SAINTS AND SINNERS
1:8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
2:1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. 2 He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
— 1 John 1:8-2:2, ESV
All saints are sinners. But, not all sinners are saints. Today there is tremendous confusion about the terms, and the terminal difference between the two.
Saints and Sinners
A saint is a deceased person who is really not dead. They enjoy eternal life with God in Paradise, the unfinished but perfect place we prefer to call Heaven. The role called up yonder includes devout Jews like Abraham who, before the first advent of Christ, were saved by grace alone through faith alone in God alone, as God revealed Himself to them (ref. Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6; James 2:23).
Since the fulfillment of the old covenant with the new, people who died after being born again Christians (ref. John 3:3) are numbered with the saints, too. If, by grace (ref. Ephesians 2:8) they demonstrated genuine repentance (ref. Luke 13:3) and faith (ref. Hebrews 11:6) in the Lord Jesus Christ (ref. John 14:6), then after their passing they come to perfect rest with the Lord (ref. 2 Corinthians 5:6-8), Saint Abraham, Saint Moses, Saint Peter, Saint Paul, and all the rest.
With all due respect to our Catholic friends, we Protestants don’t believe you have to be one of the Apostles or a former Pope or some near perfect Christian to be a saint. The Bible uses the term eight-two times (“chasid” in the OT, “hagios” in the NT, meaning “holy ones,” “sanctified ones,” “saved people”) to refer to any and every child of God, including those who have died, and we who are living. That’s right, you don’t even have to be dead to be declared a saint.
All you have to be to qualify for sainthood is be justified by faith in Jesus Christ (ref. Romans 5:1), sanctified by the Holy Spirit (ref. 1 Corinthians 6:11), and guaranteed a glorious eternity by God the Father (ref. Romans 8:30). God offers such sainthood to all, but only a chosen few make it down that narrow path to coronation (ref. Matthew 7:14, 22:14).
Sinners are easier to define and identify. You don’t need categories. Not much memorized Scripture nor deep theology is required. Simply speaking, all human beings are sinners. Look in the mirror, look at everyone else around you, and you will find the sinners. Count those who have died, number all the living, then add anyone else who will come into this world.
Sinnership is universal. “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (ref. Romans 3:22-23). And, this is undeniable, which brings us into our text:
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us… If we say we have not sinned, we make [God] a liar, and His word is not in us.”
— 1 John 1:8, 10
Admit it, people, not everyone is a saint; but, all are sinners, even the living saints. The problem with sinners is sin. Sin is anything and everything, committed or omitted, that is in violation of or contrary to the perfect character and will of God as revealed in the word of God. Sin is something we saints and sinners do a lot. To borrow a phrase made famous by Jerry Lee Lewis, there is a whole lot of sinnin’ going on. Most make light of it, denying they are sinners or denying anything is a sin.
To deny sin is to call God a “liar,” which is in and of itself a sin, which of course God does not like. As a matter of fact, God not only dislikes sin, He hates sin because it violates His supreme holiness and harms His beloved creatures. Sin makes God’s blood boil and overflow into attributes we do not like to attribute to God, but they are true and reflect His perfect and holy nature: anger, hatred, wrath, justice, punishment.
You have always heard it said, God hates sin but loves the sinner. This is simply not true. For Malachi in the OT and Romans in the NT reveal to us these words from God, “I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated.”
Jacob was a sinner who became a saint. He even got a new name, Israel. Esau’s name never changed, neither did Esau. Esau was very comfortable in his own skin and with his own sins. He never thought sins like sexual immorality, idolatry, and failure to worship God were that big of a deal. Esau never sought peace with God through faith and repentance. Esau never experienced grace, and never received forgiveness for his sins.
Esaus in the history of the world are many. Jacobs are few. We all drive down the sinners highway, but some make u-turns. There is nothing in the world of greater importance than finding the off-ramp from the highway to Hell by discovering “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (ref. John 14:6).
Confession and Forgiveness
1 John is a map for saints which navigates them to assurance of sainthood (ref. 1 John 5:13). But, it is also a good book for sinners who are not saints, so that certain sinners will know they are not saints, for there is nothing worse that a sinner who is not a saint who thinks he is a saint.
This is why John uses the word “if” twenty times in this short letter. If you look at sin one way, you can be a saint in spite of your sin. If you look at sin another, you are a sinner without sainthood. One of the big ifs in the book concerns the cardinal concept of confession.
“If we confess our sins …”
— 1 John 1:9a
Sinners who are not saints bypass this booth. It’s like playing The Game of Life by skipping college. You never win. Remember the Esaus in the world don’t like to consider themselves sinners, nor the things they do as sin, so confession would be blasé.
Saints are born in the big confession, though it does not to have to take place in a box or a church, and it doesn’t have to be given to anyone but God. Jesus described it best in Luke 18:9-14. There a Pharisee, who thought he was saint, reveled instead in his unrepentant sin, especially pride. There a sinner, who thought himself unworthy to be a saint, made the saintly confession. He confessed his sin, begged for mercy, and was justified by God as a saint.
