The sticky truth is that we all sin, and we all fail to stop it. Another sticky truth is that no one has to sin, and we have the power to prevail over it. As cords twine together to make rope, so also these two realities sew together the soul. It for this reason that we all want to the answer the question, How do I rout sin?
As if to torture our already brittle conscious, Paul boldly writes that we have died to sin (Rom 6:2) and that the body of sin has been brought to nothing (Rom 6:6). He argues further that we are free from sin (Rom 6:7) and that sin will have no dominion over our bodies (Rom 6:14). This happened, says Paul, when we believed in Christ, so dying with him in a death like his and raising in a resurrection like his (Rom 6:3–5). In short, sin died when you died.
Still, nobody is sinless (1 John 1:10). Remarkably, we both live with the power to overcome sin and yet daily battle sin. The tension between these two opposing principles will not disappear this side of eternity. Sin and the power to overcome it through the Spirit (Rom 8:4) makes up the our life’s duel. This rough fabric of sin rubs against our flesh, causing all sorts discomfort and pain, while at the same time smooth silk of holiness is a balm and refreshment to us. We wear a garment sewn with both cloths, though we never want this.
Part of the reason we ceaselessly adorn both sin and sanctification is because we have wrong views of sanctification. There are about four ways people try to rout sin, three of which unconsciously weave sin into our coats, while the last results in a single material jacket of holiness. To be clear, I am not advocating a sinless existence before Christ returns, but I am advocating that through the Spirit we can put to death the deeds of the flesh (Rom 8:13).
The Sin Hunter
The first way we try to hammer sin to oblivion is by creating specific spiritual goals to overcome ornery sins. We realize we fall into anger easily, so we create a program that deadens our anger. We quote a proverb, we picture a calming image, and we feel satisfied when we succeed. Or, perhaps, we have a problem with lust, so we block our internet explorers, and create a plethora of other steps to prevent sin. We create these axiomatic standards that we will in nowise transgress. We pick and choose the big sins of our life and proclaim, “The Balrog of gossip shall not pass!”
All the while we miss the fact that all we have done is create a set of laws whose purpose is to separate us from the presence of God. If the Old Testament has taught us anything, it is that law separates us from God’s presence. Instead of meeting God on the mountain of Sinai, Israel ran and demanded that Moses mediate God’s presence to them (Ex 20:19). Not only did Moses separate God from Israel, but the priesthood also began to assist Moses in mediating God’s presence to them (Ex 24:1). Adding to all this, a complex system of laws and purity rituals separated the people from God’s presence (e.g. Lev 1–7). After Israel’s exile, Ezekiel reflects back on Sinai and records God’s words: “I gave them statutes that were not good and rules by which they could not have life” (Ezekiel 20:25). Law separates us from God.
One of purposes of the law was to protect Israel from falling into a sea of sin, since their hearts were not inclined to God. God simply wanted them to listen and trust in him, yet they did not.
Because of this, when we single out sins and create a complex system whereby we try to overcome it, we create law. As law separated Israel from the presence of God, so also do we separate ourselves from God when we try overcome sin this way. We feel empty, dry, and alone. We overcame anger, sure, but we feel separated from God.
What makes this way to battle sin even more deadly is that we often focus on one sin to the detriment of our fight against all other sins. Note well, Scripture tells us not to focus and attack one sin at a time but to tackle all sin at all times. “Let therefore sin no longer reign in your mortal body,” says Paul (cf. Rom 6:12). He does not say, ‘let there be the one particular sin what will no longer reign in your body’.
To sum it up, laws/rules separate you from God, and often when we try to build a single rampart against the wall of sin, we focus so much on it that we miss the counteroffensive launched against our armies. These sins creep up and possess our souls unconsciously adding to that feeling of emptiness and spiritual deadness that our creation of law has already add.
Bitterness takes over and yet we don’t know why. I have overcome anger/lust/gossip/etc. this week, so why am I so bitter and empty? Answer: because you have created laws and forgotten to fight all sin at all times, which both work to distance you from God.
Letting go and letting God
The second way we try to fell sin is through giving up in the hope that God will take over. When we begin to realize we only succeeded in mortifying sins in only a few areas but have failed in many other places, we become depressed. We pine over the fact that we cannot accomplish our spiritual goals for the week, month or year. “It worked for so long, what happened?” we think. “Why do I feel so spiritually dry,” we muse. Soon we begin to suspect the problem is that we have attempted to battle sin on our own power, and we would be right.
