Christians May Not Always Agree
But Scripture Doesn’t Contradict Scripture
In my last post, I stressed the fact that we are all sinners and sinners sin. It’s what we do.
I’m not saying it’s beneficial to sin or suggesting we should enjoy it. I’m not saying you should want to sin or prefer to sin.
I’m saying we all have a sinful nature and that makes us sinners. Even before you commit your first act of sin you are a sinner.
According to James, who made the point rather bluntly, even temptation is an indication we are sinners.
Each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire. (James 1:14)
And I can hear you asking “What about Eve?” She was tempted. Was she also a sinner before she ate the forbidden fruit?
It’s a good question. Eve didn’t start with a sinful nature. She was innocent, untainted but she was still tempted. Why is temptation proof we have a sinful nature but not for her? Another good question.
Don’t get too confuzzled by that. Jesus was also tempted but He didn’t have a sinful nature. There’s a way to understand the difference.
Her temptation came from outside influence. The same is true for Jesus. Fortunately, Jesus not only didn’t give in, He couldn’t. He’s eternally perfect.
Sin Can Be Formative
Eve wasn’t perfect. Her character, like all humans, was in the developing process. We all start at zero character – neither good nor bad.
It’s a fact, though, that mistakes and sin are a part of the shaping process. Aside from the fact that Eve was corrupted the moment she caved, and we’ve all inherited the corruption, a more important reality is she gained a great deal of wisdom and insight from the experience.
Once bitten, twice shy. Sins don’t define you. Failure and mistakes don’t define you. How you respond to these things does.
Honesty about your sin nature is also important. Now, temptation starts on the inside and works its way out. We are therefore tainted before we commit the first sinful deed which is kind of what James was saying.
Jesus made the same point: the mouth speaks what the heart is full of (Luke 6:45).
What that means is there will never be a time this side of heaven when Christians, though saved from the penalty of sin, will be entirely free of sin. Your sin nature will dog you all your days.
We shouldn’t take delight in that but we shouldn’t hide from it either.
Denying A Sinful Nature Breeds Vulnerability
One person who commented on my post took issue with the idea that the old nature, the sinful one, will be so persistent. I understand his point of view. It seems hypocritical for sinners to be against sin.
But it is also hypocritical to act as if we are above our sin nature or beyond it or it isn’t really there. That line of thinking breeds a superior, puritanical, attitude which is not an outcome of the new birth. The flesh and only the flesh is the seat of pride. Acting like you’re better-than is proof you’re not really.
Think about it. What would it look like if Christians went around claiming to be sinless? Would you have to tell anyone? Wouldn’t it be obvious?
I do admit, however, that there are verses that seem to contradict these ideas. It’s legitimate to consider them and my commenter mentioned a couple.
To be clear, he wasn’t being aggressive or mean spirited. He actually agreed with the post with the exception of the idea that we are not, in this life, saved entirely from the presence and influence of sin. His words:
While I agree with Jesus saving power your conclusion about being unable to fully save us from sin seems at odds with all of scripture.
Maybe he misunderstood what I wrote. Maybe I misunderstood what he wrote but his words seem to suggest that he and I agree that salvation delivers a person completely and eternally from the penalty of sin, which means no saved person will ever lose their salvation and nothing will keep any Christian from going to heaven when they die, but there was a divergence of opinion.
Where we disagreed had to do with the power and presence of sin. I believe the Bible teaches a sinful nature is with us till we die and continues to be active every day. I don’t believe any Christian will ever be entirely free of sin. Not even the Mother Theresa types.
Sinless Means Perfect On Every Level
Before we look at the verses, let’s pursue the idea further. If it were possible, how would a Christian become absolutely free of sin?
- Would their sin nature be completely removed?
This first idea is questionable on several levels. Not too many people teach this anymore because those who did weren’t very good examples and Christians, in general, didn’t shine too brightly either. Cancel that thought.
There were other problems. Once purged of your sinful nature, you could fall into sin again. That raises even more questions. If I sin again, will I lose my salvation? If I lose my salvation, must I get saved again? Or can I be saved again? There aren’t enough Bible verses to address all those questions.
- Would Jesus be a barrier around each believer preventing their succumbing?
This second idea needs no arguments. Many Christians are sinning. If Jesus is commissioned with the protective detail, He’s failing. Does anyone really want to suggest that?
