Random Blog Clay Feet: August 06, 2008
Feel free to leave your own comments or questions. If you would like to be in contact with me without having it published let me know in your comment and leave your email address and I will not publish that comment.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

To Sin or Not to Sin

I have had a question residing in the back of my mind that rumbles around frequently seeking resolution. However, it cannot be satisfied with easy, pat answers that tend to be the source of most arguments on the topic but rather I sense that it is something that I deeply desire to really know the truth about. That is partly because at the deepest level it can really be an issue of life or death for me.

The issue is about whether it is possible to stop sinning before Jesus comes. I am well aware of the explosive nature of this subject having been caught up at times in heated debates between people of differing opinions about this. But recently I have found myself in less heated discussions about this with people who tend to believe the opposite of those I usually find myself around and it has caused me to feel my need to revisit this subject much more thoroughly so that I am more settled in my own mind and heart on this issue. I need to feel settled on this, but not, however, for the purpose of winning some argument with an antagonist but because the issue is so central to understanding how to properly relate to salvation and to God Himself.

I am all too aware of the perils of perfectionism and legalism, having grown up very much immersed in those problems. I have spent most of my life trying to become disentangled from the built-in wiring that those beliefs left me with in my reactions to various situations. But I realize that I am also in need of understanding the pitfalls of the opposite extreme while keeping a careful eye on maintaining the right spirit while unraveling all of this. And that is the most important aspect of this whole issue that must always be kept paramount – the condition of my spirit. For if my spirit becomes contentious and argumentative while trying to discover truth, then any truth acquired in the process may become rather meaningless according to the words of Jesus Himself. But even though truth should not trump a right spirit and relationship with Jesus, He desires me to grow in my knowledge of truth while resting in a calm assurance of His love and grace over my life.

The core of the discussion usually revolves around the question of whether a Christian will continue to make mistakes and sin right up to the Second Coming of Jesus or whether it is possible or even safe to believe that a person can be really freed from the control of sin in their lives before that time. What I see as a large part of the problem of even talking about it most of the time is the ambiguity of the real meaning of many of the words used in the discussion. There are so many assumptions built right into the words that we use that it is difficult many times to know what words to choose without being misunderstood. Inherent in the meanings that we assign to words are the reflections of our beliefs about the subjects involved in those words. So when one person uses a word or phrase seemingly familiar to others they may not necessarily be intending or implying the same thing as the assumptions that others will make when hearing those same words or phrases. This is what makes talking about these things so hazardous and contentious many times.

So I find it constantly necessary to provide explicit definitions for the words that I use in order to compile an available compendium with which to understand what I am really trying to convey. Of course, to complicate matters my own understanding of those words is constantly under review and is being updated each day as the Spirit leads me into clearer understandings of truth. That is another reason that it is so important to pay more attention to my spirit than to the accuracy of my knowledge on any given day.

I have felt the need for myself to compile some of these definitions in writing so that these questions can begin to clarify in my own mind and heart. The very fact that this issue continues to stir around inside of me lets me know that it is something I need to face squarely until I find more peace. It also has direct bearing on the condition of my relationship with God, for what I believe about sin and about the process of salvation to free me from sin has a very great deal to do with how I will perceive God's attitude and actions toward me and how I will interpret circumstances that surround me. It will also have a great deal to do with how I perceive the meaning of Scripture as I try to understand its true application to my life and for those around me.

What emerged in my mind very recently was along the problem of defining the word sin. This has been a real problematic issue in discussions on several hot topics and is core to understanding quite a number of related issues. My own beliefs about what constitutes sin has changed quite dramatically over a number of years but still continues to be open to revision as the Spirit tutors me. My recent discussions with friends has caused me to again ponder how this fits into my own questions of just how free we can become from sin without getting pulled into the whirlpool of arguments that this often generates.

The person that I have been discussing with tends to repeatedly go back to the insistent position that we will all make mistakes and will sin as long as we live on this earth. I have been mulling that statement over and over in my mind trying to figure out what is really behind it, trying to uncover the underlying beliefs that drive so many people to cling to this belief so much. One question that I have not asked them yet is, where in the Bible can I find support for this assertion? There is certainly a lot of support for the fact that we have all sinned, but where does it teach that we cannot become free from sin until the end of the world?

There is something about this assertion that conflicts with a number of very clear passages from the New Testament. But again, I don't want to approach this so much as to win an argument but in a way that pursues what is really going on inside and what the deeper beliefs are that cause this belief to show up so often. I want to get below the surface discussions to what is really going on at the heart level that is compelling people to cling so tenaciously to this kind of thinking.

