#5 – Saint Vs Sinner – Should Christians Struggle With and be Convicted of Sin?

Do you mortify? Do you make it your daily work? Be always at it whilst you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you. John Owen

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After a few months away from the Saint vs Sinner discussion lets return. Let me restate there are many things I affirm and people I genuinely love and appreciate in the ‘Saints by Nature’ movement. I believe many things taught are helpful, make much of Jesus and should be believed, received and applied. However I maintain that in my view some of the doctrine taught is false and can be dangerous if taken to it’s logical conclusion. One of the key areas I believe this to be so is with regard to the doctrine of sin and how it relates to the Christian.

As discussed in previous posts, both the Old and New Testaments, teach that sin as something that flows from the sinner. Sin cannot and does not exist apart from a human host; to say otherwise is Gnosticism, not biblical or historical Christianity. In this sense sin not only defines activity but also identity. We are not identified as sinners because we sin; rather we participate in the activity of sin because we are identified as sinners. A good example of this can be seen in Jesus’ parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector praying in the temple. The tax collector does not ask for mercy because he had sinned rather it says,

“… the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Lk. 18:13 ESV)

The Tax Collector identified himself as ‘a sinner’ and in need of God’s mercy. Yet the so-called righteous Pharisee no longer viewed himself in need of God’s mercy. He believed he was already righteousness, already good in his own eyes and therefore did not turn to God in need. The story ends stating that it was the humble sinner that was justified, not the proud supposed saint.

This story raises a few important questions?

  • Should Christians continue to struggle with and be convicted of sin? (It appears the righteous Pharisee is unaware of his sin)
  • Should Christians continue to repent of sin? (Being unaware of his sin he did not repent of his sin)
  • Should Christians identify as sinners or saints? (Should the Pharisee have identified himself as a sinner or simply repented of his sin?).

Over the next 3 posts I will attempt to answer each of these questions through an array of scriptural passages. These will be longer than normal. Therefore I’ll give three answers to each question – short, medium and long. Read what you will. Lets begin with question 1.

 

Should Christian continue to struggle with and be convicted of Sin?

 

Short Answer: Yes

Medium: Yes but not defeated or enslaved by sin. The language of the Bible expects an ongoing wrestle, struggle, fight against sin in the life of a believer, but with an expectation of victory through God’s word, the power of God’s Spirit, strength given through other believers and the new nature, with new desires received at the new birth. While there is a genuine wrestle against sin there should also be a pattern of freedom from sin by God’s grace. The Westminster Shorter Catechism makes two helpful statements

Q 35. What is sanctification?
A. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

Q 82. Is any man able perfectly to keep the commandments of God?
A. No mere man, since the fall, is able in this life perfectly to keep the commandments of God, but doth daily break them in thought, word, and deed.

 

Long Answer: Hewbrews 12

Hebrews 12 comes after Hebrews 11. I know I’m an intellectual genius and your thanking me for revealing that incredible mystery to you. But in all seriousness it helps. Hebrews 11 is known as the chapter of faith. It’s filled with stories of men and women who placed their faith in the promises and character of God regardless of circumstances. As ‘pilgrims on the way’, to used language of Michael Horton (read ‘The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way” It’s brilliant) this world is not our home. We are citizens of heaven (Eph. 2:19). The Christian life is going somewhere, it is not stagnant, nor a holiday. It is a walk (Gal. 5:16; Eph. 2:10; Eph. 5:2) it is a race (1 Cor. 9:24) with a specific goal namely Christ.

Chapter 12 uses the idea of a ‘race’ and exhorts Christians to persevere and endure in light of those gone before (witnesses of chapter 11). Note verse 1

12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,

The metaphor of ‘weight’ is used to highlight that sin is something that impedes your Christian life, your journey, your experience, or your ‘race’. It slows you down, holds you back. As Christians we are to fight against sin, we are to discard it, remove it, take it off, “lay it aside”. The writer of Hebrews had an expectation that sin would be something Christians continue to deal with.

 

looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.

 

The writer then moves to Jesus. We are not to not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin”, rather we to look to Jesus trusting that he is the founder of our faith as well as the perfector of it. Also we are to endure like Jesus did. The objection often raised here however is to point to the fact that Jesus is the example yet he did not struggle from sin within. Therefore in light of that, this struggle against sin must be referring to sin from without. Again read my previous posts of how sin is described throughout all scripture, as we are to understand each passage of scripture in light of the whole. My reply would be that while Jesus is the current example and did not struggle from sin within; he is one of many examples given in order to make the greater point – ENDURE. The witnesses prefaced in chapter 11 all suffered from sin within and the key thought of persevering has continued throughout chapter 12. The emphasis is not, ‘be like Jesus’ in every sense, it is be like Jesus in the sense of persevering through struggle. Our struggle, while different from Christ’s, requires the same response – endurance and perseverance.

