How to Sin Without Sinning
Sometimes Christians misunderstand biblical teaching about sin and forgiveness. The purpose of this post is to help us conceptualize the sinful condition without the baggage of frustration, discouragement, and guilt. Understanding sin and forgiveness also helps us put our failures and feelings in the correct spiritual context. The three most common mistakes relative to sin and forgiveness are denial, disconnect, and practice. We may deny our sin, disconnect our sinful behavior from our faith, and persist in the practice of sin.
Years ago, I heard about a lady in the community who was critical of the church. She said, “You people in the Church of Christ are always praying, ‘Forgive us of our sins,’ but if you were living the Christian life, you would not need to be asking for forgiveness.” This woman’s statement is a denial of the human tendency to sin, and it shows that some people think it is possible for Christians to live without sin. In contrast, the Bible says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). This woman did not understand that Christians also sin and need forgiveness.
How can we become more aware of sin? It seems that the farther people are from God, the less they are aware of their own sinfulness. Conversely, the closer people are to God, the more they become aware of sin. This point is illustrated in the story of Isaiah’s encounter with God. Isaiah was a righteous man, but when he saw the Lord in the temple, he said, “‘Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty’” (Isaiah 6:5). This would be a strange reaction if he already had full knowledge of sin. Instead of reflecting on the glory and majesty of God, he acknowledged his own sinfulness. I am sure that all of us will have a similar reaction one day when we appear before the judgment seat of Christ. We will immediately recognize “the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). Being in the presence of God is not the only way our sinfulness will be revealed. The more we study God’s word, the more we become aware of sin.
Paul said, “Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet’” (Romans 7:7). The Bible teaches us the true nature of coveting, and once we become sensitive to God’s word, sin seizes “the opportunity afforded by commandment” (v. 8). The commandment, therefore, reminds us that we can sin by coveting. In the first two chapters Romans, Paul points out the sinfulness of both Jews and Gentiles. His conclusion is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
When I was in high school, I use to visit other churches when they were having gospel meetings. On one occasion, I saw a young man at church that I knew from the area. I was glad to learn that he regularly attended this church with his parents. Later that summer, however, I saw him with some of his friends in a different setting. On this occasion, he was acting very worldly. No one would have recognized him as a Christian and I was shocked by his display of hypocrisy. When I became a Christian, I knew Christians sinned, but I could not imagine someone sinning so willfully while claiming to be a Christian. Instead, I thought people did not pretend to be Christians when they persisted in sin.
When I was a teenager, I had a conversation about Christian living with my good friend, Bill Bradford. As we discussed certain sinful behaviors, Bill said to me, “If I do that, I will have to stop going to church.” His words made a big impression on me because it forced me to acknowledge that I could not disconnect behavior from faith. As John says, “He who does what is right is righteous” (1 John 3:7). The young man mentioned earlier devised a scheme in his mind that allowed him to separate his faith from his behavior.
It is common for people to profess one thing do something else. Paul identifies this behavior in some Christians in Rome. “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:1-2). Paul says Christians cannot “go on sinning.” This is what John is saying, “No one who is born of God will continue to sin” (1 John 3:9). There were also Christians in Corinth who persisted in sin, and they utilized slogans to justify their behaviors. They would say, “Everything is permissible for me” and “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food” (1 Corinthians 6:12). What were they trying to justify by these slogans? Paul tells us in the next verse. “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord” (v. 13).
When my dad discovered he had terminal cancer, he talked to me about his faith. He said, “I am troubled that I sin.” I explained that we are saved by grace and that God forgives us when we sin. Then he said, “But I still sin!” This example is different from the two previous posts because my dad recognized he was a sinner and he was troubled by his sin. The woman did not think Christians ever sinned, and the young man was not troubled by his sin because he believed he could separate behavior from faith. So then, how is my dad’s view of sin different from the other two? And what does the Bible say to Christians about sin and forgiveness?
Some versions, like the New King James, suggest the Christian can never sin (“Whoever is born of God does not sin”). The idea that the Christian never sins actually contradicts 1 John 1:8, where John says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” To avoid this contradiction, some people argue that the body sins but not the spirit, which is what some Corinthians were saying by their slogans (“Everything is permissible for me” and “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food”). This idea is used by some to justify the doctrine that once you are saved, you can never be lost. Since people do fall away after being saved, the idea that the body sins and not the spirit is used to explain how this could happen. The argument is that they are still saved because it is only the flesh that sins and not the spirit. This belief, however, is not taught in Scripture. Paul gives examples of Israelites who fell away and says, “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us” (1Corinthians 10:11). The “us” in this verse refers to the saved, or the brothers at Corinth. Notice how he applies the Old Testament examples to the saved in the next verse, “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (v. 12).
The Bible teaches that although Christians sin, they do not make a practice of sinning. The best presentation of this is in John’s first letter. “No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9). The New American Standard Bible says, “No one who is born of God practices sin.” Those who disconnect faith from behavior say you can be righteous and not behave righteously. John rejects this by saying, “everyone who does what is right has been born of him” (2:29).
Behaving in a righteous manner is how we confirm that we are born of God. In other words, we “cannot go on sinning” if we are born again. John is not saying God will force us to behave righteously, but we cannot legitimately claim to be Christians if we make a practice of sinning. So, our practice confirms our identity. The belief that only the flesh sins is probably why some were saying that Jesus did not come in the flesh (1 John 4:1-3), for if the flesh is what sins, then Jesus did not come in the flesh. And if Jesus was not connected to the flesh, then Christians are no longer connected to the flesh. Therefore, everything is permissible in the flesh because it is not connected to the spirit, but this belief is false, and is the “practice of sin” that John condemns in 1 John 3:9.
On the other hand, the belief that Christians never sin is false and discourages people from living the Christian life because they recognize they still sin. So, how can we acknowledge that Christians sin without engaging in the practice of sin? The answer is that there is a difference between the struggle with sin and the willful persistence in sin. Paul illustrates the struggle against sin in his own life when he says, “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15) and “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out” (v. 18). Notice the heading in the New International Version for verses 7-25 is “Struggling With Sin,” which fits nicely with the point now being made on these verses. The language of Paul in these verses can be difficult to understand, especially the “sold as a slave to sin” comment in verse 14, but I agree with those who interpret his words as a struggle against sin in general, or the sin principle, and not a specific act. Note, for example, that he says earlier, “just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin” (5:12). The use of sin in this verse is something more than the act committed by Adam. It refers to the sin principle and our inclination to sin.
What should we do when we sin? First, we must reject the willful practice of sin. The practice of sin takes us beyond the sacrifice of Christ. The Bible says, “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left” (Hebrews 10:26). There is also the delusion that sin brings when we delight in wickedness (2 Thessalonians 2:10-11). The practice of sin is inconsistent with being born again (1 John 3:9), and we cannot “go on sinning” (Romans 6:1) as Christians.
Second, recognize the difference between sin and the practice of sin. John says there is a sin that does not lead to death and we can see our brothers committing this sin. “If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life” (1 John 5:16). Notice that he says we can see a brother commit this kind of sin. This shows that Christians sin, and that it is different from the sin that leads to death. Later in the verse he says we should not pray about that. The sin that leads to death is the practice of sin, or the willful continuation in sin.
Third, we must confess our sins to God. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1:9). We may confess the sins that do not lead to death because “we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ” (2:1).
J B Myers