Sinners Who Are Forgiven
Bibliotheca Sacra 152 (October-December 1995): 400-12
Robert L. Saucy
The question of the true identity of the Christian has been the topic of discussion for some time. Although not directly framed as a question of identity, the issues of self-love, self-esteem, and self-worth all relate in some way to the question, ÒWho am I?Ó This question has been posed more sharply in the alternatives, ÒAm I as a Christian basically a sinner who is forgiven, or a saint who sins?Ó
The first of these alternatives may be associated with what Warfield favorably termed Òmiserable-sinner Christianity.Ó He referred to it this way because similar terminology runs through Protestant confessional formulas and catechisms. LutherÕs Short Catechism, for example, teaches the believer to say, ÒI, miserable sinner, confess myself before God guilty of all manner of sins.Ó A Lutheran Confession of Sin reads:
I, poor sinful man, confess to God, the Almighty, my Creator and Redeemer, that I not only have sinned in thoughts, words and deeds, but also was conceived and born in sin, and so all my nature and being is deserving of punishment and condemnation before His righteousness. Therefore I flee to His gratuitous mercy and seek and beseech His grace. Lord, be merciful to me, miserable sinner.
A similar expression is found in the prayers of the Church of England. After acknowledging sinfulness and declaring that Òthere is no health in us,Ó the prayer closes with the petition, ÒBut thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.Ó One of the most rhetorical expressions of the concept of Òmiserable-sinner ChristianityÓ is given by the Scottish minister, Alexander Whyte, in his work Bunyan Characters.
Our guilt is so great that we dare not think of it. . . . It crushes our minds with a perfect stupor of horror, when for a moment we try to imagine a day of judgment when we shall be judged for all the deeds that we have done in the body. Heart-beat after heart-beat, breath after breath, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, and all full of sin; all nothing but sin from our motherÕs womb to our grave.
It would be wrong to take such a statement as necessarily signifying Òmiserable ChristianityÓ rather than Òmiserable-sinner Christianity.Ó Many of those who confessed their situation in this way knew how to flee to the grace of God and find the joy of forgiveness. But such statements would also seem to color the self-understanding of believers as to their basic nature.
An example of the alternative understanding of Christian identity as a Òsaint who sinsÓ is a statement by Neil Anderson in one of his popular books.
Many Christians refer to themselves as sinners saved by grace. But are you really a sinner? Is that your scriptural identity? Not at all. God doesnÕt call you a sinner; He calls you a saint--a holy one. . . . Why not identity yourself for who you really are: a saint who occasionally sins.
If the word ÒoccasionallyÓ is excluded from AndersonÕs statement, there is truth in both alternatives of the question. Believers are sinners in that they continue to sin, but Scripture also refers to them as saints. Believers therefore are sinners who by GodÕs grace are forgiven, and they are saints who sin.
Thus in a sense Christians have a kind of double identity. But this does not mean they are schizophrenic or multiple persons. Each believer is one person, one ego or ÒI.Ó The Apostle Paul wrote, ÒI have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of GodÓ (Gal. 2:20). There was only one ÒIÓ and one Paul throughout this transition. The question of the believerÕs identity is therefore the question of the identity of that ego or ÒI.Ó And it would seem that that identity must be related to the actual nature and behavior of that ego. If the nature and activity of the person is primarily sinful, then it is difficult not to see his core identity as a Òsinner.Ó On the other hand if the believerÕs nature and activity is primarily holy, then that personÕs real identity is that of a Òsaint.Ó
The BelieverÕs Positive Identity
