Now, there is another question we need to address. If we are already holy, and already free from sin, why do we sin anymore at all? And how do we deal with it?
I’m so glad you ask, because the answer is found in a passage of scripture that is frequently misunderstood: Romans chapter 7:15-20.
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.
Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Rom 7:15-20, ESV)
We read this and we say, “Yeah, I understand that, that’s me.” And we hear Paul say “sin is living me” and “nothing good lives in me” we think: “See? Isn’t that a sinful nature?”
But this passage is frequently misinterpreted. First, in verses 7-14, Paul is talking about the past, about how life was before Jesus. In verse 15, he begins to speak in the present tense, but it isn’t clear if he has switched to his present circumstances, even after salvation, or if he is still explaining the past. Just to move the discussion along, let’s say that in verse 15, Paul is talking about sins he commits as a Christian.
We always need to interpret scripture in context. The entire context of chapter seven is actually chapters six, seven and the first part of chapter eight. The chapters and verse marks were not inspired by God. They were put in by monks 1000 years after the New Testament was written, to help us in navigating around the bible. So pretend they aren’t there, and you can clearly see that the first several paragraphs of chapter 8 are still on the same subject as chapters six and seven.
So with that in mind, what is the general topic that Paul keeps coming around to? You are dead to sin, dead to the law, and alive to Jesus. Therefore, when Paul describes his struggle with sin here, he is not contradicting himself. It is the in the same letter, in the same section, talking about the same subject as when he said: “Likewise, you also have died to the law.”
Therefore, clearly Paul is not turning around and saying “You have not died to the law. You are not free from sin. Your old self is alive and well.” That would be ridiculous and unsustainable biblical interpretation.
I used to believe I had a sinful nature that was alive and well. So when I read this, I was focused on Paul saying “I do bad things…even though I don’t want to.” Actually, Paul’s emphasis is not that he is sinning, but rather that he doesn’t want to commit these sins. What Paul is saying is, “In the deepest part of me, I don’t want to sin. This shows that this part of me is holy and agrees with God. In my deepest nature, I am not a sinner.” He says, in verse 22: “For I delight in the law of God in my inner being.”
And so he says in 8:1-3
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, (Rom 8:1-3, ESV)
I had friend once who was not a Christian. After a lot of time and people praying for him, and some long conversations, he gave his heart to Jesus. Afterward, we started to meet together to pray and talk about the Bible and generally encourage each other in faith. One time the subject of lust came up. He said, “You know, before I became a Christian, I did not struggle with lust. Now I struggle with it all the time.”
I was shocked. What had we done wrong? I asked him to explain.
“Well, before I was Christian,” he said, “there wasn’t any struggle. I lusted, and it didn’t bother me. But since I came to Jesus, it bothers me when I lust because I don’t want to do that now.”
You see the fact that he didn’t want to sin any more was proof that he had died to sin. In his deepest heart, he knew that he didn’t desire sin. In his inner being, he delighted in God’s perfect standard and holiness.
Just as in 1 Corinthians chapters 1-4, Paul has a general subject in mind here, but he starts straying and covering all sorts of topics before he comes back to finish the discussion. The topic, begun in chapter 8, was about food sacrificed to idols. But he tells us in that chapter that the point is not what you are free to do, but how your actions affect the consciences of others. In chapter nine, he spent a great deal of time detailing his own rights and freedoms, and pointing out that he gave those up for the Corinthians.
In chapter 10, he warns the Corinthians that they are not above falling. He uses the Israelites as an example. In verse 11, he says:
Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction…
This isn’t the main point, but it is an important one. He says something much like it in Romans also:
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. (Romans 15:4)
The reason I point this out is that sometimes Christians act as if the Old Testament is no longer relevant to us any more. But the New Testament itself teaches that the Old Testament offers us instruction and encouragement. It applies to us – certainly in a different way than it applied to the Israelites who lived before Jesus, but still, it is there for our instruction, encouragement and benefit. Paul, looking at the Old Testament, sees its fulfillment in Jesus, and its application for present followers of Jesus.
So he uses an Old Testament example for the Corinthians. The Corinthians were baptized into Jesus Christ. They had faith in Him. They regularly received the Lord’s Supper. But, says Paul, that does not automatically mean that they will be in heaven, if they don’t persist in these things. He says that the ancient Israelites, had their own baptism-like experience. They had their own experience of the Lord’s Supper, partaking of food and drink that were not only physical, but spiritual (v.3-4). Paul even says that Jesus Christ was present with them through the pillar of cloud by day, and the pillar of fire by night, just as Jesus is present with us through the Holy Spirit.
I have seen two common attitudes among Christians like the attitude that Paul warns about. In the Lutheran and Catholic traditions, many people have the attitude that if they simply get baptized as babies, get confirmed as teenagers, and take communion once or twice a year, they automatically go to heaven. They feel that if they just do those things, they can live the rest of their lives however they want, and it will have no eternal consequences.
