BIBLE STUDY: Real Deliverance from Sin: Is it Possible?
Sooner or laterwe come to the realization thatwe are powerless to live the Christian life.When we first believed in Christ, we knew the joy of being reconciled to God, of having our sins forgiven and the assurance of an eternal destiny in heaven. But soon we discovered that there was another side to the matter: we still experienced all the old pulls and temptations to do the things which we knowthat the Bible says are wrong and that we still dont experience the outpoured love for others that God expects from us. We know that we are lacking and even though we are saved, we still fall short of the glory of God. Many Christians mistakenly stop at this stage and assume that this is supposed to be the case: thatwe are just imperfect and that we will continue to sin regularly until heaven, when we will finally be delivered. In fact at the Christian college where I teach theology, this is such an unquestionable idea that either I encounter strong opposition if I contradict it or else they do not comprehend that I am really disagreeing with them. A merican Christianity seems to have accepted a belief that we are okay just the way we are, that God understands and forgives, and that were just imperfect. God does forgive, but He doesnt understand or feel sorry for us when we sin: we just project onto God the pity we feel for ourselves. We are addicted to a softer, easier way and change our theology to fit our behavior. A seminary friend of mine, struggling with a particular sin, was told by an elder of his church that we are imperfect in this world and that we should learn to accept such imperfection as part of this present age until Christ returns or we die and go to heaven. Somehow, though, this seems unacceptable to me, since God promises a full deliverance from sin in the Scriptures. Let us look at these promises.
If we have been Christians for awhile, we all know the great chapters on the Christian life written by the apostle Paul, Romans 6-8. I wont try to go over every verse of those chapters here, but I will make a few comments. One of the first surprising things we notice is that Paul says that we are to consider ourselves dead to sin (6:11) and on that basis we are not to let sin reign in our mortal bodies (6:12). I grant that sin is still a threat and that Christians can still sin or else Paul would notwarn us to not allow sin to continue to rule us. At the same time he says we are to consider ourselves as having died to sin when we were first baptized or became a Christian (6:4-7).We cant consider ourselves something unless it is actually true. I cannot considermyself a professor at a college unless I actually am a professor. To consider something true that is not true is to deceive myself. If I considered myself a great football player, my friends would quickly point out the fallacy of such a belief, and the reasons why it was wrong. So when Paul says we are to consider ourselves dead to sin, he is speaking about a fact from a Biblical perspective. We are dead to sin, but Satan is still trying too convince us that such is not the case, and so gain reentry into our members to work his sinful deeds through us. The lie is that sin is very much alive and present in us to work through usno, that is Satan tempting us, trying to get back in, perhaps not into our spirit core where we are joined to Christ, but into our bodily members where he can work his evil.
But how can we be dead to sin when we feel the temptation so sharply at times? First of all we have to get back to Biblical facts, which always take priorityoverany feelings we might have, or our personal experience. Feelings are not a reliable guide to the truth, if they are a guide at all.Myfather had high blood pressure, but high blood pressure may not manifest itself in any specific symptoms: a person may not feel bad at all. On the other hand, many of the medicines, especially in the past, often had bad side effects and can make you feel a lot worse than you do without them. So many people with high blood pressure stop taking the medication because they feel better without it. But it is a medical fact that although the medicine makes them feel bad, itwill prolong their life, whereas not taking the medicine will shorten it. Sometimes we have to trust the facts as our doctor tells it to us and not how we feel. So we have to take God at His word first: trust the Biblical facts even if they contradict our experience and our feelings. God through Paul has told us we are to consider ourselves dead to sin: who are we to contradict Him?
We are dead to sin because Christ died on the cross not only in our place to pay for our sins, a basic Biblical truth, but to deliver us from the Satanic spirit of sin which indwelt us and to which we were joined spiritually. Paul says that the old humanity was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, so that we might no longer be enslaved to sin. The Greek word for old man does not refer to an old nature that believers still possess, since the old man was crucified and whatever is crucified is dead and no longer alive.The old humanity refers to the whole human race apart from Christ infected with Satans spirit of sin (see Rom. 8:15 spirit of slavery and Eph. 2:2 the spirit now operating in the disobedient). When Christ died on the cross, in Gods eyes all humanity died there (see 2 Cor. 5:14 one died for all, therefore all died). As inconceivable as this might be to our human common sense, it is a Biblical fact. When Christ was on the cross, he was made sin forus (2 Cor. 5:21), he took that Satanic spiriton himself and through death destroyed the body dominated by sin (Rom. 6:6). On the cross, Jesus died to the Satanic spirit (Rom. 6:10) and then rose in triumph from the dead, free from the curse. and because we died in him, we share in the benefits of his death and resurrection. Because of that death, the Spirit of life which caused Jesus to rise from the dead now lives in us too and frees us from Satans law of sin and death (Rom. 8:2). These are the Biblical facts. If our experience doesnt match up it is because we do not take God at his word and believe the facts.
But what about Romans 7? Isnt Paul describing the Christian life there? In a word, NO. First of all, prior to St. Augustine in the early fifth century no Christian interpreter ever understood Paul as referring to the Christian life. Without exception they understood Paul to be referring to the Jews under the old covenant lawand that Paul was warning the Christians in Rome not to try to fulfill the law independently (an impossibility). The situation of Romans 7 is the result of self-effort to keep the law; it is not the normal Christian life. Paul writes vividly as if this were his present experience in order to get us to identifywith the horrible slavery to sin he is describing so that we will reach a point of despair in ourselves and so cry out with him Who will save me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! In Romans 8:1-13 he talks about the deliverance from sin available to us through the indwelling Spirit of Christ, who is now present within us to live out through us if we take God at his word. The only thing stopping us is our stubborn refusal to believe.