Consideration of the scriptural description of the believer and his activity obviously reveals a mixture of sin and holiness. But when the focus is on the actual description of the personÕs identity, the picture is decidedly positive. Even in the Old Testament, believers are described as living with a heart of integrity, soundness, and uprightness (e.g., 1 Kings 8:61; 9:4; Pss. 78:72; 119:7). This of course does not mean that they were sinless or unaware of their sin. But they had a heart and life that was fundamentally devoted to God. Turning to the New Testament, Christians are frequently addressed as ÒsaintsÓ (e.g., Acts 9:32; Eph. 1:1; Col. 1:2). This surely has reference to their status in Christ, but other descriptions reveal that it also denotes something about their nature. Believers in the Lord are ÒsonsÓ and Òchildren of GodÓ which, along with speaking of position or status, also depicts something of the nature of believers who are now oriented toward righteousness (1 John 2:29-3:2). Those in Christ are also called ÒlightÓ (Eph. 5:8) and Òsons of lightÓ (1 Thess. 5:5), which means Òthey are characterized by lightÓ as a result of the Òtransformation that takes place when anyone believes.Ó The believer is part of the Ònew creationÓ (2 Cor. 5:17). He has put off the Òold manÓ and put on the Ònew manÓ (Col. 3:9-10; cf. Rom. 6:6). This transition refers to the believerÕs transference from the old corporate humanity under the headship of Adam to the new humanity with Christ as Head. But it also has reference to a change in the individual. Pointing to the imagery used of putting off and putting on clothing, Lincoln rightly explains that this Òchange of clothing imagery signifies an exchange of identities, and the concepts of the old and the new persons reinforce this.Ó Since the appellation Ònew manÓ also has reference to the individual, the descriptions of it as Òcreated in righteousness and holiness of the truthÓ (Eph. 4:24) and Òbeing renewed . . . according to the image of the One who created himÓ (Col. 3:10) both have reference to the individual believer. Thus Bruce says, ÒThe new man who is created is the new personality that each believer becomes when he is reborn as a member of the new creation whose source of life is Christ.Ó Putting off the old man and putting on the new are related to the teaching of the believerÕs death and resurrection with Christ (Rom. 6:4-6). In codeath and coresurrection the individualÕs identity is radically changed. The old ÒIÓ dies and the new ÒIÓ rises in newness of life (Gal. 2:20). These descriptions of the Christian clearly indicate a positive identity and refer not only to status but also to the nature of the believer. This conclusion is borne out by the fact that the apostolic exhortation to new ethical behavior is made directly on the basis of the believerÕs new identity. The apostles were not grounding their hope for a new behavior simply on a new position or status, but on a new nature which can produce new actions. True, these actions are due to the life of God in the believer and are called Òthe fruit of the Spirit.Ó But at the same time they are the product of the believer even as the fruit of the vine is the fruit of the branches (John 15:2-5, 16). The exhortations to new ethical life are based on the principle Jesus taught that Ògood fruitÓ is borne by Ògood treesÓ (Matt. 7:17). The nature as well as the identity of the believer is therefore seen as primarily Ògood.Ó These descriptions of the believer point in the direction of the root identity of the Christian as Òa saint who sins,Ó rather than Òa sinner who is saved.Ó But that is not the whole of the matter. Practical experience as well as biblical teaching still relate the believer to sin. Consideration of the identity of the believer therefore cannot avoid discussion of his relationship to sin.
The BelieverÕs Relation to Sin
Believers still sin
It is not difficult to convince most believers from Scripture as well as from experience that sin is still a part of their existence. They sometimes act carnally (1 Cor. 3:1-3). The promise of continual cleansing of sin as they walk in the light (1 John 1:7) as well as the present tense used for the confession of sins (1:9) suggest that sin is continually present with believers. To say Òwe have no sin,Ó John wrote, is self-deception and impossible for believers (1:8). Although the personal identity of the believer is in Christ, and thus in the new man which is being transformed into His image, the manner of life of the old man remains a part of the believerÕs experience. This is why Paul directed believers to put off the practices of the old man (Eph. 4:22; Col. 3:8-9).
