Search this blog

Terry Johnson:

If all I hear is that I am a son and a saint, I may become flippant about sin and negligent of duty.

However, if I err in the other direction, I may sink into the Slough of Despond. If all I hear is that I am a miserable wretch of a sinner, then I am unlikely to experience the joy of forgiveness: justification, adoption, and the certainty of eternal life.

If all I hear is that I am a servant, then God may become to me an oppressive taskmaster, whose presence is avoided because an awareness of God means still another task added to my already overburdened job description.

You can read the whole thing here.

HT: Carl Trueman

View Comments


21 thoughts on “Remembering All Four Elements of Our Identity in Christ”

  1. Derek says:

    Bifurcating our identity is risky business. Unfortunately, that is what this article purports. Packer is correct that “balance” is a horrible word and Paul would agree. Until a proper understanding of Paul’s theological perspective – that grace leads to obedience – is communicated in a clear and practical way, believers will continue to try to make sure they straddle the fence of grace and works, which the Reformers so valiantly fought against. If too much grace can lead to sin then Christ must be a minister of sin (Galatians 2:17). In fact, you simply cannot have too much grace, and grace always leads to obedience, unless of course, you believe that our identity can be dichotomized, in which case Christ must be causing the sin. May it never be!

  2. Roger Ball says:

    I agree with JI Packer. The word balance carries the idea of moderation which suggests hesitation and lukewarmness. I believe the categories of neglect and disregard are better suited.

  3. Chris says:

    I am slightly confused by the preceding comments. It is Paul who teaches that we are sons, saints, sinners, and servants. Terry Johnson is teaching Paul’s theological perspective, and clearly believes that grace leads to obedience. He doesn’t say that too much grace can lead to sin; he says that an improper understanding and presentation of grace can lead to sin. The notion of ‘balance’ doesn’t suggest moderation, hesitation, or lukewarmness, but rather an attempt to give due weight to the biblical data as it is presented in Scripture. The mention of the necessity of obedience by the already-justified-Christian does not represent an attempt to straddle grace and works.

  4. Dave Moore says:

    We also must be careful when we speak of “identity.” The way we conceptualize this idea, especially with the so-called “positional truths” may be owing more to modern, psychological categories rather than theology.

  5. anaquaduck says:

    To me, tension & balance is the same thing, perspective also. It’s holding onto or perceiving many things at once.

    Grace & good works go hand in hand; they complement each other, given the proper context & relationship. Get it wrong & it’s no longer the gospel in all its beauty & power.

    Food for the body requires a balanced diet, I would rather have a balanced view of Scripture, a congregation & humanity than an imbalanced one; otherwise I may go down the path of the Pharisee’s or the tax collectors.

    The dynamic of the 4 S’s is or should be close to the heart of any church body. The thing is, even getting it right from the pulpit or a person doesn’t mean growth, that is Gods task alone.

  6. Kenton says:

    I don’t get Johnson’s worry about an over-identification as saints and sons. It seems that what occurs is a misunderstanding of what it means to be a son and a saint. Son denotes filial status as well as filial obligation. Saint denotes consecration and an obligation to purity as one who resides in the presence of the Holy God. Neither aspect, fully embraced, should lead to less obedience or undue confidence.

    The other aspects are important of course, for the reasons he states. But the aspects of our status that are more centrally rooted in the gospel are son and saint. The general consensus is that we were sinners, cut off from God. But now, though we still live in the flesh and are tempted by it, we are saints and sons, members of God’s own household, serving in hope of the glory of God.

  7. Hmmm, I am a little confused about some of this. I figured that we should have a balance of scripture. Being the body of Christ and following his command of worship, witness & work, is all we need.

    I like what James said in his epistle:

    James 1: 22 But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.

    2: 18 Yea, a man may say , Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.

    19 Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe , and tremble .

    20 But wilt thou know , O vain man, that faith without works is dead?

  8. John Thomson says:

    ‘If all I hear is that I am a son and a saint, I may become flippant about sin and negligent of duty.’

    Not sure I agree with this. Both titles are used by Paul to prevent flippancy about sin and neglect of duty; grace stresses both. On the other hand, a believer is never called in Scripture ‘a miserable wretch of a sinner’. Bit of a ‘Reformed’ imbalance here.

    1. Kenton says:

      I think a good question is whether these terms are meant to refer to status or nature. I think the terms refer to the former. We were sinners by status, separated from God and liable to His righteous wrath. But now, we are sons and saints, members of God’s household. We are not sons and saints by nature, yet. We are still being conformed into the image of His Son. And we are being purified and sanctified by Christ, who will present us before God as holy and blameless. We shall be like him.

      So in that sense we are “sinners”, if we are referring to nature. We are not yet perfected. That doesn’t mean that we are still sinners by status (the term is mostly one of status). Sinner pertains to what we once were apart from God. Even when Paul calls himself the “chief of sinners”, he says that not because of present sin but because of his past sin against God’s people.

      The three that really matter are son, saint, and servant; and if you notice from Scripture, these three are not aspects of identity to be balanced, but overlap and complement one another. For even Jesus is identified by these three titles (Son of God, Holy One, Servant). And because we are in him, we are sons of God, saints of God, servants of God.