These words often seem to be spoken in a spirit of defensiveness. People who say this often feel under attack from either real or perceived antagonists that they feel are too legalistic. They are usually very afraid that they might be sucked into legalistic thinking themselves and so they seem to be using this mantra as some sort of defense against getting too close to perfectionism. But as I have found a number of times, issues that only appear to have two options are often missing the real point altogether. And this may certainly be one of those issues I believe.

Recently I have decided to follow the assumed logic behind this statement without giving in to the temptation to paint someone in the extreme who thinks differently than I do. So if I were to believe that a person simply cannot stop sinning even though they claim to have Jesus in their heart and be born again, what would that really look like?

One problem that seems to jump out from the very beginning is that if I insist that I cannot quite sinning due to my fallen, human nature, then by logical implication I have to be also arguing that Jesus is not strong enough to accomplish this freedom in my life. I am claiming that the power of sin is greater than the power of God to transform my heart, my attitudes and the way I treat others completely. That seems like a rather hazardous conclusion to me.

Another issue that comes to mind is that sin fundamentally is disloyalty to God. So if I insist that I will not be able to stop sinning until Jesus comes I am also saying that I will continue to have a treasonous heart until that point in my life. On this point I will agree that everyone is handicapped with sinful flesh that is inescapable until we can be delivered on the day of resurrection. But on this point the Bible is very clear that I am to die to myself and my sinful “old man”, even on a daily basis. It is my flesh that stirs up all the desires to sin and rebel against the authority of God in my soul and I need to crucify that part of me every time it tries to assert itself.

But if I maintain the belief that it is impossible for me to stop sinning before Jesus comes, then it seems that I may be giving my flesh a loophole through which it can assert its defiance of Jesus' authority in my life. This kind of thinking seems to not only be very hazardous for my spiritual health but possibly could be a fatal flaw in my theology that could allow my flesh to eventually expel the presence of Jesus from my life altogether. And while this is certainly far from the desire of anyone using this argument, the enormous deceitfulness of sin may be able to utilize this belief as something of a Trojan Horse to deceive me into believing that I can tolerate some level of treason in my heart while still being safe for God to save me in heaven.

I can see where much of our conflict arises because it is still not clear at all what we mean by sin most of the time. If we are talking about behavior and acts of trespass against others or even mistakes, then it is easy to see why a person could have a difficult time believing that we will be “perfect” at some point in this life. But if sin is really much deeper than that, along the line of intentional resistance to the Spirit of God and His convictions in my heart, then it might be very dangerous to teach and promote that it is impossible to be free from sin before Jesus comes. So one of the biggest underlying problems in this discussion is to determine what we really mean by sin.

I have absolutely no desire to get back into the bondage of legalism again or to encourage anyone else to get sucked into that either. But neither do I want to get caught in the trap of subtle deceptions that will betray my heart to the evil one without my even realizing what I am doing. Sin is much more about what is going on at the heart level than it is about bad behavior or mistakes that I make. Those are really along the line of symptoms which will disappear on their own if the root causes are dealt with. At its core, the most accurate and pointed definitions of sin is selfishness and pride.

This is why I sense that we cannot be comfortable with the argument that no one can quit sinning until Jesus comes. For to subscribe to that belief is to leave a door open, no matter how small, for the enemy to enter and operate clandestinely in my heart. I realize that the typical alternatives to legalism and perfectionism are not the right answers to this issue, but that does not make us any more safe. The real solution is total submission to the radical transforming process of the Spirit in our lives to free us from all rebellion and treason against God's authority, all selfishness and all pride.

Real freedom from sin is not something unattainable in this life. It is certainly not something we can accomplish by trying harder or focusing on our own perfection. And it is also true that the very people who are the most free of sin are the least likely to think that about themselves. For the closer one gets to the perfect example of Jesus, the ultimate demonstration of love, compassion, goodness, kindness and justice, the more one will see their own faults, weaknesses and imperfections. This will always lead them to doubt their own perfection and rightly so. But at the same time they must not get sucked into the trap of doubting the ability of God to transform them thoroughly in spite of what they think they see in themselves. They are to trust implicitly in the perfection of Jesus which includes His claim that He will completely save them from the power of sin in their lives.

So the real issue in this discussion appears to be not so much the point of sinning or not sinning itself but the dangerous underlying assumptions that it betrays. Are we willing to believe that God can do in us what appears to us to be impossible? According to the book of Hebrews that is the description of what is labeled faith and is what was demonstrated in Abraham's example. He believed that God could do what was humanly impossible and that belief was accounted to him as righteousness. And Abraham is given to us as one of the best examples of faith because of this.