CalvinÕs statement of what Christians ought to be should convince any believer that he or she has not attained sinlessness. ÒSince all the capacities of our soul ought to be so filled with the love of God,Ó he said, Òit is certain that this precept [to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind] is not fulfilled by those who can either retain in the heart a slight inclination or admit to the mind any thought at all that would lead them away from the love of God into vanity.Ó ÒThere remains in a regenerate man a moldering cinder of evil, from which desires continually leap forth to allure and spur him to commit sin.Ó Does this true but rather bleak perspective make the identity of the believer a ÒsinnerÓ as well as a ÒsaintÓ so that he or she is actually both? Interestingly, although the New Testament gives extensive evidence that believers sin, it never clearly identifies believers as Òsinners.Ó PaulÕs reference to himself in which he declared, ÒI am foremostÓ of sinners is often raised to the contrary (1 Tim. 1:15). GuthrieÕs comment on PaulÕs assertion is illustrative of a common understanding of PaulÕs statement and what should be true of all believers. ÒPaul never got away from the fact that Christian salvation was intended for sinners, and the more he increased his grasp of the magnitude of GodÕs grace, the more he deepened the consciousness of his own naturally sinful state, until he could write of whom I am chief (prtos).ÓDespite the use of the present tense by the apostle, several things make it preferable to see his description of himself as Òthe foremost of sinnersÓ as a reference to his preconversion activity as an opponent of the gospel. First, the reference to himself as ÒsinnerÓ is in support of the statement that ÒChrist Jesus came into the world to save sinnersÓ (v. 15). The reference to Òthe ungodly and sinnersÓ a few verses earlier (v. 9) along with the other New Testament uses of the term ÒsinnersÓ for those who are outside of salvation shows that he was referring to ÒsinnersÓ whom Christ came to save rather than believers who yet sinned. Second, PaulÕs reference to himself as a ÒsinnerÓ is followed by the statement, ÒAnd yet . . . I found [past tense] mercyÓ (v. 16), clearly pointing to the past occasion of his conversion. Paul was grateful for GodÕs mercy toward him, Òthe foremost of sinners.Ó A similar present evaluation of himself based on the past is seen when the apostle wrote, ÒI am [present tense] the least of the apostles, who am not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of GodÓ (1 Cor. 15:9). Because of his past action, Paul considered himself unworthy of what he presently was by GodÕs grace and mercy, an apostle who was Ònot in the least inferior to the most eminent apostlesÓ (2 Cor. 11:5; cf. 12:11). Declaring that he was Òthe foremost of sinners,Ó the apostle also declared that Christ had strengthened him for the ministry, having considered him ÒfaithfulÓ or ÒtrustworthyÓ for it, to which He had called him (1 Tim. 1:2). As Knight concludes, ÒPaul regards this classification of himself as Ôforemost of sinnersÕ as still valid (eijmi, present tense); though he is fully forgiven, regarded as faithful, and put into service, he is still the notorious opponent who is so received.Ó Thus the apostle was not applying the appellation ÒsinnerÓ to himself as a believer, but rather in remembrance of what he was before Christ took hold of him. JamesÕs reference to turning Òa sinnerÓ from the error of his ways is also best seen as bringing someone into salvation rather than restoring a genuine believer to repentance (James 5:19-20). Though the erring one is described as one Òamong you,Ó the resultant outcome of saving the soul of the turned ÒsinnerÓ from Òdeath,Ó which is most likely spiritual death, suggests that the person was not a Christian. Scripture surely teaches that unbelievers can be ÒamongÓ the saints (cf. 1 John 2:19). This is not to say that in the Scriptures believers did not see themselves as sinful. Confrontation with the righteousness and holiness of God frequently brought deep acknowledgment of an individualÕs own sinful condition. PeterÕs recognition of himself before the Lord as a Òsinful manÓ is not uncommon among the saints (Luke 5:8; cf. Gen. 18:27; Job 42:6; Isa. 6:5; Dan. 9:4-20). The believer is sinful, but Scripture does not seem to define his identity as a Òsinner.Ó
Believers are opposed to sin
Instead of being identified as a Òsinner,Ó the real person or ÒIÓ of the believer is opposed to sin. Before salvation the ÒIÓ or the ÒegoÓ of the believer, like the ÒIÓ of all Òsinners,Ó was in radical rebellion against the true God. Now the ÒIÓ of the believer is on GodÕs side seeking to mortify the rebellion that is still present in the believer. Several truths combine to teach this new identity of the believer and his change of nature.