The word “confess” in 1 John is “homologeo,” “homo” meaning same, “logos” meaning word or statement. To confess is to agree with God, to allow God to define sin on His own terms, and to readily admit you are a sinner who has committed sins against God and man. Only by admitting your guilt will you ever be free.
Sinners who are not saints deny their sin, ignore their sin, justify their sin, or aptly rename their sin. But if we do not agree with God about the nature, definition, and commitment of sin, all people will ever be, for Jonathan Edwards was right, are “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
“If we confess our sins,” however, sinners become saints. Anger and wrath are turned away. Grace and mercy grow. Old things pass away, all becomes new (ref. 2 Corinthians 5:17). Faith becomes faithfulness, repentance remains ongoing, and confession, used by John here in the present tense, becomes constant proof of sainthood. Ongoing seriousness over sin is a sign that a sinner is truly a saint.
“He is faithful and just to forgive us and cleans us from all unrighteousness.”
— 1 John 1:9b
Yes, confession is good for the soul, very good. But since saints only rightly confess, the benefits accrue only to the sinners who have become saints, never the sinners who refuse the only way to become saints.
Sinners and saints feel differently about sin, so God feels differently about them. Sinners don’t have faith and are not faithful to God; therefore, God does nothing for them, except for whatever common grace allows in this fleeting, wink-of-an-eye, human life. Sinners don’t confess with God; therefore God gives them no forgiveness. Sinners don’t have a clean slate with God, they remain unrighteous, and the consequences are eternally staggering.
Sinners who become saints stand forgiven, clean, and righteous before God, by grace through faith in Christ. Even so, when we let sins creep into our Christian lives, we get removed from that faithful and close fellowship we enjoy with God, we get stains on our saintly clothing that are ugly to God, even if no one else sees them, and we need to come to God for a fresh cleansing and restoration to righteousness. It is rightly and often said a Christian cannot lose their relationship with the Lord, but we can lose close fellowship, and no true Christian wants that. So we confess, again and again, so that we can draw near to God again and again, until Christ comes again, or brings us home.
Holiness and Triunity
In one of the cleverest points the most aged Apostle ever made, John turns what some would interpret as a free pass to sin into a mighty motivation to live a holy and godly life. Saints sin, saints are forgiven, therefore saints can sin all they want with impunity, right? As Paul wrote, “God forbid” (ref. Romans 6:1)! Here is what John said:
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.
— 1 John 2:1
There is a triune reason true Christians choose to live a life of holiness rather than sin willy nilly.
We have faith in God the Father, who is watching over us at all times, in public and in private, with grace and mercy to be sure, but He is still watching. “Little children” love their Father, do not want to disappoint or embarrass Him, and this makes us sober minded concerning sin.
We have faith in God the Son, and we deeply admire His righteous approach to life and death, so much so we model our lives after His life and world rather die than bring scandal and disgrace to the name of the Lord.
We have faith in God the Spirit, who lives within us. He is the “advocate” (“paraclete”), too (ref. John 14:16, 14:26, 15:26, 16:7). He has the power of restraining grace, keeping us from sin. He has the power of convicting grace, showing us and warning us against sin. By grace are we saved, and by grace we keep from sinning and becoming a stumbling block.
God forgives us with such ease that it makes it hard for a saint to sin. But, we do, as do the sinners, which is why the word of God in 1 John gives us one more powerful pair.
Propitiation and Gospel
The whole difference between sinners and saints, the latter of which confess and are forgiven, then live holy lives before a holy God, can be summed up in one word: propitiation, and propitiation is the gospel. Propitiation is not a common word in the NT, appearing only four times (ref. Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:2, 4:10).
He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
— 1 John 2:2
Propitiation is an atoning sacrifice, made by one on behalf of another, that doubly imputes perfect sainthood upon the sinner, while the sinner’s sins are transferred to the perfect, absolute, substitutionary saint. In other words, Jesus Christ, the only absolutely perfect saint who ever lived and never sinned, died on the cross for any and every sinner, who is made a saint by grace through faith in the perfect person and finished work of Jesus Christ.
Propitiation is the gospel, the only gospel, which transforms sinners into saints. It is the gospel, the only gospel, not just for the first century, but for the twenty-first. It is the gospel, the only gospel, not just for the Jewish nation, but for the whole world. So, if you are a saint, go find a sinner, and ask them if they know what propitiation means, then tell them, so that another sinner may become a true saint.
Remembrance and Conclusion
None of them knew it would be the last day. It was a clear morning, beautiful and bright. Then the sky was split in two. People fell, downward. They were terrorists on four planes, passengers on the planes, and the unsuspecting citizens in Tower One, Tower Two, and the Pentagon. Four short of three thousand people died, sinners and saints, twenty-one years ago today.
Another day is coming, a day no one really expects, when the sky will be split in two over New York, Washington, Pennsylvania and the whole world. People will fall, upward, but only the saints. Sinners will be left behind to face their sin, their unredeemed, un-atoned for, un-propitiated sin. They took it so lightly. They were turned off by some false saints. Some days it is hard to tell the difference, between the saints and the sinners, that is. But on this coming day, it will be plain for God and everyone to see. See to your sainthood, now. Trust in the Lord. Repent and believe the gospel. Confess and be forgiven. Oh sinner, become a saint!