Other "Thinking Drafts" and writing by Keith Drury --http://www.indwes.edu/tuesday .
How much can a Christian sin and still say he or she is a Christian? Every day? Every hour? Constantly and continually? As a regular practice of life? Just how much can a Christian sin and still say they're a Christian?
There are two general extremes on this issue of "How much can a Christian sin?"
On one extreme are those who argue a real Christian can't sin, because being delivered from sin is what being a Christian is all about. These folk argue that if you claim to be a Christian but you are sinning, you are a liar—Christians can't sin. You might be able to say, "I used to be a Christian," or "I thought I was a Christian," but if you are sinning you can't say, "I sin, but I am a Christian." Christians can't sin.
The "can't sin" people can assemble plenty of Scripture to back up their position. They use verses like 1 John 3:6 & 9, "No one who lives in Him keeps on sinning." "No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in him and he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God." The Bible is clear. Jesus came to save people from their sins, not in their sins, they assert. Christians don't sin. They can't. And if they should sin, they are no longer saved. After all what is the difference between a saved and an unsaved person? One lives like they always have—in sin and disobedience, and the other has a changed life: they have stopped sinning.
Those off on the "can't sin" edge of doctrine often come from hyper-Arminian or holiness denominations. They have a great concern for the pure life—a life without sin. This is admittedly an admirable hope. But they go too far. They eventually came to insist on absolute purity as the minimum requirement for the Kingdom. They think they are following John Wesley. In fact, they start with Wesley then ride off on a tangent into the sunset with an aberration of Arminian doctrine. Instead of offering the future hope of living above sin, they insist on the present minimum of a sinless life—just to be in Christ's family.
The "Christians can't sin" doctrine leads to all kinds of crazy eccentricities in practice and doctrine. For instance, for these folk, every time a Christian does indeed fall into sin, he loses his relationship with Christ and has to start all over again and get saved. To them, sin is not allowed for Christians. So, whether a person sins or not is the ultimate measurement of your Christianity. The spotlight is on sin and self, not Christ and the cross. This is a seriously misplaced focus.
Doctrines, even wacky ones, tend to be self-correcting. The people who teach and believe a doctrine somehow have to adjust to the reality of daily life. And the reality is that Christians in fact sometimes do fall into sin. The "can't sin" teachers are embarrassed by good solid Christians repeatedly getting saved all over again, every time they slipped into some wrong act, attitude, word, or thought of disobedience. It is awkward to have so many of the Christians getting saved so often.
So the "can't sin" folk eventually came to re-label sin. Words, thought and actions which were formerly labeled "sin" were simply re-labeled "mistakes." The list of "sins" was slimmed down to the things—mostly outward actions—which few Christians ever actually did. Presto! Immediately the church was full of sinless Christians. At least sin the way the "can't sin" people defined it.
Sure, the church still had some people with rotten attitudes, and questionable methods were sometimes used in local churchly politics, but these were now labeled "mistakes" and not sin. The doctrine had self-corrected to reality. But the correction may be more dangerous than the aberration! With the power of this new label—"mistakes"—many Christians could sin more boldly than even before. They just labeled it a "mistake" this time. And of course, people being what they are, there is always the tendency to label your actions and attitudes "sin" while I label mine "mistakes!"
The "can't sin" people are still around teaching this doctrine. It is, however, a doctrine far over on one extreme. But there is another group far over on the other side of the road.
This group takes up position on the other end of the scale. They argue that Christians must sin—they "can't not sin." This group teaches that sin is a natural and normal part of being human, and getting saved doesn't change that at all. Why do we sin? We sin because we're human, that's why. We were born sinners. It's in our blood, or at least our nature to sin. Adam was a sinner, and since then so have all his progeny—we are sinners at heart, and becoming a Christian doesn't change that a bit. Before I was saved I was a sinner. After I was saved I am still a sinner, just a "saved sinner" now. In a sense God switched the label on me!
