One thing I deal with frequently and one question I hear often is how we overcome sin. This is nothing unique for a pastor; every Christian must struggle with this issue. I have some thoughts on the issue and I’m going to write them down purely for my own benefit. As irregular as I’ve been with this blog, I know I don’t have a whole lot of regular readers left. And I also know I don’t have any new insight into this question. But it helps me think through things to write them down.
This issue is fundamentally the same whatever the sin is. There are differences in the circumstance, and how particular temptations arise and therefore how they must be avoided. But the heart issues, at root, are the same. This should be broadly applicable, therefore, to all kinds of sin issues. Promiscuity, laziness, drunkenness or other kinds of substance abuse, anger, envy, lying- all of it arises out of the same kind of heart, and that is where we must start with our analysis.
There is an essential trinitarian aspect to overcoming sin in our life. Knowing God is of course foundational; the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, the Proverb tells us. The Father declares His law, which diagnoses us, tells us what’s wrong with our lives. Further, the Father predestines us to receive the salvation of Jesus Christ from eternity. The Son, Jesus Christ, came to earth to live the perfect life of obedience and to die on the cross, freeing us from guilt and reconciling us to God by the removal of the curse of sin, the punishment of death and hell. The Son’s death and resurrection also paves the way for the Holy Spirit, who implements the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection in our lives. He comes into our hearts and transforms us, giving us a new heart, one with the power and capability of hearing God’s word and doing it. He teaches us through the Holy Scriptures, which are, according to Jesus, “Spirit and life” (John 6:63). All three Persons of the Holy Trinity therefore work together to accomplish this goal of overcoming the sin and corruption in our lives.
I want to focus especially on that second aspect, the death of Christ and the removal of guilt. I cannot stress enough that we must learn to put away guilt if we are ever to overcome sin in our lives. Our natural inclination is to think that we can beat ourselves up with guilt in order to produce changed behavior. But this is to fail to understand guilt. Guilt is the awareness and knowledge of condemnation before God. And it is hopeless; it only works despair. It drives me away from God. This is the whole reason for the necessity of Jesus’ death; I cannot overcome the penalty of my sin. As long as I am holding up the penalty of sin in front of myself or others as a motivator to change, all I will accomplish is hopelessness and more sin, since that penalty is an inevitable, insurmountable obstacle, unless it is removed by the death of Christ. And in fact, the sinful behavior itself is part of the penalty of rebellion against God.
Paul says in Romans 8 that there is “no condemnation” for those who are in Christ Jesus. And he establishes that point thoroughly before he goes on to the subject of changing behavior in Romans 12, just as he does in Ephesians. And the reason for putting off sinful behavior and replacing it with righteous behavior is presented by Paul as thankfulness for the reality of our salvation, the reality of the removal of guilt, not to accomplish that removal.
Therefore there is no condemnation by God for your failure to overcome sin. There will be discipline as God lovingly brings pain and consequences into your life in order to help you learn and grow, just as a loving father spanks his child to help the child avoid destructive behaviors. But if you are in Christ, nothing you do will ever cause God to hate or condemn you, since you are now seen in the merit of Christ, and not your own merit.
So once you have it firmly in your mind that a)there is no penalty for failure, since guilt is removed and b) you are guaranteed success by the power of the Holy Spirit in your life, you are ready to start thinking about overcoming sin.
Overcoming sin and changing behavior is described in the Scriptures in a lot of different ways. Paul talks about “renewing our minds” (Romans 12:2) and setting our minds on heavenly things and not on earthly things (Col. 3:1-2). John the Baptist calls his audience to repent (all 4 Gospels, first chapter or two). In 1 Peter 2, the apostle tells us to lay aside evil conduct and to practice righteous conduct. The similarity in all of these kinds of statements is that in each of them, changed behavior is the result of reprogramming our minds. It is necessary to change our values.
If a drunk wants to stop drinking, it’s often because the earthly consequences are starting to cause problems for him. Maybe he’s in legal trouble; maybe his marriage is failing; maybe his health is being ruined. So he tries to tell himself that all of these consequences are so terrible that he has to stop drinking. This rarely produces any long-term change, though. If the man’s motivations are earthly, then the immediate pleasure of the bottle are probably greater to him than the long-term pain of poor health or relationship problems. Even in the gutter, having lost everything he has, the man can still escape into the bottle and feel just as good for a while as he would feel if he were drunk in a nice house with a loving wife. My brother Jim pointed out to me recently that the idea that you have to hit rock-bottom to change is wrong, because there is no rock-bottom. Things can always get worse. The only real rock-bottom is hell, and that comes too late for change. Earthly consequences, even the fear of hell itself, will never produce any real change.
Only when the man reprograms his values, when he starts to believe that the purpose of his life is not to please himself, not to experience pleasure in the things of this world, is real change possible. He must have some purpose that transcends himself, that transcends the world. Most addiction treatment programs recognize this, and it’s why the AA program, for example, includes belief in a higher being as one of the necessary steps. But of course true change can only be based on truth; therefore to avoid simply changing from one destructive lie to another, it is necessary that this transcendent purpose be the true transcendent purpose, the God of the Bible. He calls us to glorify and serve Him with our lives. This is a call to a completely different set of values and priorities than those which come naturally to us.
I remember once talking to my dad about time management problems a few years back and I said something along the lines of, “I just feel like I waste a lot of time and then when I get done the things I need to get done, I don’t have time left for God.” And he responded, “Matthew, it all belongs to God.” And then I saw the root of my problem. It wasn’t that I was taking too much time for myself and not enough for God. It was that I had a wrong view of the purpose of my life. I was viewing my life as about essentially pleasing myself, while carving out enough time to placate God. Instead, I should view it as all of my time belonging to God and being for the purpose of serving Him; I just do it in different ways. I serve Him by reading my Bible, going to church, talking about Christianity to my friends when I have the chance. But I also serve Him by doing my job, by reading a book for relaxation, by talking to my friends about the weather. Everything I do must be for the purpose of serving God. I do not belong to myself. And this is what Paul means when he calls us to offer ourselves as living sacrifices and set our minds on things above. It means a reprogramming of our minds, of our values.
All sin at its root comes from this source, the belief that I am the god of my own life. My life exists to serve myself, and even my religious activities are seen in that light- to serve my ego, my self-righteousness, to assuage my guilt or to keep God off my back. When I am saved by Jesus Christ, instead I recognize that I am bought with a price and called to serve Him with my life. That is now my transcendent purpose. Putting away sin is only possible when the evil thought patterns that produce sin can be replaced by the truth, by the transcendent purpose of serving God with every aspect of my life.