  9. John-What do you make of Paul identifying himself as “the worst of sinners” in 1 Timothy 1:15, or Romans 4 talking about God justifying the ungodly, or Paul’s struggle with sin in Romans 7.

    I agree with you that grace stresses both sonship and obedience. But, I don’t think this elimnates the fact that we are simultaneously just and sinner (as Martin Luther would say).

    Further, I think what Terry Johnson is getting at here, is that a proper understanding of son and saint as identity also must include an understanding of being a servant. I think his point isn’t that shouldn’t call ourselves saints or sons, but rather that a biblical understanding of saint is that you are simultaneously a sinner, yet a saint b/c you are justified by Christ. Also, you are a redeemed son of God, yet you aren’t redeemed to yourself, you are freed unto obedience to Christ.

  10. John Thomson says:


    I agree with Kenton – the question is one of how we are using th words – status or nature. Son and saint are status words, as is sinner. Christians sin but are not sinners (this is not their identity). As Kenton says, 1 Tim 1, Paul is describing himself in terms of his pre-conversion self. Similarly, Scripture would not describe us now as ‘ungodly’. Once we were darkness but now we are light in the Lord; once dead in sin but now alive; once children of wrath but now we have peace etc.

    In Roms 7, to my mind, we do not have a description of a new covenant believer but of a regenerate person trying to live ‘under law’. Roms 7 is not so much a struggle with sin as constant defeat. He has no power for good – everything produces death. Roms 7 is the marriage to law described in vv1-6. Marriage to Christ is Roms 8.

    ‘Sinner’ is used three times in Romans and never in Romans 7. In each case it is a preconversion status/identity.

    The problem with Luther’s ‘saint yet sinner’ is that his use of ‘saint’ is intended as ‘status’ while his use of ‘sinner’ is intended as ‘nature’. We naturally read both as ‘status’.

    At a functional level, the problem with calling believers ‘sinners’ is that it is generally used as an excuse for sin, something Scripture never gives us.

    Jono linthaugh has a good article about this (born out of a discussion with me) where he defends Luther’s phrase but concedes it is misunderstood.

    Kenton’s comment expresses my own understanding well.

  11. pete head says:

    “sinners” is what we were, not what we are.

  12. It cannot hurt us to daily offer the two exclamatory affirmations of the gospel:

    Romans 7:24 – “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
    Romans 7:25 – “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

    But it is beneficial to go on to the two promises for those who confess these affirmations:

    1. No condemnation:

    “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

    2. No separation:

    “And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

    1. Kenton says:

      Again I think it is important to note the distinction between nature and status. “wretched man” refers to “for I know that no good thing dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.” But when he says, “wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me”, he is saying that without Christ, and without the Spirit, he is wretched and enslaved to sin. In Christ, and filled with the Spirit, he has been set free from sin and death. In himself he is wretched, but having been filled with the Spirit, he has now died to sin and lives to God, through faith in the Son of God. Therefore, by the Spirit he is no longer wretched.

      I think an appropriate passage is Philippians 3, where Paul states that he has not yet arrived, not is he yet perfect, but he presses forward, looking to the day when Christ shall raise us from the dead and transform our corrupt, decaying bodies into reflections of his glorious body. That doesn’t mean that he identifies as a sinner (one who sins habitually). As even John doesn’t call himself or us sinners, though he states that everyone of us still sins and is in need of forgiveness and cleansing.

      But the distinction between status and nature gets at the heart of the misunderstanding. If we view ourselves as saints and sons by nature, then we run the risk of treating our own sins lightly. If we view ourselves as sinners by status then we run the risk of thinking that we have to earn our way to God. If we view ourselves as sinners by nature who have been given status as sons and saints and filled with the Spirit in order that we might become sons and saints by nature, then grace becomes the motivator and all glory goes to God who justifies the ungodly and glorifies the righteous.

  13. John Thomson says:


    Largely agree with this. My main problem lies in ‘If we view ourselves as saints and sons by nature, then we run the risk of treating our own sins lightly.’. Now I know you are stressing nature here rather than status, however, it seems to me that the more we think of ourselves as sons/saints (by status and nature) the more we will hate sin.

    If I think of myself as a thief I may hate myself for being so but I will steal and say its just my nature, I can’t help it. Give a dog a bad name… However, if I think of myself as representative of Government I will be more likely to live as such and think twice before I disgrace my office.

    If you are, however, simply underlining that although we are sons/saints by status and although we have the nature of sons and the power of sons (the Spirit) yet we must constantly recognise that these operate by faith (constant dependence on God in Christ to live by these realities) then I agree.


    Much that you say I amen, however, I don’t think ‘O wretched man that I am’ is proper Christian experience. It is the experience of someone trying to live life under their own strength looking to the law as a resource and finding nothing to help. He is wretched because try as he will he cannot overcome sin and finds no relief from failure before law. Now I accept this is the practical experience of many believers, especially where the law is seen as a rule of life, and a rule-keeping mentality governs sanctification. When we look at Christian obedience simply as a standard to attain to we immediately feel condemned. We are powerless. We long to keep it but never do. Our problem is we are approaching the Christian life as if it was a morality test, as if we were children called to keep rules.

