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Circling the Square

Always Sinners

Posted by Bill Lovell on

I have recently been discussing the topic of whether it is possible for a Christian to live a sinless life. The short answer is Yes, it is possible; and what's more, Christians will one day live sinless lives, but only, as the Westminster Confession says, "in the state of glory," among "the spirits of the righteous made perfect" (Hebrews 12:23). 

For now, however, in this life, our relationship to sin is, shall we say, complicated. We hate it, but it's always around. Always! John goes so far as to say, "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us." (1 John 1:8) 

On one hand, we know, as God's covenant people, we are commanded to repent from sin, to flee from sin, to resist sin; but on the other hand, we know, from sad personal experience, that all too often we continue to sin. I know I do.

And it's not just me. Abraham sinned after he was brought into covenant with God; Moses sinned; David sinned; the apostles sinned. We all sin. After God blesses us, after he pours his mercy on us, after he shows us the depth of his redeeming love, we still stumble and fall repeatedly

Part of the challenge of sinlessness is how we conceive of sin. If we think of sin as just not murdering and not committing adultery, and things like that, then a case can be made that most of us can live for quite a while without committing those sins. But Jesus broadened and deepened the definition of sin, so that anger is akin to murder, and lust is akin to adultery (Matthew 5:21-30). I'm not sure I've ever met any Christian who never struggles with anger or lust. 

And then, don't forget, we have to add in the sins of omission. The scribe and the priest who walked by the dying man in the story of the Good Samaritan strictly complied with the rules for ritual purity, but, according to Jesus, they neglected to show love to their neighbor (Luke 10:25-37). So, when we're reckoning our sin, we have to add in all the times we don't love the people around us in all the concrete ways Jesus would have. 

In Luke 10:27, Jesus turns the sin register to its most sensitive when he commands us, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” I'd be very reluctant to argue that I always love my neighbor as much as I love myself. And I'm pretty sure lightning would strike me if I ever tried to pretend, for even one second, that I honestly make it my practice, every day, all day, to love God with all my heart, all my soul, all my strength, and all my mind. 

The best I could do is say, I try to obey the Lord's commands, or, more honestly, I try to try, or, even more honestly, I try to try to try. In fact, that's more or less how Paul describes the Christian's complex relationship to sin in Romans 7:18b-20: "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."

The truth is, until we are made perfect in glory, the Christian life is not a sinless life, but a repentant life. We strive towards obedience and holiness; we get it wrong; we repent; we repeatover and over and over and over again. And, over time, we slowly become more like Jesussometimes dramatically, sometimes almost imperceptiblyas the Holy Spirit graciously, patiently, lovingly sanctifies us.

The great J.C. Ryle put it this way: “Many appear to forget that we are saved and justified as sinners, and only sinners; and that we never can attain to anything higher, if we live to the age of Methuselah. Redeemed sinners, justified sinners, and renewed sinners doubtless we must be—but sinners, sinners, sinners, we shall be always to the very last. They do not seem to comprehend that there is a wide difference between our justification and our sanctification. Our justification is a perfect finished work, and admits of no degrees. Our sanctification is imperfect and incomplete, and will be so to the last hour of our life.”