THE DISTURBING PROOF-TEXTS OF THE SINLESS-PERFECTIONISTS
Much of the argument made by modern-day sinless-perfectionists centers around Paul's statement in II Cor. 5:17 concerning the wonderful truth that Christians are "new creations in Christ" and his earlier words found in I Cor. 6:11, "And such were some of you," with the emphasis on the past tense "were." And if we include in this discussion I Jn.3:4-9, the challenge to resist the erroneous teaching of sinless perfection becomes more difficult. It would seem at first glance that we are indeed to be without sin while we are in this body and on this earth. In fact, it appears that those who are born of God are rendered incapable of sinning. The problem comes when we are forced to admit that we are not without sin (or, heaven forbid, someone else points out our sin).
John plainly tells us that whoever is born of God cannot sin for the seed of God abides in him. That is either true or it is false. And being that this is the Word of God we can eliminate the latter. So we can rightly conclude that this "whoever" is sinless and incapable of sinning. And in stark contrast to this whoever is born of God is the "whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him." We can rightly conclude from this truth that the "whoever sins" one is not a believer. But before we throw up our hands in disgust and utter despair, let's examine this epistle and its historical context as well as its grammatical context. We will discover that the presence of sin in our daily lives and in fact, the presence of "habitual sins" in the Christian's life does not sound the death knell for that believer.
The question for the believer has never been "can a Christian sin?" The question is "can a Christian habitually sin?" The answer to the habitual part is generally a huge and emphatic "NO!" But is that true? Is it not true that on account of our remaining sin nature that is inextricably linked with our mortal bodies, our "flesh," everyone of us sins habitually? Isn't sin itself "habitual" if it is true that we cannot quit sinning?
THE SIN HABIT AND ITS SOURCE
All sin is habitual. And its habituality is not determined by the frequency of the particular act of sin we like to celebratize, i.e., pornography, homosexuality, masturbation, smoking, and profanity; those are other people's sins, sins we don't do. But what about OUR sins? Gossiping, back-biting, lying, fudging a little on the old tax form, not reporting that "cash donation," saying we tithe when we don't, saying "I'll pray for you" when we never do, or worse, "I've been praying for you," speeding and just generally disobeying the law. And one sin we are surely not guilty of...pride. Sin is sin, and except for the sin of fornication (ICor.6:18-20), the Word makes no difference in sin in the believer's life.
And yet even in the case of fornication it is no different than other sins in that fornication is forgiven in the same way that all sin is forgiven, by the sacrifice of the Lamb of God. The commonality of all sin is two-fold; sin is universal and second, there is only one way to forgiveness.
Habitual sin is a part of who we are and habitual sins are not defined by the magnitude of the horror and repulsiveness they elicit from the self-righteous Christian. The habitual sins of humanity resulting from our sin nature (Eph.2:3) and our Father's love for us are what put Christ on the cross, and unless His "once for all" sacrifice came up a little short of His desired goal, His sacrifice still holds sway over our sins, habitual and otherwise. We are all born in sin and born dead in sin. We cannot help but sin. Becoming a Christian has never stopped one Christian from sinning. Sinning is still a habit of the flesh for us all. Keep reading, don't stop now and dismiss me as an antinomian heretic or a belated gnostic. I may have greater faith in the blood of Jesus Christ than you do. I may recognize the need for repentance and holiness more so than you, so bear with me.
THE QUESTION FINE-TUNED
Furthermore, we must ask ourselves if a Christian can be "addicted" to any sinful practice. Can a Christian be addicted to pornography or pain pills or cigarettes or medication of various sorts that have aided him/her physically? Can a Christian be addicted to alcohol? Can a Christian be addicted to the adrenalin rush produced by breaking the speed limit or postponing getting one's license renewed or his license plate? Our mortal bodies are prone to become addicted to many kinds of things. And one of the most glaring addictions among Christians is self-deception.
The filth of pornography and all that that habit entails; the hazards of smoking to one's health; the dangers associated with prescription drug abuse; the addiction to violent outbursts of temper displayed by parents who abuse their spouses and children; the addiction of gossiping and the harm that it does to its out of hearing victims; do these sins demand that we judge the guilty as damned and hell bound? Can you tell me honestly that you do not know a Christian who has some kind of addiction to something whether it is to something trivial or serious? Sin is addictive. And do you believe that a Christian who commits some particular sin is going to hell because of his/her sin? Do you believe that sin is the proof of one's unregenerate condition? Then won't any sin do? Or do we have pet sins that will damn us?
THE NEW CREATURE AND ITS OLD WAYS
The new creation is new because a sinner once dead in sin has been born again, or born of God. And it is abundantly clear that the new creature or new creation of Paul's letter and the whoever of John is a living person in a flesh and blood body who could either read or hear these epistles when they were originally proclaimed. The new creation is not some disembodied supernatural spirit. I know of no one who believes that this new creation is anything other than the Christian. But I feel the point must be made in order to keep in mind the humanity of the believer; the fact that we are at this time in this mortal body. The Holy Spirit through the apostles was writing to living in-the-body believers, many of whom were manifestly weak in the faith (the apostle's child in the faith, Timothy, is a prime example as is Peter in Gal.2, the Galatians and the Corinthians, King David must not be forgotten, child of God that he was).
