Is there really a difference between calling ourselves “sinners saved by grace” and “saint?” Isn’t it just a matter of semantics?
To understand the difference, let’s start with a brief history lesson.
Where Does the Phrase “Sinner Saved by Grace” Come From?
A song, although it clearly finds its source in Ephesians 2:8, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” But the literal wording of “a sinner saved by grace” is nowhere found in Scripture itself.
The phrase was actually coined by a friend of Bill and Gloria Gaither’s, who asked them to write him a song based on his testimony. George Younce was a bass singer in the Cathedral Quartet, which accompanied the Gaithers at many of their concerts. At one point, Younce related his testimony to the Gaithers, spelling out the details of how he lied about his age in 1947 so he could join the paratroopers and fight in World War II. While overseas, though, Younce did more than serve his country, he also served alcohol as a bartender in an Officer’s Club and soon became addicted himself. “What was supposed to be only three months of special duty turned into three years of bartending and a longer struggle with alcohol,” Younce said.
It wasn’t until years and many drinks later that Younce recommitted his life to the Lord and sobered up. He eventually joined the Cathedral Quartet, where he met the singing duo. “I’d love it if you two would write me a song,” he asked the Gaithers one night. “You know my story; I’m just an old sinner saved by grace.”
The Gaithers wrote that song and titled it, “Sinner Saved by Grace.” It was a much-beloved hymn in many churches and is still sung today by the Gaither Vocal Band.
But the title is misleading, a distortion of the truth about our real identity as born-again believers.
A Sharp Contrast
Whenever the word “sinner” is used in Scripture, whether by Jesus or Paul or any other New Testament writer (interestingly, this title never appears in the Old Testament), it is always in reference to 1) a believer’s past, 2) of those who pervert justice, and 3) of those not saved and who exhibit moral failings.
In the lattermost usage (#3), every single human is born a sinner, thanks to Adam, who introduced sin through his own failing in the Garden of Eden. Through Adam, then, all are born into disobedience and depravity. Because of Adam, we can’t help but sin; it is our default nature. Sinner is our identity from the moment of conception.
But God (perhaps the two most important words in the Bible) provides the means through which our sin and our fallen identity can be redeemed and restored: through acceptance of the atoning sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ. When one appropriates the free gift of grace through faith in Jesus Christ’s death on the cross for their sins and believes He is raised from the dead, one is immediately transferred and transformed: from darkness into light, from a sinner into a saint.
Christ died for sinners, in order to make them saints. All because of grace.
So, in essence, we should want to shed the title of sinner, even if it is coupled with a qualifier (grace), as our identity.
Rather, it makes more sense, biblically speaking, to refer to ourselves as saints, which means, “sacred, ceremonially consecrated; holy; set apart.” Saint identifies those whose sin nature has been cleansed by the blood of Jesus, those who have been given a new nature, and those who have been set apart for His purposes as ambassadors and Gospel proclaimers.
Paul thought so. In a majority of his letters, Paul he referred to his recipients as saints, as those already belonging to God and adopted into the household of faith, the church (Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Ephesians Philippians, Colossians). In fact, the words saint and saints appear in the New Testament 67 times. Never once sinner saved by grace.
Paul went a step further and referred to the saints as “called to be” (Romans 1:7, 1 Corinthians 1:2b). Why the distinction? Because we are not “called” to be sinners since it is our default nature. A saint, on the other hand, is one who is personally and purposefully called (“invited, appointed”) to that position. Not by a committee or a council or a corporation. But by God.
God is the only One who can confer that title, and only then on those who accept His Son as their Savior. This is contrary to what some denominations believe: that sainthood is reserved for the particularly pious, for those who perform extraordinary, heroic, and miraculous deeds. These denominations say that only such ones have “earned the right” to be given the title saint, by putting a St. before their name. And then only posthumously.
Scripture nowhere says we have to “earn” or “work for” our sainthood through performance or prayers. Every born-again believer—living and dead—is a saint. Period. The “work” has already been done for us, by Jesus on the cross and by the Holy Spirit through regeneration.
