by Rayola Kelley
It was brought to my attention that the Bible never addresses Christians as sinners, but as saints. This was in reference to one of my articles that referred to Christians being sinners. Granted, Paul referred to believers as saints, but he also referred to a Christian brother as a fornicator in 1 Corinthians 5. The rebellious brother needed proper discipline to ensure repentance with the intention of restoring him back into fellowship. The discipline was successful because, in his second epistle, Paul instructed the Corinthians to restore him (2 Corinthians 2:6-8).
Today, Christian leaders walk a fine line between acceptable terminology, scriptural debates, and the reality of the present condition of many Christians. The harsh reality is that many Christians are struggling in their walk. They live defeated lives because sin plagues them in different areas of their lives. It is easy to slap a Scripture or term on them, and instruct them to conduct themselves accordingly. However, all the pat answers, scriptural terminology and advice do not reach into their inner soul and address what really ails them.
Perhaps the debate about how one presents or views something comes down to definitions. For example, I have always been taught that a saint is a person who has been set apart by God and for God’s purpose. Such a distinction begins with the new birth and manifests itself in a changed life that clearly expresses Jesus. As I contend with Christians who are constantly falling prey to sin, I do not think it is proper to accuse them of not being a Christian. However, I cannot honestly call them a saint when there is no real distinction from their old ways in their Christian life.
The Apostle Paul contended with the inconsistencies of Christians in his different epistles. Obviously, these Christians had similar struggles with sin in their lives as well. Granted, Paul generally addressed each body of believers as saints, but he also called a spade a spade. For example, he told the Corinthians that they were carnal or fleshly, and told the Galatians that they had been bewitched. He even referred to himself as a sinner in 1 Timothy 1:15. Obviously, this was in reference to his past, for Paul did not practice sin, but he realized that he could not let up guarding against sin in his life. He stated that he had to die daily, as well as keep his body in subjection to avoid being a castaway, indicating the problem surrounding the issue of sin was more encompassing than just doing wrong (1 Corinthians 9:24-27; 15:31).
The biggest challenge I have encountered in contending with Christians is how Christianity has been presented in the realm of terminology and doctrine. The Church has been inundated with all the various debates about what it means to be a Christian, but these debates have left people with a bad taste in their mouths. Many Christians are falling through the cracks of condemnation, despair and indifference, as they strive to understand what it means to be an overcoming Christian, in light of besetting sin. Along with the many new converts in churches, these struggling believers have tried all the formulas, emotional brainwashing, and various religious exercises to discover the abundant life. In the end, they either walk away from this life, or they put on a mask, while resenting the indifference of terminology, the dead-letter legalism of theology, and the endless advise of the religious experts.
As a minister of the Gospel, I have the responsibility to address the struggling reality of Christians with a realistic presentation of the Christian life. Often times, the reality of what is going on is far from the high calling of the Christian. To effectively address the problems, I must take it out of the indifferent realm of terminology and dead-letter theology, and bring it down to practical living. For example, what does it mean to be a saint? It is easy to say, “Read the Bible.” But, what many forget is that because of the attack on the truth, the defilement of the world, and the influx of different gospels and Jesus’, these people are confused about what is real. Their frame of reference is perverted and their worldview is still worldly.
At this point, you may be wondering what this subject of a Christian being a sinner or a saint has to do with my last article in my series on the Shift. It has everything to do with it. As believers of Jesus, we must come back to center. This means taking our rightful place as saints in God’s kingdom. In order to accomplish this, we must realize that it is the personal responsibility of each believer to come back to center in his or her personal life. To do this, we must be honest about what is going on in our personal lives as well as the Church. Honesty in this capacity will bring much needed contrast in relationship to the Word and the high calling that every believer has in Christ (Philippians 3:14).