 

Additionally the Apostle Paul spoke of this struggle and encouraged believers at Rome to wrestle and fight against sin and to put sin to death.

Romans 8:13-14 – For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

To live according to the flesh” indicates that there is a part of the Christian that continues to desire fleshly things and infers that sin remains present but that the believer has the means to kill it ‘by the Holy Spirit’. While not an Apostle, John Owen put it this way.

Do you mortify? Do you make it your daily work? Be always at it whilst you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you.

 

To the Galatian church Paul sought to prepare the, ‘brothers and sisters’, for when other Christians would fall into sin. As Christians that had received God’s forgiveness for their sin, shown through “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward them in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7), they should do likewise when others sin. He additionally warned them to be careful not fall into the same temptation to sin. Once again outlining a real, genuine wrestle.

Galatians 6:1 – Brothers and sisters, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.

 

Back to Hebrews. Verse 5-11 says,

And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him.For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

From exhorting Christians to throw off the weight of sin and to endure in the race, the writer proceeds to talk of God’s discipline and our response to it. Namely we “have to endure” (Vs. 7) and not be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves” (Vs. 5-6). We are to persevere knowing that God loves us and, disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness” (Vs. 10) and that it “yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Vs. 11). Yet there’s even greater encouragement here. Verse 5 & 6, which cite Proverbs 3:11-12, uses the word ‘reproved’. This word is the verb elegchō (ἐλέγχω). It is the exact same word used in John 16:8 when Jesus describes the work of the Holy Spirit as one who will convict (elegchō) the world of concerning sin, and righteousness and judgment.” It is the same word used in Rev. 3:19 in which Christ says, “those whom I love, I reprove (Greek: elegchō) and discipline, so be zealous and repent”. Conviction of sin is an act of the triune God. God the Father (Heb. 12:5), God the Son (Rev. 3:19) and God the Holy Spirit (Jn. 16:8) continue to lovingly convict the believer of sin, calling them to repent of sin in order that they may “share in his holiness” (Heb 12:10) and experience the “peaceful fruit of righteousness”. (Heb. 12:11)

The exhortation continues.

12 Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. 14 Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled;

The writer calls Christians to “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees and make straight paths for you feet” (Vs.12) and to, “see to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble” (Vs. 15). It is a warning to examine our self internally and see what roots there are that needs to be uprooted. The author alludes to Deuteronomy 29:18 which describes a person that turns away from God to false gods. This person is to, “Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit” (Deut. 29:18). Sin exists, not just somewhere out there, but inside, and we are to be aware of it and fight it.

 

SUMMARY: The Hebrew writer is exhorting Christians – you will struggle with sin, persevere, endure, fight.

HOW?

1) Take heart from those gone before you. If they can do it, so can you (Heb. 11-12:1). 2) Look to Jesus the founder and perfector of your faith, the one who began a good work in you and will bring it to completion (Phil. 1:6). Jesus also struggled and endured and therefore is a great example to learn from (Heb 12:2-3). 3) Your Heavenly Father is with you, helping you. Particularly through discipline, and although painful, it’s loving and for you good to keep you on the right path. 4) The Triune God (Father, Son and Spirit) will continually convict you of sin. Not to condemn you, nor to count your sins against you, as they are already forgiven in Christ, but to help you to run your race, conforming you to the image of Christ “that we may share in his holiness” (Vs. 10) and experience the “peaceful fruit of righteousness”. (Heb. 12:11)

 

In our next post we will look question 2 – Should Christians continue to repent of sin? Till then let me know your thoughts.

Saint Vs Sinner #3 – Understanding Sin

It was the intention of the heart that led the hands to take the fruit and eat. Eve saw something she deemed good, even though God had said it was not good, she delighted, she desired and then she ate and Adam likewise. Their sin began in their head and their heart well before their hands.

SIN. Sin is at the heart of this debate. Both sides seek holiness, both believe sin exists and is real, and both long to see a world completely free of sin. Yet it is here that there is much disagreement. While I left you hanging a little bit in the previous post I’m going to leave you there just a little while longer. I know I’m mean. In spite of my cruelty I believe it will serve us best to not make blank statements but rather flesh out a thoroughly considered worldview so that I don’t teach people what to think but how to think.

