Walk into a number of churches from different denominations and you’ll find different opinions of what sin is and what a Christian’s relationship to it is. Each view has its own set of Scripture that supports it to some degree, and that makes it hard to tell which one is true. To simplify things, I’ll focus on two extremes, as well as the truth that lies somewhere between them.

Christians can never sin

This is the first view: that a Christian, once saved, can never sin again. If they do, they must not have been a Christian in the first place and must be re-saved. Every. Single. Time.

Now I don’t know about you, but I know that I would need to be saved at least once a day if this were the case.

Scriptural support

Most of the scripture that could support this - that I have found - is found in 1 John:

God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. – 1 John 1:6 ESV

Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. – 1 John 2:4-6 ESV

No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. 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. – 1 John 3:6-9 ESV

So, from the looks of this, it would appear that a true Christian does not sin, ever. I mean, it seems pretty clear, right? Read on.

Christians will always sin

This is the other end of the spectrum. The idea is that a Christian is no different from a nonbelieving sinner, except that this sinner is going to heaven. This sinner has no choice but to keep on sinning, as it is part of his/her nature. But, because this sinner believes in Jesus’ sacrifice for forgiveness of his/her sins, God will forgive him/her.

Scriptural support

Support for this comes from various other places in the New Testament, a majority from Paul’s letters.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. – John 3:16-17 ESV

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. – Romans 8:1 ESV

…where sin increased, grace abounded all the more… – Romans 5:20 ESV

Wait, now it sounds like it doesn’t matter if we sin or not, because we’ll always be forgiven. If we are saved by grace through faith (that God forgives us through Jesus) and not works (anything we can try to do).

The truth

While looking for verses for both of these views, I had to ignore others that were in the direct context. For instance, with the last verse, it is immediately followed by

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. – Romans 6:1-4 ESV

And the Ephesians verse:

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 ESV

Now, let’s go back to 1 John 2 - “Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar” - and think about this. At first glance, one might read “Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not perfectly follow his commands is a liar”, thus implying that a person who does not perfectly follow God’s commands is not a Christian.

But let’s look at the meaning of the word translated “keep”. The word istēreō, which according to Blue Letter Bible means “to attend to carefully, take care of” or “to guard”. The word says nothing of doing anything perfectly, but instead shows that it is about having the honest intent to do it well.

For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart. – 1 Samuel 16:7 ESV

Also, consider the idea behind this:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. – Matthew 5:27-28 ESV

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that, in adultery, the sin was not in the act but instead in the intent behind it, in the thoughts and ideas that the person chose to entertain, whether they chose to act on it or not.

The same idea applies to living as a Christian. The places that talk about how people who sin are not children of God use words indicating making a lifestyle of sinning or intentionally sinning, which Christians should certainly not do. We are not yet perfect, however, or else we wouldn’t need messages like these:

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. – 1 John 1:9-10 ESV

See, a true Christian recognizes their own sin and is willing to confess and repent - a term akin to making a 180 degree turn. If any of us claims to never sin, we are liars and are deceiving ourselves.

So a Christian’s relationship to sin is something like this: On earth, we are not and will not be perfect. We are, however, “being renewed in knowledge according to the image of the one who created [us]” (Collosians 3:10 ESV) and being “transformed by the renewing of [our] mind[s]” (Romans 12:2 ESV). That is, we are undergoing a process by which we are being transformed, or renewed, into a person that is a clearer image of God, which includes avoiding sin as much as possible. Accidental sin is something to be expected, though limited as much as possible, and intentional (or deliberate) sin is to be avoided altogether. For while we do make mistakes, deliberate sin can and will lead to a lifestyle, or practice, of sinning, and “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil” (1 John 3:8 ESV)

This post is meant to be both encouragement and warning. To those who are like me and have been doubting their salvation because they’ve sinned “yet again”, despite all of their efforts to kick the habit, know that you are indeed saved “by grace through faith”, if you believe and have accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior. Also be encouraged, knowing that

…neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor heavenly rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:38-39 NET

Simply allow God to work in you and change you for the better. Learn to trust Him to provide a way out when you are feeling tempted.

And God is faithful: He will not let you be tried beyond what you are able to bear, but with the trial will also provide a way out so that you may be able to endure it. – 1 Corinthians 10:13 NET

Oftentimes it is as simple as walking away from the situation (easier said than done, am I right?). Other times it requires constant praying and focusing directly on him. For while our minds are focused on the things of God, we find that the desire to sin disappears.

To those who go the opposite way treat God’s grace as a “Get Out Of Hell Free” card: You’ve completely missed the point.

What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Absolutely not! – Romans 6:15 NET

The person who sins is still guilty of sin after becoming Christian. If this were not the case, why should we need to ask for forgiveness in the first place? The Christian life is not about “paying our dues” and signing on the dotted line. It is about relationship with our Creator, a loving relationship that goes both ways. In a friendship, one friend will forgive the other if he accidentally did something to hurt the first friend, or even something intentional, if he seriously apologizes for it. But if the second friend is constantly hurting the first, the first will see that the relationship means nothing to the second, and the relationship ends, because it never truly existed in the first place.

Our salvation is a result of our intent and actions to keep a meaningful relationship with God, not the words we speak like an incantation every time we sin, just so we don’t go to hell. I quoted it once and I’ll quote it again:

For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart. – 1 Samuel 16:7 ESV

Our “act” of repentance means nothing to God if we do not actually mean what we say.

So how have you been approaching sin? Have you imagined God hating you with every mistake you make? Or have you been using grace as a license to do what you want?

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