When was the last time you did something that you knew you shouldn’t have? It doesn’t take me long to think of an answer, and I bet something sprang straight to your mind, too.
That’s how easy it is to make someone feel crap about themselves. The Church (or what I’ve seen of it) is, unfortunately, great at this. Every time I’m at any Christian event or service there’s something to make me remember pretty much everything I’ve done wrong that week, if not in the service, then in the songs we sing or the prayers we pray.
If we’re not careful, this kind of Christianity locks our identity down as ‘saved sinners’ at best, telling us that we’re awful people, but Jesus went through hell to make us acceptable to God. Though highly paraphrased, this is a narrative that can be traced through the Bible, particularly in the New Testament. Let’s call it the ‘saved sinner’ narrative.
However, there’s another narrative that can be told that, in my opinion, embodies the same theology, but with less of the sense of guilt and unworthiness that seems to permeate the private lives of a lot of Western Christians. I’ll call this narrative the ‘stumbling saint’.
In this narrative, we are recognised as beings made in the image of God with an intrinsic value because we are his creations. Our actions, our searching for a life fulfilled by something other than God, have separated us for him, but by becoming a human – validating our worth as created beings – and dying a mortal death, God as Jesus made it possible for us to be restored to our intended state of perfection.
But wait, there’s more! The dead Jesus then rose from the dead, promising an even better, transformed life than the life that we could otherwise have been restored to, something that we won’t fully understand until we experience it ourselves. Although we’re still capable of mucking up, we always have the knowledge that our sin is not our identity, and we have the hope of a perfect future.
(I’m confident enough in the Biblical basis for that narrative that I’m not going to extensively list Bible verses, but feel free to call me out if you think it’s wrong).
The difference in the ‘saved sinner’ and ‘stumbling saint’ narratives stems from how the Christian refers to herself. In the ‘saved sinner’ narrative, the Christian calls herself a sinner and as such struggles to move beyond her unworthiness, unable to comprehend how her relationship with God is possible, and feeling terrible when she jeopardises it by doing something wrong.
In contrast, the ‘stumbling saint’ calls herself a saint and sees herself as a beautiful creation of God that he has freely chosen to reconcile to himself. Her actions may not always line up with God’s ideal, but when she does stumble she refuses to let it define her, returning to God in the knowledge that he loves her and wants her to be close to him.
For me, this idea of a stumbling saint is exemplified through the image of the temple of the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, starting with ‘All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful.’ Paul makes it clear that the reason Christians should steer clear of sin (in this example, sexual immorality), because the body is made for the Lord (a sign of our value to God) and that we are not our own, our bodies belong to God – another sign of the intrinsic value he sees in us. Any object of value is worth what is paid for it, and I think the price God pays shows how much he thinks we’re worth.
If you’ve followed me this far, thank you! My final point is important. The ‘saved sinner’ and ‘stumbling saint’ narratives are distinct ways of thinking about our identity in Christ, and, as you may have guessed, I think the ‘stumbling saint’ mentality is generally healthier and I wish it was spoken about more in church.
However, I don’t think the ‘saved sinner’ mentality is worthless. I think both narratives have something to offer the Christian faith, and only when the two are taken together do we get the full picture of how much God has done for us and how much he loves us that leads us to respond in worship.
I will happily, gratefully and humbly say that I am a sinner saved and a stumbling saint, but we have such a flood of messages telling us that we’re sinners that I don’t mind if the saint message were to start getting emphasised a little more.
That’s the end of the blog post, but it was inspired by a song written by a fantastic band, Citizens & Saints. Check out the video below to listen to it, or read the lyrics that I’ve copied.
Even when I’m at my worst
I am still of righteous birth
Covered by a saving grace
Past, present, future debt erased
My heart is changing day by day
When I run like wild fire
I am still a ransomed child
Bought with blood spilt on a tree
Sin, death, they have no hold on me
My will is changing day by day
I am not who I was, now I am who I am
A sinner saved, a stumbling saint
Still I’m never alone, He’s alive in my bones
The ghost of God sanctifies
What I once desired for
Is not what I desire more
Heart of stone turned into flesh
Love, joy, peace taking over the mess
It’s all I’m wanting day by day
I don’t always believe that I’m even a saint
Justified with new life
But I’m never the same when I remember the gift
Of His grace builds my faith