From the outset let me acknowledge that a blog is not a sufficient medium for such a topic. A treatise is required and yet I will attempt to move forward within this limited means. Secondly, if you are not a Christian, please understand God and therefore the Bible speak very candidly about sin not with the intention to humiliate or to shame rather to save. If what the Bible teaches about sin is true, then we all desperately need a saviour. Much like a doctor would inform a patient of a severe illness in his or her body with the intention to help them rather than hurt them. So too the Bible seeks to highlight the problem of sin in order to present the helpful solution of a saviour.

 

UNDERSTANDING SIN!!!

Sin is simple in one sense but complex in another. The Bible gives us different types or means of sin. I believe these can be seen in the very beginning of the Bible in Genesis 1-4. I’ll attempt to narrate the story and help us see how these play out.

 

1. SIN OF COMMISSION – We Do What We Should Not Do!

The drama is set in a Garden, called Eden, an oasis of beauty and grandeur with four rivers running throughout. God had previously created all that is of the world below and universe above, including the animals of the sky, earth and water and most notably the people, Adam and Eve. While in the garden, Creator God blessed our first parents revealing his goodness and gave instructions revealing their purpose to be, ‘fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, subdue it and have dominion over it’ (Gen. 1:28-29). From the outset there is a distinction made between humanity and God. God is creator and therefore has authority over the created. Thus as created beings we are to be subservient to the good creator God. When we disobey we sin. In Genesis 2:16 God told Adam that they should not eat of a particular tree, and warned that if they ate of it they would die. Now I sympathise with Adam, as a naked wife can be tremendously persuasive. Nonetheless, when they ate of the fruit of the tree (Gen. 3:6) they committed a sin of Commission. They disobeyed God and did what they should not do.

Example: The Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 are another example of God giving instructions to his people of what they should not do. (Thou Shall Not…)

 

2. SIN OF OMISSION – We Do Not Do What We Should Do!

Additionally in the story there is another layer to the sin of Adam. Not only did Adam directly disobey God, he indirectly disobeyed God. Consider the scene further. God told them to subdue the earth and have dominion over “the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28). This therefore begs the question, ‘why does Adam allow the serpent, a living thing that moves, into the garden and to influence the agenda within the garden? The serpent questioned God’s word (“Did God actually say?” Gen. 3:1) and even further, directly refuted God’s word (“You will not surely die”). Thus from the outset the serpent takes the dominion and influence from the man and makes it his own. Thus the serpent sins against God by doing what it should not do and Adam sins by not doing what God has called him to do – have dominion.

Thus it has led many theologians to state that Adam’s first sin was not in eating the forbidden fruit but in allowing the serpent, a false witness of God and his word, to become a resident of the garden in the first place. Adam’s sin is one of omission. He didn’t do what he should have done, that is shut the serpent up, kick the serpent out or even better kill the serpent altogether.

Example: love your neighbour, give to the poor, care for the orphan and widow. When we don’t do these things we commit sins of omission – we don’t do what we should do.

 

3. SIN OF INTENTION – We Do What We Should Do, But We Do So With The Wrong Intention!

This gets to the heart of sin, which is SIN OF THE HEART. Sin, according to Jesus, goes beyond what we do or don’t do with our hands. It extends to the thoughts of our minds and the intentions of our heart (Matt. 5-7). It is here that we begin to see that the sin of Adam and Eve in the garden was not just related to what they did or did not do. It was deeper. In fact Genesis 3 unequivocally says as much,

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Gen. 3:6

It was the intention of the heart that led the hands to take the fruit and eat. Eve saw something she deemed good, even though God had said it was not good, she delighted, she desired and then she ate and Adam likewise. Their sin began in their head and their heart well before their hands.

What was in their heart and mind? Unbelief and idolatry! (Idolatry = false worship or worship of something or someone other than God). They did not trust God as the good God that created them. Before they ever ate the fruit of that tree their heart and mind were filled with unbelief. God had spoken yet they no longer believed God’s word to be trustworthy, because they no longer believed God to be good or trustworthy. Adam and Eve were given the dominion of the whole earth yet not only were they unable to maintain the dominion of a small portion of the earth in the Garden of Eden, they were unable to have dominion even over their own heart and mind.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his work ‘Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1-3’

“The decisive point, is that this question suggests to man that he should go behind the Word of God and establish what it is by himself, out of his understanding of the being of God.… Beyond this given Word of God the serpent pretends somehow to know something about the profundity of the true God who is so badly misrepresented in this human word.” (Pg. 66)

In other words the sin committed by Adam and Eve was to disbelieve God, to make up their own version of god, and to trust in themselves as gods. Their sin is unbelief and idolatry. It is no wonder that both unbelief and idolatry are so prevalently spoken of throughout all of scripture. Tim Keller in his book ‘The Prodigal God puts it this way.

