Is a Christian a “Sinner?”
Yes and No.
“But wait a minute,” someone will answer, “I thought that our identity was in Christ and therefore we are not sinners.”
“We are too sinners,” replies another. “Think about how often we sin! How can you say you are not a sinner if you sin all the time?”
You can see that this question is a little more difficult than most people assume.
On the one hand there are people who are surprised when they (or other Christians) sin because they assume that, since they are in Christ, they should be able to live a near-perfect life.
On the other hand, are those who see their own depravity clearly but fail to realize that their identity is in Christ’s successes and not in their failures.
Why is there debate on this issue?
This question is difficult to answer because we as Evangelicals often don’t fully understand a Protestant view of justification.
In Roman Catholic theology, justification is something you actually become. In Protestant theology justification is something you are declared to be. This is a stark contrast.
In Catholic theology God justifies the just. Meaning, as you practice the sacraments, have faith in Christ, and do works of charity, you become more and more justified. There is not much of a dividing line between justification and sanctification in this system. You are as justified as you actually become. In Catholicism one Christian can be more justified than another— justification is progressive.
In Protestant theology, God justifies the ungodly (Rom 4:5), not the godly. Justification is not something you actually become as you work things out down here on earth; rather, God declares you to be “righteous” (i.e. “justified”) based upon Christ’s work (which is received only by faith). Like a judge who slams down the gavel and says, “not guilty,” so God slams down the gavel and says, “not guilty,” of those who trust Christ. In Protestantism all Christians are equally justified— justification is instantaneous.
Now, just because God declares us to be justified doesn’t make it any “less real.” In fact, God’s official declaration of you is the most real thing in the world! But it does mean that we have to understand the following point (and follow me closely here): When it comes to God’s view of you, you are 100% perfect; when it comes to your actions down here on earth you still sin all the time.
This is why Martin Luther, the spearhead of the Protestant Reformation, said that we are “simul iustus et peccator” which is a Latin phrase meaning we are “simultaneously justified and a sinner.” We are justified before God’s eyes because he reckons us as righteous in Christ, and we are a sinner in that we still sin all the time.
It is absolutely essential that you understand the difference here. If you think that your identity is as a sinner you will never walk in the grace God intends for you. If you think that, since you are perfect in Christ, there is not a ton of sin in your heart you will not be aware of how broken you really are.
Two kinds of people
Everyone has a tendency to err on this topic on one of the spectrum or the other.
The first kind of person emphasizes what God has proclaimed us to be but downplays how sinful we still are in actuality. This person needs to hear how broken and sinful we still are. We see a ton of sin in the hearts of believers in the Bible: Peter, even after denying Christ, denies the gospel in Galatians (Gal 2:11). People who seem to be Christians lie to the Spirit (Acts 5:4). In 1 Corinthians people whom Paul thinks are Christians are sleeping with temple prostitutes, getting drunk at communion, denying the resurrection, abusing spiritual gifts, and are full of division. John even has to say, “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Even Jesus, when he teaches us to pray, has us pray that God would forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors which implies that we continue to sin (Matt 6:12).
We don’t stop sinning until we die. It is not as though we just sin on occasion, rather, we sin hundreds (if not thousands) of times a day. Every stray thought we dwell on, every complaint, every act of lust, every place in our lives where we are not loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength is sin. Think of all the times that we have doubts or are worried or are anxious. Think about all the times we are selfish or judgmental or proud. Think of all the times we are bitter or frustrated at someone and still have a twinge of unforgiveness. Think about how easy it is to dwell on a lustful thought or image. Think of all the places we fail to find God as our highest joy. Think about all the times we don’t serve others.
In fact, the more godly you become the more you realize how wicked you are.
The second person knows how depraved they are by nature but fails to realize that, in Christ, their identity is as a child of God and not a sinner. They are a saint who sins not a sinner who saints (if “saints” is even a verb). This person rightly sees that they need the gospel and that they fail all the time. But this person needs to know that God doesn’t see them that way. God sees them as perfect.
So much of our frustration with ourselves and so much legalism comes from trying to “do better for Jesus.” The solution for this person is to realize that God never sees them without his Jesus glasses on. We get discouraged when we look at how we are doing in our actual lives and realize how much we fail; we confuse a Catholic and a Protestant view of justification.
Don’t look at how you’re doing to know how holy you are. Look at Christ to know how holy you are.
Where do you fall on the spectrum? Do you minimize the sin in your life or do you minimize your perfect status in Christ?
So much of growing the Christian life is realizing that you are “simul iustus et peccator.”
So don’t try to “do better.” Don’t try to clean yourself up. Embrace how bad you really are, but embrace Christ’s righteousness even more.