The many exhortations and commands addressed to the church to cease from some particular sin reminds us of our own need for these exhortations and commands. For instance, Paul exhorts the Roman believers "do not be conformed to this world," "do not be conformed" being a negated present imperative. The negated present imperative means to stop doing something that you are currently doing, or not to do this act continually. Either way, the weakness of the flesh is being addressed by the apostle. We witness believers on a daily basis being conformed to this world to some degree. What do they need? Condemnation or exhortation? Should we shun them or correct them? Should we excommunicate them or discipline them first?
Another clear example of the negated imperative is found in I Cor.6:9 where Paul commands the "like men" Corinthians to "do not be deceived." It is abundantly clear from the context that these believers were indeed being deceived and willingly so. The many repetitions of "do you not know" indicates a willing ignorance on the part of the Corinthian believers. The severity of the Corinthian deception puts it several degrees above the average sin we witness in the church today. Sin is sin and without the grace of God through the preaching of the gospel bringing the lost to the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the lost will spend eternity in damnation. But to deliberately deceive the church and the lost of this life issue is of utmost severity; the "unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God."
Did the severity of the Corinthians' sins (and they were many) lead the apostle to conclude that they were not saved? No, it did not! In chapter 3 and v.21 Paul writes "Therefore let no one boast in men. For all things are yours: whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or things present or things to come - all are yours. And you are Christ's, and Christ is God's." In chapter 6 and v.20 "For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God's." The Corinthians' many sins did not prevent Paul from concluding "but were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God."
The apostle found it absolutely necessary to command the Corinthians to "flee fornication" and to "flee idolatry" (6:18; 10:14).The weak and ignorant Corinthian believers were living lives of continuous sins yet they were "Christ's," they were "bought at a price," and justified. (The student of the Word of God will recall many, many other exhortations in the Word that call believers to abandon some on-going sin in their lives. To abandon them is right and befitting of saints who seek to glorify their Lord [Eph.5:1-5; Col.3:5-11]; and He is Lord in spite of our sins. As we continually seek to submit to His Lordship, we will conform more to His image and throughout our lives in the process of sanctification become more obedient to His Word and His Will).
THE NEW CREATURE IN AN EARTHEN VESSEL
The new birth, the new creation, the born again inner man, is of God. This inner man (IICor.4:16) has been sanctified, washed and justified by the grace of God (ICor.6:11). But when the Bible addresses the believer it addresses the whole man, mortal body and born again inner man. We are both mortal in our flesh and eternal in our spirit. In order to effectively deal with the outward man, the old man, the inner man must be instructed in the ways of God. And in order to effectively deal with the inner man the outward man must be addressed as well; the Word of God does both well (Rom.8:10-11, 18-26; IICor.4:16-18; ICor.15:35-49). But it is also clear that it is the "inner man" who "is being renewed day by day."
The Christian is empowered by the Holy Spirit to "put to death the deeds of the body," speaking of the physical body (Rom.8:13).
In Paul's second letter to the Corinthians he writes concerning the "light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" that "we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us" (4:6-7). In the heart of every sinner who has by God's grace come to faith in Jesus Christ, the "light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" has shone. And this new knowledge and this heavenly light of God reside there at the present time, temporarily confined within an "earthen vessel." But the earthen vessel, beloved, is not where we put our faith, it is not where we focus our faith.
That we are accountable for the actions of our outward man is undeniable; that outward man is still a part of who we are. That we are condemned by the actions of our outward man is soundly refuted in the Word of God through the apostle Paul in Romans 4-8. We are born in sin and dead in sin when we are born (Eph.2:1-3). When we are born again by the grace of God through faith in Christ alone we become dead to sin and alive to God (Rom.6:11). But not our mortal bodies. Why? Why would our loving heavenly Father leave us in such a mess? For His glory and our good. "We have this treasure in earthen vessels" that the glory, the "excellence," and the boasting might be God's (IICor.4:5-7; ICor.1:30-31).
It is no less a treasure because it is in an earthen vessel. We must learn to distinguish between the vessel and the treasure. The vessel does what vessels do and the treasure does what treasures do (Rom.7:24-8:4); and God is privileged to use both as He sees fit (IITim.2:20-21; Rom.9:14-24). However, the treasure being the more valued one of the two and the stronger of the two wields more power than the vessel. In fact, the treasure wields power over the vessel. And we can experience the joy and growth that comes when wielding that power over the vessel on a more consistent basis (Rom.8:12-13; Eph.4:11-5:21; Col.3:5-11: Rom.5:3-5).
The knowledge of the two, the vessel and the treasure, should help us immensely in our daily struggles with temptations and failures, i.e., "sin." And the knowledge that faith is the victory reminds us that the treasure that is ours inside this mortal body is God's gift and where we find that victory by God's grace, not by our works nor through the blessed process of sanctification itself ("We walk by faith, not by sight"(IICor.5:7), but solely in the trustworthiness of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The vessel, the mortal body, is subservient to the treasure. Both vessel and treasure belong to our Creator, He is our Maker and the One who sets the standards for both vessel and treasure. We are not free to abuse our vessel as we please, choosing to sin as we like. Instead, we are to grow in grace and knowledge (IIPet.3:17-18), sanctifying ourselves in accordance with God's will as we mature in the faith. There is the one-time act of sanctification that is solely the province of God, and there is the on-going process of sanctification that is the cooperative effort between the believer and the Holy Spirit (Rom.8:13; Gal.5:13; IPet.2:16; IThess.4:1-8; ICor.1:30; 6:11-20).
So, who is the one who does not sin because he cannot sin?