A Sinner Saved // A Stumbling Saint

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

 

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Adam Hellyer says:

    Hey Gary, great to see you’re still writing. I enjoy your perspective and the way you approach topics. I’d like to respond to two aspect in the thinking you’ve outlined here.

    The first is a question. Is it not possible that the sinner-saint paradox is actually a false dichotomy? Why does it have to be one or the other. To be reminded I am a sinner, whose only salvation is in a free unmeritted gift of God, keeps me humble and grateful. To be reminded I am a child of God, who can not sin, who is the righteousness of God in Christ, keeps me wanting to live up to the high calling God has given me.

    In scripture we see both. In 1 Timothy 1:15, Paul’s says, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst.” Note, he does not say, “Was the worst”, he says, “I AM the worst”. But the same Paul says, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come”, 2 Corinthians 5:17. It is typically Greek, binary thinking to imagine we can only hold one of these views. Clearly, Paul took the more Hebrew approach of holding these two thoughts in tension; perhaps we should to.

    The second, is your statement, “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.” Whilst I follow your logic, I don’t believe it holds. And while I have heard similar sentiments from many Christians, I do not find that language in scripture.

    We know, in normal life, cost has more to do with demand than value. There’s a Louis Vuitton shop in our town where a simple handbag will sell for what amounts to over a month’s wages for many who live here, myself included. The same pot of tomatoes at our local Spar is less than half the price at the grocers. Cost and value are rarely linked.

    But to continue with your thought, you say that because God paid so much, we must be worth so much. Does the scripture say that? It does say man is made in the image of God, but that image is corrupted, devalued. When John writes, “For God so loved to the world”, ‘so’ is not used in a quantitative sense, but rather to mean, “in this way”.

    Besides, the sacrifice of Jesus was not a commercial transaction. God didn’t do a quick internet search to see where He could buy us cheapest, but no one would sell us for less than the blood of Jesus! God was paying a penalty. The price of our sin, not the value of our life. The cost of our salvation speaks of how terrible our sin is, not how valuable we are to God. That God was willing to pay it says more about Him than it does about us. What a remarkable, merciful Saviour, that He would pay so great a price for me. This is why Paul could so freely regard himself of no value. All his achievements as dung, and his attempts at righteousness as filthy rags. Paul knew he could boast only in the cross. Not in the value God placed on him, but rather in the price Christ paid.

    Keep writing. Keep seeking after God. Keep well.

  2. bengarry says:

    Hey Adam, good to hear from you; I hope you and your family are well. I always appreciate what you have to say!

    To your first point, I agree that’s the two aren’t mutually exclusive, they’re more two sides to the same coin and I said as much in the post – “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.”

    The reason I wanted to differentiate between the two was to highlight a difference in mentality that you could have as a Christian, and to show a more positive narrative than the one I have often felt is being communicated, even if unintentionally.

    As to your second point, I’m happy to admit that I might be wrong, especially on the value of humanity before salvation.

    However, I don’t think we can say that we have no value to God at any point. At the very least we are co-heirs with Christ and seen as God’s children. And to go from your point about the corrupted image of God – whatever we may be worth in that state – the Bible is clear that in some sense God creates us anew when we’re saved (2 Corinthians 5:17). While it can be helpful to see ourselves as nothing in comparison to God to acknowledge what he has done for us and how completely we should follow his will, I don’t think the Bible demands that we define ourselves by worthlessness. (I don’t think that’s what you were saying, but it’s a point that I think it’s helpful to make for clarity’s sake).

    To come back to the value of humans before salvation, as I said, I’m open to being wrong on this, but I will admit that there is an emotional side where I want there to be some kind of value. I know value is a tough thing to pin down, so maybe I should say something worth saving. Evidently there is something worth saving in fallen humanity, or God wouldn’t have bothered. That something might be as simple as the potential for us to have a relationship with him, in which case the salvation story is about bringing us to that potential.

    But this response has already been really long, and I don’t think the value of humanity pre-salvation particularly affects the argument that Christians should be able to view themselves as saints, so I’ll leave it there! I’d love to hear your thoughts on what I’ve just said, and if at any point you want to move away from the comments, you can email me at ben.brightestday@gmail.com

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