Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Why I Call Saints, Well, "Saints"

As I preach I often address the Christians listening to my sermon as saints. It bothers me when I hear a Christian refer to himself as a sinner, particularly so in a holiness church. It bothers me because I don't believe it is a biblical definition of himself—well, at least of a Christian. If he calls himself a sinner (because he's really good at it and is just telling the truth) then he needs to reevaluate his Christian profession.

In the New Testament Christians aren't called sinners. They are called saints. My ESV lists one occurrence for "saint" and a whopping 60 for "saints"! Both terms come from ἅγιος which means "holy one." A Christian is a saint, someone owned by God as his special possession and sacredly set apart for God's own use.

The word saint speaks both in terms of position and nature. We are saints/holy because we are owned by God and distinguished from the common, the profane, the unholy. We are also saints/holy in that, well, we are actually holy. We are clean. We are morally pure. As the Apostle Peter commands:
As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, "You shall be holy, for I am holy."(1 Peter 1:14-16 ESV)
The New Testament does not declare Christians to be sinners. Now, someone may object, "Wait a minute! Paul called himself a sinner!" Let's examine the issue because I don't think that objection will stand when seen with some reason.
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. (1 Timothy 1:15 ESV)
Yes, Paul called himself a sinner. But was he speaking in present tense or past? Put another way, was he referring to his apostolic life he was living currently or his life before Christ when he persecuted the Church? I believe a solid argument can be made that he was referring to the old, now theologically dead Rabbi Saul of Tarsus, not the new Paul the Apostle.

Why? Remember the two parts of the saint equation. A saint is a Christian owned by God. Also, a saint is holy not just in name but in character, in essence and actuality. Paul, himself, claimed to be blameless in holiness. Consider his prayer for the Thessalonians:
Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. (1 Thessalonians 3:11-13 ESV)
Paul prayed that the Thessalonian Christians would have so much love for everybody (which is the essence of moral purity) that they would be "blameless in holiness." Note carefully that Paul already claimed to be in possession of this kind of love—"as we do for you"! Paul was claiming to be so filled with divine love that he was blameless in holiness.

Another incident. Paul told the Corinthians:
For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. (1 Corinthians 4:4 ESV)
At first that may seem like a contradiction to my point. Someone may counter, "Hey, Paul said that just because he wasn't aware of any sin it didn't automatically mean that he was, in fact, guiltless!" Granted. But let me ask you: how many contemporary Christians these days would say—with a straight face—that they weren't aware of anything against themselves? So many professing believers think sin is inevitable and unavoidable. Yet Paul said, "Nope; I can't come up with anything." Remarkable!

Paul said that Christians are freed from sin:
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. (Romans 6:1-2, 6-7, 11-14 ESV)
So, since Paul claimed that Christians are freed from sin, declared himself once to be "blameless in holiness" and another time said he wasn't aware of any sin in his life, do you think he would call himself a sinner? No, he knew he was a saint.

That's why I call saints, well, saints.