemned than Jesus can, even when we sin.
2: Treating ‘sinner’ as if it is a Univocal Term
Univocal language is where a word only has one meaning and always means the same thing. Technical terms are most often univocal. For example, ‘psychiatrist’ always means “a medical practitioner specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness” (not sure why I thought of that example…). But most words aren’t so precise and can mean different things in different contexts.
The word ‘sinner’ isn’t a technical term and it isn’t used univocally in the Bible or in everyday speech. There is no good reasons to insist that “sinner” can only be used as a formal label of identity. Most people just use it to mean ‘a person who does sinful actions’.
What the “Christians are not sinners” position gets right is pointing out that the Bible doesn’t usually call Christians ‘sinners’. When it does use the term, it often refers to someone’s identity, either in terms of their reputation (Mark 2:17) or their status outside of Christ (Romans 3:7). However, it is a flexible word that can also just describe a person who does sinful actions. For example:
Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.James 4:8
This was addressed to Christians who were sinning and who are therefore addressed as ‘sinners’. This shows that ‘sinner’ is not a univocal label for non-Christian identity in the Bible. In fact, such an over-precise definition of sinner is forced to steamroll over biblical passages that refer to Christians as sinners:
“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners– of whom I am the worst.”1 Timothy 1:15
Here the Apostle Paul refers to himself as a sinner in the present tense. Paul can use the word ‘sinner’ to refer to himself because he has committed a great many sins. It really is that straightforward.
3: Failing to Distinguish between Biblical & Extra-Biblical Terminology.
Not only are words used in different ways, but the church has developed a theological vocabulary beyond what the terms that the Bible uses. This is a good thing: it helps to clarify what the Bible says. For example, if you believe in the Trinity then you are believing biblical truth, but biblical truth expressed in terminology that the church has developed for the sake of accurate summary.
Of course, the word ‘sinner’ isn’t like that since it’s a word that the Bible uses! A better comparison is the word ‘sanctify’ or ‘sanctification’. In theological discussion this word is often used to describe the process of Christians growing in moral conduct and character (i.e. ‘progressive sanctification’). However, in the Bible when this language is used in relation to Christians it most often refers to their ‘positional sanctification’. That is, it refers to a Christian as completely holy (i.e. ‘saints’) because of what Jesus has done to wash away our sins (1 Corinthians 6:11).
Yet it would be wrong to say that the Bible never teaches ‘progressive sanctification’. There are a couple of passages that use sanctification language in that way (1 Thessalonians 4:3; Hebrews 10:14). More significantly, the essence of progressive sanctification is taught all over the New Testament using different language (e.g. 2 Corinthians 3:18).
Similarly, whilst there are only a small number of passages that explicitly use the term ‘sinner’ in reference to Christians, such passages do exist and we mustn’t ignore them. More importantly, the New Testament clearly teaches that Christians continue to fall into sin, and thus we remain ‘sinners’ in that sense.
4: Underplaying the Sinful Nature
This final point is not an explicit part of the “Christians aren’t sinners” position, but it is something that often appears to go with it. In my judgement, many proponents of this position underplay the reality of the sinful nature in believers.
“Total depravity” is an unflattering sounding doctrine. It doesn’t mean that we are as bad as we possibly could be, rather it means that every part of us is tainted by sin. Even our best actions will tend to have sinful motives and ambitions hidden away in them somewhere. This will continue to be the case until Jesus returns to resurrect us and make us new. For the present, the Holy Spirit is only partly renewing us in anticipation of that great day (2 Corinthians 4:16).
This picture is part of why the Protestant Reformers agreed that the ‘wretched man’ of Romans 7 refers to ordinary Christians. Until the resurrection we will continue to be plagued by the power of that flesh that seeks to lead us into sin. We need to actively fight against it (Galatians 5:17). We are still deeply inclined to sin (what theologians call ‘concupscience’, or sinful desire). Thus, we continue to be sinners not only in our actions, but because we will continue to have a sinful nature until Jesus returns.
Christians are sinners. We are also righteous because of Jesus’ work for us in his death & resurrection. Even whilst we continue to struggle with sin, Jesus guarantees our new identity in him forever.
What outwardly distinguishes Christians from mere sinners is their faith in Christ, desire for godliness, and their active pursuit of it through regular self-examination and the practice of repentance.