Are We “Sinners Saved by Grace” or “Formerly Sinners, But Now Saved by Grace”?

“Sinner” or “sinners” is used 67 times in the Bible and, in almost every case, sinners are contrasted with the righteous. An excellent example is Psalm 1:5: “Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous” (KJV). Biblically, there are sinners and there are the righteous. God distinguishes between the two.

Nowadays, when we say, “We are just sinners saved by grace,” we are describing ourselves as sinners, something the Bible never does. In fact, 1 John 3:7 tells us that we only have the righteousness of Christ if we live righteously. The difference between those born of God and those not born of God is that those who are born of God practice righteousness, and those not born of God do not practice righteousness (1 Jn. 3:10). Just like in the Old Testament, there is a difference between the righteous and sinners.

This also tells us that “the righteous” are not those who never sin. There is no one who never sins (James 3:2; 1 Jn. 1:8-10). Nonetheless, there are those who are “the righteous,” and there are others with such a pattern of sin that the Bible calls them sinners. Just as you are not a plumber just because you have fixed a link under your sink once or twice, so “sinners” are not marked by an occasional sin but by a habit of sinning. In the same way, “the righteous” are marked by a habit of righteousness.

It sounds very humble to say, “We are just sinners saved by grace,” but not only does this warp the biblical meaning of the word “sinner,” but it degrades grace as well. The grace that bring us salvation teaches us not to sin! Or, as Titus 2:11-12 puts it, it teaches us “to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts and to live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present age.” Paul says, “Sin shall not have dominion over you because you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14).

As a matter of fact, it would be good to look at the context of Romans 6:14:

Therefore don’t let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. Also, do not present your members to sin as instruments of unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin will not have dominion over you. For you are not under law, but under grace.
   What then? Shall we sin, because we are not under law, but under grace? May it never be! Don’t you know that when you present yourselves as servants and obey someone, you are the servants of whomever you obey; whether of sin to death, or of obedience to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that, whereas you were bondservants of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were delivered. Being made free from sin, you became bondservants of righteousness.
   I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh, for as you presented your members as servants to uncleanness and to wickedness upon wickedness, even so now present your members as servants to righteousness for sanctification. For when you were servants of sin, you were free from righteousness. What fruit then did you have at that time in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now, being made free from sin and having become servants of God, you have your fruit of sanctification and the result of eternal life. (Romans 6:11-22)

I left out Romans 6:23 because Reformation theology misinterprets it. I discuss it below.

Romans 6:11-22 tells us that if we have received grace, but we are still sinners, we are going to die because death is the fruit of sin. Grace, God’s favor, was given to us so that we would not sin.

Very similar words are said about walking in the Spirit versus walking in the flesh. Walk in the flesh, and you will die; walk in the Spirit, and you will reap eternal life (Rom. 8:12-13; Gal. 6:7-9). I beg of you, please pay no attention to those who tell you that this is physical death. Those who walk in the Spirit are going to die physically, just like those who walk in the flesh. Death and corruption are contrasted with eternal life in Galatians 6:7-8 and Romans 6:21-22. Paul did not change his mind about what death and what life he is talking about in Romans 8:12-13.

The simple conclusion I want you to draw is that grace frees from the power of sin (Rom. 6:14), teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts (Tit. 2:11), and re-creates us in Christ Jesus to do good works (Eph. 2:8-10). You are only a sinner saved by grace in the sense that you used to be a sinner, but now you have been saved by grace.

Other Uses of “Sinner” in the New Testament

In Matthew 11:19, Jesus is called a friend of sinners. We must remember that he befriended sinners because he came to call them to repentance (Matt. 9:13).

In Luke 18:13, a tax collector beats his breast and asks God to be merciful to him because he is a sinner. Jesus said that this man went away justified. God has always been a merciful God, and those who come to him he has always abundantly pardoned (Isa. 55:7). Even during his time on earth, he wanted sinners to repent (Matt. 9:13). In Luke 18, the man was a publican, a tax collector. We know what Jesus wanted from publicans because in the very next chapter he encounters Zacchaeus, also a publican, and brings him to repentance.