- Would they develop a superhuman ability to avoid sin?
This third idea is probably the most ridiculous. Discipline can only take us so far. We aren’t perfect.
Jesus was perfect. His discipline was absolute. His moral compass was absolute. There was never a time when He didn’t know what was right and wrong. No human being can claim those qualities. We don’t have perfect knowledge, understanding, or discipline.
Make no mistake. Jesus was heavily tempted by sin. His sweat generating prayer session in the Garden of Gethsemane indicates just how stressed He was. Humans, who are already vulnerable to sin, would need even more discipline to keep from sinning.
Are we saying that’s possible? Can humans be more capable of sin-avoiding discipline than Jesus?
All of that is to say you’re not going to be perfectly free of sin in this life. You can and will fail.
But, whichever way you lean in that discussion, there is still the question about apparent conflicts in Scripture.
We need to talk about those.
Niether The Bible Nor Experience Supports The Idea
The verses to which my commenter made reference are found in 1 John chapter three, verses six and nine.
Whosoever abides in him (Christ) sins not: whosoever sins has not seen him, neither known him…Whosoever is born of God does not commit sin; for his seed remains in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. (1 John 3:6 & 9)
Admittedly, that is a mouthful. If we take the English version (KJV) at face value, it presents several contradictions. It contradicts my remarks (as well as those of many other Bible teachers). It contradicts what we observe in Christian communities everywhere and it contradicts what we read in other Bible verses.
Obviously, what people teach isn’t important unless it aligns with the Bible.
Human experience isn’t inspired but it is relevant, especially when universally observed.
What the Bible says is important and no person wants to be on the wrong side of Scripture.
It’s a problem that must be solved but instead of a standoff, there is a reasonable way to clear the air. The first step is to see what other Scriptures say on the matter and in this case, a good place to start is Romans 7:14, 15 & 17. The writer is the Apostle Paul and he is talking about himself.
For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I…it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwells in me.
Obviously, these remarks sound like a contradiction of 1 John chapter 3. Paul seems to be saying the exact opposite of what John said.
The weight of these remarks, however, involves more than just the words alone. Paul, the writer, was an incredible communicator and one of the finest examples of Christian living and service. If not the best example, I’m sure he ranks in the top 5%.
More to the point, he wasn’t writing in the abstract. He was using his own experience to illustrate a truth that applies to all Christians. He wasn’t speaking out of context. His own day to day experience teaches us what to expect and he clearly said he did the things he hates, the sinful things. He didn’t like what he did, he hated it.
Thankfully he spared us the details but the fact is clear. Paul had a sinful nature and fought with sinful impulses daily. He apparently sometimes lost.
We can be sure he tried to avoid these tendencies. The struggle is implied in his remarks but the reality is clear. Even at this highly developed stage in his Christian life, he was still battling with sin.
Scripture Doesn’t Contradict Scripture
The stage is now set. We have what seems to be opposing thoughts. John seems to say Christians will not sin and Paul says they will. How do we make sense of these dueling concepts?
One rule of interpretation applies: Scripture doesn’t contradict scripture. Or to put it another way, two apparently divergent statements, rather than canceling each other may add perspective to the central idea.
Concepts can blend, meaning, of course, that Paul’s remarks and John’s remarks should balance.
Sectarian And Political Influence Don’t Apply
There is a translation issue at the heart of this discussion too. Not an interpretation issue but a translation issue.
Translation focuses on the meanings of words and interpretation focuses on the application of the text to life as we live it.
The word “Saved” for example, which is used often in the Bible has one meaning but many interpretations. It means to be rescued and people are rescued from all sorts of things: an enemy, drowning, illness, excess, ignorance, etc. Many times the word applies to this life, like being saved from an enemy. Sometimes it refers to eternal issues, like being saved from condemnation.
But you have to start with the correct meaning. That’s the problem with the KJV rendering of 1 John 3:6 & 9.
The question is how do we verify translations? Not every person knows the original languages well enough to make credible arguments but there are many people who do and they have made their thoughts known.
For centuries the KJV was the only version available to English-speaking populations and God used it mightily. It was the version I read from on the day I got saved. There will be thousands in heaven who heard the Gospel preached from this version.