Where do we begin in this honest examination? We begin with what influences our understanding of God. For the Christian, it is the atmosphere of the Church and the presentation and handling of the truth. The first thing we must consider is the presentation of the Gospel. The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16). The power is not found in the message in and of itself. Rather. it is found in the redemption of Jesus. The simple message of the Gospel gives us our first indication of what spiritually ails man—Christ died for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:1-4).
Sin is not just a matter of what we do, it is who we are. We have inherited a wrong disposition from Adam (Romans 5:12-19). We call this wrong disposition the old man. This disposition naturally opposes all authority, has an inclination to go its own way, and the tendency to make right that which is unacceptable. Because of this disposition, there is no good thing in us, and until the old man is put off at death, corruption will always be waiting in the background to defile the things of God (Romans 7:18; 1 Corinthians 15:50-54).
Jesus’ death on the cross addresses our wrong doing, but one must be born again to change the self-serving inclination of the old man from that of wickedness to righteousness. The individual must come into submission to the Holy Ghost and obedience to the Word, to keep the tendency of the old man in check. In fact, the tendencies of this old man must be put down daily through self-denial and the cross, to ensure he does not reign with a vengeance (Luke 9:23).
The problem is that the old man still freely reigns in many Christian’s lives. Instead of manifesting Jesus, the old man is manifested in self-righteousness and hypocrisy. Such a manifestation points back to the base or sin nature of Adam. Most Christians think the problem is what they do, rather than a disposition that must be properly confronted through denial and death of self. It is only as one gives way to the Holy Spirit and obeys the Word that his or her mind will be transformed (Romans 12:1-2). The mind must be transformed to retrain our way of thinking, to ensure a right frame of reference and a godly worldview.
Transformation is the work of sanctification. As saints, believers are considered sanctified people. In other words, they belong to God. Upon salvation, every believer is placed in the position of sanctification when he or she is placed in Jesus. From this point, sanctification or the work of holiness is worked in and out of their lives by the Holy Ghost (1 Corinthians 1:30; 1 Peter 1:2). Sadly, these truths are not being taught in many of the churches. Christians are not overcoming because they do not understand the core of the problem and the way to solve it.
The reason many Christians feel their life is empty is because they are not filling it up with the reality of God. They are conforming outwardly, but there is no work of sanctification going on in the inner man (2 Corinthians 4:16). This means they are simply keeping their conduct in check, but inwardly they are frustrated. They may avoid evil, but they fail to do right, thereby, committing the sin of omission. The sin of omission lacks initiative and has unbelief at the core of it (Romans 14:23; James 4:17). Instead of Christianity becoming a way of living and being, it becomes a religion that has the appearance of righteousness, but lacks the power.
The Gospel has been watered down to correspond to the worldly environment. The one aspect of the Gospel that has been watered down is sin. Without the proper presentation of the Gospel in the area of sin, people will not see the need for Jesus’ redemption and consistent intervention. They will be devoid of a right attitude, and will not see the necessity for inward change, to ensure an upright disposition and godly conduct.
This brings us to the second challenge of Christians to come back to center—separation from the world. The Church is to come out and be separate from the world. However, much of the Church is now full of the world. The Gospel has been adjusted to the tone and emphasis of the world. For example, there is the worldly gospel that pursues the things of the world in the name of blessings. There is the social gospel that promotes outward conformity, but is devoid of the work of sanctification.
For sanctification to take place, one must first consecrate or separate himself or herself from the influence of the world. Such separation begins with setting misdirected affections on things above (Colossians 3:1-3). Affections will determine priorities and pursuits. Christians need to be seeking God and not the things of the world. They must flee youthful lusts that are attracted to the world, as well as root out vain philosophies with the intent of filling the soul with the Word of God.
What many Christians fail to realize is that the cross of Christ is about the great exchange, and not about maintaining the present quality of their life in the world. At the cross, a believer joyfully exchanges the old man, in order to embrace the new man (Romans 6). The disposition of the new man has one goal in mind: To obey the Father (Philippians 2:5-8). Submission and obedience lead to self-denial. Self-denial embraces the cross, so that the flesh with its lust is crucified. Once the flesh is crucified, a believer becomes crucified to the influence of the world, causing the world to become foreign and strange (Galatians 2:21; 6:14). When the avenue of the flesh is closed to the world, it no longer has any influence or attraction to it.
