Are Christians “Sinners”?

March 31, 2009

I started reading yet another book today that insists it’s essential for Christians to see themselves as sinners. Is this true or not? Here’s my suggested approach.

First, aside from the term itself, let’s look at the things that most Bible-believing Christians can agree to, related to Christians and sin. When a person trusts in Christ, they are credited Christ’s righteousness (Rom 4:5). Also, in some sense the power of sin over that person is broken (Rom 6:20-22). However, there is still a battle within the believer between sin and the Spirit (Gal 5:17), and no Christian is ever entirely without sin in this life (1 Jn 1:8). A Christian can overcome this sin to progressively grow in holiness, by relying on the power of the Spirit (Gal 5:16) and renewing his mind to the truth (Rom 12:2), among other things. A lot of times, disputes over the term “sinner” arise because one side believes that the other is missing one of these key points (and it can work both ways). It’s important, then, at the outset, to discuss these points, to see if both sides really agree to them.

If we can agree on these points, then, the question remains, should a Christian see himself as a sinner? We agree to all the above *assertions,* but should that *label* be additionally applied?

Here’s some hard Biblical evidence. “Although the New Testament provides plenty of evidence that the believer sins, it never clearly identifies the believer as a sinner. Paul’s reference to himself in which he declares, ‘I am foremost [of sinners]’ is often referred to as contrary (1 Tim 1:15). Despite the use of the present tense by the apostle, several things make it much preferable to consider his description of himself as the “foremost [of sinners]” as a reference to his preconversion opposition to the gospel…The only other places in Scripture that could be referring to Christians as sinners are two references found in James. The first, “Cleanse your hands, you sinners” (4:8), is one of 10 verbal commands urging anyone who reads this general epistle to make a decisive break with the old life. This is best understood as calling the reader to repentance and therefore salvation. The second use of “sinner,” found in James 5:19,20, appears to have a similar reference to unbelievers” (Anderson, Victory Over the Darkness, pp. 48-49). If you are aware of any passages that counter this, please let me know in the comments – this is the best information I have so far of NT use of the word “sinner.”

In light of this Biblical evidence, my questions to someone who would advocate referring to Christians as “sinners” would be:
– Do you think it is *essential* for Christians to see themselves as sinners? If it’s so essential, why did Jesus, Peter, Jude, and all the apostles recorded in Acts never call them that? Why did Paul only (possibly) refer to himself as a sinner, never any of his readers? Did the Lord and the inspired apostles really so thoroughly ignore such an important doctrine? One that you, over and above their ignorance or dullness of speech, have brought to light? Does the Word not really make us “thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17), until it’s supplemented by your additions?
– Do you, instead, think that it is not *essential* for Christians to see themselves as sinners, but *helpful*? If so, why would it be more helpful than simply explaining the above Biblical truths about a Christian’s relationship to sin? The term “sinner” is subject to misinterpretation leading to excessive guilt, but those truths, when well explained, are not subject to misinterpretation. So, then, isn’t it the explanation of the truths the helpful part? And didn’t the apostles find it most helpful to explain the truths, and found no helpfulness in ever referring to Christians as sinners?
– Do you, instead, think that it’s not necessarily *helpful*, but at least *permissible* for Christians to see themselves as sinners? If so, would you be willing to permit others to teach the essential truths about Christians and sin, *without* referring to Christians as sinners? And would you be willing to entertain discussions about the negative effects that self-identifying as a sinner could have?

Therefore, I’d say there is a strong Biblical argument to say that a Christian should not see himself as a sinner. Incidentally, most of the points so far in the book I’m reading work whether or not you use the label “sinner” – the emphasis seems to be focusing on the common truths I described above. If that’s the case, let’s focus on those, and leave our zealotry about extra-Biblical terminology aside.

Incidentally, the argument could be raised that this is analogous to the extra-Biblical term “Trinity.” I’d argue that it’s not analogous. The term “Trinity” was coined to defend clear Biblical assertions of the nature and relationship of persons in the Godhead, against heretical denials of these Biblical assertions. But there is nothing heretical about the person who affirms all the above Biblical truths about Christians and sin yet does not use the term “sinner.” Also, the word “Trinity” does not appear in the Bible, but began being used later, whereas the term “sinner” *does* appear in the Bible, but not in reference to Christians. The term “sinner” already has an inspired meaning, so we do not have the authority to change the way it is used.

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