Although we have nothing but respect for the KJV, we also must admit that it was produced under the cover of sectarianism and politics. One church and one state working together had a hand in the final product. A few ideas were slanted one way or another to please the parties involved.
In the last century, however, not only did the number of scholars qualified to do the work of translation increase but there were more ecclesiastical flavors involved, not to mention the state no longer held sway over religious practice and thinking. State interference was removed and sectarianism was reduced.
As a result, we have many English versions to consult in an effort to gain a well-studied perspective on any given text.
Sin Decreases Without Ceasing Entirely
When we consult these versions for a translation on 1 John 3:6 & 9, they are significantly different to the KJV. The following versions illustrate the point.
- KJV – Whosoever is born of God does not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.
- ESV – No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God.
- NIV – No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.
- Wuest – Everyone who has been born out of God, with the present result that he is a born-one (of God), does not habitually do sin, because His seed remains in him. And he is not able to habitually sin, because out of God he has been born with the present result that he is a born-one (of God).
The one idea implied in all these versions, with the exception of the King James Bible, is there will be a disruption in the practice of sin but not a complete break. Outward expressions of sin should decrease but that doesn’t suggest the cessation of sin entirely.
None of them say the person cannot sin. It doesn’t imply the person is beyond sin. It says the person will not keep on sinning in the same manner as before.
What we know from experience and observation is that sinful actions for Christians produce a sense of guilt they didn’t have before. The ability to sin freely is still present but the pleasure associated with it is no longer possible.
There’s a big difference between saying a Christian cannot sin and a Christian does not sin as freely as they did before.
If you doubt this explanation, then a literal reading of the Greek text might help. First a literal translation and then an arrangement more suited to English speakers.
- Greek Interlinear – Anyone having been born of God, sin not practices because seed of Him in him abides and not he is able to continue sinning because of God he has been born.
Or in plain language:
- Anyone who is born of God will not practice sin because the seed of God abides in him and he is not able to continue sinning because he has been born of God.
The keyword there is Practices. Believers won’t practice sinful lifestyles as freely and without psychological drawbacks as they once did.
Please tell me you can see the difference there. Instead of Christians will never sin again or cannot sin, it becomes Christians will not continue to sin automatically without thought or consideration. Sin won’t be the immediate or natural choice but it is still quite possible and even likely. We remain susceptible and will even falter and fail occasionally.
The point, of course, is that a proper rendering of the text enables us to understand and balance the two passages nicely.
There Are Too many Ways To Sin
A good exercise that illustrates the problem is looking at the various ways people sin. We abuse all sorts of things: food, sex, money, time, communication. The list could be longer but the interesting thing about the issues I mentioned is that not only are they allowed but they are also necessary.
The question is will anyone ever have a perfectly sinless relationship to food? Will you ever reach the point where you never occasionally eat too much or eat the wrong things or fail to eat the right things?
Will we ever reach the point where we aren’t tempted to hoard too much money or spend it too frivolously?
Will we ever learn how to communicate perfectly, choosing our words carefully and saying only things that edify those that hear us.
If you think these are minor issues, I would remind you that James cautioned that the tongue was a world of evil that starts emotional fires throughout the community, is set on fire by hell itself, and is the greatest source of hypocrisy.
He never mentioned sex other than calling friendship with the world adulterous.
You’re not perfect, you’re not going to be perfect and I would caution you not to say you are perfect or almost perfect or well ahead of the pack.
If you’re a Christian, your sin nature will no longer be the only guiding principle in your life but it will still remain an influence. You should honestly admit this. Denying it makes you vulnerable to pomposity.
Sinless Is Neither The Goal Or The Point
That brings us to an important question. What exactly is my aim as a Christian? Should I expect to be sinlessly perfect? If so, does that mean my sin nature will be eradicated? If so, is it eradicated at salvation or is there another step at which it is removed? If not eradicated, does that mean I will develop a discipline so strong that I will overcome every temptation?
I discussed those ideas previously. I mention them again as reminders.
Those are the only two reasonable options: the eradication of the sin nature or developing superhuman strength.
Referencing another point I made earlier, this approach will set you up for a superior, puritanical, self-righteous attitude. Neither is human nor honest nor likely to attract those seeking Christ.
A better way to understand the problem is to see the difference between perfection and improvement. Perfection is not the goal. Management which leads to improvement is.
