Understanding Sin (Sanctification Series #1)

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Understanding Sin

Matthew 1:21

She will give birth to a son, and you are to name Him Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.

In these lessons we want to discuss the process of sanctification by which believers are transformed day by day into the image of God’s Son. We will discuss the theological understanding of sanctification and the practical outworking of sanctification in the life of the disciple. And in closing we will discuss how to lead others as they “walk out their salvation.” Our goal is to understand the process by which God transforms a life so that we can be effective co-laborers with Him in this process.

Sanctification has a starting point. It begins when we are born again and the Spirit of Christ comes to dwell inside of us. At that point we are set apart unto God. We no longer belong to ourselves but to Him who bought us with His blood. From that day we are set on a journey of transformation.

New Christians are saints, but they are newborn saints. They have a desire to obey God, and by the Spirit of God they have the power to obey Him, but like natural newborns they must be taught how to walk. They have spent their entire lives learning to walk in the ways of the world, and now God’s Spirit and God’s people must teach them how to walk in God’s ways. Though the rebellious heart is removed in an instant, learning to walk by the Spirit of God is a process.

Jesus Christ came to save us from our sins. Jesus pardons our sins, and in this way saves us from the condemnation of our sins. But our salvation is more than just a clean slate with God, it also includes power to live a life in victory over sin. Jesus doesn’t save people in their sin, he saves them from their sin. Anyone who has tasted of the kindness and mercy of God would never be satisfied with continuing in the sin that killed their Savior. We can rejoice in God because whom the Son sets free is free indeed!

The Bible uses the word “sin” to refer to a few different concepts; let’s take a look at three of them.

Hostility towards God

Romans 8:5-8

For those who live according to the flesh think about the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, about the things of the Spirit. For the mind- set of the flesh is death, but the mind- set of the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind- set of the flesh is hostile to God because it does not submit itself to God’s law, for it is unable to do so. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

When someone repents of their sins and places their trust in Christ, God gives them a “new heart” and puts a “new spirit” within them; He removes their “heart of stone” and gives them a “heart of flesh” (Ez. 36:26). This is to say that God gives them a willingness to serve Him and removes the rebellion from their hearts. Those who have been regenerated are no longer rebellious sinners, but they are newborn saints. Whereas before they were only concerned with doing what they wanted, after regeneration they are now concerned with doing what God wants.

The unrepentant heart is focused on doing what it wants and is therefore hostile to God. God is sovereign and will not bow to the desires of men but requires that they bow all their desires to His. The carnal man resents this and does everything he can to shake off the lordship of God. Those who are unconverted cannot please God because they are firmly set on pleasing themselves. It is true that sometimes they do some seemingly good things which line up with the will of God, but only when those things happen to correspond to their own selfish will. For this reason even when these lost souls perform a good deed it comes from a rebellious heart and is offensive to a holy God.

People who live with their heart set on pleasing themselves can never please God. Carnal people cannot be reconciled to God until they give up lordship over their lives and surrender to the lordship of Christ; that is, they cannot be have peace with God until they repent. As God says in Isaiah 57:21, “There is no peace for the wicked.” God will not compromise with rebels. He will not surrender His sovereignty to them for a moment. They must lay down their hostility and come humbly to His feet for mercy and pardon. Until they do this, they can never be saved.

When someone repents of their rebellion and trusts in the mercy of Christ they are converted. God then regenerates the converted heart by His Holy Spirit so that the person becomes a new creature. God writes His law upon the person’s heart giving them a firm desire for God’s will to be done in his life, and enabling his will to follow through on that desire. Though the Christian might have moments of rebellion, leading to acts of transgression against God, he never lives in habitual rebellion to God. A person who is in habitual rebellion to God is self-seeking and hostile to God, such a person cannot expect anything from God except wrath.

Transgression 

1 John 3:4

Everyone who commits sin also breaks the law; sin is the breaking of law.

The Bible says that any act, thought or word that breaks a command of God is a sin. These are acts of sin, also called transgressions. We commit sin when we knowingly do something God forbids (i.e. sin of commission) or fail to do something we know He requires us to do (i.e. sin of omission). Jesus received the authority from his Father to forgive transgressions by dying on the cross for us. So when we came to Christ our sins were forgiven. This is why 2 Peter 1:9 refers to us being cleansed from our “past sins.”

Christians do not knowingly and habitually sin against God’s commands. In fact, this is one way the Bible gives us to test whether or not we know Christ. In 1 John 2:3-4, “This is how we are sure that we have come to know Him: by keeping His commands. The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ yet doesn’t keep His commands, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” And again, “You know that He was revealed so that He might take away sins, and there is no sin in Him. Everyone who remains in Him does not sin; everyone who sins has not seen Him or known Him” (1 John 3:5-6).

Jesus came to forgive us of our sins and free us from a rebellious heart so that we no longer have to sin. In John 8:34-36 Jesus explains that those who commit sin have no inheritance in the kingdom of God; “I assure you: Everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin. A slave does not remain in the household forever, but a son does remain forever. Therefore, if the Son sets you free, you really will be free.” Jesus summed up this twofold deliverance when speaking to the woman caught in adultery, “’Neither do I condemn you,’ said Jesus. ‘Go, and from now on do not sin anymore’” (John 8:11). Jesus forgives us our transgressions, and frees us from rebellion so that we no longer have to disobey God’s commands.

