QUESTION: Why do so many Christians, including preachers, refer to themselves as” “Just a sinner saved by grace”? Isn't that biblically incorrect? [The correspondent added, in a later e-mail, "I can find no place in the New Testament that calls, or refers to, Christians as 'sinners'"]
ANSWER: Interesting question. Let's begin with the claim that no Christian in the Bible refers to himself as a sinner.
Paul says, "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief [the foremost]" (I Tim. 1:15). Notice, it is not "I was" the foremost of sinners, but "I am." Until we get to Glory we'll have that sinful nature still. And Albert Barnes wrote, "The most eminent Christian has the deepest sense of the depravity of his own heart." Poet and hymn writer Lucy Ann Bennett (1850-1927) puts it this way:
O teach me what it meaneth, for I am full of sin,
And grace alone can reach me, and love alone can win.
O teach me, for I need Thee, I have no hope beside--
The chief of all the sinners for whom the Saviour died!
Paul also calls himself as "less than the least of all the saints [again using a present tense]" (Eph. 3:8). And, in his testimony, he also reflects a great deal on what he once was (Acts 26:10-11), even describing himself as a "blasphemer" (I Tim. 1:13). No, we are not to dwell on the past. But a frank testimony of where we've come from can sometimes help to emphasize how far the Lord has brought us, to His greater glory.
It is not inconsistent for a Christian to embrace his exalted standing in Christ, and still recognize his proneness to go astray, apart from consistent dependence on God. It is to believers Paul writes, exhorting them to walk (more literally, keep on walking) in the Spirit (Gal. 5:16), because, "the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish" (vs. 17).
As to the saying you mention, here are a few thoughts.
Dr. James Martin Gray wrote a gospel song in 1905, along those lines. It's called, “Only a Sinner.” I doubt that he invented the expression. It was likely being said by others before him, and he simply put into the framework of a song.
Gray was a fine theologian. In later years, he would become the president of Moody Bible Institute, in Chicago. He knew what he was talking about. But I think we need to identify two or three things he was not saying.
1) He was not saying that being a sinner is an insignificant thing. Sometimes we hear of a person who survived an automobile accident with “only a scratch”–in other words, a very insignificant injury. But sin is not like that. To be a sinner–which we all are (Rom. 3:23) is a terrible and destructive condition. It puts us in the position of being God’s enemies (Rom. 5:10), upon whom His eternal condemnation rests (Jn. 3:18, 36).
Not only that, but sin is overwhelmingly significant in terms of the extent to which God had to go to deliver us from it. God, in love, acted to save us, poor, miserable, helpless sinners that we are (Jn. 3:16). He sent is own Son to take sin’s punishment in our place (I Cor. 15:3), so that we, through faith in Him, might be forgiven, brought into His forever family, and receive the gift of eternal life. We are saved, “according to the riches of His grace” (Eph. 1:7).
2) No one statement can describe all that a saved sinner is. The statement you quote, and Gray’s song about it, make an important point–which I’ll get to in a moment–but we can be sure Dr. Gray was not saying that the only thing we are is saved sinners. God made man as a unique creation, in His own image (Gen. 1:27). What all that means–and I’m not entirely sure–it’s something stupendous. God “crowned [man] with glory and honour” (Ps. 8:5). That is no small thing!
God’s image in us is marred by sin, but not utterly destroyed (cf. Gen. 9:6). In our fallen condition, we have lost much of the potential, and many of the blessings that could have been ours, though we are blessed in many ways still (Matt. 5:45). One day God’s image in believers will be fully restored (Rom. 8:29). The wonder of it is that, through His grace, our inheritance is not only restored, but multiplied.
The saints are considered “joint heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17). In fact, the Bible lists three or four dozen blessings (depending on how we divide them) that God bestows upon us the moment we are saved. To say I’m only a sinner is not meant to ignore my exalted position in Christ, or my eternal future with Christ. It’s the Lord’s intention “that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7). My oh my! What riches!
3) Though it may sometimes be used this way, the statement was not intended to provide a means of personal put-down, words that often seem to express a false (and rather irritating!) humility. Like, “ Look at poor me. I’m nothing, I’m a nobody. I’m worthless.” No! That’s entirely wrong. And it’s often a kind of fishing expedition, an attempt to garner reassuring compliments.
We are, as noted earlier, special creations of God, loved by Him, with a potential beyond imagining. We are certainly unworthy of God’s blessings. That’s where grace comes in. But worthless? Never. As the little boy said, “God don’t make junk.”
What, then, do the saying and the song mean? They are meant to emphasize that the saved person can take no credit for being anything more than a needy sinner–that all the glory belongs to God for his salvation (Eph. 1:12). The opening lines of the song nail down that principle. “Naught [nothing] have I gotten but what I received. Grace [God’s unearned, unmerited favour and blessing] hath bestowed it I since I have believed.”
Naught have I gotten but what I received;
Grace hath bestowed it since I have believed;
Boasting excluded, pride I abase;
I’m only a sinner, saved by grace!
Only a sinner, saved by grace!
Only a sinner, saved by grace!
This is my story, to God be the glory–
I’m only a sinner, saved by grace!
Just how impoverished were we, when unsaved? “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23; cf. Jude 1:15). And the Bible describes us as “having no hope, and [being] without God” (Eph. 2:12), and “without strength [spiritually]” (Rom. 5:6). Apart from God’s grace, “our days on earth are as a shadow, and without hope” (I Chron. 29:15). Yet we are also “without excuse,” since God has done all that’s necessary to reveal Himself to us (Rom. 1:19-20).
Before I came to Christ, says Gray later in his song, “sin ruled my heart”and, as a result, I was on the wrong path and heading the wrong way. Just being sorry for my sin was not enough. “Tears unavailing, no merit had I,” says the hymn. I had nothing I could offer God that would cancel my debt of sin and gain me His acceptance. In fact, it is “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us” (Tit. 3:5).
The sinner is “condemned already” (Jn. 3:18), and “the wrath of God abides on him” (vs. 36), and “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). All of that, and more, is the condition that James Gray captures with his phrase, “only a sinner.” But, praise His name, God in grace has provided a remedy in Christ. The saints are now infinitely more, though we are sinners still.
Seen in this limited way, the saying and the song are fully biblical.