One of the bigger questions of the Christian life is the one concerning how we should react when we sin. We Christians will struggle with sin throughout our lives, and the devil will always try to use it to his greatest advantage, whether it’s in tempting us to sin, in strengthening our own sinful desires, or in condemning us when we fall into sin. If we don’t understand our position before God, through Jesus Christ, we’re likely to listen to the devil’s condemnation and become paralysed by our shame, and far less useful to God. To serve God as fallen people, we must understand how our sin affects our ability to serve Him, and how we should respond when we sin.
However, I need to address something before I go on. If you’re a Christian, you should feel a lot of conviction when you fall into a pattern of sin. If the Holy Spirit lives within you, you should feel Him pushing against you when you want to indulge in sin. It’s not a case of whether you feel that your sin is wrong; unsaved people still have a sense of right and wrong. No, it’s something far deeper, and if you only try to avoid sin because it’s the ‘moral’ thing to do, or because you fear its consequences and what others might think, then you’re doing nothing that an unsaved person couldn’t also do. Atheists can behave in this way just as easily as any religious person. No matter how good you might be, all your goodness is human goodness, and our good works will never save us.
I really want to drive this home, because there are so many people in the world who think they’re saved because they prayed a prayer twenty years ago and there has been no growth, no change in their lives at all ever since. These people have a terrifying future in store, as Jesus says in Matthew 7:
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you;depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
Look at what Jesus says here: it won’t just be a few people who are sent away, but “many”. This is massive. It’s not some isolated thing that happens to people who are not very nice, or who never ‘looked’ like a Christian; it’s very common. These people will be shocked! They cast out demons, they prophesied, and they did many great works, all in Jesus’ name, yet they did not know Him.
I really want to drive this home: these people did many great things in Jesus’ name. Could we compete with their deeds? What could we say? “Lord, Lord, did I not go to church every Sunday, and try to live a moral life, and give money to charities in your name?” If there was no hope for those people to stand on their own good deeds, we’re not going to fare any better with our ‘good works’. This is important: nothing you can ever do will earn you a place in heaven. Stop thinking that you can be ‘good enough’ and understand that, without Jesus being the Lord and Saviour of your life, your good deeds are not good to God. Unless your sins have been forgiven, they will taint everything you do, no matter how good it might look to the rest of us humans.
So what’s different for those who are saved? On the outside, things might not look very different, but on the inside, everything has changed due to the transformation that took place when the Holy Spirit entered the Christian’s heart. If you’re saved, you might have noticed a few of the following changes:
- Sin doesn’t feel quite so little any more
- You start to see sins that you had never even considered or noticed before
- You begin to hate your sin more, and you really hate falling back into those old sins that you can’t seem to shake off
- Since you see your sin more clearly, you actually feel more sinful as a Christian than you did before, but now there’s hope for victory over that sin, and you probably feel that too
The problem with these is that, like the magicians in Exodus 7, who could perform the same signs that God had performed through Moses, it’s quite possible for people to show these signs of growth quite convincingly without being saved. There are also other similar changes that you might feel instead, so these differences can’t be used to judge who’s saved and who isn’t.
So what’s the real distinctive thing, that cannot be manufactured, that only belongs to those whom Jesus has saved? It’s this: when you sin, you know and feel that you sin against God! I’m not talking about just understanding that the Bible says it; it runs far deeper. When a Christian is saved, the hatred that they had for God is removed, and they enter into a relationship with Him. This means that you hate your sin because God hates it, and because it damages that relationship.
It’s all about the relationship. Your sins might be massive, you might keep falling back into them again and again, and you might feel like the most wretched person on the face of the earth, but if there’s that relationship, if your sorrow comes from knowing (even in some way that you only barely understand) that you’ve harmed that relationship between you and God, you are saved!
If you are saved, the devil cannot condemn you, because there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). If you are saved, you have been given the righteousness of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21, among others), which means that, while you will sin massively and fall often in this life, God still counts you as righteous! The fruit of this is not a license to sin more and more (Romans 6:1-2), but something vitally important for the Christian life: When you sin, God does not look at you so that He can decide whether to approve you or not (and you or I would never be approved, not even on our best day); He looks at His Son’s righteousness and pronounces you righteous. He’s no fool, and He is angry at you when you sin, but He does not cast you out, and you do not become worthless. This righteous verdict has nothing to do with us, and cannot be changed or damaged by our sin, because it is based on the absolute, indestructible righteousness of Christ!
So, when you sin, Christian, you must confess it to God, ask Him to change you so that you would hate it more, fall into it less, and have victory over it more often, and ask Him to forgive you and grant you the gift of repentance if it is His will at this time, so that you may turn away from that sin completely. Then, you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get back to serving Him with everything you have. You may still feel guilty, you may feel weak, or you may feel like you’ve ruined everything, but you must get back into service to Him, knowing that your weakness and feelings do not affect the rock-solid righteousness of Christ through which God pronounces you righteous. Make no mistake, Christian: sin is infinitely serious, God hates your sin to a degree that you could never imagine, and His anger burns against you for that sin, but He punished His Son so that you could approach Him, kneel before His just and fair anger, and be pronounced righteous. John Piper calls it ‘gutsy guilt‘.
Do not rely on your own track record for being pleasing to God; you will never make it. Instead, see that you are counted absolutely, extravagantly righteous in Christ, and serve God with all you have, loving Him more and hating sin more, even as you to fall into it, every step of the way.