When I was in my teens I struggled with the same kinds of sins over and over and over again. Obviously, I’m not perfect so sin is still an issue in my life. But there’s a difference between struggling against the same thing and actually experiencing growth. My lack of success in overcoming sin made me feel confused. Right in the midst of my deep spiritual confusion I encountered two opposite ideas. One view essentially suggested that Christians aren’t expected to overcome because we are saved by grace and God kept the law on our behalf. The other view strongly advocated for overcoming and attaining a state of absolute sinlessness prior to the second coming.
These views created a lot of questions within my mind, but the one question I couldn’t resolve was a sort of thought experiment.
Is the standard of salvation different for a murderer than it is for someone whose only fault is impatience?
I don’t know a single Christian who would defend the idea that a murderer doesn’t need to change in order to be saved. Most would probably say that a murderer who goes on killing hasn’t ever encountered Jesus. We would all happily agree that “No one who abides in Jesus keeps on murdering; no one who keeps on murdering has either seen him or known him.” But somehow the actual words of scripture feel uncomfortable. “No one who abides in [Jesus] keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him.” (1 John 3:6)
Because of this unresolved question, I eventually decided that the view of overcoming and reaching a final state of sinlessness in this life was the more biblical position. But this produced further difficulties for me. Basically, I now believed that it was imperative for me to overcome in order to be saved but I wasn’t overcoming.
Throughout the years that followed this period of my life, I tried every biblically-derived method possible to attain spiritual victory.
I fasted and prayed.
I memorized scripture.
I took part in evangelism and missionary endeavors.
I tried to stay busy doing good things.
I removed distractions from my life like movies and social media.
I spent at least an hour every day reading my bible.
But although I could achieve a kind of piecemeal victory (a few weeks here, several months there), none of these methods ever gave me complete and lasting victory over the sins in my life.
Eventually, I found myself hitting a wall. I remember reading a secular book on habit transformation (Atomic Habits, which is awesome) and realizing that my spiritual “victories” were less transformational than secular techniques based on science and research. That being the case what did that say about the God I believed in? If my God was less powerful in my life than behavioral science in the life of an atheist then either (1) God doesn’t exist, (2) God isn’t all-powerful and therefore the Bible is wrong, or (3) my theology was missing something crucial.
As it turned out, I was missing something crucial: a biblical understanding of sin.
The problem of sin
I understood sin to be a collection of choices and habits – actions and things that I did or feelings that were dwelt upon at length. After all, the Bible says that sin is the transgression of the law (1 John 3:4). I also believed that temptations consisted of desires that must be fought and resisted with the help of the Holy Spirit. This belief was based on passages such as James 1:14-15: “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is fully grown, brings forth death.”
In practical terms, this basic understanding of the nature of sin meant that my attempt to overcome looked like this.
- I felt a strong desire that I identified as a temptation to sin (for example, the desire to be impatient with someone)
- I resisted the feeling and prayed for God to help me
- I would try a distraction method such as quoting a bible verse, singing a song, going and doing something to keep me busy etc.
- The feeling would get stronger and stronger but go away for a period of time (during which I felt victorious) only to return and overcome my best efforts later when I was tired, lonely, hungry, or sick.
The fact that my ability to be victorious depended on whether I was in my best form emotionally or physically was a big red flag that I wasn’t actually experiencing any divine aid. My victory was literally my victory achieved by my best human efforts alone. I wasn’t anything like Paul and Silas who were able to sing praises to God while suffering in prison. No! Make me tired, hungry, or sick enough and I can be an unkind, petulant person who snaps at people while bemoaning how awful I feel. And even if I don’t respond that way, I want to! A basic analysis of my approach to sin revealed to me an unregenerate heart.
That’s when it dawned on me that the problem was indeed my internal condition.
The nature of man
There was a large amount of biblical data that I had completely ignored that deals with what is referred to in theological circles as the nature of man. Many passages talk about our sinful state that begins even from birth. For example, familiar but misunderstood passages such as John 3:6-7, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’” Then there’s Romans 8:7-8 which declares, “The mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
These are only a few of many similar verses throughout the old and new testaments. But do you see the progression of thought?
We are sinful at birth because we are born from people who are of the “flesh.” The “flesh,” which is contrasted with the Spirit, is a human state of hostility towards God and lack of subjection to the law. Therefore, when the Bible says sin is the transgression of the law, the implications are much deeper than simply condemning human choices. The Bible is extremely clear that when humans are born there already exists within each of us a tendency or an attitude that is itself a violation of the law of God. Hence every human is born condemned before God and has no hope for salvation unless it is somehow made available to us from an outside source.
Ellen White aptly summarizes the human problem.
“It is impossible for us, of ourselves, to escape from the pit of sin in which we are sunken. Our hearts are evil, and we cannot change them. ‘Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? not one.’ ‘The carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.’ Job 14:4; Romans 8:7. Education, culture, the exercise of the will, human effort, all have their proper sphere, but here they are powerless. They may produce an outward correctness of behavior, but they cannot change the heart; they cannot purify the springs of life.”Steps to Christ, Page 18
Perhaps this sounds very discouraging and self-defeating. If sin extends to my state as well as my actions doesn’t this mean I can never overcome and stand perfect before God? If I am unable to change my heart am I also unable to pursue Jesus? Is it possible to cooperate with God in the process of salvation or am I supposed to simply accept his grace as a free gift without expending any effort?
These are great questions and will be addressed in part 2.