James, who is Paul speaking to…saints? And not sinners? What about saints that sin?
That’s a great question, because its a gospel question. That’s not a question that engages some minute or abstract point of theology. Its a question that gets us to the heart of the gospel, and its answer makes a substantial difference in the way we think and live as Christians. I would be thrilled if I had the opportunity to answer that question every day for the rest of my life. A couple months ago I did answer that question here in this space, but I’ll come at it from a different angle today. I pray that it helps.
Martin Luther is famous for saying that Christians are simul iustus et peculator, simultaneously justified and sinners. Simultaneously is the key word, of course. In Christ, Christians are presently justified – declared righteous by grace through faith. This does not mean, however, that Christians are perfect. Even as we are justified, we continue to sin. Simultaneously, we are declared to be without sin in Christ and sinful in our behavior. How can this be?
The key to this is understanding the distinction between identity and performance. The identity of a Christian is that of a saint, justified in Christ. In terms of who we are and how God views us, we are completely clothed in the righteous robes of Jesus Christ. We are holy saints. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). From the perspective of identity, Christians are not sinners. But from the perspective of performance, we are thoroughly sinners. We are so sinful, in fact, that “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” to our God (Isa 64:6). Our sin manages to taint and corrupt even our deeds of holiness and devotion.
That is how these seemingly opposite ideas can be simultaneously true of Christians. As a matter of identity, Christians are 100% righteous; as a matter of performance, Christians are 100% sinful. Even if we sin less today than we did ten years ago, sin is still the dominant feature of our performance or behavior. But here’s the good news: In Christ, our identity is not defined by, affected by, or changed by our performance. Our identity is defined by Christ’s performance, and that never changes. Even as we sin, we are fully righteous. Because Jesus was fully righteous for us.
I hope and pray that you grow in your delight in God because of this remarkable grace he has shown us in Christ.