Are you “only a sinner” saved by grace?
As an evangelical Christian, this is probably a statement you’re familiar with. It sounds right, but is it?
I regularly hear that this sentiment is all to common in conservative church circles. Why is that?
1. The good old hymn declares, “I’m only a sinner saved by grace!” We sing it with glee and gratitude.
2. Salvation is by grace alone through true faith that flows from a repentant heart. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph. 2:8,9).
3. Liberal Christianity needs to discover that the gospel is more than trying to follow the example and ethics of Jesus. “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5,6).
4. Even as children of God, we still fall short and sometimes sin: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8;see James 3:2).
Then why are we scrutinizing this popular sentiment? Because it is not true. In Christ, your identity is “saint,” not “sinner” (Eph. 1:15,18)! If you love truth, hang in there and consider the rest of this brief Bible study.
If you have been “saved by grace”, the Bible reveals even more good news: you’re no longer “just a sinner!”
Notice how consistently the New Testament Epistles reveal that the believer’s identity is not based on behavior or feelings, but on his/her spiritual birth.
1. John’s revelation about identity: “Beloved, now we are children of God; …when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).
2. Peter’s revelation about identity: “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
3. Jude’s revelation about identity: “Jude, a bondservant of Jesus Christ … To those who are called, sanctified by God the Father, and preserved in Jesus Christ…” Jude 1:1,2. Although Jude was the half brother of Jesus physically, he identified himself–and other disciples–not by his natural condition, but by his spiritual position.
4. Hebrews’ revelation about identity: “Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider… Christ Jesus” (Heb. 3:1). New Covenant believers in Jesus the Messiah are sons (and daughters) of God (Heb. 12:5-10).
5. Paul’s revelation about identity: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).
“To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints … Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 1:2; 3:16).
Notice how each of these quotes does not foster pride, but praise. They do not minimize sin; they encourage practical righteousness and hope.
But traditions die hard. You may be thinking, “yes, but I still love that old hymn (“I’m only a sinner…”), and I hear this statement so often from mature Christians, from the pulpit and pew.”
Here’s the deal: to the extent you accept a distortion of truth–no matter how good and popular it seems–to that extent you’ll miss out on some potential freedom. That’s because “the truth sets you free” (John 8:32).
Hang in there and consider this: If you really believe you’re “only a sinner…” what would be your expected behavior? Sin; but that’s not what your Heavenly Father expects of you, what the Holy Spirit prompts in you, or and what Jesus calls you to. The normal Christian life is Godliness, not sinfulness.
Notice how the apostle Paul connects identity and expectations: “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth)” (Eph. 5:8,9).
Yes, friend, this issue may be controversial, but it’s worth correcting. Consider some examples that connect the dots about identity and its implications.
What if identity in Christ is veiled. A worker in a Christian recovery program conceded that Bible teaches that we are not “only sinners …” but confided that he wouldn’t teach the believer’s new identity to his group. He gave the excuse that it is easier to control them to work the program if they focus on their unworthiness. But the New Covenant ministry points to a different strategy: when defeated believers discover and believe that they are really children of God, they become inspired to live in a way that’s consistent with their spiritual identity as saints!
What if someone excuses his anger, greed, or cheating with the disclaimer: “Well, I’m only human.” That sounds rational, but is it biblical? Yes, we’re human, but we are more than just human. We are spiritually reborn and enabled to “walk in a new quality of life” (Rom. 6:4; see the logic of 1 Cor. 3:1-4).
What if a believer says, “What can I do about reaching the world for Christ? I’m just one person?” Yes, the Great Commission is a daunting challenge, but are you really just one person? The Scripture says, you’re more than one person … in the sense that Someone else indwells you. “…this mystery… is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). That’s why He added to the command to evangelize the world, “I will be with you always” (Matt. 28:20). And you’re more than “just one person” in the sense that, spiritually you are a member of the family of God–the Body of Christ (Rom. 12:4,5).
Is it becoming clearer that accuracy about identity is important and relevant?
Chaplain Earl Jabay observed,
“I believe that the major issues of human life today are the same as those with which our early ancestors struggled and with which our children after us will struggle. We have asked and always will ask, ‘What is my identity? How can I become a whole person before God and with people? Where is the victory over sin? How can I mature as a person and effectively play the roles (such as being a husband or a parent) to which God has called me?’ We struggled with each of these questions [in chaplaincy ministry]. And the answer, in a word, is not a set of ideas but a person–Christ.”
Bill Gillham summed up the basis of our new identity this way.
“Every person is born with the same identity crisis. We each showed up in the spiritual lineage of the first rebel, Adam. This is a very important point to grasp. Here’s why: birth, not performance, always determines identity … When Christ was crucified, you were in Christ, crucified and buried in Him. When He was resurrected, you were re-created in in Him (Eph. 2:10). Because you are now a spiritual descendant of Christ and your old spiritual past was crucified in Christ (‘Old things [have] passed away’–2 Cor. 5:17), you have been given a brand-new (holy) spiritual past! God changed your identity from sinner to saint!”
Has the true nature of your identity in Christ become a “revelation” to you? Because it is based on grace, we maintain our humility, but render God even more glory by appreciating the blessings He has given us in “so great a salvation” (Heb. 2:3).
Let’s base our theology, not on hymns or tradition–which are sometimes inaccurate or unbalanced–but on God’s reliable Word. Be grateful that you’re saved by grace, and joyful that you’re more than just a sinner.
 Search for Identity, A View of Authentic Christian Living (Zondervan, 1967), preface, 149,150.
 What God Wishes Christians Knew About Christianity (Harvest House, 1998), p.73,77.
If the conclusion of this article is convincing, accept some suggestions about “where do we go from here.” Instead of pouncing on someone who makes the traditional statement (“we are only sinners”):
1. Ask a question about the basis of identity.
2. Give a word of testimony about what you’re learning and the positive difference it is making.
3. Invite him/her to read something on identity in Christ and their feedback.
4. Let’s be biblical, but also patient and charitable. 🙂
Copyright 2016 by John Woodward. Permission is granted to reprint this article for non-commercial use. Please credit the author and GraceNotebook.com. Scripture quotations (unless indicated otherwise) are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.