In Christian language, the term ‘sinner’ is a theological term, which describes the human condition of being separated from God. It applies to all human beings, for those who believe that they are God’s children are as aware of not being in God’s presence as those who see God’s absence as evidence that God does not exist. Crucially, it is not a moral term: it is perfectly possible to be a morally good sinner; and, indeed, all are some of the time and many are much of the time.
In Christian language, the term ‘saint’ is a theological term, which describes the condition of having been made holy – that is, set apart for God’s use – by the person of Jesus Christ. Among Christians, some believe that it applies only to those who recognise this action on Jesus’ part; while others believe that it is his action alone, rather than his action appropriated by our recognition, that is effective. So there is some debate as to whether one can be a sinner without being a saint, or a saint without realising it; but no question that saints are simultaneously sinners. Again, and crucially, it is not a moral term: it is perfectly possible to be a morally bad saint; and, indeed, all are some of the time and many are much of the time.
We express what it means to be a sinner in particular ways. Ways that are shaped by our personality, and by our cultural context. That is to say, people of a common personality are habitually drawn to the same patterns of sinful behaviour, particular ways of hiding from God and from our neighbour and, indeed, from ourselves. Moreover, people of a common culture are drawn to particular expressions of sinful behaviour, some of which we are simply unable to recognise and some of which we simply refuse to face up to. While sin is common to humanity, no individual human is drawn to every possible expression of sin; and in those areas where we habitually struggle, sometimes overcoming and other times failing, it turns out that nobody is a very original sinner.
But we also express what it means to be a saint in particular ways. This is because Jesus lays hold of the particular ways in which we live out what it means to be a sinner and transforms these characteristics into something holy. Indeed, there is no other raw material for him to work with.
That is why over and over again we hear stories of Jesus inviting people to have their deepest insecurity be transformed into their deepest insight. Peter, ‘the Rock’, whose need for security at times pulls him back from the adventure of faith and at other times pre-emptively lands him in danger, discovers that the most ethereal things of God are more substantial than the solid foundations of worldly society. Zacchaeus, compelled to collect more than is possibly needed, discovers the joy of giving. The rich young man whose material wealth numbs the pain of the world is invited to discover that life will be found, felt, truly experienced, only if he will abandon his opiate. The leaders of Israel, set in opposition to God, his prophets, his people, the Romans, the world, are invited to embrace the vulnerable wound graciously gifted their father Israel, and to discover the favour of the Sovereign Lord for those who are oppressed.