Let us turn next to the apostle John. In his first letter, he says to the church: You knowthat he was revealed to take away our sins, and in him there is no sin (3:5). Now this we all know, Jesus came to take away our sins by bearing the punishment for them on the cross, and that He was able to do this because He Himself had never sinned and was a pure sacrifice to God. The next verse, however, goes far beyond this basic gospel message: No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. How contrary to typical evangelical experience is this verse! John is saying not only that sinning is not the typical experience of the believer, but that the true Christian is characterized by their lack of sinning. Some interpreters have tried to water down the verse by interpreting it to mean No one who abides in him sins as a practice or as a general rule. Even if that interpretation is granted, this still does not match typical Christian experience or theology.
But John goes further than this and states in 3:9 that all who have been born of God do not sin, because his seed is in them, indeed they cannot sin, because they have been born ofGod. So John doesnt simply say that we dont sin as a general rule or thatwe dont sin as much as when we were unbelievers, but that those born of God are not able to sin. This requires some explanation, since this certainly contradicts the experience of most Christians. It will not do to explain the verse away by adding as a general rulebecause that is not what the Greek says. At the same time John is aware that sometimes Christians do sin, for at 2:1, he said: If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous and that he was writing to them that they may not sin. So John is well aware of this seeming contradiction in his words.
The key to understanding what John is saying is found in 2:12-13, where he distinguishes between children, young men, and fathers in Christian faith. Children enjoy the forgiveness of sins: they continue to sin because they do not yet know how to overcome the evil one in their lives, since they continue to be deceived by his lie of independence and try to live the Christian life by self-effort. John writes to them to assure them of the Fathers forgiveness so that they will not be doubly trapped by the evil one: first by the fact of sinning in the first place, and secondly by the condemnation the devil heaps upon us as the accuser of the brethren (Rev. 12:10).
But John goes on to describe another level of maturity: young men, who are those who have just reached adulthood and who are in the prime of their life, at the point of greatest physical strength. Of course, since John is drawing an analogy to the strength of young adulthood, it is spiritual strength that John means here. These young men are described as having overcome the evil one, and as having the word of God abiding in them. The last phrase is particularly crucial. Compare it with 3:9, where John says all who have been born of God do not sin, because Gods seed abides in them. Gods seed refers both to Gods truth and to Jesus Christ Himself, the Word of God. The young men are those who have overcome the evil one by walking in the truth of God. But what is that truth? Nothing less than that Jesus Christ is present within them to live his life through them. That is what it means to be born of Godthat we derive our entire spiritual life from Christ as the individual branches draw their life from the vine (John 15), and realizing that apart from Him living his life through us, we can do nothing but sin (see John 15:6). Only when we realize that He alone is light (1 John 1:5), and love (4:8), and that we are not independently operating selves will we finally overcome the evil one. Only then will we stop the continuous cycle of sinning and forgiveness that characterizes the stage of immaturity that John calls being little children. In fact John makes it clear that we were never independently operating selves, even when we were unbelievers or when we sin: Everyone who sins is of the devil (1 John 3:8), that is they have their spiritual source in the devil, who inspires and motivates their actions. Believers, of course, do not have the devil in the spirit-core of their beings, but the devil is the great deceiver and always seeks to keep us or convince us that we are still self-operating selves with the responsibility and ability to fulfill Gods law in our strength. That way he gets to condemn us when we fall flat on our faces. Such self-effort is really Satanic, and those who have reached maturity know this and overcome the evil one because they have the inner-knowing that it is really Christ who lives through them.
But how do we get such an innerknowing or a deep spirit-conviction of this Biblical truth? The same way we acquire knowledge about anything. We choose to pursue something as a goal, and eventually it takes us. For example, Norman Grubb used to speak of the process of learning the African language Bangala. At first he stumbled through the language, and had great difficulty speaking and understanding what the natives were saying. Eventually, however, what he took (the language) took him over and operated him and he was speaking the language as if it were his own tongue. Eventually he did not have to think every time he opened his mouth, the words just flowed naturally. But the key is that he persevered in his attempts to learn the language. He did not let go of the goal, but pursued it until the language took him over. Now this might sound like self-effort all over again, but it is not. I am not saying we are to pursue perfect behavior as if we were the ones in control of and responsible to be perfect. No. We have the Perfect One already in us, ready to live through us if we only trust Him. But that is the catch. As with learning a language, there is a process of learning to believe the Biblical fact that Christ is the one living through us and until we learn the truth we will stumble over Satans lie that we operate ourselves. And we continue to stumble until we learn the truth and the truth, Jesus Christ Himself, takes us over.
The author of Hebrews commands us to strive to enter Gods rest (Hebrews 4:11), a seeming paradox. But what is it that the Hebrews are to strive to do? Believe! It is those who believe who enter Gods rest and rest from their own labors! (Heb. 4:3, 10). We exercise faith by taking every thought captive which contradicts Gods truth (2 Cor 10:5). By speaking back to every thought of unbelief that raises itself up against the Biblical facts of what God has said is true about us, we exercise the faith that God expects of us. It is not easy, but very simple. So simple that the devil is able to steal it away from the hearts of many Christians. But the Biblical fact is that we dont need to wait until heaven to enter Gods rest. We dont need to wait another second.
Brett has an M.A. in New Testament and a Th. M. in Biblical Theology from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is finishing his doctorate at the University of Durham in England. He is also teaching at Nyack College in Nyack, New York, and is a Teacher-Sharer.