Not too long ago a mature Christian got me thinking about sin in a new way. The conversation essentially boiled down to whether possessing a desire to sin is, itself, sin. Jesus seems to have confirmed as much in His discourse in Matthew 5, especially on the issues of anger and lust. Of course it is better to not act on my sinful desires, but even having an affinity to sin and wanting to do it may very well be sinful in itself. At the very least, it reveals that my heart has a tendency toward sin, even though I know sin is not only dishonoring to God but also a cruel master when I allow it to enslave me.
Our conversation also brought up the issue of temptation. We know Jesus was tempted, yet that He never sinned (Matthew 4:1-11; Hebrews 4:15). Does that mean temptation is being presented with an opportunity for sin but does not speak to heart desire? Another mature Christian had a helpful insight here. He spoke of how our human nature, apart from God's transforming work, can be so corrupt that it is difficult to separate temptation from desire; often the presentation of opportunity for sin leads straight to a desire for it, making the two nearly indistinguishable. James 1:14-15 says, "But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death." Often in our battle against the sinful nature, when we are presented with an opportunity to sin, we want to take it. I think initially sanctification is manifested when we resist the urge to take the opportunity. As we mature, sanctification is manifested when the desire to sin lessens, and ultimately disappears.
I've heard older Christians say before that the more they come to know God, the more they realize how much of a sinner they are. I am starting to understand this stance. As we grow in Christ we are maturing, coming into His likeness. So in many ways we look less like sinners than we did earlier on. But we also come to see Christ in more of His fullness. As we mature in the faith, we see more clearly how wide the chasm between us and God really is. Before coming to salvation we may have realized we needed a savior. But after we get to know the Savior, we begin to grasp what being dead in sin really means. As God perfects us, we begin to see how much work remains to be done to bring us to completion. As we come to more deeply appreciate God's holiness, we also come to see the depth of our own desperate need.
Contrary to human logic, this is not cause for disillusionment. It is not as if older believers live in fear or with a poor sense of self. Rather, they understand God's majesty and utter holiness. And they more deeply delight in His great salvation. Salvation becomes all the sweeter as I realize my desperate need. Relationship with God becomes all the more precious as I come to understand how intimately invested He is in my character. It is not only my actions that matter to God. He isn't about appearances or me not embarrassing Him. He's about heart transformation, at the deepest levels. Yes, my actions will change. And, yes, my pattern of life in the world should honor God and cause others to want to know Him more. But it is my heart that requires the work.
A friend of mine, Dr. Nabeel Jabbour
who is also an author, professor, and scholar with a heart for reaching Muslims for Christ as well as growing in his own faith, has kindly shared with me a list of signs he developed of a maturing disciple in Christ. One is that such a disciple is becoming aware of secret motives and goals that drive behavior, and learning to choose both goals and behaviors that are honoring to God. He is talking about true heart transformation here. Rather than just change the outside, the inside must be made new.
In Ezekiel 36:26-27 God tells the nation of Israel, "And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules." Second Corinthians 5:17 says, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come." Colossians 3 talks about putting off the "old self" and putting on the "new self":
For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God...Put to death therefore what is earthly in you...Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator...Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and...forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly...And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Colossians 3:3, 5, 9-10, 12-17
God does not merely work toward behavior modification, He is making us absolutely new. The very self is exchanged — a sinful self is put to death and a justified self is raised with Christ into new life.
One interesting aspect of the Colossians 3 passage is the way it talks about the church. Verse 16 says, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God." Part of the way God makes us new, both in our hearts and, consequently, in our actions is through other believers. In the battle against sin, we need not only the power of the Holy Spirit, but the encouragement of other believers. It should also be noted that it is in relationship with other people where the rubber often meets the road. It's easy to be forgiving when there is no one around we need to forgive.
Realizing how enticing sin can be and how my desires can quickly tend toward sin rather than toward God is a humbling thing. Truly I am alive only by the grace and mercy of God. What is perhaps even more astounding is that He takes great delight in me. God does not despise me for my sin. Instead, He makes provision for my salvation and sanctification, loving me the entire time. Romans 5:8-11 says:
...but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
Romans 5:17 says, "For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ." Paul reminds us in Colossians 3 that we are "chosen ones, holy and beloved" (Colossians 3:12). He told the Philippians, "And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:6). Paul talks specifically about our sinfulness in conjunction with God's steadfastness in Romans 7—8.
The battle with the flesh is real, yet God does not condemn. Rather, He has loved us and does love us; and we are more than conquerors. I love that Romans 8 ends with a complete assurance of God's love. Nothing — absolutely nothing — can separate us from God's love. My sin, my desire to sin, my reluctance to allow God's Holy Spirit to transform me, none of it is too great a barrier for God. Jesus has conquered all on the cross. I have been set free, and He will help me learn to walk in that freedom. What an amazing Savior!