These men from the Gospel period were experiencing God’s mercy because he has always been merciful. They were not experiencing God’s grace except when in direct contact with Jesus. Jesus would not bring the grace of God, God’s favor, to earth and for all men until the cross. As Paul put it, we “were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Rom. 5:9-10). Jesus provided transformation through his death and resurrection, not mercy. As said, God was always merciful. Jesus died to be Lord of both the living and the dead (Rom. 14:9); so that we would not live for ourselves, but for him (2 Cor. 5:15); to redeem us from all iniquity (Tit. 2:13); and to purchase a people zealous for good works (Tit. 2:14).

Romans 6:23

I did not include Romans 6:23 in the long quote above because so many evangelicals interpret it to contradict the rest of Romans 6. Throughout the chapter, Paul tells the Romans that they must take advantage of the fact that Jesus freed them from sin and yield their members (i.e., their arms, legs, tongue, etc.) to righteousness. If they obey sin, they will reap death; if they obey righteousness, they will reap life (v. 16; cf. Gal. 6:7-9).

The chapter leads up to a conclusion in verse 22 and a similar conclusion in verse 23. In verse 22, the “fruit” of being free from sin and serving God is sanctification, and the “result” of sanctification is eternal life. In a very similar way, verse 21 says that the “fruit” of sin is death. Yet in verse 23, death is “the wages” of sin, but eternal life is the “gift” of God.

Death is the fruit of sinning, and eternal life is the result of sanctification, which is the fruit of serving God. Why then is eternal life not “the wages” of holiness (=sanctification) as death is “the wages” of sin?

Interestingly enough, that question was addressed more than 1500 years ago by a bishop named John and nicknamed “golden-tongue” (Gr., Chrysostom). John Chrysostom did a series of homilies on Romans, and he had this to say about Romans 6:23:

After speaking of the wages of sin, in the case of blessings, he has not kept to the same order, for he does not say, “the wages of good deeds,” but “the gift of God,” to show that it was not of themselves that they were freed, nor was it a due they received, neither yet a return, nor a recompense of labors, but by grace all these things came about. (reference)

Now let’s not misinterpret John Chrysostom as well. Remember, Romans 6:1-22 is every bit as important as Romans 6:23. Romans 6:23 is important because it lets us know that even if eternal life is a reward for holiness (Rom. 2:6-7; Gal. 6:8-9; Heb. 12:14), there is a difference between a reward and something that is earned. Chrysostom points out that it was God who freed us from the power of sin by grace (as Paul pointed out in Romans 6:14). We began in grace and we were sustained by grace (Rom. 5:1-2) so that holiness is the product of something God gave to us in the first place. So when we are rewarded for holiness with eternal life, it is not wages, but even the holiness itself was a gift of God’s grace. We were “created in Christ Jesus to do good works” (Eph. 2:10); there is no way we can call eternal life “wages” for our holiness.

About Paul Pavao

I am married, the father of six, and currently the grandfather of two. I run a business, live in a Christian community, teach, and I am learning to disciple others better than I have ever been able to before. I believe God has gifted me to restore proper foundations to the Christian faith. In order to ensure that I do not become a heretic, I read the early church fathers from the second and third centuries. They were around when all the churches founded by the apostles were in unity. I also try to stay honest and open. I argue and discuss these foundational doctrines with others to make sure my teaching really lines up with Scripture. I am encouraged by the fact that the several missionaries and pastors that I know well and admire as holy men love the things I teach. I hope you will be encouraged too. I am indeed tearing up old foundations created by tradition in order to re-establish the foundations found in Scripture and lived on by the churches during their 300 years of unity.
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10 Responses to Are We “Sinners Saved by Grace” or “Formerly Sinners, But Now Saved by Grace”?

  1. Chip Lutyk says:

    Great post, Paul. I did realize recently that Romans 6:23 is talking to believers…how about that?!

  2. cgatihi says:

    Thank you for this, brother. Helpful.

    In other words, “simul justus et peccator” is misleading or confusing at best and error at worst?

    • Paul Pavao says:

      Yes. To translate for those that have never heard the phrase, it means “simultaneously righteous and sinner.” Yes, we sin, but our lives should be marked by righteousness, not sin. If our lives have a pattern of sin, 1 John 3:7-10 condemns us. Paul gives advice in his letters about becoming holy, but John’s letters are blunt because he is dealing with gnostics (docetists, people who deny Jesus had a physical body). We have to walk in what God has given us, working out our salvation with fear and trembling (Php. 2:12-13). We can see how seriously Paul took this in 1 Cor. 9:24-27 and Php. 3:8-15. We can see how he tried to press it on his people in the discourse with the Ephesian elders at the end of Acts 20.

