To address this question, I appeal to Romans 4:17 where it says:
“– the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.”
One will say, “I’m just a sinner, saved by grace.” Another will react with, “No, you are a saint who sometimes sins.” Which is true of us? Relax you two! You are both a sinner and a saint!
One fears the other won’t confess their sins. But how can one be perfect this side of heaven? For those claiming sainthood, they are concerned that those calling themselves “sinners” are missing all God has for them, and may be sending an “it’s okay to sin message.” But my friends, who call themselves saints, freely admit that they sometimes fail. And friends, who say they are sinners, are fully aware that they are utterly forgiven in Christ. Why this tension concerning who we really are in Christ?
The problem of course is that we don’t see as God sees. This has more to do with the size of our brains, than it has with the quality of our faith. The two sides of this coin won’t stop flipping till we arrive in Heaven.
Scripture tells us we are to believe we are saints, while confessing our sins freely. This is no contradiction though, because God is the one most involved, and most invested with changing us from sinners to saints. He is able to do and see what we are not.
Scripture tells us to admit that we have sinned.
“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.”
1 John 1:8-10
But God has set things in motion, whereby we must totally trust Him for our salvation and righteousness. We are not to say that we are without sin. Yet we are also to recognize that in Christ, we have been forgiven and cleansed of all our sins and so are declared righteous by God. We confess our sins while God declares us righteous. And for this, we praise and thank Him!
“But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.”
So does God see us as saints or sinners? He sees people born of His Holy Spirit, justified by His grace. He sees believers as saints but we need to be careful how we express it to others. When I look at my life in comparison with what I’m created and now recreated to be in Christ, I see that I fall short of what God wants of me. (Romans 3:23). Yet even when I blow it, there is this undying hope within me, because of what God has done through Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit points me to Christ’s completed work on the cross. I’m forgiven of all my sins, and declared by God to be righteous. So while I confess my sin, God declares me a saint. I won’t declare myself a saint without telling folk about what God has done to make me into one.
A saint is “one who has been set apart for God.” That’s what sanctification is. Saints are sanctified people. Being sanctified means “to be made holy.” When people think of “holiness,” they often mistakenly equate it with “the absence of sin.” Holiness is not just the absence of sin. It is an attribute of God which He has offered to man, if we would let Him sanctify us. Sanctification began when we received the Holy Spirit, upon declaring our faith in Christ. God sees His sanctification work already complete because He is faithful. That is, He does what He promises. When Jesus shouted on the cross, “It is finished!” My sanctification was signed and sealed in Heaven. Yours was too, if you are in Christ.
Unlike God, we live in time; not yet seeing His finished work in us. Still, even when we falter, our spirits perceive and have hope of this completion. (1 Corinthians 2:9) So we have our sainthood for sure, but at present we have it by faith rather than sight.
Rejoice in the promise that God will complete His work; making us into saints! The first part of sanctification is cleansing us from unrighteousness. But it continues with the renewing of our minds and conforming us into the image of His Son Jesus:
“…being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
On that day of Christ Jesus, we’ll see this work complete. Even then we will never say that it was by our own righteousness that we were made fit for heaven. It was God’s doing on our behalf.
In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul lists examples of sins. (See the list yourself.) He says that those who are sinners will not inherit the Kingdom of God. Then he says of these believers:
“And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God.”
1 Corinthians 6:11
Were those who came to Christ suddenly temptation free? I doubt that after they came to Christ that none of them ever stumbled in their walk with God. But something truly did happen to them; something that we share. While once such sinners, as mentioned in the list, now they were in Christ, and they were changed. These sinners became saints.
When I was born again, something really amazing happened. I stopped wanting to sin. I wasn’t very good at being obedient, for sure. But oh how I now wanted to be! God’s Spirit changed my heart! I probably didn’t yet look much different on the outside. But I had faith now. And God sees that! Whenever I've sinned since then, I've hated my sin. I run right into God’s presence, and bear my soul to Him.
At such times, The Father has never lightened-up His standard for me. I am expected to be changed by Him! Since my rebirth, if I sin, I have Christ. Jesus didn’t die for nothing. He is on our side; our advocate when we’ve failed God:
“My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.”
1 John 2:1
If you sin, run to Jesus. He is your advocate with Holy God. God sees forgiven people. Jesus was the one who was the sacrifice for our sins. The very next verse here states:
“He (Jesus) is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”
1 John 2:2
In Jesus we have “atonement” with God! Atonement was not even in the English language before the Bible was translated. For what Jesus had done for us, there was no English word. So the word “At-One-Ment” was formed. Though once separated from God, thanks to what Jesus chose to suffer on that cross, our separated-from-God lives can now be at one with Him again. Atonement.
In talking about how Jesus found him, Paul writes:
“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.”
1 Timothy 1:15
Apparently we are sinners who have been made saints, thanks to the blood of Jesus, shed for us? Still uncomfortable with that? I again appeal to Romans 4:17:
“As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He (Abraham) is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed – the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.”
This verse is declaring that like Abraham, we follow God by faith. Like Abraham, God declares us righteous by our faith in the finished work of Christ. We may not feel “righteous” yet. But God alone can “call things that are not, as though they were.” I think we’ll be pretty safe in our testifying, whether we say, “I’m a sinner saved by grace,” or if we say, “I’m a saint, thanks to Jesus.” So long as we make clear how this righteousness has come to us: Crediting Jesus!