Why did you become a Christian? I’m not talking about the underlying work of God to regenerate your heart. I mean, what was your motivation to follow Jesus? Of course, God has drawn you by his grace to himself. But what was it about the gospel that caused you to turn from your sin and trust Christ? There are many people who come to Christ for all the wrong reasons. We must be careful, because coming to Christ for the wrong reason could mean you haven’t come to Christ at all.
One of the most common wrong reasons for coming to Christ is comfort. If you became a Christian because you were looking for an easy life, you will be sadly mistaken. The Christian life is hard, not because of any outward struggle against other people. The Christian life is hard because of the inward struggle that exists within each person who is being remade in the image of Christ.
Romans 7:14-23 is a vivid description of the inner struggle of every believer. Even though we have died to sin and have been given a “new self,” sin still dwells within us. Sin will continue to dwell within us until we die or Christ returns. To use big theological words, sin will remain in us throughout our sanctification and will only flee our bodies when we are glorified. We walk in victory over sin and death, but not perfectly. We fail to perfectly triumph over sin.
In light of what I believe to be a genuine struggle with the flesh and indwelling sin in the life of a mature believer in Romans 7, it’s important to make a distinction between struggling with sin and succumbing to sin. Paul seems to give us an example of a normal Christian’s experience. Paul’s battle with the flesh rages on because the closer he has drawn to God, the more keenly aware of his sin he has become, which means it is normal for a Christian to struggle against sin.
The more we grow in holiness, the more we will grow in awareness of our sin. And the more aware we are of sin, the more we will fight against it in our inner being. Christians struggle with sin. We are not perfect people who are morally superior to non-Christians. The desires we have to do good and to live righteously are at times thwarted by the flesh. We desire to do good, a desire that comes from the God-wrought work of regeneration. But sometimes our actions don’t always match up with our desires.
What happens when a Christian, who is no longer a slave to sin, capitulates to sin? Believers have been set free from the power of sin, so what does it mean for a Christian to sin? Is a sinning believer a contradiction? No. The tormenting reality of the Christian life is that we are currently living in the eschatological “already, not yet.” It’s important to remember that we are free from the penalty of sin in justification; we are free from the power of sin in sanctification; but we are not free from the presence of sin until glorification.
We await full and complete redemption. We await the removal and destruction of indwelling sin. But as we wait, we struggle. We fight. We war within ourselves until we die or Christ returns. So, the Christian life doesn’t end with the removal of sin on this earth. We don’t reach a state of moral perfection, perfected sanctification, or glorification during our lives on earth.Therefore, it is normal for Christians to sin, so long as they are fighting against it.
However, it is categorically abnormal for a Christian to live in unrepentant sin. It is abnormal for a Christian to habitually succumb to sin. Christians who do not fight against sin aren’t struggling, they are succumbing. This is why I lament small group conversations about ways we are struggling with sin that only describe defeat. If your relationship with sin is only in terms of defeat, you are not telling the story of a Christian. At the beginning of every Life Group, I ask our group to share struggles with sin. But, I clarify that I want them to share ways they are being knocked down by sin and ways they are kicking sin’s butt. This is because indwelling sin is an inherited reality that is not removed even after regeneration. But despite the power of indwelling sin, those of us in Christ have been released from its power and now live as conquerors over sin.
A Christian who habitually succumbs to sin is at best a weak or young Christian who has yet to grasp his new identity in Christ, and at worst he has not been converted. So, how should a Christian respond to indwelling sin? How can we struggle rather than succumb to sin? In the following ways:
- Love the law of God (Rom. 7:22)
- Hate personal sins (Rom. 7:15)
- Refuse to give in.
- Live in the way of the Spirit (Rom. 7:6; 8:2)
- Join a church and small group of fellow believers who will help you in the struggle
John Stott once said,
“The Christian life is a life of continual struggle, of victories and defeats, and Christian victory comes only when we totally distrust self, and rely on the provision of God. How frequently we throw works out the front door of justification, and invite them in the back door of sanctification.”
Only Christians can have desires to obey and love the law of God, and even God himself. Christians aren’t people who perfectly conquer sin. Christians are people who refuse to lie in the ruins of defeat. We genuinely struggle against sin without habitually succumbing to sin. We are free to be honest about our struggles with sin because we have access to the power to overcome sin, even when we fail many times along the way.
Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is the author of Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (Westbow Press, 2016). He is an M.Div student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mathew is married to his high school sweetheart, Erica. Mathew and Erica live in Tupelo with their sons, Jude and Jack. You can follow him on Twitter @mat_gilbert.