Without Sin We’d Have No Need To Grow
We often talk about growing in Christ and the Bible encourages us to do that (1 Peter 2:2, 2 Peter 3:18), but what does that actually mean?
On one hand, growth is academic. We are gaining information from the study of Scripture. We should learn all we can but learning is nothing but the accumulation of information that we are likely to forget if we don’t internalize it.
The primary evidence that growth is happening is not how many verses you can quote but how much your life is changing. The axiom is, you haven’t learned anything if your life hasn’t changed. That applies to both spiritual and secular learning.
I don’t remember everything I learned in history class because it had no immediate bearing on my life. Algebra, on the other hand, changed my life forever. I failed my first year of Algebra – six F’s – and totally got it the next year – not six A’s but nothing less than 98% in every grading period.
I learned something about math computation. I learned something about myself. My confidence grew and my outlook changed. The same thing should happen in our spiritual lives.
One change that applies to us all is replacing sinful responses with more acceptable ones. We develop appetites for new achievements and the achievements don’t have to be directly related to church. Gaining qualifications for useful, constructive work of any kind counts.
But if we don’t have a sinful nature actively disrupting our lives, what would stop us from growing? Growth without a sin nature would be automatic.
Denial Encourages Stagnation
Unfortunately, sin remains active and problematic for Christians and there are many verses that prove this.
In the very same book, 1 John 1:9, we read if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. This is an ongoing process. In this life, we will never stop confessing our sins. The promise here is not that we will reach sinless perfection but that forgiveness, and growth, are possible.
If Christians cannot sin, why would they need to confess their sin? It’s a fair question.
Becoming Sinless Isn’t The Same As Doing God’s Will
The only people God has ever used are sinners. Every writer of the Bible was a sinner. Every prophet was a sinner. Every church member was a sinner. You’re not going to start a new tradition.
But, if I will never be rid of a sinful nature, what is the point? Why do we bother trying at all?
That’s a good question and I can hear the usual answer coming from many directions.
Because sin offends God.
That is true. God is hurt by our sin and we, as Christians, abhor the idea of hurting God. It’s like hurting your best friend. You don’t want to do it. What hurts them, hurts you. But we need to go a little further with the idea.
Why we might ask, is God hurt by our sin? There are multiple answers to that question, many of which are quite philosophical. I won’t get into those for now.
One possible answer is very practical. When God created us, He had a plan for our lives. The one thing that disrupts that plan more than anything else is sin. Sin keeps us distracted, absorbs our energies (energies that would normally be used in pursuit of God’s plan), prevents us from developing the abilities we need to fulfill that plan, and frustrates us in the process.
The one thing we can do that God can’t do is change. The direction in which we change, however, is largely determined by our choices.
Sin isn’t bad because it is intrinsically sinful. It is bad because it prevents us from developing in the right ways.
Also, what would you say is the point of Christian living: avoiding sin or pursuing God’s will?
If you pursue God’s will, you will definitely avoid sin but It is very possible to avoid sinful living and still get nowhere near God’s will.
Pursuing God’s will and avoiding sin are two entirely different purposes. If you focus on God’s will, you won’t have to worry so much about sin. Using your energy to pursue right things means it won’t be available to do wrong things.
Focus is key.
At this point, we have to ask, What is God’s will for my life? It’s another fair question. Possible responses are myriad: business person, doctor, mechanic, lawyer, soldier, dentist, lawyer, pastor, builder, etc.
Whatever the answer, two things are true. One, whatever you do God wants you to be the best you can be and two, you can’t pursue the path while focusing on sin.
It is also true that however focused you are on God’s will, you will never be entirely free of a sinful nature and the sinful responses it spurns.
Focusing on all the bad things we shouldn’t do is defeating. The thing you focus on is the thing you do. The direction in which you’re looking is the direction in which you’re headed.
We would better avoid sin if we learned to engage the right things and when I say “right” things, I don’t just mean reading your Bible and memorizing verses. Yes, do those things but realize they are not enough.
We worship God just as much by reading, learning, thinking, and becoming as we do by memorizing verses. If I were to have open heart surgery, I would be more assured by a well-qualified doctor than by someone who had memorized the entire Bible.
No one is a good Christian because they don’t have a sinful nature or they never sin. A good Christian is someone who manages to use their time and energy in constructive ways in spite of their tendency to sin.