Some religious traditions distinguish between saints, who obey God’s will, and sinners, who disobey. Others set apart saints as super-holy people. Regular Christians like you and me aren’t particularly bad, they would say, but we haven’t done anything extraordinary enough to be called saints.

Being a saint isn’t about what I do or don’t do but about who I am in relationship with God. That’s also true of being a sinner. The Lutheran confessions define sin as the self-centered failure to trust God (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article II). Adam and Eve’s problem wasn’t just that they ate a piece of fruit or broke one of God’s rules. Their real sin was their desire to be “like God,” relying on their judgment rather than trusting God’s word. For us, too, our specific sinful behaviors are only symptoms of this self-centered condition that theologians call “original sin.”

Martin Luther describes Christians as “simultaneously saint and sinner.” This both/and approach is a distinctly Lutheran understanding of who we are in God’s eyes.

Luther calls Christians “simultaneously saint and sinner” because he redefines “saint” as a forgiven sinner. We are called saints not because we change into something different but because our relationship with God changes as a result of God’s grace. Luther said: “The saints are sinners, too, but they are forgiven and absolved.”

During my final year of college, I faced some difficult decisions. I sought advice from one of my professors, who was also a pastor. He said, “Remember that even if you make the right choice, you’re forgiven.”

Wow! It’s easy to rely on ourselves, with forgiveness as an insurance policy in case we mess up. But this wise pastor reminded me that even on my best days, what matters most is not what I do or decide but that Jesus died for me. When I look at myself in the mirror, I always see the reflection of a sinner. But when God looks at me, he sees me through Jesus. My sin is covered with Christ’s own righteousness. Thanks be to God!

Kathryn Kleinhans
Kathryn A. Kleinhans is dean of Trinity Lutheran Seminary at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio.

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