“Perhaps,” we reason, “if simply let go and let God win the battle for us, we will be okay.” But the battle is exhausting, sin grows, and we feel alone. Thus, we let go of our effort and let God do it for us. While our heart may be right in many ways, what this often amounts to is giving up in our fight against sin because we are discouraged.
The biggest problem with this “method” to battle sin is that God does not want his people to live this way. He desires that you “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:12–13). Sanctification engages both us and God’s work. He wants us to conquer sin through our efforts with his Spirit behind us. Paul elsewhere writes, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom 8:13). It is the Spirit who empowers us to overcome sin through our efforts.
Sadly, when we feel empty because law and hidden sins separate us from God’s presence, we give up. We simply stop, thinking this will do it. In the end, this is not how God has called us to live.
The Execution List
A third way we try to smash sin is through creating a detailed itinerary of sins to kill and virtues to cultivate; and often we succeed when we do this. We stopped being angry, gossiping, and we started to talk to our neighbors more. “Hey, we’ve hit a stride in our spiritual life,” we note to ourselves. Occasionally, we fail to do what we must do according to our standards, which rushes us headlong into depression. But we get over this. And soon enough we start along our way again, succeeding in our impassioned triumph over sin; or so we think.
As we feel good about accomplishing our spiritual goals, we can begin to feel somewhat satisfied in our fight because we have checked off our weekly holiness list. Soon we judge ourselves and others by our list of what is “right” and what is “wrong.” It may be a correct list but surely some things on it are culturally derived or simply external standards. We might have done as John Owen once wrote, “imposed the yoke of a self-wrought-out mortification (killing) on the necks of [ourselves and others], which neither [us] nor [our] forefathers were ever able to bear” (Owen, 7). We soon start to judge other people’s spiritual condition on the basis of our “execution list” or “itinerary of sins.”
This is called legalism, and it happens when we look down on people who do not accomplish the same spiritual goals we do. We look down on those who are late to church or don’t dress right. We look down on those who we feel take their freedom in Christ too far. We look down on those because of their theological stance. All of this can amount to legalism; and thus we immerse ourselves in transgressions, though we think we are floating on the water’s surface.
This execution-list-sanctification suffers from the problem of having a ginormous timber piercing its eye, while it judges others who have splinters in their eyes (cf. Matt 7:3–5). At the same time, it suffers from a form legalism that believes that by creating and accomplishing a laundry list of sins weekly that it will make one holy.
The struggle against ALL sin at ALL times by the Spirit technique
Sniping individual sins, forsaking the struggle, and writing out encyclopedic hit lists fails to reach the goal. Each technique misses the mark. Through focusing on one sin, one creates a long list of rules (or laws) to fight one sin and overlooks the hundred other sins rushing through the back door. By giving up, we simply disobey the Lord in our fight against sin. Finally, through creating a cornucopian ledger of sin, we suffer from legalism and false assurance that we gain from esteeming ourselves as “holy.”
The fourth, and I believe the way God intends for us to overcome sin, is by struggling against all sin at all times by means of relying on the Spirit. When Paul says that sin no longer dominates us, he means it. And the reason this is true is because the Spirit is the power source for our change (Rom 8:13).
Practically, this means we accept some sins have a greater presence in our life. We note our weaknesses and are conscious of them. But we don’t over-focus and so forget we battle against all sin. It means we never give up—we don’t even dream of it. It means that we burn our titanic length pages of sins we battle weekly and overcome/fail. Instead, we realize we must fight all sin and dive head in, all the while trusting in God’s Spirit to change us.
We don’t have to become depressed when we fail in one area often; this is because we have not over-focused on this sin and so become overwhelmed by failing in what we think is “the” only sin we must face. We don’t create laws to fight this sin, separating us from God. Instead, we have the peace of God that is beyond all understanding and the feeling of intimacy with our lord.
We don’t simply give up, because we trust that God really is and will change us from one level of glory unto another. This is not an empty promise. Thus, we struggle to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.
We stop with legalism. We realize that no matter how “well” we do one week, we are have sinned in a thousand ways we have not recognized. We stop judging people by the artificial standards of righteousness we made. Instead, we learn to focus on our relationship with the Lord by mediating on his Scripture and prayer. Through this means will the Spirit change us.
In sum, routing sin is not so much a matter of methods or techniques, but rather it is a recognition of our daily sin with the hope of daily renewal by the Spirit. It is a constant and vigilant battle against all forms of sin at all times, noting weaknesses in the lines and taking courage in victories. And it never gives up until the day lord takes us home