  3. Problem is Paul, I know I’m a sinner. I’m not proud of that fact, nor do I deny there is power in Jesus to overcome. That said, I do regularly mess up in thought, word and deed. It’s still why, after all our many amicable and helpful exchanges, I hear what you are saying as a gospel of condemnation.

    The prayer of the publican in Luke 18 is one I pray often, in fact I cannot help but pray it.

    • cgatihi says:

      @butterinthefield, I think I understand what you’re trying to say and appreciate what I perceive to be a humble posture acknowledging what John says very clearly, for example, here:

      [8] If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. [9] If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. [10] If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8–10, ESV)

      I don’t think Paul is denying that we have have sin and commit sins that daily need to be confessed, hence the Lord’s prayer, where He seems to take for granted that we commit sins daily even as we follow Him (e.g. Luke 11:4).

      I think the point is about *identity*. Are we *sinners* (slaves of sin) who sin? Or are we *saints, holy ones* (slaves of God) sheerly by the grace of God, who sin? I think Paul’s point is that, biblically, the answer is the latter and how we think about this isn’t just a matter of semantics. In other words, to call ourselves “sinners” is tantamount to saying we belong to *sin* when the reality of Scripture in a place like Romans 6, just to name one, is that in Christ we belong to *God*.

    • Paul Pavao says:

      I understand your situation, Jon, and am much bothered by it. I got a letter recently from another person I am sure would describe his situation very much like you do. I know a third personally, and I know that third person has completely given up and is using work to numb his misery. (That is better than drugs or drinking, at least.)

      I cannot make the exception the rule, though. The point is that Jesus has come to free humans from their sin, not just forgive them. This is the whole point of the atonement. I can only take it up with Jesus as to why you and the other two friends I mentioned are not experiencing this. It bothers me greatly because my local friend is miserable. Of course, he refused the advice we gave him, so we could be no help to him.

      I don’t understand, Jon. I always wonder about your measuring stick, and if you see the God who wants to make you holy as your condemner rather than your helper, it will cut the heart out of the power, out of the grace.

      Are you talking about just one repeated sin, or do you feel that you generally live a life of sin? You don’t have to answer that here, you can message me on FB or email me. I think you have done both in the past.

    • Philip Barker says:

      Hello butterinthefield. I don’t read a gospel of condemnation but in reading your post I certainly identify with what you said. In fact, I may be one of those people that Paul mentioned in his reply to you…so please allow me to offer some encouragement.
      We are told in Romans 6:11 to “reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord”. My understanding of the word “reckon” here is to constantly focus on the fact that because we repented, believed and were baptised in water (the latter being a burial where our sins remain buried as we ourselves, coming out of the water are alive in Christ, following Him who is the first fruits into life everlasting), we are alive to God and therefore saints, not sinners. There is no condemnation for those that are in Christ Jesus, for the law of spirit of life has set you free from the law of sin and death. That’s that. Are you encouraged? I am, just by writing it.
      Now, Jesus told Nicodemus when he was enquiring of the Lord, to be born of water and the spirit, yet many of us (and I include myself here) appear to have had an abnormal birth because we have not received the promised Holy Spirit in power, as a baptism. We would certainly know if we had. I have no doubt that I was baptised in water as I experienced an immersion and was drenched. No problem there. However, I’ve been told that having been born again, I have the Holy Spirit already and have no need of any subsequent baptism. That’s not what Jesus said though. I have a deposit guaranteeing my inheritance, however, as evidenced in my life, there is no power over sin nor consistent fruit of the Spirit, from which comes works that actually count for something in His Kingdom.
      My conclusion is that you and I need to ask, and keep asking, for this baptism of or in the Holy Spirit. We will know when we receive Him, it will be unmistakable. It’s imperative if we want to overcome sin and produce real fruit. Maybe you could write a post on this Paul?

      • Jon says:

        Hi Phillip

        For some reason I didn’t see this comment when you first posted it, but noticed it now as I was scrolling back through.

        I pray for a powerful experience of the Holy Spirit pretty much everyday, yet it still appears to evade me. I will carry on praying nonetheless until I receive or til I depart this world (apostasy or giving up is not an option).

        In the mean time I am trying to find a way to live my faith in a way where I’m not consumed by doubt and/or condemnation.

        If you see this Paul then please pray for me – this last week has been quite bad for some reason, causing considerable concern and distress to those I am close to.

        Jon

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