Drippings from the Honeycomb
More to be desired are [the rules of the Lord] than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. (Psalm 19:10)
Are Christians still sinners or are they completely saints or are they somehow both?
In his commentary on Romans, Martin Luther said that Christians are “both righteous [saints—holy or just ones] and sinners, at the same time.”
Like many areas of theology there exist apparent contradictions that may be reconciled in understanding through closer study and the appreciation of nuance (like forgiveness). What shall we make of the apparent contradiction?
Take Paul for example.
One the one hand throughout Paul’s letters he could write of “the saints.” In Phil 1:1 he greeted “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.” In Eph 2:19 he says of those who have been justified (declared right or just) through faith in Jesus, “are no longer aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” Saint is a common word in the New Testament used to speak—not of exemplary Christians—but of everyday believers.
Yet, the same Paul as a saint “could also say, “Christ Jesus came to save sinners, of whom I am foremost (1 Ti 1:15, emphasis added). Describing, not the old self but the present life of the Christian, Paul said emphatically, though lamentably, “wretched man that I am” (Ro 7:24, emphasis added).
Clearly Luther’s summary is Biblically confirmed, we are saints and sinners.
But what shall we make of this? How should we understand this? The best way to think about this apparent tension is to differentiate between positional and practical righteousness (sometimes known as imputed and imparted righteousness).
Positional righteousness is the declarative righteousness that we have in God’s eye’s because we have trusted in Jesus and have been clothed in His righteousness. Our status before God is one of righteousness. You might visualize it like this:
 Luther, Commentary on Romans, ch. 5.
Practical righteousness is that progressive work by the Spirit and through faith whereby we put off the flesh and pursue righteousness. Our state remains sinful though we are being made righteous. You might visualize it like this:
Verbally we might display both positional and practical righteousness this way:
Status: Sinner Status: Righteous
State: Sinner State: Saved Sinner
The Apostle Peter summarized this common Biblical line of thinking in 1 Peter chapter one. We weren’t holy, have been made holy and are called to live in line with our new identity.
But what about verses about bring a new creation or creature (2 Cor 5:17) or the new self (Eph 4:24), or even regeneration (Jn 3; Tit 3:5) or liberation from sin’s domain (Ro 6:18)? What do they add to this question?
Think back to the last image.
These passages speak not to a change in our sinful state but to our spiritual renewal that Christ has effected through the Gospel. In Christ we who once were dead sinners are now alive by the Spirit who also is at work renewing and sanctifying our souls (mind, will, affections and conscience). Even though we are still sinners we are sinners of a rather different sort. We are saved sinners and this is no small difference. We are forgiven (have positional righteousness), we have the gift of the Holy Spirit, our souls are being renewed and transformed so that our practice or state may come to reflect our status or position (e.g. Ro 1:7; 1 Cor 1:2). Progressively our lives are conforming to the identity that we have been given in Christ.
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