Our Identity in Christ (Lesson 2 Supplement)

I recently posted my second of eight adult Sunday School lessons on the topic of our identity in Christ.  This lesson focused on who we were before we were Christians.

What appears below is something I expanded a bit from what I put on the back page of my lesson.  It is a biblical teaching on the word “sinner”.

With the good intention of making seekers in our services feel more welcome, it is often said, “We are all sinners.”  I have to disagree with this assessment.  It does not tell the whole story.

Understanding how Scripture uses this word (and more importantly, how it does not use it) will add greatly to our discussion on our identity in Christ.  If we know who we were before Christ, and truly understand the radical changes that happened at the moment when we became Christians, we will live out our faith with a sense of gratitude for what has been done through Christ for us, to us, and in us.  Furthermore, I believe that some of these changes to us are irreversible.  My observations may be somewhat controversial, but I ask you to prayerfully consider them to see if they have any merit.

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A Study on the Word “Sinner”

After studying a complete listing of 62 references to the word “sinner” (20 in the OT; 42 in the NT), I found that with only a few exceptions, the Bible does not generally refer to believers as sinners.  The word is used as a synonym for the wicked, the unrighteous, the lost, or an unbeliever.  It is what we as human beings all were, but not what believers are referred to after they are saved.  The word is also used to refer to someone in the process of becoming a believer, who recognizes their sinful condition and repents (Luke 18:13).  The Pharisees used the label with pride, regarding others they perceived as living an unrighteous lifestyle (i.e., tax collector, prostitute).  Ironically, they did not see that they themselves were sinners.  Though they were religious, according to Jesus, they were unbelievers (Luke 24:7).  They also used it, inaccurately, to refer to Jesus Himself (John 9:16).

Here are several references worth addressing:

Psalm 1:1.  In context here, the words “wicked”, “sinners”, and “mockers”, are all synonymous.  Those individuals do not have a happy ending, compared with that of the righteous (see verses 4-5.)

Psalm 25:8.  “He instructs sinners in His ways.”  Unbelievers cannot receive such instruction, so this is something different.  Looking at the context (vs. 6-12), this is someone who is coming to faith; they fear the Lord and confess their sins in true humility and repentance.

Matthew 9:10-13.  “Sinners” came and ate with Jesus and His disciples.  This common reference applies to those known to be of ill repute (i.e., prostitutes).  Jesus said that He came to call sinners to repentance.  (Note: Although the word “repentance” is not specifically stated in this passage, nor in a parallel passage in Mark 2:13-17, it is implied.  However, it is clearly stated in Luke 5:27-32.)

Luke 15:1-10.  Jesus gives a series of three parables; the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son.  One of the points He makes is that the tax collectors and “sinners” that were hanging out with him were lost (sheep, coins, sons), and were worth seeking after and rejoicing in when found.

Romans 5:8.  “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Our identity as sinners is clearly presented in the past tense.  Does this imply that there was a change of identity when we became believers, and that this label is no longer applicable to us?  I believe that it does.

1 Timothy 1:15-16.  Paul, wanting to focus on God’s great mercy, states that “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.”  He does use the present tense here, so it would appear at first glance that he may still see himself as a sinner.  However, Paul does not ever use this word or extend that view to apply to all believers anywhere else in any of his writings.  It is likely that his point is simply that his life as one who killed Christians and persecuted Jesus Himself illustrated the extent of the love, mercy, and grace of God towards sinners.

James 4:8.  Here, James addresses his audience using the term “sinners”.  This is an audience that in the greeting of his letter he refers to as “brothers” (James 1:2).  Considering the context of instructions to submit to God in chapter 4, he also uses terms like “adulterous people” (v. 4), “double minded” (v. 8), and “brothers” again.  Here, as in any gathering of believers, there is a mixed audience.  Some are believers; some are not.  This passage is the only one I can find that uses the term in this way.  It is almost like that phrase, “If the shoe fits, wear it.”  The title may apply to some of his listeners, but not to all of them.

Lastly, I want to address this from a grammatical point of view.  Although it may be true that sinners are those who sin, by definition, the converse is not necessarily true, that those who sin are sinners.  Let me illustrate.

Indeed, runners are those who run.  However, those who run are not all runners.  Someone may run to escape a barking dog, for example, and not be a considered a runner.  We understand that being labeled a runner implies that a person runs deliberately, regularly, and works hard to improve their running skills over time.  They may subscribe to magazines to help them run, join clubs to run with others, compete in marathons, buy gadgets to help them track their distance, and purchase special running clothes.  They have earned that title; it is who they are.

