How do you address those in the family of God, the church? What do you remind them of? That they are sinners or that they are saints? Is it appropriate to call those saved by the blood of Jesus sinners or is there a more appropriate term?
These were questions running through my mind, which caused me to consider how the letters in the New Testament are addressed to the believers and churches by Paul, Peter, James, and John. The results surprised me.
Romans 1:7 To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints.
1 Corinthians 1:2 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. (Also see 2 Corinthians 1:1b)
Ephesians 1:1b To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 1:1b To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi.
Colossians 1:2a To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae.
The overwhelming biblical evidence for how Paul addresses fellow believers is as “saints.” As a body of believers, he clearly sees the family of God as a membership of saints and not sinners. But Paul does address believers in other ways as we see in Colossians above. He also notes throughout his letters in the New Testament that fellow believers are his “brothers.” Consider 1 Thessalonians 1:4:
For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you.
See also Romans 1:13; 1 Corinthians 1:10; 2 Corinthians 1:8; Galatains 1:11; Philippians 1:12; Colossians 4:15; 2 Thessalonians 1:3; 1 Timothy 4:6; 2 Timothy 4:21, and the other 94 references to brothers in Paul’s letters.
The other writers of the New Testament address believers the same way.
James 1:2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.
2 Peter 1:10 Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.
1 John 1:13 Do not be surprised, brothers,that the world hates you.
James, Peter, and John all address believers as “brothers.”
Is there an appropriate time to call out believers as sinners? Paul is likely are best resource to answer this question. Without calling believers “sinners,” he reminds believers about their previous position as sinners.
Ephesians 2:12 Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.
Colossians 1:21 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds.
Paul reminds believers about their status in the past tense. They were separated. They were alienated. They had no hope.
Ephesians 2:13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
Colossians 1:22 He has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.
But right after calling the believers’ attention to what they were, he turns their attention to what they are now. In Christ Jesus we are brought near by the blood of Christ. We have been reconciled. We are presented as holy and blameless in God’s sight as a result of Jesus Christ.
Someone might ask, what about Romans 7:24, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Paul calls himself wretched or sinner. When considering the context of that statement and the very next verse, this is a great example of Paul remembering who he was apart from Christ but then landing on the sure and certain promises of Jesus Christ. Romans 7:25 follows with, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” While Paul knows that apart from Christ he is wretched, he overflows in praise to God for Jesus Christ our Lord who has saved us from our bodies of death. Paul’s point is for us to look to and remember who has delivered him, Jesus Christ through his death and resurrection. Paul’s point is Jesus Christ!
In conclusion, the appropriate way, per the Bible, to address fellow believers is to call them saints or brothers and sisters. Additionally, if we call to mind that we were once sinners then equally we need to call to mind the truth of the gospel that we are now righteous in the eyes of God on account of Jesus Christ whereby the pervading thought in our minds is what we are in Christ Jesus saved, redeemed, and belong to God.
Furthermore, it does not appear appropriate to call out believers as sinners especially keeping Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians in his second letter in mind: