As I continue to process Eugene Peterson’s quote that I mentioned yesterday, I wanted to come back around to talk about the idea of being a sinner or a saint from a theological perspective. The quote, once again is:
“The word ‘sinner’ is a theological designation. It is essential to insist upon this. It is not a moralistic judgment. It is not a word that places humans somewhere along a continuum ranging from angel to ape, assessing them as relatively ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It designates humans in relation to God and sees them separated from God. Sinner means something is awry between humans and God. In that state, people may be wicked, unhappy, anxious, and poor. Or, they may be virtuous, happy, and affluent. Those items are not part of the judgment.
Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor
Looking at the words “sinner” and “saint” in this context brings up the idea of citizenship. “Sinners” are citizens of the perishable world ruled over by Satan and “Saints” are citizens of the imperishable and unshakable Kingdom of God ruled over by King Jesus. Theologically speaking, each kingdom is mutually exclusive, there is no way possible to hold dual citizenship in the spirit. You are either a citizen of the world or of the Kingdom, there is no way to be simultaneously sinner and saint in this model. (Note to the Lutherans, I don’t believe Martin Luther was using a strictly theological frame of reference in his simultaneous saint and sinner statement, but a mixed theological and moral one. I believe he was saying that, even though we are saved, we still continue to sin (i.e. do bad things). I agree with this statement well enough as shown below.)
Whether saint or sinner, each person is a citizen of their respective country. They are subject to the laws of the land and are disciplined or punished accordingly when they transgress those commands. It isn’t all that different than the U.S. legal system – if a United States citizen commits a criminal offense elsewhere in the world, they are brought home to face trial according to our rules and regulations, regardless of if they are living in a foreign country at the time. Contrast that with the immigrants living in the U.S. Although they live here, carry on business, and generally view the U.S. as “home,” they do not have the rights and privileges accorded to United States citizens. Should anything happen to them, they are not protected by the Constitution of this country and would, instead, be subject to the laws of their homeland.
So, all of this is mildly interesting, but what does it have to do with us?
Saints, citizens of the Kingdom, are subject to the laws of the Kingdom. Some of these laws are:
The Law of Inheritance
When you become a citizen of the Kingdom after swearing allegiance to Jesus and being born again through water and Spirit, you immediately become a son or daughter of God. That means that you have an equal share in the inheritance of the Saints. Since Jesus died, his will was put into effect… and he left you everything! He died your death so that you could live his life. Everything accorded to Jesus as the Beloved Son of God now belongs to you because of the Law of Inheritance.
The Law of Sowing and Reaping
In the Kingdom, you reap abundant amounts of whatever you sow. This is in direct contrast to the citizens of the world who live under the Curse (see Genesis). In the Kingdom, even our smallest efforts receive lavish rewards. Faithful stewardship of finances is rewarded with governmental authority. Acts of kindness, compassion and forgiveness are returned on us many times over by none other than God Himself. Similarly, a critical analysis of another person’s faults results in a purifying season as Holy Spirit lays bare the cracks in our own foundation and works to make them right.
The Law of Discipline
God promises to always discipline us as sons (and daughters). Whenever we are found in error, God will always work to make it right in us. He is absolutely committed to conforming us to the character of Christ. He will present us to His son as a radiant bride, without any spot, wrinkle or blemish. The Law of Discipline overwrites the Law of Punishment – we never again have to fear that God will punish us for our sins. We will be corrected and disciplined, but never punished – never abandoned to feel the weight of our own guilt and shame.
There are undoubtedly many other laws of the Kingdom, those 3 are just the most obvious ones to me in Scripture.
Now, I’ve mentioned that “saint” and “sinner” are theological designations rather than moral ones. I’ve also mentioned that sinners can be quite virtuous. I’d also like to mention that saints can be quite carnal. We need look no father than the book of 1 Corinthians to find this truth.
Paul writes “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people…” In other words, Paul is writing to saints, citizens of the Kingdom. Yet a couple chapters later, Paul says, “I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly (doing bad things)…” And then he writes, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate… and you are proud (of it)!”
So here we have quite a conundrum. The saints of God in Corinth were proud that they were so tolerant of sexual immorality that they even had a reputation for it. In addition to sexual dysfunction, the church struggled with pride, spiritual abuse, hyperspirituality, disorder and leadership divisions. And yet, Paul calls them saints. They were citizens of the Kingdom, not upstanding ones, but citizens none the less. And because they were citizens, they weren’t punished, they were disciplined and corrected. They were brought to a fuller understanding of the Gospel and what it means to be the people of God. They were hedonistic, carnal and everything we would be ashamed of in the MidWest, but they were still saints.
Now, I’ll go ahead and state the obvious by saying that it shouldn’t be this way. Those of us who are followers of Jesus are called to be morally perfect, just as Jesus is. Now we aren’t there yet, we are still in the midst of the purification process, but being “in process” doesn’t disqualify us from being saints and making use of our rights as citizens. Christians must live with a bizarre mixture of boldness and humility – boldness because we come before God as those already made perfect in Christ, asking for the things we need and confident that we will be heard; humble because we know that we are still “being saved” and there is still so much in our lives that needs to be removed before we could ever be called “good.”
Carnal saints and virtuous sinners – the world can be a complicated place. But we must never lose sight of the fact that we are called to be the people of God, fully submitted to Christ and reborn as God’s children. We may not always look like it, but we must own our identity as saints – we must settle this issue! For it is only when we place ourselves in the Potter’s hands and say “I am yours,” that He can reshape us and use us. For as long as we think we are “sinners” we will never believe that He made us into the right thing. We will think we need to be something far less noble than what He made us to be. We might be reshaped, but we will never be of use. The lies of bad theology will keep us believing we are disqualified and we will never do what He created us to do.
This issue may be a little hard to wrap your head around, but it is of the utmost importance because it concerns your identity and the Goodness of God. What you believe about God is the single most important thing in your life because it shapes everything you do. Do you believe that God is that Good? Do you believe that Jesus’s blood is potent enough to save you completely? Or do you believe it was only strong enough to save you partially?
This is a huge issue for me folks. I hope these posts have helped clarify my thoughts and sparked a passion in you to claim the fullness of your identity in Christ.
As always, thanks for reading.