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Saints are Still Sinners

Thesis XVII–You are not rightly distinguishing Law and Gospel in the Word of God if you describe believers in a way that is not always realistic—both with regard to the strength of their faith and to the feeling and fruitfulness of their faith.”

“You can always tell a German,” the joke begins. “You just can’t tell him much.”

“You can always tell a Christian,” people suppose. Or can you?

It is assumed that a Christian lives a wholesome lifestyle, is honest, hardworking, a model citizen, and one who keeps his temper under control. He’s a family man, a regular church attender, compassionate, and willing to serve. But there are problems with using benchmarks of piety as a measure of Christianity. The most obvious is that they can be faked. You don’t have to be a Christian to look pious. Consider the Pharisees of old or the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses of today. And what happens if a Christian doesn’t live up to those things? Are there sins that a true Christian could never commit? Sadly, no. Is there any commandment that a Christian is incapable of breaking? No again.

In the 1980’s, Jim and Tammy Bakker’s PTL Ministries was worth millions. Best-guess estimates were that they took in north of $1 million per week in offerings. Then came the scandal. In the fall of 1987, Bakker was accused of sexual misconduct and of using church funds as hush money. His resignation opened the door for another televangelist to step in. Jimmy Swaggart piously described Bakker as “a cancer on the body of Christ” that had to be cut off. A few months later, Swaggart himself was charged with immorality. The point? When Christians feel they are above temptation, or that there are sins into which they themselves could never fall, they should “take heed.” (1 Corinthians 10:12)

Scripture is pointblank honest about the failings of the men and women of faith. Not once, but twice, Abraham lied about Sarah being his sister. Three times, Peter denied Jesus even after his valiant promise several hours earlier. Moses killed a man. David, the man after God’s own heart, committed adultery, deception, and a rash of sins to cover his tracks. From one end of Scripture to the other, the Bible affirms, “All have sinned and fall short. . . .” (Romans 3:23) All but One. Jesus confronted every temptation and remained perfect. Then, Jesus stood under the wrath of God in our place. For our greatest sins He offers an even greater cure—His grace.

Every Christian is a saint the moment God brings him to faith. Every Christian is also a sinner until the moment God delivers him from “this body of death.” (Romans 7:24) Saint Zacchaeus was still Sinner Zacchaeus. Jesus forgave the woman caught in adultery, but added that she shouldn’t fall back into the same old sin. Underestimate the wickedness of your flesh at your own peril. Walther’s concern is that we don’t suggest that some sins are too great for a Christian to ever commit. Or worse, too great for our Savior to forgive.

Is there a way to tell a Christian? There is, actually. Watch what happens when people sin. Unbelief turns from God with indifference or impenitence. Christians run to God for mercy and forgiveness. Unbelief ultimately despairs, as in the case of Judas. Faith rejoices in God’s grace, as in the case of Peter.

Christians don’t always feel saved. Some sins leave spiritual scar tissue long after they’re forgiven. Therefore faith rests, not on ourselves, but on our Savior. We need not look within to find a reason for God to love and forgive us. Look instead to His Word, His cross, and His empty tomb.


One of the hallmarks of the Lutheran Church is its proper understanding and application of the Bible’s two main teachings—Law and Gospel. Dr. C.F.W. Walther’s seminal work, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, is the basis for this two-year series. Note: page numbers given are accurate for the 1929 and 1986 editions of the book.

When Christians feel they are above temptation, or that there are sins into which they themselves could never fall, they should “take heed.”

[To read Walther’s The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel for free online, and to access related Bible class materials, go to]

James Albrecht is pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Okabena, Minnesota.