“Nearly everyone defines sin as breaking a list of rules. Jesus, though, shows us that a man who has violated nothing on the list of moral misbehaviours may be every bit as spiritually lost as the most profligate, immoral person. Why? Because sin is not just breaking the rules, it is putting yourself in the place of God as Saviour, Lord and Judge….”

This begins in our hearts and minds and leads us to take actions with our hands.

Example: Matthew 22:37 Jesus commanded us to Love God with all our ‘heart, soul and mind’. All internal, motivational, intentions! Matthew 5-7 is known as Jesus’ ‘Sermon of the Mount’ through which he consistently goes beyond sins of commission or omission and calls attention to sins of intention. (Adultery Vs Lust; Murder Vs Anger; Prayer to be seen by people rather than to be heard by God)

 

4. SIN OF REFLECTION – We Do Not Reflect God’s Good Design!

Other than life itself there is no greater privilege given to humanity than to be made in the ‘image and likeness of God’ (Gen. 1:26-27). While there is much to be said as to what this means or does not mean, it cannot be understated that this distinction between humanity and rest of creation sets a compelling trajectory for the remaining narrative of scripture.

Michael Horton notes in ‘The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way’

“In his deceptive speech, Lucifer makes himself sound like he is more interested in their welfare than God, but his ultimate aim is to make them his image-bearers rather than God’s.” (Pg. 409)

It is not only that we sin by doing something we are instructed not to do, or that we don’t do something we are instructed to do, or even that we do something for the wrong reasons. It is also that by our doing or not doing we in actuality imitate someone or something other than God, the one we are designed to reflect. Adam and Eve are to be witnesses of God and like the serpent become false witnesses. Horton adds here,

“Evil is not a principle in creation itself, but the wilful distortion of good gifts into an arsenal deployed against God’s reign. This perversity corrupts that which is noble, suppresses that which is righteous, smears that which is beautiful, and smothers the light of truth…Every sign of human oppression, violence, idolatry, and immorality in the world can be seen as the perversion of an original good. The commission to be fruitful and to multiply, to work in, guard, protect, and subdue God’s garden so that its peace and righteousness extend to the ends of the earth is twisted into empires of oppression in order to secure a consummation without God.” (Pg. 411)

Instead of being God’s image-bearers, Adam and Eve represent something completely different altogether. Rather than representing the great interests of the good and perfect creator God throughout the entire world, they now represent another. Their sin is of reflection.

Example: Cain and Abel. The story immediately following Adam and Eve’s sin in chapter 3 tells the story of Cain and Abel. Cain is filled with jealousy and anger and unlike God who brought life into the world; Cain takes a life from the world. He reflects another. The remainder of the scripture is a story of humanity reflecting another.

 

UNDERSTANDING JESUS!!!

When we consider all that we have explored above about sin, it leads us to look upon Jesus’ incredible life, for he did not sin, in any way at any time. All Christ did in word and deed was in perfect obedience to the Father. (Jn. 12:49, 14:31, 15:10; Heb. 10:7). There was nothing that Jesus did that he should not have done; nor anything he should have done that he did not do. He never committed a sin of commission or omission. Likewise the intention and motivation of his heart was blameless. Everything he did, he did trusting and submitting to the Father (Jn. 4:34, 5:30, 6:38, 10:18, 12:49-50, 14:30-31, 15:10), with joy (Heb. 12:2), for our joy (Jn. 15:11, 16:24) and in humility and love towards us (Gal. 2:20; Eph. 3:17-19, 5:1-2). Jesus never committed a sin of intention. Even further Christ was the perfect reflection of the Father. To see him was to see God (Jn. 14:9; Col. 1:15). He never committed a sin of reflection.

At LCC we often like to say that ‘the worse the bad news is, the greater the good news is’. When we consider sin in all its manifestations it is extremely confronting. We know we cannot escape it. However when we consider our saviour Jesus with all the implications, it is extremely liberating. We know we are saved from it. The awareness of our sin is not something we should seek to escape, rather we should embrace the reality of what scripture teaches, because by it we gain an even greater awareness of our saviour Jesus Christ.

This is really important because if we get the problem of sin wrong it may mean we get the solution of Christ wrong. Until next time…