Who do you say that you are? Saints, sinners and the Ascension

I have been reading through Ed Shaw’s thought-provoking book, The Plausibility Problem: The Church and Same-Sex Attraction. Apart from the central subject matter of the book (Christians and same-sex attraction), one particular section stopped me in my tracks:

Sinners or saints?
But where’s the theological misstep that the evangelical church has made here? Have you missed it? Here it is: it’s the danger that some evangelicals often fall into of more generally defining ourselves as sinners rather than saints; as those in constant rebellion against God rather than his permanently adopted children (p. 40).

It stopped me in my tracks because what he writes of (British conservative) evangelicals is undoubtedly true of (at least English-speaking) Lutherans, too. We speak of Christians as “saints and sinners”, simul iustus et peccator, but much of our rhetoric puts the emphasis firmly on the sinner in us. I have a pretty firm hunch that Lutheran preachers and writers are more likely to refer to their congregations or readers as sinners than as saints. I know I have in the past.

But, as Shaw points out, the term “sinner” is applied to a Christian only once in the entire New Testament, in 1 Tim. 1:15. And even there, St. Paul applies it to himself, not to his reader: “sinners … of whom I am the foremost”. Moreover, the context suggests that this is more of reference to Paul’s past as a persecutor than to his present status as a Christian.

Sinners in the New Testament

In general, throughout the New Testament, the term sinner is applied either generally to those who reject the Law of God—especially Gentiles (such as those who killed Jesus)—or specifically to those law-breakers who Jesus was drawn to and whom He came to save—”tax collectors and sinners”. The former use is commonest in John’s Gospel and in the Catholic Epistles, the latter in the Synoptic Gospels.

But nowhere does a single New Testament author address any disciples of Jesus, after the Resurrection and their baptism, as a sinner, or even refer to them as such. Not once. Which should cause us to think carefully about our use of the term.

By contrast, of course, the New Testament has plenty to say about sin. Jesus, and John the Baptist before Him, came to call sinners to repentance. After their baptism, the Christians of the early churches received letters from the apostles exhorting and admonishing them concerning sins of which they were guilty, or to whose temptation they were vulnerable. In terms of word count, several of the New Testament letters have more to say on those than on teaching the Gospel.

But with only one exception, if these letters address their readers with a general term that describes their status before God, that term is always “saints” or some synonym: “beloved/little children”, “the elect”, “the twelve tribes”, “those who are called”. This includes the Corinthians, who by any reckoning were guilty of all sorts of grievous sins, with their laundry list of bickering, drunkenness, fornication, tolerance of incest, chaotic worship, etc. Yet, Paul begins his letter to them thus:

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours. (1 Cor. 1:2 ESV)

Now, surely there is a bit of a sting in “called to be saints”—they had been called to be saints (and so they were) but they were failing to live as saints ought to live (and so their lives were not saintly). But the point is, not once does he address them as sinners.

The one exception? Galatians. And this, because the Galatians were not guilty of obviously sinful actions, but were abandoning the Gospel, and therefore risking losing their sanctity in Christ. They were at risk of giving up their sainthood in Christ, and therefore returning to being sinners (i.e. outside salvation).

The Ascension: The Victorious Christ

So why does it matter? Am I not being my typical pedantic self, picking holes over words, which make no difference to the substance of the issue at hand: the ongoing presence of sin in the lives of Christians. After all, isn’t the denial of the doctrine of original sin behind so much of what’s wrong with modern Christianity?

Yes, it is. And I am a pedant. But I would argue that it does matter. Language always matters!

Yesterday was the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord, one of the chief feasts of the Christian year. Yes, I know, half the Christian world failed to notice, and the other half have shoved it to next Sunday. Don’t get me started on that. Nevertheless, as I reminded my congregation last night, the Ascension is as foundational to the New Testament worldview as the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. Not only did Christ die and rise from the dead, but He is seated at the right hand of the Father, ruling over all things. That is, He is already reigning in victory, and the New Testament writers see the world chiefly through the lense of that victorious reign.

I will give just a few examples.

What is the climax of the famous passage in Philippians 2 about Jesus’ self-emptying?

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:9–11 ESV)

The argument of Hebrews turns on Christ’s presence in the heavenly tabernacle as our eternal High Priest.

Romans, whose third and seventh chapters are more useful than almost any other passage of the Bible as prooftexts for the doctrine of original sin, nevertheless has this telling phrase, addressed to those who have been baptised into the death and resurrection of Christ: “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions” (Rom 6:12 ESV).

Leaving the best to the last, in one sense, the entire letter to the Ephesians is an extended commentary on the reality of Christ’s reign in God’s Kingdom. And what is the benefit of His reign for Christians?

[God the Father] raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Eph. 1:20–23 ESV)

Later, in chapter four, Paul refers directly to the Ascension by a (rather curiously rendered) quotation from Ps. 68: “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men” (Eph. 4:8 ESV). These gifts turn out to be the sorts of offices by which faith and a growing maturity in the new life in Christ are brought about (vv. 11–13).

Christ is ascended, and Jesus is Lord and King. That means that He is already victorious, and His victory is evident on earth in the presence of the Church, which is His body and the locus of His victorious reign. Christ’s victory is over sin and death, and therefore the Church is the realm of holiness and life. Every Christian, every member of the body of Christ, is therefore a saint, that is, a holy person. Holy to God, and therefore a saint. Yes, there is still plenty of sin, and the Christian life is not one of perfection but rather of a struggle (Rom. 7) and striving for self-control (1 Cor 9:24ff.), of being watchful (Luke 21:34) and putting to death the deeds of the body (Romans 8:13, Colossians 3:15). God’s will is our sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:3), which consists of abstaining from sin. Yes, we sin (1 John 1:8), but we must not persist in sin (1 John 2:1).

Because Christ is the risen, ascended, victorious Lord, we are saints. Because we still live in this flesh in this world, we sin.

Our True Identity

But would it not be spiritually healthier to think of ourselves as saints who sin than as sinners who are also saints? It would be better for our faith: it encourages us to see ourselves as who we are in Christ—fixing our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith (Heb. 12:2), rather than on ourselves. In this way, our attention is drawn more firmly on God’s promises to us, which do not depend on the quality of our life but on the trustworthiness of His promises and the sufficiency of all that Jesus has done for us, and the power of what the Holy Spirit is doing in our lives. Likewise, it would be better for our daily striving for holiness: seeing it not as a mountain to climb, or a goal to reach, but rather a conforming to what we are in Christ (Rom. 12:1–2); of fixing our eyes above where Christ is, rather than remaining earth- and sin-bound (Col 3:1–2). Our struggle against sin becomes not a lone battle—leading either to despair or to pride—but rather as a daily realising of the victory that is already Christ’s in us.

Because, as Ed Shaw points out, the fundamental question is: what is our identity? And because Christ died for me, was raised for me, and now sits at the right hand of God the Father in triumph, my true identity is that of a son of God, a co-heir with Christ of God’s kingdom, a member of the innumerable host of saints worshipping the Lamb who was slain with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.

I sin, much every day. But that is what I do, not who I am.

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