First, death and resurrection with Christ severed the believer from sin. The believerÕs participation in ChristÕs death and resurrection is a way in which Paul expressed the change that takes place when one becomes a Christian. According to the most extensive explanation of this truth in Romans 6, the primary significance of this transaction is the change of dominions over the believer. ChristÕs death and resurrection signify (a) death to the old age of sin and its dominion and (b) resurrection to a new sphere ruled by God. These objective realities take place in Christ as the Head of the new humanity much like His actions as the Head of the corporate Ònew man.Ó But also like the transfer from the ÒoldÓ to the ÒnewÓ man, ChristÕs death and resurrection apply subjectively to the person of the believer who participates with Him.
In Rom. 6 Paul is not simply concerned with the two dominions, but with the decisive transfer of the believer from the one dominion to the other. The believers were enslaved to sin, but now they stand under a new master. This change has taken place through dying with Christ. . . . Dying with Christ means dying to the powers of the old aeon and entry into a new life under a new power.
The believersÕ union with Christ in His death and resurrection transforms them not just legally but also personally. As the personÕs ÒIÓ previously had a nature that willingly chose to serve sin, now he or she is a new ÒIÓ who willingly chooses God. PaulÕs testimony was that having been crucified with Christ, he now lived in such union with Him that his ÒIÓ could hardly be separated, not just legally but morally. PaulÕs ÒIÓ was willingly united with Christ, who continually and willingly obeyed the FatherÕs will. As Bonar said, ÒThe cross, then, makes us decided men. It brings both our hearts and our wills to the side of God.Ó Second, the transformation of the believer in the change of dominions over him through dying and rising with Christ is further seen in the biblical concept of having a Ònew heart.Ó As Jewett explains, ÒA characteristic of the heart as the center of man is its inherent openness to outside impulses, its directionality, its propensity to give itself to a master and to live towards some desired goal.Ó This characteristic stems from the fact that Christians as finite persons can live only in Òradical dependence on otherness.Ó Most significantly, as Jewett noted, what the heart takes in becomes its master, stamping the heart with its character. What truly determines the heart and consequently the person is therefore the nature of the desire of the heart. After defining the heart as Òour center, our prefunctional root,Ó Kreeft adds, Òat this center we decide the meaning of our lives, for our deepest desires constitute ourselves, decide our identity.Ó According to Scripture the deepest desire of the believer has been changed. This truth is seen in the apostleÕs words to the Galatians: ÒAnd because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ÔAbba! Father!ÕÓ (4:6). The cry, ÒAbba! Father!Ó is typical of a son and represents the believerÕs most basic relationship with God. This cry is determined by the presence of the Spirit who brings Christ the Son into the center of oneÕs personality to live within his or her heart. ÒThe center of man is thus his heart; the heartÕs intentionality [or desire] is determined by the power which rules it. In the case of Christian[s], the direction of the heartÕs intentionality is determined by ChristÕs Spirit.Ó The desire or intentionality of the human heart is in reality its love. As Augustine noted, love is what moves an individual. A person goes where his love moves him. His identity is determined by his love. The identity of the believer is thus a person who basically loves God rather than sin.The presence of sin in the life of the believer indicates that remnants of the old disordered love of self remain. But those remnants now stand at the periphery of the real core of the person who is redeemed, God-oriented, and thus bent toward righteousness in his nature. ÒGod begins his good work in us, therefore, by arousing love and desire and zeal for righteousness in our hearts; or, to speak more correctly, by bending, forming, and directing, our hearts to righteousness.Ó This core of the new person is often not evident in conscious life, but it is nevertheless the dominating aspect of his being. As Delitzsch notes, there is a kind of will of nature that is basically self-consciously unreflected. This deep will of nature precedes the conscious actions of the person. The will of the believer has been changed through regeneration despite the fact that remnants of the old life still remain and continue to express themselves. The action of regeneration is directed not so much to Òour occasional will, as to the substance of our will, i.e. to the nature and essence of our spiritual being.Ó Thus the regenerate individual in the depth of his heart is changed; he has a nature oriented toward God. Although the person can still sin, this sin is related to a more surface level of his being which can still act contrary to the real person of the heart. But these surface actions do not change the real nature of the heart and thus the personÕs identity. The relationship of the real core nature of the human heart to its more surface activities is seen in PedersenÕs discussion of the ÒsoulÓ or what is perhaps better termed the heart.