Many Baptists and other evangelicals have exactly the same attitude, only in a different way. They laugh at the idea of putting their faith in sacraments. But instead, they put their faith in a different ceremony, that of “getting saved.” They believe if that at one single point in their life, they respond to an altar call, walk down to the front of the church and say that they believe, then they “got saved.” Church of Christ people would add that they have to get baptized too. But the attitude is that if they simply do that once, they can go live the rest of their lives however they want, and it will have no eternal consequences.
The result of all this is that we have people all over the country who never go to church, never talk to God, never read their bibles, live in all different kinds of moral sin, give their lives to alcohol and drugs, or to the pursuit of money, and yet believe that when they die, they’ll be in heaven with a Lord they have never known or cared about. But Paul says:
Don’t be so naive and self-confident. You’re not exempt. You could fall flat on your face as easily as anyone else. Forget about self-confidence; it’s useless. Cultivate God-confidence. (1 Cor 10:12, the Message).
Now, there is great debate between Christians about a related topic. Some Christians feel that if you are truly saved, you can never lose your salvation, no matter what. They point to several verses like Romans 8:38-39
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Others point to this passage, and other passages like Hebrews 6:4-8, which contain strong warnings about falling away, and even to people like Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom Paul says rejected the faith and so destroyed themselves spiritually (1 Timothy 1:20).
I like to solve the dilemma by saying this: First, there are great many promises to us so that we can rest assured, knowing that the power and grace of Jesus holds us and will keep us and bring us safely to eternal life with Him. Second, a life of true faith will show itself by growing closer to God and moving away from sin and worldly ambitions (even if the movement is slow).
The point Paul is making today is the second one. If you have true faith, you won’t neglect your relationship with God. If you think that you can more or less ignore God for the rest of your life and still have eternal life, then you are in desperate spiritual and eternal danger.
But Paul also has a word of comfort. He says:
The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure. (1 Cor 10:13, New Living Translation)
In other words, though the possibility of spiritual danger is very real, God does not simply leave you to figure it out yourself. He doesn’t abandon you to stand or fall on your own – he is there to help in the middle of your temptations and trials. The word for temptation here means to “trap” or to “test.” This word is for you if you are tempted to sin, or if you feel caught, or if you feel your faith is being tested in some way.
Now, I want to be honest with you: there were times in my life when I wasn’t sure that this was true. For a long time I struggled with a sin that I always seemed to give in to. If I was tempted in that way, I was going to sin. I wondered where my ‘way out’ was. Slowly, over the years, I’ve learned two things about the “way out” listed here.
I had areas of my life where I was holding on to hurt and not forgiving others. I had closed off parts of my heart from God, and that naturally opened them up to the devil. I was defeated by that particular temptation, because I let Satan live in a little corner of my heart where I wasn’t letting God come in. In other words, God couldn’t give me a way out, because I closed part of me off from him. I needed help and prayer from other believers to discover this and to walk through the process of dealing with it. Once I did that, I was till tempted to sin in the same way, and yet I found that I could now resist that temptation.
If you are dealing with a particular sin in which you fail again and again in the same way, I encourage you to talk to me or another mature Christian about it, and seek the wisdom and prayers of others.
There is another aspect about this way of escape from temptation. You must believe that the Holy Spirit really does offer it, and that means you need to keep looking until you find it.
I grew up in Papua New Guinea. We always had plenty of food available to us, but not nearly the variety of food there is in the United States. We could always find meat and bread. There was always rice. Fresh milk was never available. Other things, like crackers or potato chips or breakfast cereal only showed up occasionally. If we saw Froot Loops or macaroni and cheese in the store, we knew a ship had recently come in to town. We also knew that within a few days, all boxes would be gone, and we probably wouldn’t see that kind of food again for a year or more.
One year we returned to the US for a few months of furlough. I went to an American grocery store with my Grandfather. We got various items, and then we started looking for oyster crackers. We went to the aisle where Grandpa normally found them. They weren’t there. Grandpa was puzzled, and we looked very intently without finding them.
“Grandpa,” I said after a while, “they’re probably just out of them.”
Grandpa didn’t really know any more about New Guinean grocery stores than I knew about American ones. He stared at me like I was an alien. “They’re not out of them” he said. He was vastly amused at my idea that there would be no oyster crackers.
If it had been me, I would have gone home without oyster crackers, because I did not believe they were there. However, to my great surprise, we eventually found them, and my grandpa laughed at my consternation all the way home.
In order to find the way of escape promised by the Holy Spirit here, you must believe that it really exists, and you must keep searching, believing you will find it. If you don’t believe it is there, you might be like me with the oyster crackers – you’ll look around a little, and then give up. But my Grandpa found what he needed because he believed it was there, and kept searching until he had obtained it.
That needs to be our attitude when we face temptations and trials and tests of any kind. The way is there. God has promised it. Don’t stop, don’t give up until you have made use of it to find relief from temptation and trial.