Then what does getting saved change? It changes our position before God, these folk teach. Before being saved we were a sinner on the way to hell. Now we are a sinner on the way to heaven. Our position changed: we are now adopted into God's family. And because of this, all our sins—past present and future—were forgiven at one moment on the cross of Calvary 2000 years ago.
For the "must sin" people the focus is on Christ and the cross, never sin and self. They argue that St. Paul confessed he was the "chiefest of sinners" yet certainly he was a Christian wasn't he? They like the book of 1 John too, especially preferring chapter one, verses 8 & 10, "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us," and "If we claim we have not sinned, we make Him out to be a liar and His word has no place in our lives." The Bible is clear, they say. Christians sin. They are human. Sin is just what we do. The point is not to be sinless, it is to recognize that the sins you regularly commit were forgiven in advance. They teach that Christians do not confess to gain forgiveness. Rather the value of confession is internal—a value to the person themselves.
So they say you are destined to keep on sinning. In fact, every Christian sins regularly, even "in word, thought, and deed every day." These teachers deny that a Christian could ever "stop sinning." Sorry, it's just not possible. You might overcome an individual sin. You might even overcome a number of individual sins. But, they say, you will never overcome all sin. You must sin. There will always be some sin in your life. So just expect it and confess your daily sins to God each day. You might as well start now—you'll have to do it until the day you die.
As we remarked earlier, doctrines on the edges of the spectrum tend to be self-correcting. The "must sin" eventually had to do some light-footed doctrinal dancing to adapt to reality. While the "can't sin" people narrowed their definition of sin until they could pronounce themselves sinless, the "must sin" people simply broadened their definition so they could pronounce everybody sinners.
The "must sin" folk define sin as anything falling short of the perfect example of Jesus Christ. In other words, any single thought, word, or deed which is not completely Christ-like is sin. What would Jesus say? How would Jesus think? What would Jesus do? If you fall even 1% short of this perfect standard you are sinning, these folk teach. So, presto! Every Christian becomes an immediate and habitual sinner. Who could claim absolute perfection in thought, word, and deed every day? Not one of us. So the "must sin" folk, with their broad definition of sin, sweep everybody in. If you accept the definition, you've got to admit you're a sinner...regularly, habitually, daily.
But the danger here is to treat sin too casually. With the focus totally on the cross, and none on my daily life, it provides the Christian an "out" for all kinds of practices and attitudes the Bible warns us about. The "must sin" teaching is pessimistic, offering little hope of doing what Jesus commanded us to do—love and obey Him. We are stuck as sinners. The "must sin" people see only the forgiveness side of the atonement and ignore the deliverance side. If I "must sin" then why try to stop? If I'm destined to sin regularly until the day I die, what good was getting saved, other than to save my neck for eternity? Isn't there more here and now? Isn't the blood of Jesus Christ stronger than this? Can't God forgive me of sin, and deliver me? Is this all there is to it?
The "can't sin" people offer a false hope. The "must sin" folk offer no hope. Where is the middle ground?
Christians can sin...but they don't have to. You can't help reading the two extremes on this issue without wondering, "They're really saying the same thing aren't they?" It's true. At least in a way. While the teachers of these two extreme positions probably would not admit they agree, the average person in today's church can quickly see the sensible middle road approach to these doctrines. They say, "Sure, Christians can fall into sin, but they don't have to." Where is the middle ground? What is the position where the vast majority of sensible laymen stand?
James was hot-headed, John was judgmental. Peter denied Christ. The Bible is full of sinners—saved ones. To say that Christians can't sin squares neither with the Bible nor life. Christians can and do sin. When they do sin they don't immediately "fall from grace" either. Their relationship with God is stronger than that. How can you read in Paul's epistles the constant call for Christians, saints, the redeemed, to put off sin, lay aside sin, crucify sin, mortify the deeds of the flesh. If Christians never sinned why would Paul address these "saints" and tell them to stop? The truth is, Christians can fall into sin.
While sin is possible for Christians, it is not required. To say that Christians have to sin—that they can never be delivered from disobedience—sells short the blood of Christ and the cross. Sure Christians can sin. But they can not sin too. Sin is a choice we make. We can choose to do it and sin. Or we can choose to refrain, and not sin. But we are not trapped forever in a sinful cycle. It is possible to resist temptation and keep from sinning. I might admit that I sin every day in word, thought, and deed. But I don't have to. The atonement is powerful enough to not only forgive my sins, but to deliver me from sin. Christians don't have to sin.
Perhaps the biggest reason the middle ground is so hard to find on this issue is there are two ideas of sin. These two ideas are both in the Bible. But even our culture and legal system makes a distinction between them.
A) Sin as falling short. This idea of sin focuses on God's standard of holiness. It says that anything which "falls short" of God's perfect standard as seen in Jesus is sin. Our life is like an arrow, and any time the arrow of my thought, words, or deeds "falls short" of the perfect target in Jesus, I sin. This is the first idea of sin.
B) Sin as intentional disobedience. The second idea of sin focuses on intentions, or my will. This idea states that sin is knowing something is wrong but doing it anyway. Or it is knowing God wants me to do something right, yet refusing to do it. This idea of sin emphasizes only willful disobedience. Sin is a deliberate, premeditated incident. Sometimes this is called "sin, strictly speaking" to distinguish it from the more global definition of sin in A) above.
Anyone who works with children can readily see the difference. If a 13 month old child knocks over his milk because of his childish clumsiness, he clearly falls far short of the perfect standard of adult table manners. But any sensible and loving parent would not punish their baby for this. The parent overlooks this behavior as an unintended shortfalling. The baby is held to be "blameless" because "he didn't mean it."
On the other hand, suppose your 12 year old son is fooling around with his brother at the dinner table and you warn him to be careful before he spills his milk. Let's say he looks defiantly at you, then reaches out his finger and knocks the milk over on your table. He'd better run, right? Parents see the difference between purposeful and unintentional disobedience.
So does the legal system. For instance, the crime of murder is purposeful and premeditated. However, "manslaughter" is a lesser crime where there was no intent to kill. Some kinds of fraud require intent. And, of course, treason or conspiracy must have intent. These are all examples of the two levels of disobedience to the law, one with malice or intent, the other an actual breaking of the law, but without intent to do so.
The point is, both ideas of sin are accurate. In a sense every thought word and deed which falls short of perfect Christ-likeness is sin...in the general sense. But it is also true that, strictly speaking, we are only held accountable for intentional disobedience.
In the sense of sin as falling short, Christians will always sin. That is, they will always fall short of being exactly Christ-like in every attitude, word, action, or response to others. This kind of perfection is neither promised nor given on earth. Christians can daily confess that they fall short of absolute perfection every day. This is speaking of sin in its general, or falling short manner. Do you sin every day in word, thought, and deed? In this sense of sin, yes. We all do.
However, on the other hand, Christians can live above sin if you mean sin in the stricter sense—purposeful premeditated sin. A Christians can indeed grow up...be cleansed...get deliverance...be filled with the Spirit...walk in the light...so that they do in fact come to a place where they do not purposefully disobey God in their day to day life. There really is hope for "obedient living." At least for a life free from defiant and deliberate sin. Sure, such a person may still fall short of perfection, but they can live above purposeful disobedience. This is the optimistic hope of the atonement.
So, what about you? Is there purposeful sin in your life? Is there something you are doing—or not doing—which is out of line with God's instructions to you? You know its wrong but you are doing it anyway? Or you know God wants you to start something, but you're dragging your feet? If so, what you need to do is clear. You need to (1) confess this sin to God, then (2) repent—turn away from the sin and "get in line." If you are sinning in defiance, the issue is not to debate the definitions of sin. The issue is to stop your defiance. And the route to stopping has always been the same: confess and repent. Trust God's atonement for the power to both forgive and deliver you from this sin. He can do it. And He will do it.
So what do you think?
To contribute to the thinking on this issue e-mail your response toTuesday@indwes.edu
By Keith Drury, 1996. You are free to transmit, duplicate or distribute this article for non-profit use without permission.