Jam and I recently listened to a marriage series. During one of the weeks the discussion was about how “selfishness” is the thing that threatens to destroy all of our marriages. To reinforce the point, there were three sub-points that all referred to us as “sinners”. At that moment I felt like a lightbulb went on for me.
You see, I’ve struggled for a while now with the emphasis that some evangelicals have on us as sinners. It feels like no matter what comes up, the answer is always a version of, “Well, we are all just sinners saved by grace.”
Do we all sin? Yes. So if we sin, doesn’t that make us sinners? Yes. So what’s the problem Mark? I’m glad you asked :)
While sin is a reality, the problem I see is in our focus and how we view our primary identity. When we make a decision to follow Jesus, to submit our lives and our wills to God, we are born again and the Holy Spirit indwells us and our primary identity shifts. It says in Romans 8:15-17, “... but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons (and daughters), by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs-- heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ…”
So before deciding to follow Jesus, your identity was a lot of things, including being a sinner. But now you are a daughter of the King, a son of God. And not only that, you are also a co-heir with Jesus and have full access to the resources of the Kingdom.
My take is that by focusing on our primary identity as "just sinners", a few things happen.
First, we lack vision for spiritual formation. There isn’t a strong belief that we can actually grow, be transformed, and become like Christ… and in turn, sin less. I think this is my biggest beef overall. A common statement that I hear is, “I’m just a sinner saved by grace and I need to keep going back to the cross.” Sorry to be blunt, but here is my response to that. “No you’re not… you used to be ‘just a sinner’, now you’re a daughter of the King. I know it’s a big change, to think of yourself as a daughter of the King, and it might feel weird living in the castle, spending time with the King, and wearing the clothes of royalty and beginning to act like the princess that you are, but you’re not an orphan, beggar, or sinner anymore, you’re a daughter of the King and you now have full access to the resources of the Kingdom.”
Secondly, we live into that reality. Dallas Willard said that “our beliefs are the railroad tracks of life and we live up or down to them.” It’s kind of like, “you are what you eat,” except it’s, “You are what you believe.” We all know the power of words and the power of labels. As a parent, if my son lies, I don’t sit down with him and call him a liar. Instead, I remind him of who he is, that he is not a liar, and we have a discussion about how lying hurts people.
I’ve had the privilege recently of making some new friends that live in a discipleship home that is primarily focused on men who come out of backgrounds with addiction to drugs or alcohol. I remember in one Bible study the guys talking about living with the label of “addict” and how people close to them would speak things over them like “you’ll just re-lapse again.” These guys don’t want to be seen as “less than” and known for their past behavior, they want to be known as followers of Jesus and sons of God. Have they had some tough things happen in life and/or made some really bad decisions at one point? Yes, but that's not who they are anymore.
The point is, how we see ourselves, how we label ourselves, how we bless or curse ourselves, or how people label or curse us, it matters!
This focus on us as “just sinners” keeps us in our old identity and prevents us from living into the vision that Jesus and Paul laid out for us:
“You are the light of the world” - Matt. 5:14
“Christ in you, the hope of glory” - Col. 1:27
“Put off the old and put on the new” - Eph. 4:22-24
It is almost as if what happens is the Prodigal Son has come home but continues to live like he is back among the pigs. I can picture the father saying, “That’s not who you are son, you are here in my house and everything I have is yours. You’re no longer living among the pigs, that is who you used to be.”
Finally, seeing our primary identity as "just sinners" lets us off the hook. If we are convinced that our identity is “just sinners”, why would we expect anything else to come out of us? It is presented as “It’s all Jesus, it’s all grace, it’s all God,” but the fruit that results from this message is “I’m worthless, sin is what I do, sin is my reality.”
The most common definition of grace is “unmerited favor.” I am a sinner, I deserve death, but God has offered forgiveness even though I haven’t done anything to deserve it. This definition is true, but it is limited.
There is another way to define grace that is clearly laid out through the scriptures. Dallas Willard defines grace as “God acting in our lives to accomplish what we cannot on our own." It is still “unmerited favor”, but it goes much further than a one-time event of covering our sins and bringing forgiveness.
With this new definition of grace, we don’t have to identify ourselves as “just sinners” to need grace or access it. This doesn’t mean we don’t sin, but that’s not the whole of who we are. Paul knew painfully well how much he struggled with sin in Romans 7, but he lived from the reality of his access to the Holy Spirit and his new identity in Romans 8! We can be daughters and sons of the King that are on a journey of learning what it means to live in this new reality/Kingdom, and what it means to access this new reality/Kingdom. And if grace is “God acting in our lives to accomplish what we cannot on our own”, we need that daily. This new definition helps frame the “naturally supernatural” life as one that is using God’s grace daily, not just one time for salvation. We are expecting, asking, and allowing God to speak, lead, and transform… which are all examples of grace-- God acting in our lives. And guess what, people will notice, because it will be obvious. We will be the “aroma of Christ” and “light of the world” and I’m pretty convinced people will know that there is something happening in our lives that is beyond natural explanation.
The question is, what kind of vision does believing that we are “just sinners” give us for how to live out this Christian life?
If the fruit is what I’ve described above, maybe we need a new vision.
If we lived from the truth in Romans 8:14-17, that we are sons and daughters of God, sons and daughters of the King, and heirs and co-heirs with Christ that have full access to the King and the resources of the Kingdom, would it change our vision for this life and, in turn, change how we live?
Vision is paramount in life, it determines our trajectory.
Identity is critical. Knowing who we are leads to what kind of vision we have.
I believe the Father is telling us:
“That’s not who you are, Son. You are here in my house and everything I have is yours. You are no longer living among the pigs. That is who you used to be.”
Next time you spend time with God, ask him how he sees you. Then, consider how you see yourself. Is the way God sees you similar to how you see yourself or different? Talk to him about the similarity or difference and see what he has to say.
Proclaim your identity: Every morning for 7 days, wake up and proclaim the truth that you are a son or daughter of the King. Ask God each morning to show you what that means practically and how you can live as a son or daughter. At the end of the week, journal about the experiment and if anything shifted in you.