The Apostle John made this statement: “For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world; and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith” (1 John 5:4). Rooting out the influence of the world and overcoming it is not optional for a believer. There must be a distinct separation from the world evident in the lives of those who call themselves Christians.
The final examination of our life before God must be done in light of His holy character. The Apostle Peter tells us that since God is holy, we must be holy. The writer of Hebrews tells us that we cannot see the Lord without holiness (1 Peter 1:15-16; Hebrews 12:14). Much of the organized Church has no place of contrast by which to discern its spiritual condition. The lack of contrast allows for individuals to test themselves in light of personal convictions, rather than in light of the character of God. Since convictions vary among believers, there are inconsistencies and conflicts. Admittedly, there is no shortcut when it comes to gaining the proper perspective, in light of God’s unchanging character. It begins with humility that is born out of dissatisfaction in regards to one’s quality of life and service before God.
Humility in this context will eventually translate into repentance. The depth of the repentance will hinge on the revelation of God’s character. The more sense of His holiness, the greater the brokenness will be before God. It is in brokenness that God can enlarge a person’s ability to receive the truth about his or her spiritual life and call before Him. Ultimately, it will give the necessary contrast to bring challenge and instruction.
True brokenness starts with sorrow, but ends with joy. It often begins in fake nobility, but will end in the fear of God. It starts with a notion, but ends in a revelation. However, one must be aware that God’s holiness strips a person of a false sense of importance or any religious pretence of personal righteousness. Ultimately, it will reveal the presence of the base nature of the old man. The sense of this wretched entity has caused saints to acknowledge the wretchedness of their base nature, helping them to realize how far God’s grace had to reach to embrace them in their fallen condition. For example, after talking about the makeup of the old man in Romans 7, Paul admitted the wretchedness of this entity, and then thanked God for the deliverance that comes through Jesus Christ.
When the prophet Isaiah encountered the Lord in His holiness and majesty, he confessed that he was a man of unclean lips who resided among a people of unclean lips (Isaiah 6). When the righteous Job finally encountered God in His power, all he could do was repent and declare that he abhorred himself (Job 42:6). As for my encounter with God’s holiness, I had a sense of my depravity before Him. Regardless of my status as a saint, I could not help but make one simple request: “God be merciful to me a sinner.”
Are Christians sinners or saints? The Bible refers to believers as saints, but on the other hand, we must not forget or ignore that we have a base nature that must be deprived of its reign daily. Because of the existence and the struggle of the old man in each of us, I believe a saint is simply a sinner saved by grace who has a high calling. Regardless of whether all of our terminology lines up with scriptural definitions, our walk will identify who reigns in our lives. If the base nature freely reigns in an area, it will identify us as still being miserably lost in our sins or spiritually oppressed, immature or carnal.
As I watch Christians struggle with their lives, I do not know if terminology is as important as honestly addressing the present reality of the plight of Christians. Terminology may define something, but it will not address the problem. My intention in identifying the problem is to bring understanding for the purpose of presenting the solution. The core of the problem remains the same for people—the old man is reigning in some way or form, serving as a door to oppression and defeat.
The solution is simple. God’s people must humbly, in repentance, come back to the center, according to His holy character and His Word. They must cease from their old ways and accept their high calling as saints of the Living God. Regardless of whether we get it right as far as using all the right terms, there is one thing for sure. We must be separate from the world and upright in our lives before God. This has always been the challenge for believers. We must come out and be separated from the unholy, distinct in our attitude and conduct, and identified to our eternal inheritance.
And, what is this eternal inheritance? It is not riches or the world, but a relationship with God that identifies us with our portion and eternal treasure, Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul said it best: “Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ” (Philippians 3:8).