The Problem of Sin: Part 4 of a (probably) 10 part series on Discipleship
I hope that by now, three blogs into this series, you have come to an understanding of what a disciple is, why the church and fellow believers are absolutely necessary for discipleship and the many, many benefits of being a disciple Christ. My prayer is that you desire to leave superficial Christianity behind and embrace the call of God to true discipleship.
In the first post of this series we described a disciple thus,
A disciple is a person who is in an intimate relationship with God through continuous faith and repentance and who are brought are constantly living in the gospel. Disciples are people who believe the gospel, people who have turned from their sin to embrace the forgiveness of God, people who have had a transformed life so that they are motivated to obey what the Lord has commanded them.
In this post I want to deal with the italicized aspect of discipleship - how people change. The goal of our personal discipleship is to be continually conformed into the image of Christ, something which God does in us but to which we must also respond. (Don't mess up the order! - "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." - Ephesians 2:10; "Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure - Philippians 2:12-13) A disciple of Christ desires to live a life of gospel-centeredness; which means a life centered on the death and resurrection of Christ. This is why faith and repentance are the chief characteristics of a true disciple. Being a disciple of Christ means that we seek to have the sin that plagues us eliminated from our lives. But in order to see this done, we need to understand the depth of the problem, and the manner in which it affects each of us.
Understanding the Problem of Sin
As Paul Tripp identifies in his excellent book Instruments in the Redeemer's Hands, our culture, including a vast amount of our Christian culture, does not have a biblical view of the human person and the sin that plagues us. Today, more than ever I think, we are oppose anything and any doctrine that negates personal value, rights, and the sanctity of the human ego. We have deified ourselves in ways that are idolatrous. Thus, talk of sin or of something being wrong with who we are, in our very nature, is seen as anathema. We have a tendency to see ourselves as fundamentally good with only minor flaws that can be solved with a bit of God's enabling grace and a healthy commitment on our part to put in the work and follow the steps that our pastor or favorite author suggests.
But Scripture offers a different picture of the human person. Scripture tells us we are fundamentally sinful, until Christ overtakes our hearts, and even then the good that we do does not come from within us but is a result of Christ working in us. We are always simul justus et peccator, simultaneously justified and sinner. Even for believers, our core problem is sin. It is a condition of our being, our nature. Sin is never simply the things that we do, it is part of who we are.
In order to become true disciples of Christ, we need to understand and confront our sin problem. If sin is part of our nature, we will always be dealing not only with our history, or circumstances, or relationships, or culture, or whatever but with how sin distorts the way we handle these things. Help will only come when we deal with the internal problem of sin. (Tripp)
Let's look at Romans 7 for some insight (I am indebted to The Enemy Within by Kris Lundgaard, as well as the excellent commentaries on Romans by Douglas Moo, John Murray, and John Stott)
Sin living in us is a “law” (v. 21) – The “law” Paul refers to in this verse is the same thing he calls “sin living in me” in vv. 20 and 23. What does he mean by “law”? It is a metaphor that expresses the power, authority, constraint, and control that sin wields in our lives. Paul wants us to see the powerful effect that sin has, even within the life of the believer and that it is constantly demanding conformity to itself;
We find this law (of sin) inside of us (v. 21) – This incredible pull to sin is part of who we are. Few Christians have come to terms with this fact - sin is living in each of us;
We find this law when we are at our best (v. 21) – First the encouraging part, as powerful as the law of sin is, it does not rule the heart of the believer (cf. Rom 6:1-14). BUT Paul says that when he wanted to do the good that Christ has made him able to do, he found sin trying to work its way into the good thing that he wanted to do. He didn’t just stumble into sin in a time of great backsliding, or when he was indifferent about the things of God. He was aware of sins presence even when he most wanted to serve God. In this way sin works by ambush. It is not the dictator of the believer's heart, it is not on the throne, but it seeks to defeat us by jumping on our good intentions;
This law never rests (vv. 14-25) – Since grace rules the believer, we want to do good and be good but sin opposes us at every turn. “The law of sin and death” is in a constant tug of war against the believer’s overall desire to please God. Sin is always “right there with me” seeking to make Mr. Hyde out of Dr. Jekyll (cf. Galatians 5:17)
This sin can never be defeated by anything we do (v. 24) - Paul cries out in despair and longing in v. 24. Since the problem lies within him, the solution cannot. No matter how hard he tries, no matter how many commitments he makes, the victory for sin will never come from within him. Nor will it come from the law, for the law identifies and exacerbates sin, but does not save us from it. (cf. vv. 7-12)
Sin is constantly a threat to us because it is within us. Though it is not on the throne it is still a very real and constant threat to our spiritual vitality and our discipleship. Unless it is dealt with by Christ, by an alien Savior, sin can never be overcome.
