Some Christians base their identity on being a sinner. I think they have it wrong--or only half right. You are not simply a sinner; you are a deeply loved sinner. And there is all the difference in the world between the two.
Sin is a corollary to our primary status as greatly loved children of God. First we were loved into being, created in the good and sinless image of our Creator God. And although sin damaged that which had been utterly good, it allowed us to discover that God's love is directed toward us just as we are, as sinners. The sequence is important. We must never confuse the secondary fact with the primary truth.
Real knowing of ourselves can only occur after we are convinced that we are deeply loved precisely as we are. The fact that God loves and knows us as sinners makes it possible for us to konw and love our self as sinner. It all starts with knowing God's love.
(David G. Benner, The Gift of Being Yourself, p. 64-65)
This is so well-put! Yay!
[... And that's all I really need to say about this. But here follows some of my thoughts/recollections that have to do with why I love these paragraphs.]
I heard a distorted version of this argument a couple years ago when missionaries from a Korean Christian-esque cult (Good News Corps) interrupted my Bible study preparations when I was sitting outside at school. Their English wasn't very good, so it took a while to see how much of the confusion and expressed disagreement was due to language issues versus theological differences. They asked me if I was a Christian and if I believed that I am sinful and if I believed that I was saved, and then they kept saying that if you're a Christian, you can't/don't sin, because you've been brought out of the kingdom of darkness and into the kingdom of God's light. I had a really hard time figuring out how much of what they said actually lined up with what I believe. In the end, I realized that I don't believe their central claim (saved people never sin). But I couldn't articulate what I actually believe (and what I believe the Bible teaches) without overemphasizing the fact that Christians do continue to fall short even once they've come into God's kingdom.
I think what I said to them was something along the lines of:
- I agree that the identity of the Christian doesn't reside in being a sinner
- and instead the identity of the Christian is as a follower of Christ and a child of God and as forgiven and redeemed
- but that doesn't mean that we already live entirely according to that new holy identity.
Our primary identity is as holy people, but our behavior (which in my definition covers thoughts and feelings as well as external actions) is still a work in progress. In conclusion, Christians do sin, and so it is true to say that I am a sinner.
I think I put my point across, but it's not good communication to pin such a freight of concepts onto a verbal distinction between sinner-as-identity vs. sinner-as-behavior. I'm really happy to have discovered Benner's passage which articulates the Christian (& human) identity so much more clearly, and then explores its significance--that "it all starts with knowing God's love."
That last paragraph also connects with something I've been telling a friend who is a young Christian and who is deeply concerned about his sinfulness. He is extremely impatient to become a better person, and he is frequently frustrated at his slow growth. As a result, he is perpetually looking for things to do that will make him better.
And so I keep telling him that his focus is in the wrong place. He isn't going to become a better person by trying to be a better person. Doing good things does have good effects, but it doesn't change your identity. Transformation requires time and the uprooting of lies. (c.f. Grace + Truth + Time => Transformation, the sermon series from which this great sermon on Hosea comes) Focusing on our selves and our sin will not fix things. I told him he needs to lift up his eyes to Jesus and worship Him by giving Him his attention, because by focusing on his own sinfulness he is ultimately still being self-obsessed and self-worshipful.
I still think what I said to my friend was true. But again, Benner says it better. "It all starts with God's love." "God's love is directed toward us just as we are, as sinners."
This passage of Benner's writing also speaks to a third thing in my life: Paul Washer's theology. I can't speak for exactly what Paul Washer actually believes, because it's possible that he is just using language in a much less precise way than I would like, and in a way that promotes some untruths. So I will address the things he says, and not worry too much about whether he really means exactly what he is saying.
Paul Washer preaches radical depravity (for instance, in this discussion), and his definition of the doctrine states that there is no good in humans whatsoever. I can't agree with that statement, because no matter how messed up a person is, a person is still a person. A person is created in the image of God, and even when that gets horribly distorted, that image is still there. I agree with Paul Washer that people cannot save themselves, and that we need provenient grace even in order to turn to God, but I can't agree that humans are completely devoid of goodness on their own--although, as my father brought up when I asked him about this, all goodness comes from God. "Every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of the heavenly lights..." (James ?:?), especially life, so maybe it's absurd even to speak of being alive without God. I don't think that's what Paul Washer was talking about, though, because the question he is addressing in that clip is about election and whether God has picked out you, you and you to go to heaven, and you, you and you to go to hell. Ugh.
Anyway! I think Benner's second paragraph really speaks to the question of human goodness. On our own, entirely without God--well, we wouldn't even exist, much less be alive. Christ holds everything together (Col. 1:17), and "in him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28). These things are true of all of us, Christians or no. Also true of all humans is that "we were loved into being" (Benner)--Christians or no. There is no human who is utterly and totally devoid of goodness, because there is no human who is not made in the image of the perfect and good Creator.
Truth: it's a good way to start the morning. Thank God.