    Now don’t get me wrong, there are obligations in the Christian life but we do not try to achieve these by making a check list rather we seek to live with daily dependence on the Spirit, who in turn focuses our thoughts on Christ and all he has achieved thus providing an example and motive that purifies our hearts and enables us to live godly lives. Ask me to forgive and I will not do so. Tell me that God in Christ has forgiven me and given me his own Spirit (the Spirit of forgiveness) and his own nature that I too may forgive, and I will follow.

    We may properly feel wretched for a time when we consciously and wilfully sin and we may well, when we see much indwelling sin, feel wretched, but that is not the reason for wretchedness in Roms 7; it is wretchedness because of an utter inability to obey. It is the wretchedness of someone who has not realised he is no longer under law but under grace (Roms 6) or to say the same thing in another way, does not realise he is no longer married to law but is married to Christ.

    1. Kenton says:

      I realize that. The problem comes with a misunderstanding of what it means to be adopted and sanctified, and I suppose it would only come up if someone already has a rather light view of sin (as in, a cheap view of grace). But as you indicate, that’s not a result of identifying too much as a son or saint, but an improper and incomplete view of them.

  14. Hermonta Godwin says:

    Here is a link to a helpful article by Rev. Bredenhof on how Christians should view themselves.

    1. Kenton says:

      Could Romans 7 be a hypothetical person without the Spirit who is aware of his own slavery to sin and the effects that the Law produces in him? After all, what Paul states in the chapter is that he was alive before the Law, and then he died after the Law, and he is of the flesh, sold under sin, and a wretch in need of deliverance from sin and death. Bottom line, I think the point worth noting is that the body is still corrupted by sin in the flesh, and therefore according to the flesh, we are still sinners. According to the Spirit, we are sons of God, and that is why we live according to the Spirit, and not according to the flesh.

      But I think there’s a general consensus that we are to identity as sons of God and saints of God, who still live in the body with its sinful passions and lusts, but who can find grace to help in the time of need and a covering for all of our unrighteousness. Only a few verses refer to Christians as sinners in the present (in fact only one that I know in Timothy), so our frequent use of the term to refer to ourselves is disproportionate with its frequency in Scripture, which is our only rule and guide. Corinthians provides a good Scriptural view of our state as sinners:

      Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11

      In other words, “You were sinners without hope of the kingdom of God. But you were cleansed, set apart, and declared righteous by the Spirit, in the name of Jesus.” “were” indicates that we are no longer sinners, which does not mean that we are perfect or do not sin. It means that we are no longer among those who practice such things.

      It’s also worth noting that the term sinner is never used to refer to one who possesses a nature corrupted by sin. It’s used to refer to those who make a practice and lifestyle of sinning, and who are under judgment from God as sinners. So when Paul says, “And such were some of you”, he is not saying that they no longer have sinful desires (or that they are no longer tempted by and weak towards those desires). He’s saying that you are no longer identified by God as a sinner, and you no longer make a practice of sinning.

      Equally, in Ephesians when Paul says that we were “by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind”, he’s not necessarily saying that we are existentially sinners (or sinful). He’s saying that our environment and upbringing were in sin, such that we were customarily sinners, dead in sins. But God made us alive and opened our eyes to the truth, filling us with his Spirit and enabling us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts and freeing us to serve him. So, scripturally, though it is right to refer to ourselves as still periodically drawn away by lusts and confronted with inner sin, being yet unperfected, it is not scripturally accurate to refer to ourselves as sinners, a term that refers to practice and status. It comes down to how we are defining “sinner”. Do we mean that we are just as likely to sin as we were before (as though there is no real change)? Or do we mean that we, that is, our bodies and minds, are still enslaved to sin outside of the Holy Spirit? He states that we should see ourselves as justified sinners. However, what about seeing ourselves as sons and saints who have been brought into God’s household with the hope of being like the Son of God? We grow in holiness as sons through discipline, we have access to God as sons, and we have hope of eternal life and being joint-heirs with Christ as sons. This identity keeps us tethered to Christ, when properly understood. For it is only in Christ that we have anything.

    2. Bob Coffey says:

      Bredenhof’s acticles are very good. I find it interesting that Bredenhof writes on page 8 … As we grow in grace, more and more our eyes are opened to the defects and weaknesses that still cling to us, we more and more see the sinfulness of sin. Sounds so much like Geear “The Gospel” page 56 Get this: That is Spiritual Progress. To grow in awareness of the depths of sin God has save you from is growth in the gospel.

  15. John Thomson says:


    I agree that Roms 7 is technically a hypothetical person (a regenerate person without the Spirit)though I think functionally believers may place themselves here by subjectively treating their new lives in Christ as one lived by a rule-keeping mentality, with a sense that God is more Judge than Father and they are more slaves than sons – a condition we can all be inclined to slip into, especially if we hold a view (as many do) that says ‘the law takes us to Christ for justification and Christ takes us to the law for sanctification’.

Comments are closed.

Search this blog


Justin Taylor photo

Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

Justin Taylor's Books