How Can ‘Dead Men’ Keep Sinning?

As Christians, we read and hear a lot about the promise of our progressive sanctification, but one of the more emotionally confusing and frustrating aspects of living this out is the ongoing – and unwanted – presence of sin in the life of a believer: “How can I possibly belong to Christ and still fall prey to the same old temptations time and time again?”

I use the phrase “emotional confusion” simply to acknowledge that there are good, solid, faithful and God-honoring books, sermons, commentaries and apologetics to help explain the spiritual realities of one’s ongoing battle with indwelling sin…but oftentimes these “intellectual” truths can feel far removed from the individual’s seat of the emotions, the weakened willpower that comes into play every time a temptation to sin presents itself and is acted upon.

Simply stated, there often can be a “short-circuit” between what we know to be true…and how it feels to live out that truth: “I gave my life to Christ! Or at least I think I did. Why do I keep doing this?” For those that struggle with purity of one kind or another, these desperate statements can often come pouring out one after another as a believer responds with a combination of disgust and despair to “a poor track record” or even the temptation to abandon the struggle against sin altogether.

But if you tease out this sort of confusion to its logical extreme, what you tend to find is a hidden expectation of “sinless perfection” in this life.

Frequently, there can be an underlying (albeit false) belief that says, “Once I have sincerely given my life to Jesus, I should stop being tempted to sin like this.” Furthermore, our consistently-sinful responses to temptation have a way of taking our thinking in one direction or another, namely 1) a flat-out denial of what Paul is saying in Romans 6, or 2) a deepening suspicion that, “Romans 6 probably is true, but does not apply to me because I am not truly saved. I want to think that I am saved, but my frequent relapses into old patterns of sinful behavior would seem to indicate otherwise.”

But Scripture does not teach sinless perfection in this life or promise the believer an absence of temptation; if Satan is “free” to tempt Jesus Himself (Matthew 4:1-11), why then would any of us expect to live out a temptation-free existence wherein we no longer sin?

Two weeks ago, I began immersing myself in Romans 6, Paul’s summary of the biblical truth that men and women who have given their lives to Christ are functionally dead to sin, that the power of sin to master a believer has been broken once and for all at the Cross of Christ. As a way of going a bit deeper with this, I chose to read and/or listen to Romans 6 at least once a day for the entire month of October. I encouraged another friend to do likewise, hoping that perhaps he and I would arrive at a new level of inner understanding and faith.

I am halfway through the month now. Reading and meditating on Romans 6 has in fact helped make real to me the truth that Satan, sin and death were all decisively defeated at Calvary, but what has since become apparent is that the “bridge” to a more helpful understanding is only half-built; the truths of Romans 6 naturally lead to the here-and-now, partial and incomplete applications of those truths in Romans 7. It is in Paul’s anguish over his remaining sin, I think, that the believer can find encouragement to persist in what can only be thought of as a lifelong struggle. Besetting sin continues to hound our day-to-day reality; why would any of us imagine ourselves to be more spiritually mature than Paul, one of Jesus’ most dramatic trophies of grace?

I personally believe that Romans 7 is one of the clearest places in all of Scripture that indicates how we are all so very sin-soaked and sin-steeped that even after having been rescued from the power and dominion of sin ultimately (eternal salvation), the here-and-nowness of sin’s hold on us can continue…though we also have at our fingertips the power to beat it down and slowly minimize sin’s destruction in our lives (1 Corinthians 10:13). Most powerfully, this is pointed out in Paul’s own cry out of Romans 7:24-25: “Wretched man that I am? Who will delivery me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

My wife and I – after a number of “rather colorful exchanges” – agreed to codify a short little phrase that we agree has a tremendous amount of biblical insight attached to it (though I will confess that this phrase did not go over very well the first time it was used): “Not everything you feel is reality!”

For us, this has simply become a simple catchphrase to point each other to the (probable) truth that our current perceptions about ourselves – and our standing with God – are out of whack. When one or both of us returns to more rightly-ordered thinking, both of us will strongly agree that our ultimate battle over sin has already been won, and while life this side of heaven is often an ugly mess, we are better served to battle against our unhelpful thought patterns by crying out to God in the midst of temptation for the power to overcome. As skirmishes are won, we can gain confidence that the Holy Spirit indeed indwells us and will fight against our own flesh for us, if we beseech Him for that help.

To be honest, I still do not fully understand the “slowness” of the individual believer’s sanctification, or why exactly we must co-labor so strenuously with the Holy Spirit to lay siege to the reign of sin in our mortal bodies. I suspect the very battle itself – along with the trust it requires to believe that what God’s Word says is true – is “merciful testing,” and that He has indeed rescued us from the dominion of darkness and set us in the light, giving us the power to fight against sin and Satan in our lives. I dislike struggles against sin just as much as the next guy, but I can trust that it is all a critical part of the sanctification process.

To that end, if we are struggling against sin, we can rest assured that what we “feel” is not reality. Were we not saved, were God truly not working in our hearts, then we would blissfully enjoy the swim down the river of destruction, rather than fight upstream against the current. The struggle confirms our status with God.

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