Speaking of the Holy Spirit…
Don’t Dishonor Him
Trevin Wax recounts a conversation he had with his grandfather. When Wax mentioned he was “just a sinner saved by grace,” his grandfather reprimanded him. To say such, the grandfather said, is to “dishonor the Spirit.” It belittles the miraculous work He did on our behalf, of regenerating a dead soul by breathing into it new life. Saints, the grandfather went on to say, are indwelt and controlled by the Holy Spirit. Sinners are not.
To refer to ourselves as sinners saved by grace also harkens back to our past, when we once lived in habitual sin, when we were under the control of Satan. This, for some, can actually keep them under a cloud of guilt and shame rather than living in the freedom as a saint.
Here’s yet another thought. Says blogger Sharon Jaynes, “If we continue to see ourselves as ‘just sinners saved by grace,’ we’ll approach the Father expecting judgment and begging for crumbs, rather than as grateful, grace-filled saints expecting promises fulfilled.”
Referring to ourselves as saints speaks to what Christ accomplished for us on the cross, what the Spirit has accomplished in us through regeneration, and continues to accomplish in us through sanctification. Calling ourselves saints speaks of the extraordinary, supernatural power that took our sorry sinful state and made it healthy and whole.
Think of it this way:
You were a sinner. Past tense. Your past identifier.
Saved by grace. A one-and-done act.
You are a saint. Present tense. Your current identifier.
“If we are in Him, sin is no longer the truest thing about us, so why call ourselves as such? ‘Saved by grace’ is not a mere afterthought to be tagged onto a misnomer,” says Brandon Showalter.
Do We, As Saints, Still Sin?
Of course. The title of saint does not prevent us from ever sinning again. We still inhabit a fallen—albeit, redeemed—vessel. Yet, as a saint, sin does not define us as it once did. Sin’s power over us has been broken; we have “died to sin” because of Christ (Romans 6:11). To say otherwise, even as a saint, we “deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).
Furthermore, the title of saint does not excuse us when we do sin or exempt us from asking for forgiveness. We are still under the directive to seek reconciliation with God and others when we sin.
Doesn’t Calling Ourselves Saints Make Us Sound Prideful and Arrogant?
It could, but it shouldn’t.
Consider this: God does not see you as a sinner saved by grace once you are His. He sees a saint. He sees a redeemed child, clothed in a new, fully restored nature. He sees you as sacred, holy, pure, righteous. If anything, we should be more humbled by the title over being a sinner saved by grace. Especially when we consider the cost Jesus paid to make us such.
Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “God creates out of nothing. Wonderful, you say. Yes, to be sure, but He does what is still more wonderful: He makes saints out of sinners.”
Therefore, being a saint shouldn’t elicit pride at all, but praise.
Let Us Live As Saints, Then, Holy and Set Apart
Part of praising God for His transformative work—of “making saints out of sinners”—is living a life that pleases Him, glorifies Him, and manifests Him to a world that is perishing.
To live as saints requires that we behave and speak and think in ways that are antithetical to this wicked world (Romans 12:2). We pursue holiness in both body and mind, offering them as “living sacrifices” to God, so that all that we do and think and say pleases Him.
Where the world curses and insults and slanders, we bless with kind, gentle, comforting words.
Where the world berates and tears down, we build up, encourage, and exhort.
Where the world grabs with greediness, we live in contentment, with gratefulness and thankfulness.
Where the world worships the rich and powerful, we admire the lowly and humble.
Where the world tramples the down-trodden and the marginalized, we serve and assist them (and everyone) with compassion and gladness.
Lord, thank you for taking the sinner that I once was and turning me into the saint that I now am. Help me to see myself as a saint, as one who has been made holy and sacred because of the sacrifice of your Son. Help me to live as a saint, who points others to you through the life I now lead as one set apart. In Jesus’ name, amen.