|A94 : by Tony Garland |
There is both a short and a long answer to your question.
The short answer is that the statements you've heard and the Bible dictionary are all correct—the term "sinner" can describe either unbelievers or believers since all men, both before (1K. 8:46; 2Chr. 6:36; Job 4:17; 35:4; Ps. 130:2; Luke 18:19; Rom. 3:9,12,19,23) and after (Luke 17:3; Jas. 3:2; 1Jn. 1:8-10) salvation do sin.
The two statements recognize the universality of sin and that believers are not saved by overcoming sin (e.g., works), but by grace. The Bible dictionary is using the term "sinner" with its New Testament emphasis—describing the condition of a person before salvation when they are still a slave to sin (Luke 15:7; Rom. 6:16; 2Pe. 2:19).
The longer answer is that although all men are "sinners" by nature, believers—those who are regenerated by the Holy Spirit and are enabled to overcome sin by walking in the Spirit rather than the flesh (Rom. 8:4; Gal. 5:16)—are no longer considered to be "sinners" in the eyes of God.
Throughout the New Testament, those redeemed by the blood of Jesus and justified before God are referred to as "saints" (e.g., ἁγίοις [hagiois], Eph. 1:1). This Greek word for "saint" can also be translated as "holy" and denotes that which is set apart for God's sacred purpose.
As the above passages make clear, "saints" can and do sin. So long as believers continue in their natural bodies they retain the sin nature in the flesh. Thankfully, unlike the unbeliever, they are no longer slaves to sin, but are enabled by the power of the Spirit to walk in a way which avoids sin and pleases God. Will they do this perfectly all the time? No (Rom. 7:14-24; Jas. 3:2; 1Jn. 1:8-10).
When using the term "sinner," it is important to consider perspective. In whose eyes is the person considered to be a "sinner"? Since believers, by virtue of being reconciled to God by Jesus, stand completely justified in His sight, even though they still fall in sin on occasion, they are no longer viewed as "sinners" in His sight. This is an important truth that believers must grasp: we must view ourselves as God views us in Christ in order to walk in the fullness of what He has done for us. To the degree we continue to think of ourselves as "sinners" we are denying the emphasis of the New Testament and making it that much more difficult for us to walk in the victory which has already been obtained to bring us freedom over sin.
In summary, all individuals are technically "sinners" in that all sin and fall short of the perfection of God. All who are saved by Christ are washed clean and justified and viewed by both the New Testament and God as "saints." Believers are saints because God the Father sees them as wearing the righteousness of Jesus (Mat. 22:1-14). As believers, we should think of ourselves as the New Testament describes us before God: saints!