It [the soul] is partly an entirety in itself and partly forms an entirety with others. What entireties it is merged in, depends upon the constant interchange of life.
Every time the soul merges into a new entirety, new centres of action are formed in it; but they are created by temporary situations, only lie on the surface and quickly disappear. There are other entireties to which the soul belongs, and which live in it with quite a different depth and firmness, because they make the very nucleus of the soul. Thus there may be a difference between the momentary and the stable points of gravity in the soul. But none of the momentary centres of action can ever annul or counteract those which lie deeper.
The deepest-lying contents of the soul are, it is true, always there, but they do not always make themselves equally felt.
This understanding of the human heart helps explain the practice of sin in the believerÕs life as well as the ÒgoodÓ in the life of the unbelieving sinner. The true nature of the person does not always express itself fully in actual life. But the basic identity of the individual is still there, and in the case of the believer it is positive.
Third, this same truth is seen in the positive nature of the ego or ÒIÓ of Romans 7:14-25. PaulÕs description of the ÒIÓ in this passage suggests that it refers to someone who has experienced the regenerative grace of God. Also this person is viewed in relation to the law of God apart from the empowerment of the Spirit of God. It could thus have reference to a Christian living according to the flesh in his own strength, or more probably to the experience of the pious Jew living under the Mosaic Law viewed from a Christian perspective. Of interest in this passage is the description of the ÒIÓ which is solidly on GodÕs side. If what is said of this ÒIÓ or ego could refer to a pious Jew living under the Old Covenant, how much more would it be fitting for the believer of the New Covenant as part of the new creation through union with Christ. Considering the actions of the ÒI,Ó all three dimensions normally seen as constituting personhood, that is, thought, emotion, and will, are all oriented toward God and His righteous law. Regarding the element of thought, the apostle wrote in 7:15, ÒFor that which I am doing, I do not understand,Ó or perhaps better with Cranfield, ÒI do not acknowledgeÓ or Òapprove.Ó In other words his thinking was opposed to his action of sin. This is also seen in verse 25: ÒI myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but . . . with my flesh the law of sin.ÓHis emotion is likewise seen to be on GodÕs side in opposition to sin. ÒI am doing the very thing I hateÓ (v. 15). As Dunn puts it, Òhe wholly detests and abhors what he does.Ó If hatred is the opposite of love, then his love is directed toward righteousness. A further expression of emotion is indicated in verse 22. ÒI joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man.Ó Also his will or volition is for God and against sin. ÒWhat I want [or Ôwill,Õ qevlw] to do,Ó Paul wrote, ÒI do not do. . . . I have the desire [qevlein] to do what is goodÓ (vv. 15, 18, NIV). The verb qevlein is used seven times in the passage, the last when he described himself as Òthe one who wishes to do goodÓ (v. 21). These descriptions of the personal attributes of the ÒIÓ clearly define it as one with a positive nature. But more than this, the apostle went so far as to absolve, as it were, the ÒIÓ from sinning: Òif I do the very thing I do not wish to do . . . no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which indwells meÓ (vv. 16-17; cf. the same thought in v. 20). Since the same passage clearly shows the ÒIÓ as the subject of sinful actions as well as being opposed to sin, the apostle was not trying to evade the personal responsibility of the ÒIÓ in sin. But when the ÒIÓ is related to sin, it is never described in terms of the functions of personhood. There are no equal statements of thought, emotion, and will on the side of sin. Paul did not say, ÒI want to do the will of God, but I also want to sin.Ó Nor did he say, ÒI love the law of God, but I also love sin.Ó Thus the ÒIÓ that is positively oriented toward God is the person in the deepest sense of his personhood or identity. He is the ÒIÓ of the Òinner manÓ (v. 22), the ÒIÓ that is the subject of the ÒmindÓ (v. 25). The assertion that it is no longer ÒIÓ but sin that actually does the sinning is similar to other apparently contradictory statements of the apostle when he was referring to the dominating power that mastered him: Òit is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live . . .Ó (Gal. 2:20); ÒI labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with meÓ (1 Cor. 15:10; cf. Matt. 10:20). In these statements Paul was not intending to disavow responsibility, but to affirm the existence in himself of a power that exercised a dominating influence on him. The real person of the believer willingly assents to this dominating power, but in the case of sin as in Romans 7 the real ÒIÓ opposes it and can thus be set against it. Here the ego or real ÒIÓ in the believer is viewed as so opposed to sin that they can be isolated from each other. And the actual committing of sin, instead of being the action of the ego can be regarded as the action of the sin that enslaves the ego contrary to its will. As Delitzsch says, Òthe Ego is no longer one with sin--it is free from it; sin resides in such a man still, only as a foreign power.Ó Romans 7 thus presents the real person of the believer as positive. To be sure, he commits sin both in thought and act but he also does righteousness. Sin and righteousness, however, do not characterize the real person of the believer in the same way. The believer is capable of experiencing a double servitude expressed in the apostleÕs words, Òon the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sinÓ (v. 25). But as this statement, along with the entire passage, indicates, the real person of the believer willingly serves God.The description of the believer in Romans 7 thus fits the same picture of the believer seen in the teaching of his death and resurrection with Christ and his new heart. The Christian has been radically changed in his relationship to sin and righteousness from what he was before salvation. And this change is more than simply positional or judicial consisting in the forgiveness of sin and the imputation of righteousness. It includes a radical change of nature. The Christian is a new person. He has a new heart which is the real identity of the person.
The full picture of the believerÕs relationship to sin and righteousness is obviously beyond the scope of this study. But when the question of his identity is posed--is the Christian a saved sinner or a saint who sins?--the Scriptures seem to point to the latter.
There is truth in the following explanation of so-called Òmiserable-sinner ChristianityÓ expressed by Luther:
A Christian is at the same time a sinner and a saint; he is at once bad and good. For in our own person we are in sin, and in our own name we are sinners. But Christ brings us another name in which there is forgiveness of sin, so that for His sake our sin is forgiven and done away. Both then are true. There are sins . . . and yet there are no sins. . . . thou standest there for God not in thy name but in ChristÕs name; thou dost adorn thyself with grace and righteousness although in thine own eyes and in thine own person, thou art a miserable sinner.
Christians are sinners who are forgiven. But there is more to it than that. They are regenerated persons whose root core has been changed. They are forgiven, but also their heart--the spring of their life and their true identity--is new.
To confess as present-day Anglicans do that Òthere is no health in usÓ or that Òall my nature and being is deserving of punishment,Ó as also stated in the old German Lutheran confession, is contrary to the biblical picture of the believer. All the apostlesÕ ethical imperatives are addressed to believers on the premise that their natures are now on GodÕs side and have a new ability to obey God. The very assumption that Christians should grow demonstrates a belief that the positive dominates over the negative in their being. For a Christian to grow, there must be a stronger inclination toward God than toward sin.Although the terminology Òmiserable sinnerÓ does not adequately define the true identity of the believer, several truths at the heart of so-called Òmiserable-sinner ChristianityÓ must be retained even when viewing the believer as a Òsaint who sins.ÓFirst, despite the truth that the believerÕs heart and thus his or her identity have been transformed to an orientation toward God and His righteousness, oneÕs acceptance before God is only on the basis of ChristÕs righteousness. OneÕs salvation is complete in ChristÕs righteousness alone.Second, the believer who sins must experience misery over sin. If a personsÕ affections have truly been changed so that he or she is now on GodÕs side, then that one must hate sin and experience a godly sorrow over what grieves and wounds the One who loves believers deeply. FisherÕs description of sorrow over sin should be the experience of all believers.
When faith hath bathed a manÕs heart in the blood of Christ, it is so mollified that it generally dissolves into tears of godly sorrow; so that if Christ turn and look upon him, O then, with Peter he goes out and weeps bitterly. And this is true gospel mourning; this is right evangelical repenting.
Third, even though God in His grace has created in believers the germ of a new nature which gives them a new identity, their focus in life must be not on themselves, but on Christ. Dying and rising with Christ means the end of self-trust. Therefore, even though they are new persons, their source of life and growth is not in their own identity but in Christ. Their focus must be on Him and not on their own new identity. In Him they are new creatures (2 Cor. 5:17).
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