These passages, and many more, make it very clear that Christians are obedient to God. New Christians have a lifetime of learning ahead of them as they grow in both the grace and knowledge of God, but they do not grow in obedience. Through repentance they turned from rebellion to submission, and then received a new heart from God. This is not an extended process, it is an instantaneous conversion from Satan to God. People might go through a process in which they come closer and closer to the place of full surrender to God, but the decision to submit to God happens at a certain moment of time.

By grace new believers will experience more of the character of Christ within themselves. And they will grow in understanding of what God wants so that they can more fully do those things that please Him. But they do not get more and more obedient over time. The Christian life begins, continues and ends in consecration to God. Jesus is the “source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him” (Heb. 5:9). This doesn’t mean that it is impossible for a Christian to transgress a command of God, it just means they are no longer in bondage to a rebellious heart and do not consciously and habitually practice transgression. The Bible tells us that if a believer sins, we still have an advocate with the Father through which we can receive forgiveness; but it is important to note that the Bible uses the word “if,” not when (1 John 2:1).

Fleshly Desires

1 Peter 2:11

Dear friends, I urge you as strangers and temporary residents to abstain from fleshly desires that war against you.

Transgression and rebellion are not the only concepts the Bible refers to when it uses the word “sin.” People who are self-seeking are living in sin, and they transgress when they disobey God’s commands. They might disobey in word, thought or deed, but either way, these are things they decide to do. But inbred sin, called “the flesh” in the Bible, is not something people decide to do, but it is desire that comes from within them. Ephesians 2:3 shows the relationship between transgression and inbred sin, “We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh [bodies] and thoughts [minds], and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also.” This passage talks about inbred sin as the “fleshly desires,” that is, “the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts.” And talks about transgressions when it speaks of “carrying out,” in other words, “choosing to act on,” those desires of the body and mind.

This sin goes much deeper than acts of transgression. Instead it is the very source of our temptation as the Apostle says in James 1:14, “Each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desires.” It is true that demonic spirits and the world system tempt us, but they do so by appealing to our desires. In the Garden of Eden Eve had no sinful inclination, but even then Satan appealed to her God-given desire for wisdom to tempt her. Now that the human race has fallen and been thoroughly corrupted by sin and darkness Satan and his forces have a much easier job leading people into disobedience. They don’t only appeal to natural desires, but they have an assortment of corrupted sinful desires they can appeal to as well.

Because of the rebellion of Adam and Eve the human race is fallen. They abandoned the virtue of God’s Spirit, and are now left to follow natural and carnal desires. But it is not merely human desires that they follow, but corrupted human desires. Every act of sin leads to more corruption as the Apostle writes in Romans 6:19, “For just as you offered the parts of yourselves as slaves to moral impurity, and to greater and greater lawlessness…”

This devolving of human character is sped along by Satan’s forces who cause the society of men to reflect and propagate demonic values. This sinful world system leads individuals and nations into further corruption. We are warned about this in Romans 12:2 which states, “Do not be conformed to this age.”

But there is something much worse than falling into the hands of the devil. We are told in Hebrews 10:31 that “it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God!” God in His just wrath delivers men over to their corruption to go even further into depravity (Rom. 1:26-32). Unless the Lord shows mercy by turning people away from their spiritual darkness, sinful desires and rebellion, they will never return to righteousness and God’s favor, but will remain under His wrath. But thanks be to God that He sent His Son to call sinners to repentance.

Jesus came to save his people from their sins. This includes pardoning our transgressions, turning us from rebellion and renewing our hearts by the Holy Spirit. When we speak about sanctification we are talking about the process by which God renews our mind and teaches us to walk as Jesus walked (Romans 12:2, 1 John 2:6). God’s goal in salvation is to free His people from the corruption of their fleshly desires. As 1 Peter 2:11 shows, Christians must deal with these evil desires just like unconverted people do. The difference is that we have been freed from rebellion and given both the desire and ability to resist these desires and submit to the will of God; as we walk with God He renews what has been corrupted. We must not become complacent, but remain on alert (1 Corinthians 10:12). We must pray daily that God leads us not into temptation but delivers us from evil. And we must trust that He is faithful and will always provide a way of escape when we find ourselves in the midst of temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13).

Conclusion

It is important for us to be clear on these three concepts so that we do not expect too much or too little from new converts. We should not expect them to know God’s will from the moment they are saved. They must grow in the knowledge of God’s will. We must teach them what Christ commands. And we must not expect them to be free from every evil desire either. God transforms us by the renewing of our mind step by step, so many of the evil desires they have at the beginning of their Christian life will not stay with them forever, but we must not imagine that that process happens overnight. On the other hand, we should expect them to be humble and obedient to the things they know they should do. We must not let them imagine that they can continue in rebellion and habitual disobedience to the will of God. We must help them understand that temptation will never cease on this side of eternity, but that they are expected, by the liberating grace of God, to live lives that are submitted to the will of God.

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