Recently, on September 16, the topic on this blog was sin and how Christians seem to be obsessed with it.* All Christians know sin is real and we know we need to admit that it is real in our lives but there is overwhelming evidence that we struggle to acknowledge it. On September 23, the topic was the sin nature that humans have and where that sin nature comes from. I stated repeatedly that the only way we can deal with this “nature” is to utilize the power of Jesus Christ in our lives.
But I have to ask, why is sin so confusing?
“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” [from the Apostle Paul, writing in Romans 7].
Of course these words are written by one of the most important figures of Christianity; some say the second most important person after Jesus Christ.
And Paul is struggling to understand why he sins.
On September 23rd, we discussed the sin nature that all humans have; now let’s discuss the nature of sin.
What is sin?
It can be an act, it can be an attitude or it can be a response against the Person of God or the law of God.** As I have already stated, all of us have choices in life and one of the most important choices we have to make is to live within God’s laws and honor Him or to break those laws and dishonor Him. It is the choice that we inherit from Adam and Eve. It is the choice to choose ourselves over God.
Sin is based on the temptation to declare that we are independent. We are saying that we are so powerful that we can rebel against God. James 1: 14 says it best: “But each one is tempted when by his own evil desires he is lured away and enticed.” We really don’t need our Lord and Savior when we allow ourselves to be lured away.
When James writes “Each one” of course he means all of us.
This desire to sin is the beginning of the act of sinning, yet the desire to sin is not sinning. James admits when desire happens it can give birth to sin but it does not have to. We can stop the process if we listen to the Holy Spirit which is within us, the Holy Spirit which strengthens us against our weaknesses [some simply like to refer to this as “the conscience”].
But what if you can’t stop the process? Obviously the Apostle Paul wants to stop his desire to sin but he cannot. He has the desire to do what is good but he cannot carry it out. Elmer Towns describes this as a six step process: first desire, then intention [the intention to sin]. The third step is to execute a plan to get the object or commit the act. The fourth step is to willingly put the plan into action. The fifth step is to physically move to get the object of sin or to do the wrong action. The final step is to gratify oneself with the sinful object or sinful action.
John Stott sheds more light on sin by grouping sin into two categories, “according to whether wrongdoing is regarded negatively or positively. Negatively, it is a shortcoming. One word represents it as a lapse, a slip, a shooting at a target. Yet another shows it to be an inward badness, a disposition which falls short of what is good. Positively, sin is transgression. One word makes sin the trespass of a boundary. Another reveals it as lawlessness, and another as an act which violates justice” [Stott, 64].
Sin can be premeditated, a rebellious act against God that willfully disobeys God’s clear command. There is also such a thing as a sin of ignorance which is breaking God’s law without being consciously aware that one is sinning. A sin of commission is doing something contrary to God’s laws. A sin of omission is failing to do something that God has commanded that we do.
Let’s return to Paul. Why is he in a struggle with sin? This is a man who had a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. This is a man who did more to spread the Christian faith than almost any other.
He knew Jesus Christ, yet he was still human.
Like Paul, we can know Jesus Christ but we are still human. This raises the question can a person be a “born again believer” and fall into sin?
Expect it will happen. When I was born-again, one of the first things I learned was that Satan will continue to attack me through my sin nature. It won’t go away just because I become a believer. I remember a mature Christian telling me that your previous sin is like an “old man” that you carry around in a bag that is slung across your back. We try to keep the old man in the bag but despite our best efforts the old man comes out from time to time. When he does we should try to stuff him back into the bag.
First John 2: 1 says “My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin” but he has already said “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” [1 John 1: 8]. God tells us not to sin, but He knows that we will. He is faithful to forgive us of our sins and He promises to cleanse us from our unrighteousness.
In short, God does not expect sinless perfection. He knows we are not capable. But Towns comments that when “a person is saved he no longer lives in a continual habitual state of sin…there is a breaking of the perpetual hold of sin in the life of the believer” .
What can happen over time to the believer who tries to live a more righteous life? God will begin to live inside you and you will hear Him speak to you in thoughts that are not your own. Isaiah 30: 21 says “This is the way; walk in it.” If we listen to God’s guidance, we will do more and more that pleases Him and less and less that pleases only ourselves. He will show great love for the believer and the believer will desire more and more time with Him in worship, prayer and study. Will temptation rear its ugly head? Yes. That is why the Apostle Paul writes in First Corinthians 15:31: “I affirm, brethren, by the boasting in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily.” Every day temptations occur but Paul is relying on his faith in God and His Son Jesus to overcome the temptations. Will he achieve sinless perfection? He knows he will not.
Just as we began this post with Paul’s confusion about his efforts to conquer sin, we close this post with Paul’s admission of continual weakness regarding his sinning. In Second Corinthians 12: 7-8 he says “So to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.” But the Lord would not. Maybe you have been so disheartened by your sinning that you wish God would take your weaknesses away…but He won’t.
One of the most stunning revelations I have ever had in my life to this point was what God told Paul about His weaknesses. God said “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is perfected in weakness.” I took that to mean that when I fall I am weak and that is when God is His strongest. In my weakness is His strength.
God never desired for man to be sinless. There was only one man who was sinless and that was His Son Jesus Christ, the one who came to show us how to live righteous lives, the one who came to forgive us of our sins, the one who showed us that accepting God as our Savior is the true pathway to eternal life.
When I sin, I feel a palpable sense of despair. That is not surprising, but I know that I will never lead a sinless life. When I sin I also feel God’s greatest strength as He picks me up, dusts me off and says to me “stand tall and continue forward in life, a life dedicated to Me.”
Truly His grace is sufficient…
*This is post number three of a series of posts from John Stott’s Basic Christianity. This is from part two of his book, Chapter 5, “The Fact and Nature of Sin.”
**helpful information came from Bible Answers for All Your Questions by Elmer Towns.