I hope you can see where I am going with this comparison.

Sinners, in the biblical sense, are those who sin deliberately, regularly, and sin more over time.  They have no intention or hope of ever stopping, apart from the transforming power of Jesus Christ.  They have earned that title; it is who they are.

But this does not describe the believers’ experience.  Certainly, we do sin.  To say that we do not sin is a lie (1 John 1:8).  However, doing so goes against the new nature we received at our conversion.  Sinning is not something that Christians are to deliberately pursue (1 John 1:6).  If someone does, we have to question the validity of his faith; true saving faith leads to good works (James 2:14-19).

The blessed hope that those who are in Christ have is this: through His death on the cross, Jesus has redeemed us once for all from the penalty of sin; daily, His Holy Spirit gives us strength to overcome the power of  sin; when Jesus returns, we will be set free eternally from the presence of sin.

Just before I was getting ready to head to church to teach Sunday School this morning, I was pleased to find this appropriate quote from the book, Birthright: Christian, Do You Know Who You Are?, by David Needham: “What does Scripture say?  If you have received Jesus Christ as Savior, God says that in the deepest sense of personhood, you are not a sinner – no matter what you have been told, no matter how much you feel the pull of sin.  You are righteous!” (p. 67).

So, if we should not state that we are sinners, what can we say that tells the whole story? We can humbly say that we used to be a sinner separated from God, but that Jesus called us to repentance and faith, forgave our sins, reconciled us to God, and has now declared us righteous in Christ.

There will be much more to say on this topic in the coming weeks.

For further study, here is the complete Scripture listing of the word “sinner” (NIV):   Num. 32:14; Psa. 1:1, 1:5, 25:8, 26:9, 37:38, 51:13, 104:35; Prov. 11:31, 13:6, 13:21, 13:22, 23:17; Eccl. 2:26, 7:26, 9:18; Isa. 1:28, 13:9, 33:14; Amos 9:10; Matt. 9:10, 9:11, 9:13, 11:19, 26:45; Mark 2:15, 2:16, 2:17, 14:41; Luke 5:30, 5:32, 6:32, 6:33, 6:34, 7:37, 7:39, 13:2, 15:1, 15:2, 15:7, 15:10, 18:13, 19:7, 24:7; John 9:16, 9:24, 9:25, 9:31; Rom. 3:7, 5:8, 5:19; 1 Cor. 14:24; Gal. 2:17; 1 Tim 1:15, 1:16, 2:14; Heb. 7:26, 12:3; Jam. 4:8, 5:20; 1 Pet. 4:18; Jude 1:15.

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Our Identity in Christ (Lesson 2)

What follows is my second adult Sunday School lesson on the critical topic of our identity in Christ.  (See my post from one week ago where I introduced this subject.)  This lesson will focus on who we were before we became Christians (B.C.)  I will use the standard format that I learned in college: Hook, Book, Look, and Took.

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Hook:

Some believe that man is basically good. What do you believe?  What evidence do you have to back up your belief?

Introduction: To fully appreciate who believers in Jesus Christ become at the moment of salvation, and whom they are continuing to be transformed into through the process of sanctification, it is prudent to look at who we all were prior to that moment, in varying degrees of lostness and sinfulness.

Book:

1) Read Gen. 6:5. How does Moses describe the people of Noah’s day?  Are we the same today?

2) Read Isa. 53:6. (See also Ps. 53:3.)  How does the prophet Isaiah describe human beings?

3) Read John 3:19-20. This verse provides an explanation as to why so many resist God’s truth.

4) Read Rom. 3:9-18; 23. Paul gives a series of OT quotes to show that Jews and Gentiles are sinners. (See the OT references in sequence: Ps. 14:1-3; Eccl. 7:20; Ps. 5:9; 140:3; 10:7; Isa. 59:7-8; Ps. 36:1.)

5) Read Rom. 5:6-8; 8:7. How does Paul describe our condition?  Can we find God on our own?

6) Read Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 2:1-3; Col. 1:21. How does Paul describe sinful nature?

7) Read Titus 3:3. Paul points out that we were all like this.  Does Paul add anything new here?

Look:

Think about the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matt. 18:21-35). There was one man who owed ten thousand talents; millions of dollars in today’s currency.  His huge debt was forgiven.  There was a servant of his who owed him a hundred denarii; a few dollars.  He was not so forgiving.  Jesus’ point was that we should forgive others as we have been forgiven.  My question is entirely different.  Where do you feel that you fall on the spectrum between owing God millions of dollars, or only a few dollars?

In a similar parable (Luke 7:36-47), Jesus explains that how much of a debt you perceive you have been released from will determine how much love you have for the One who forgave you that debt. Jesus asked Simon the Pharisee which debtor would love the moneylender more, the one with the bigger or the smaller debt.  He said it would be the one who had the bigger debt canceled.  Referring to the sinful woman who had just anointed His feet with perfume and her own tears, Jesus concluded, “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – for she loved much. Be he who has been forgiven little loves little” (v. 47).

I truly believe that the more we understand how much we have been forgiven in our own lives, the more our love for God will grow; loving God is the greatest commandment.

Took:

Are you truly grateful for the life that you have been rescued from before you found Jesus Christ? Do you see it as a dark place, where you were blind, hopeless, enslaved, ashamed, poor, an enemy of God, and lost?  Do you see that as a result of coming to faith in Jesus Christ you have been brought into the light; you can see, have a new sense of hope, have been set free, are forgiven, are rich, a child of God, and are found?

How will you think, feel, and act differently today as a result of seeing this contrast between the old you and the new you a little more clearly?

Our Identity in Christ (Lesson 1)

As I was going over my Sunday School lesson I was about to teach a couple of weeks ago, it occurred to me that I have not posted many of my lessons on this blog. I think it is time I did.

This eight-week series on our identity in Christ that I am teaching now is one I had taught in the summer of 2011. Since I had been spending a lot of time the last few months on writing my book on the theology of work that I am self-publishing, I decided to teach something that would not require a lot of preparation.  I am glad I chose to do this series.  It is extremely relevant to every Christian.   It is a message that many of my brothers and sisters in Christ need to hear.  My intent is to post two lessons a week, so that I will have posted all lessons prior to Christmas.

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I started the class with showing a video of a Christian song from two years ago, Who You Say I Am, by Among the Thirsty.  Hearing these opening lyrics often causes me to weep with joy:

My sin says I’m unworthy, my shame that I’m alone

My heart tells me I’m broken, and I can’t be made whole

But ever since the day I ran into Your grace

You call me righteous; you call me yours

No longer guilty; not anymore

And I am rewritten; I’m spoken for

A new creation, now I stand, cause of who You say I am

Problem: I often hear the word sinners applied to Christians, as in, “I’m just a sinner saved by grace”.  I cringe every time I hear it.  Not that I don’t acknowledge or recognize that I sin; I do.  Daily.  Not that I don’t accept the Apostle Paul’s assessment that he was the “chief of sinners” (1 Tim 1:15).  I just think that the Bible refers to believers in Jesus Christ using different words: righteous, forgiven, saints, redeemed, new creatures in Christ, chosen ones, sons/daughters of God, etc.  Believers do sin, but to refer to us as mere sinners misses the profound changes (spiritual, emotional, mental) that occur from the moment of salvation, when a sinner repents and becomes born again, moving from darkness to light.  If believers could focus on who they really are in Christ, more than focusing on just their old sin nature (the flesh), making the big mistake of assuming that is all we can be, then we would sin less and less, as we get our eyes off ourselves and on fixed on Christ (Heb. 12:2).

Purpose: The purpose of this study is to discover, understand, and apply biblical principles on our identity as believers. What did we naturally used to do and think as non-believers and what do we supernaturally (by His grace, in the power of the Holy Spirit) do and think now that we are born again? What changes did God make in us when we chose to follow Jesus?  Are some irreversible? What new abilities and spiritual resources do we all have to overcome the powerful influences of our own flesh, the world, and the devil?  Are we merely human, or are we much more than that?

Here are a couple of powerful quotes from a book I bought many years ago:

“God tells us we are alive in a way we have never been alive before, possessing a birthright we never possessed before. . . Could it be that a major reason for the indifference, the epidemic occurrences of moral shipwreck in our evangelical churches, and the shattering of Christian homes is because we have seen ourselves as nothing more than “Christian” forgiven sinners – failing to be what we should be, because we cannot stop being what we think we are?” (David Needham, Birthright: Christian, Do You Know Who You Are?, Portland, OR: Multnomah Publishers, David Needham, 9.)

“Perhaps this ‘new personhood’ idea seems far away from the daily reality of your life. That still doesn’t change the basic fact.  If you have received the Savior, you simply are not the same person you were before.” (Needham, Birthright, 63).

We read Ephesians 1:1-18.  I asked the class to list all the words and phrases that Paul uses in this passage to describe who believers are or what they have in Christ.

The big question is this: Do you believe that as a follower of Jesus Christ you are different, not just “in God’s eyes”, but REALLY different from you were before you became born again?

I closed with another music video, You are More, by Tenth Avenue North.