Is it appropriate for a Christian to say “I am still a sinner?”
We need to consider the context in which such a statement is made and what exactly the person means when making such a statement. All that said, in general, I do not think it appropriate for a believer to make the statement “I am a sinner”. We shall now look more in detail at why.
It is clear from Scripture that all humans (except Jesus) are born with a sinful nature (Psa. 51:5, Prov. 22:15, Eph. 2:3). When we come to Christ for salvation we are born again through the Holy Spirit and are given a new nature (Jn. 3:3-7, 1 Pet. 1:3, 23). Although we have a new nature, the old nature (old self, Rom. 6:6) can still cause trouble. We sin, but should not be identified by that sin (Rom 6:11) or be enslaved by it (Rom 6:16). We confess that sin to God (1 Jn. 1:9) and strive to live in our new nature (Col. 3:9-10, Eph. 4:22-24).
I do not want to minimize the importance of self-judgment, but that must be done from a proper realization of our place “in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:17; etc.) otherwise it may lead to the downward spiral of discouragement and despair (2 Cor. 2:7). So, we need to remember that sin is damaging and must not be trifled with. But, we are given comfort in the fact that “if anyone does sin we have an advocate with the Father” (1 Jn. 2:1). Yet, we must avoid the phrase (“I am still [or, just] a sinner”) as simply an excuse for our sin.
So, what is the normal designation for those who believe? A good place to start is to look at the salutations found in the letters the apostle Paul sent to the Assemblies and to some individuals. I recommend looking at all of them, but we cannot review them all here. Here are two.
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:1 Corinthians 1:2
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,Ephesians 1:1
To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus:
Paul’s letter to the Galatians is the only one that does not have a similar greeting. In that letter, he had doubts about their faithfulness (Gal. 1:6; 3:3; 4:20; etc.) and so the omission is understandable. It is clear that in all other cases he addressed the believers as “saints”. Someone has said, “You are saints, now act like it.” So, it is important to think of ourselves in the manner presented in scripture and seek to act in a way that is consistent with it. A simple example is that we do not look at our feet when we run (literally), we look ahead at where we are going.
If it is recommended to be careful calling ourselves sinners, why does Paul refer to himself as the “foremost” and the “worst” of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15-16)? For context, Paul was writing to Timothy thanking Christ for being appointed to the service of Christ despite formerly being a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent of Christ and His church. Paul acknowledged the amazing grace and mercy the Lord showed to him and compares them to him being a sinner. The “foremost of sinners” is present tense but the mercy shown (v15) is past tense. Paul identified himself as being the “worst of sinners” in order to provide stark contrast with the immenseness of the Lord’s mercy. The contrast is also seen in his letter to Corinth (1 Cor. 15:9-10) and to the Galatians (Gal. 1:13-15) where we see the persecution of the church (past tense) and present grace. So, although Paul does call himself a “sinner”, in all these cases the theme is the greatness of God’s mercy which delivered him and blessed him.
The term “sinner” is applied when a course of sin is being pointed out as a contrast to what is normal for the Christian as in the following verses in James:
Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.James 4:8
My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.James 5:19–20
Remember James presents very practical teaching. To understand the doctrinal foundation of our walk we need to turn to Paul’s letter to the Romans. In this letter, Paul establishes the complete ruin of mankind, the deliverance of the believer from the penalty of sin, and the deliverance of the believer from the power of sin. The struggle described in chapter 7 is familiar, but the deliverance from this struggle is given in the 8th chapter beginning with the acceptance of the truth that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 8:1) A consistent walk with Christ must be built on that foundation. This does not mean we become sinless. Sinfulness (“the flesh”) remains in us even though we are no longer slaves of sin (Rom 6:18-19). We now, as believers, have the ability to “walk in the spirit.” (Gal. 5:16-17)