Understanding How Sin Seduces Us
Let's take a look at another passage of Scripture that will help us see the way in which sin seduces each of us, James 1:14-15. (Once again I am indebted to Kris Lundgaard, as well as the excellent commentaries on James by Douglas Moo, and Craig Blomerg and Mariam Kamell)
The goal of sin is death (v. 15) – Whatever sin pretends to want (during the occasion of sin) is not what it really wants, for the sin within us desires death via sin. Our sin wants us to believe that the consequences for flirting with sin will only be small (not much blessing from God, a small earthly consequence), but in reality sin wants your death;
The way sinful desire works for your death is through temptation (v. 14) – The essence of temptation is deceit – all deception and temptation has one intent: to convince the mind that this sinful act is somehow “good” four us; James identifies 5 degrees of temptation:
dragging away (mind) – We are dragged away from our duties (good ones) by the deceit of some sin (cf. Romans 7:21). We become double-minded, we are tempted into serving a second master (which we cannot do, we must choose) and thus we are prone to fail. We develop a lazy eye, one eye on the good that God demands and another on the evil that is tempting us. You can’t do much when each eye is looking at a different thing; this is why Paul warns us not even to “think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh”. (Romans 13:14)
enticing (the affections) – This is the closing of the fist over the temptation of the mind. We have moved from “I think” towards “I need” or “I must” and we begin to imagine what it would be like to have or do what the temptation is asking of us. We set our hearts on what we are tempted by and often we become emotionally attached to the sin that was in our minds. At this point we can no longer think of our lives being good without the sin that is before us.
We must be aware of an important observation that Lundgaard makes - sin rarely will storm the castle walls of our heart aggressively and with much noise and fan fare;. Instead it seeks to take advantage of our natural laziness and negligence in spiritual things. As we become inattentive to growing our spiritual life, sin seeps into the places of our hearts and minds where God used to be, often unbeknownst to us at first. As we think of God less and less, talk about him less and less, talk to him less and less, commune with him less and less, we will also give sin more and more of an opportunity to drag us away and entice us.
conceiving sin (in the will) – The consent of the will is the conception of actual sin; it now views the temptation as essential to my life. It becomes “I need” rather than merely "I might like" or "I want". This “need” compels us to do everything in our power to get it because we feel that we cannot survive without it.
the birth of sin (in actions, words, thoughts, etc.) – This disrupts our life as sin is born into it
death by sin (enslavement to sin is spiritual death) – This does not happen to believers in the eternal sense, but death does enter into the heart none the less. Remember the "wages of sin is death" and this can occur in at least three ways: eternal (not happening in the believer); physical (happens to everyone) and spiritual (will not happen fully to a believer). It is this last kind of death that happens to the believer as his Christian life, which should be vibrant, abundant and victorious, slowly creeps towards life support. This death damages everything - personal and relational.
Sin is a sizeable and ever-present problem. If we desire to become true disciples of Christ and to, in ever increasing ways, be molded into his image, then we need victory over our sin. But how? If Paul and James are right there does not seem to be any hope! Yes, and No. There is no hope if we seek to find the solution to sin within ourselves. We can do nothing about our sin problem, so if we try to manipulate our actions, attitudes, words, circumstances, or whatever in order to defeat sin, then all hope is lost. But if we abandon hope in ourselves, as Paul did, there is hope. Listen to Paul's glorious confession at the end of Romans 7,
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
The disciple of Christ can only have sin defeated in his life by Christ, he cannot do it himself. Our next blog will explore this in more detail.
Soli Deo Gloria