“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).
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.