I am a former Marine. We don’t use the term “ex-Marine.” Once a Marine, always a Marine. That’s the way it works. When I graduated boot camp I was ushered into a brotherhood and narrative by virtue of skills, disciplines, and character that had been added to me and that will forever impact who I am. If duty called, it wouldn’t take much to get me back to form. The habits and training tend to stay with you. This adds to my character and person hood and when I earned the title Marine, it didn’t take any of my other titles away. I am still a son, a brother, a husband and father, a student, etc. The new discipline simply added to them. I have added other things since then, and yet that title still remains along with all the others. These will all likely be listed on my obituary. One title, however, will not: sinner.
We’ve all heard it, “I am just a sinner saved by grace.” This was absolutely true…for about a nano second. After that, the title “sinner” was blotted away by the blood of Jesus. I know that we are trying to be humble and to acknowledge God by saying this, but what we’re really doing is maligning the work of God and shackling ourselves to a mindset that robs us of the blessed assurance of God required to keep in step with the Spirit. To insist that Christians are “just sinners saved by grace” is to stand in contrast to the word of God. He has been very clear that we are to neither look fondly on our past sin, nor are we to continue to identify with it.
“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17) The old sinful nature is gone! It has been washed away and is no longer remembered by God. Incidentally, this doesn’t mean he actually forgets, but that he puts it in the past and leaves it there. He no longer actively recalls or reflects on who we were, only who we are in Christ. We are given a new nature making us a new creature. To cling to the “just a sinner saved by grace” declares that we are the same creature except that we’ve had a tune up of some kind. If we are going to live a new life in communion with God, we must let go of the old life and all it’s labels: addict, adulterer, liar, thief, loser, worthless, mistake, gossip….sinner. This is no longer what defines us. Our past failure and rebellion are dead and buried and only impact our future if we let them.
“But you know that he appeared that he might take away our sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning” (1 John 3:5-6). He took away our sin, so we can no longer be a sinner. We are saved by grace and rescued from slavery to sin, delivered from that judgment (Romans 8:1). Now, when he says that those in Christ don’t keep on sinning, he is not saying that we live a life free from incidental sins (1 John 1:8). What he means is that God is delivering us through conviction and repentance out of our sins and when that conviction comes, those who are really in Christ will respond. John also reminds us that no one on this side of heaven will be completely free from sin, but that we have been and are being saved and made clean by Christ (1 John 1:8-2:2).
The word of God is clear, in Christ, “just a sinner” is what we are not. Beginning John 3 he tells us what we are: children of God. That’s a very different picture than “just a sinner saved by grace.” When we are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, we are acknowledging the work of God and declaring that the old is gone and the new is come. In going under the water we are testifying that the old, sinful nature has been crucified and buried with Christ (Romans 6:1-7, Galatians 5:22-25, Colossians 2:9-12). In coming up out of the water we are declaring that God has made us new in Christ and that we are raised with him–a new creation–to walk in newness of life (Ephesians 2:1-10, 5:8-14, Galatians 3:26-29, Romans 6:15-23, Colossians 3:1-4). That’s a lot of “new,” but it is vital that we understand this. If we are really in Christ, and didn’t just come to him as fire insurance or for some selfish temporal reason, then we are free from slavery to sin! We are no longer associated with or identified by sin. Our identity is in the person of Jesus Christ–as sons and daughters of God to the glory of the Father! Think about it, what kind of testimony is it to say, “When Jesus found me I was a sinner. Now, I’m still just a sinner, but I have grace.” No, no, no! You have grace! Therefore, you are no longer a sinner! (Ephesians 1:3-10, Titus 2:11-14, Romans 5:15-19)
Unfortunately, it is preached, and we continue to live, as “just a sinner saved by grace,” or a former sinner, as if God just put lipstick on a pig. We are sons and daughters of God (1 John 3:1-2, 2 Corinthians 6:18, Romans 8:14-16, Galatians 3:26, Ephesians 3:26-27), set free by the Son (John 8:34-36, 2 Corinthians 3:17, Romans 8:1-2), and made co-heirs with him (Romans 8:17, Ephesians 2:6, Galatians 3:28-29, Ephesians 3:6, 1 Peter 3:7)! This isn’t self-glorification, and we need to be careful to keep Christ central and not make it about “us”–our boasting is in what God has done, what he has given, and in what he is doing and will do in, through, and among us. We who have been called and put our hand to the plow cannot continue to look back or even cling to an old, dead life if we are to be alive and productive in the kingdom of God. If we are going to fully trust God and follow him into the great and God-sized work he will lead us into we have to “throw off every weight that hinders” (Hebrews 12:1)…even old, dead titles.
Once a Marine, always a Marine. That’s one title I will carry with me. I was once a sinner, but no more. Because of Jesus I am a saint, a child of God, a citizen of the kingdom of heaven and no longer bound to the godless values and the brokenness of this world. This is not me declaring this. It really has little to do with me other than that I am the beneficiary. Rather, I am acknowledging–confessing, testifying–what God has declared in his word and worked in my life. If I were to bow to the lies and accusations of the enemy and embrace “just a sinner saved by grace” as my identity, I would never aspire to “live up to the calling I have already received” (Ephesians 4:1)–a high and lofty calling. By his word God created all things from nothing, and by that same word he has declared those who have faith in Jesus to be new creations. We are being transformed into the likeness of Christ (Romans 8:28-29), but we will never realize that if we are oppressed by the accusation that we are “just a sinner.” All we’ll do is apply more lipstick.