In the previous chapter I made a radical statement: I said that Christ in you cannot sin. What do I mean by that? Does it mean that a born-again believer never sins again? The Apostle John in his first epistle indeed seems to say exactly that:
The believer cannot sin?
1 John 3:9 “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.”
1 John 5:18 “We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not.”
In point of fact he also says that if you commit sin you are of the devil! You can’t get much more black and white than that!
1 John 3:8 “He that committeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil.”
However, we do sin
Sadly, we all know from our own experience that even after we become born-again and are filled with the Holy Spirit, even though we desire to live a holy and completely sinless life is not a reality and is probably not even possible. Indeed, the writer John, a few verses later, seems to contradict himself and confirms this by the following verses:
1 John 1:8 “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
1 John 2:1 “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, (aorist tense, one off) we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous:”
So, what is John saying? Does he really mean a believer cannot commit sin?
A believer does not practice sin
Firstly, a better translation of 1 John 3:9, 1 John 5:8 and 1 John 3:8 and the phrase ‘commit sin’ would be ‘practice sin’, as translated in the ASV. This is because the tense of the verb ‘sin’ is not ‘Aorist’ (sinning in a moment of time, even once – see verse above 1 John 2:1). It is in fact,‘present active’ or sinning continually.
Therefore, John is saying that a true believer may sin in a moment of time but doesn’t sin continually – or practice sin. In fact, if they do sin continually, then there are grave doubts that they ever knew Christ in the first place!
1 John 3:6 “No one who sins (present active) has seen him or known him!”
A believer practices righteousness
However, I don’t believe that the above explanation, although technically correct, is the complete answer because John not only talks about practicing sin; he also talks about practicing righteousness. See the following scriptures:
1 John 2:29 “If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone also who practices righteousness is born of him”
1 John 3:7 “Little children, let no one deceive you, the one who practices righteousness is righteous even as he is righteous”
1 John 3:10 “By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious, anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God”
Now, this is problematic because John uses the same present active tense to describe righteousness! In other words, a believer practices righteousness – he or she doesn’t just do occasional acts of righteousness, like an unbeliever might. No, they constantly and continually do righteousness every day, at all times.
Now, we can easily cope with the idea that we occasionally sin but can we honestly say that we practice righteousness day in, day out? Well, John says if you don’t, then you’re not born again! There must be a more complete answer – and there is!
I believe, in context, the Apostle John is describing who we are in the spirit. In other words our spirit man (Christ in us) indeed practices righteousness and cannot sin.
Why do we still want to sin?
So then, if we have Christ in us and a brand new nature, why do we still want to sin as well as want to do what’s right? Do we posses two natures now: a sinful nature and a Christ-like nature that are locked in some sort of mortal combat or tug of war? Or, are we perhaps schizophrenic with some kind of weird personality disorder? For many of us that’s certainly what it sometimes feels like.
No, I don’t believe that is the case; you don’t have two natures. You have one new nature that is Christ-like. However, the scripture does indeed suggest that there are two opposing forces: the flesh and the Spirit at war inside you!
Galatians 5:17 “For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.”
The conflict of desire
Paul describes this conflict of desire in Romans 7:
Romans 7:15 “For that which I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do but I am doing the thing I hate.
Romans 7:16 “But if I do the very thing I do not wish to do I agree with the Law confessing that it is good.”
In effect, what he is saying is that even though he doesn’t want to do bad things, he has no power to actually stop doing bad things – even if he wants to. So, becoming monk, hiding away from the world and from all temptation to sin, will not change the fact – that even in a monastery sin is with you. The war carries on regardless.
Romans 7:23 “I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind, and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members”
Regrettably, even though you are born-again, you still carry around the body of death, your mortal and sinful flesh: mind, memories, emotions, will, sexual drive and so on.
Romans 7:24 “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
As Paul says in an earlier verse in Romans 7:14 that we are sold in bondage to sin:
“For we know that the Law is spiritual but I am of the flesh sold in bondage to sin”
It’s not me, it’s this darn flesh!
However, in verses 17 and 20 of Romans 7 Paul comes to three important realisations:
Firstly, there is no good in his sinful flesh (note he is careful to say in his flesh because he knows that his spirit man is good and desires good.)
Romans 7:18 “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.”
Secondly, he has no power to do the good that he (his spirit man) wishes.
Thirdly, he realises that if he doesn’t want to do it, then it’s not really him doing it. In other words, it is sin in the flesh. His true identity therefore, is not in the sinful behaviour but in the new man.
Romans 7:17 “Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.”
Romans 7:20“But if I am doing the very thing I do not wish, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me”
Example – driving your screaming kids to school!
Imagine you are driving your kids to school and they are behaving very badly in the back seat, fighting, screaming and even trying to distract other drivers. You can’t do much about it because you’re trying to keep your eyes on the road. Do you just ignore the behaviour and pretend it’s not happening? No, of course not – if you don’t deal with it soon, you’re likely to have an accident!
Sin in the flesh could similarly be likened to a big, bad dog straining at the leash. We need someone to help us and fast! Who is going to deliver us from this body of death? Who do we turn to?
Most people, of course, turn to Mr Law. Yes, he’s Mr Perfect, he knows the rules absolutely. But he’s no teacher or coach! All he does is point out that your children are misbehaving and he even finds time to comment on the inadequacies of your driving! Thankfully we are no longer married to Mr Law! The Law, religious rules, church attendance, will power, determination, self-help, education, self-discipline, self-reliance, striving, and even prayer may all help and even manage the sinful flesh for a while but they can never ultimately control it.
A positive note
The writer of Romans chapter 7, though, ends on a positive note: he maybe stuck, in need of help, under the Law, frustrated and unhappy in this struggle against sin but he has now seen the light at the end of the tunnel. He has grasped two important positives:
Firstly, he now knows there is only one person, Jesus, or Mr Grace who can help him get free from the law of sin and death. The writer has now given up on himself and also on Mr Law!
Romans 7:25 “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Secondly, he now has a clear revelation of who he is in Christ (see I MYSELF in the verse below). He understands now beyond a doubt that his sinful flesh is not his identity even though it is his responsibility.
Romans 7:25 “So, then, on the one hand I MYSELF with the mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, WITH MY FLESH, the law of sin (my capital letters and bold letters added)
To conclude therefore, how do we answer our original question: “why do we still sin?” We still sin, not because we have a sinful nature but because still we have the sinful flesh!
Questions for discussion
1) How do we understand the contradiction in John’s First Epistle where he apparently says someone who is born-again cannot sin?
2) How do we explain that John says that a born-again believer continually does righteousness?
3) Why, even though we are born-again. do we still want to sin?
4) What are the conclusions that Paul comes to in Romans 7?
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