Yosemite Park, Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.
“Satan appears strong, sin seems powerful. Shame feels enslaving, but Jesus is stronger.” John Piper
“The true Christian hates sin, flees from it. Fights against it, considers it his greatest plague, resents the burden of its presence,Mourns when he falls under its influence, and completely longs to be completely delivered from it.” JC Ryle
God is good because He gives us power over sin. The fact the Bible talks about resisting and overcoming sin, automatically brings into the very discussed topic of choice and free will. There is not only a lot of discussion for this topic among Christians, there is heavy discussion on this topic from just about every belief system including atheists, psychologists, and many, if not all religions over how much choice we have, how much is predetermined by environment, or perhaps God’s sovereignty depending on your beliefs.
The discussion is very fascinating to me and it takes fascinating turns, such as do higher amounts of lead in the environment lead to higher crime rates? How much does a lack of glucose in our system affect our will? How much of an influence does decision fatigue affect judges decisions to grant parole throughout the day?
I can’t get into this discussion much here, but I believe the Scriptures teach a few very clear things on this subject. The first is that God is sovereign, and the second is that we have choice and we are responsible for our decisions. For some this may seem like a contradiction, it is not, we just don’t have all of the minutiae explained to us in the scriptures. No person on earth knows all the behind the scenes behind the level of agency we have and do not have, nor would this probably be explainable to us in a reasonable amount of time in the scriptures, if at all period. GK Chesterton frames it well this way “The Christian permits free will to remain a sacred mystery.”
The Bible also uses the imagery of slavery when talking about sin and righteousness. It declares that we are essentially slaves of one of two things. We are slaves to sin or we are slaves to righteousness. So, what is the answer to go from a slave of sin to a slave of righteousness? The answer first is to receive Jesus and be born again. When we receive Jesus, His spirit dwells in us and we receive a new nature. We now desire the things of God, but more importantly God himself. So, does receiving a new nature mean that we no longer struggle with sin? Absolutely not! In fact the Bible teaches our struggle with sin will not end until the resurrection. Martin Luther when nailing his 95 theses on door of the Castle Church started with “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ…willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
So, we have a new nature, but we still struggle with sin, how should the life of a normal Christian look when dealing with sin? Do we still look exactly like the world? Do all Christians look like Mother Theresa a few weeks after receiving Jesus? The Bible I believe shows us a few things. The first is the believer always has a way of escape from all sin. (1 Cor 10:13) We may be effected by our environments but we are not slaves to it. Another thing the scriptures shows is that we are not to be practicers of sin. (1 John 3) The true believer will have seasons of weakness and giving in to temptation but I believe over the course of the time we should be actively engaged in what the theologians call the sanctification process. This process is essentially giving over our desires to let God work in our lives and make us look more like Jesus. As Christians, over time we should be growing in love and maturity in Jesus. The process I don’t believe is a straight line. Struggling with sin is hard, and we have hard seasons, but we should always be looking to Jesus to strengthen us in the midst of these seasons.
So, how does that sanctification process look and work practically? How are our lives changed specifically on a daily basis? The broad answer is that delighting and spending time with Jesus will change us. I will follow up with some more specific steps and principles I see in scripture down below on how that looks. But it is important to know behavior modification is not the end in itself. The frame of reference needs to be seen that God saves us, loves us, so He renews us into His image so that we may become more like Him.
So, one very important way the sanctification process takes place is modeled over and over again in Jesus life. What is this? Prayer! If you read through the gospels the common theme in Jesus life is that He prayed a lot and fervently. This makes sense seeing that Paul tells the Thessalonian church to pray without ceasing. (1 Thessalonians 5:17) Jesus in fact started his ministry off by praying and fasting in the wilderness for 40 days. Jesus prayed on all types of occasions, when he was alone, when he was in public, before big decisions, and even taught his disciples and now us a model on how to pray. (Mathew 6:9-13) Jesus was so dependent on the Father, how much more do we need to be!
Another big part of the sanctification process is reading the scriptures. The book of Hebrews tells us “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” King David who is known as a man “after God’s own heart” said “Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.” (Psalm 119:97) Charles Spurgeon once said “A Bible that’s falling apart usually belongs to someone who isn’t.” And there is deep truth to this. Scriptures not only show us who God is accurately, they can serve as important tools for us when tempted to sin. Jesus when tempted after fasting in the wilderness for 40 days always used Scriptures against the devil to resist Him.
Another theme we see in scripture is a farming image of reaping and sowing. Galatians 6 and Romans 8 talk about reaping and sowing with reference to the spirit and the flesh. What you put your time and energy into matters. A relationship with God bereft of time, will not come with any real power over sin. Romans tell us “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Jesus modeled to us the importance of having this kind of dependent strength by living by the Spirit. We find our strength from God when we abide in Him.
Also, it is important to know God calls us to be strong in Him. We are emotional and informational creatures. It is said we have something around 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts per day. That is a lot, and often we believe in things that are not true about God, general reality, and our standing in God. We also tend to think in cycles. If we allow sin and certain practices in our life enough over time, we begin to feel stuck, and start to believe no victory can be had, or at least slowly start to care less and less about it. It is important to know in Christ there can always be victory, and He is calling us to be strong in Him. We see a great example of King David “strengthening himself in the Lord” 1 Samuel 30. King David is in a dangerous situation, he went off and led his men to a war for King Achish of Gath, while gone, the city where His and his men’s families were left unprotected. The Amalekites took advantage of the situation and raided this city (Ziklag), burned it to the ground, and took all of their families. King David’s men wept hard, but the Bible mentioned there was talk of stoning David for his leadership. It was in this instance the scriptures record Kind David strengthened himself in the Lord. King David could have gone a lot of different ways emotionally and practically in such a tough situation, but we find an important principle he went to God with his situation and found strength in Him to continue leading his men to rescue their families.
Finally, one really important thing we see in scripture is that we have a high priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses, in fact He is at the right hand of God interceding for us. This is important to know because our enemy Satan, is the accuser of the brethren. Our enemy tempts us with sin, we then give in to sin, he then accuses us of sin. We then often have the temptation to give up on our faith as if God’s cross has suddenly run out of grace for us. Nonsense! When you sin, come running back to God, and you will find He never left you and He will never forsake you. There is no place for constant condemnation and guilt in the life of a believer. God calls us to repent quickly, then live in the life giving grace He has given us. We are to hold strongly on to the promise that God is our forgiver and He wiped our lives free of all of our sins on the cross.