Have you ever asked someone what you thought was a “yes or no” question and they replied that the answer was “yes and no?” The title of this entry to A Shepherd’s Heart, “Is the believer still a sinner,” is such a question. And understanding both the “yes” and the “no” of the answer is important for understanding the seeming conflict between the believer having been born again (regenerated; made new) and wholly sanctified by the work of the Holy Spirit, and the ongoing presence of sin in his life.
I was provoked to consider this question recently when our church was reminded of the marvelous grace God has shown to all born again believers by the reading of the following passage by one in our fellowship.
Romans 5:6-9 For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.
At the time, I felt compelled to clarify the fact that while we “were” sinners and “were” ungodly before we were saved, true believers are not sinners in the same sense once saved. After the service a young boy came up to me and said that he didn’t understand…that he thought that “Satan makes us sin” so, in his mind, even believers are still sinners. I believe his understanding is representative of a rather widespread misconception in the church world generally, so I will clarify further.
The unsaved man is “filthy” with sin. The believer is “clean,” having had his sins washed away by the blood of Christ. The unsaved is “undone,” and “vain” (empty). The believer is “complete in [Christ],” a member of the true church which is “the fullness of him that filleth all in all.” The unsaved is dead in trespasses and sins. The believer is alive in Christ. The unsaved is a child of darkness. The believer is a child of light. The unsaved is “without God.” The believer is indwelt by God.
I set out these to emphasize a very important point: the believer is radically different from the unregenerate sinner referred to in the Romans passage above. The unregenerate, i.e., unsaved, man is by nature a sinner. The believer is by nature a son of God. What he once was without Christ is not what he is by faith “in Christ.”
2 Corinthians 5:17 Therefore if any man [be] in Christ, [he is] a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.
It is true that the believer still has a sin nature (“the flesh”) with which he will battle until his glorification. But he has been born again by the Spirit of God, by which spiritual birth he has been given a new nature which is without sin, the very life of Christ.
Galatians 2:20 I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.
As a new creation (“a new creature”) he is empowered by the indwelling Spirit to walk according to his new nature as a child of light, a son of the King of kings. In other words, before he was saved it was his very nature to sin, but as a born again child of God, it is his very nature to not sin.
1 John 3:9 Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.
John is describing the new man which is born by the sovereign work of the Spirit, in other words, the new nature of the true believer who has been born into Christ by faith (Titus 3:5-7; 1 Cor 12:13). As such, he is also expressing the new expectation for the believer’s life: he is to be holy, without sin, because God, his heavenly Father, is holy (1 Peter 1:16). This is not an impossibility as too many Christians seem to believe (God never commands what cannot be accomplished), for as the believer walks under the control of the indwelling Holy Spirit (Eph 5:18), "he cannot sin.”
Galatians 5:16 [This] I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.
But will the believer sin? Without doubt. He is still flesh, mortal, corruptible and, consequently, all too often will choose to not walk in the Spirit according to the will of God but in the flesh (i.e., the “old man”). Therefore, at those times he will fulfill the lusts of the flesh. However, when the believer makes the choice to pursue his own will in opposition to the will of his heavenly Father, he is a sinning son of God, not a “sinner” in the context of Romans 5, nor an “alien” to the promises of God (Eph 2:12) as he once was.
I say all of this because it seems to me that much of the church, even the real church (as opposed to the apostate, professing church), seems to have a mistaken view of both Satan and the believer’s position in Christ. Many church cultures seem to teach (intentionally or unintentionally) that Satan initiates all sin. In so doing they have unintentionally created a scapegoat for the believer’s personal sinning by ascribing to Satan the blame when, in fact, the blame lies with the believer and his own willful choices.
As I told the young inquirer, Satan cannot make any believer sin. He can only tempt, deceive, confuse, etc. But when faced with such encouragements to sin, the true believer does not have to give in to the temptation. The believer can say “No.” He can choose to not sin. Satan is neither his master, nor his equal when he is walking in the Spirit, for God has promised that if the believer will resist the devil’s temptations “he will flee from you” (James 4:7b).
The truth is this: a man sins when his own will unites with his own lusts (James 1:14-15). It is at this point that sin is born in him. In other words, sin does not come from “outside” of man. It comes from within.
Proverbs 4:23 Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it [are] the issues of life.
Proverbs 23:7a For as he thinketh in his heart, so [is] he:…
This makes the unregenerate sinner’s attempts to not sin hopeless, for the unregenerate heart is “deceitful above all [things], and desperately wicked”(Jeremiah 17:9b) so that “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart [are] only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5).
But it is not so with the true believer, for God has promised “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you” (Ezekiel 36:26a). This takes place when the repentant sinner trusts in the finished crosswork of Jesus Christ and is born again into the family of God by believing that
…of [God] are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: (1 Cor 1:30)
…hath made him who knew no sin [to be] sin for us; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. (2 Cor 5:21)
So, to be born again, i.e., “born of God,” is to be freed from the bondage of sin (John 8:34-36), to be “made the righteousness of God,” and to be indwelt by the Spirit of truth and holiness (John 7:37-39; 14:16-18; Col 1:25-27) so that the regenerated believer is fully capable in the power of the indwelling Spirit of not sinning.
It should be apparent from the above, then, that when the believer sins, he sins because he chooses to, not because he is “forced” to. Never can the believer excuse himself because “The devil made me do it.” This is a dangerous view of the Christian life which can cause one to become “complacent” towards his own sinfulness. The believer so deceived will exercise little, if any, sincere or thorough self examination, thereby undermining God’s blessing in his life.
“But believers sin” you may rightfully declare. Agreed. “Then isn’t the believer still a sinner?” (Here it comes) “Yes, and no.” I will explain further.
The apostle Paul explains the conflict the believer has with his own sin nature as follows:
Romans 7:18-20 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but [how] to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.
Paul is not saying here that he is consciously sinning. Rather, he is simply but plainly declaring that in his flesh, as representative of the flesh of all men (including all believers), there remains a sin nature. By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he clearly separates this nature from the new nature which is born of God, consents that God’s law is good, and resists all tendencies to sin. Paul could see the tendency to sin in his own life, yet understand that he who had been born again was not a sinner and resist such tendency and not succumb to the temptation (whatever it might be), i.e., not sin.
You see, the mere presence of the temptation to sin, which is common to all mankind, is not sin. It is submission to the temptation, i.e., acting on the temptation, that is sin. So, when the believer submits to temptation and thereby performs willful, sinful acts, he is sinning. In such a case, “Yes,” he is, by definition, a “sinner.”
BUT this definition refers to his temporal actions which, as Paul makes plain, are “separate” from his true nature, i.e., his eternal being in the Lord. The believer, regardless of his temporal acts, is by nature a son of the holy God, not a sinner. In fact, it is this distinction that makes the believer’s sins so onerous, so terribly dishonorable. For while the unregenerate sinner cannot help but sin, for it is his very nature to sin, the believer has been freed from the tyranny of sin and has been clothed with the righteousness of Christ (Gal 3:27) so that he has the power, i.e., the ability, to not sin. Thus, when the believer sins, he is willfully choosing to walk against his God-given holy nature and rebel against the rule of His loving, heavenly Father! What a disgrace.
I will use a bit of historical perspective to bring this to a close.
During the early years of the church, God gave Peter a revelation which he didn’t understand at the time. It was a vision showing that the law had been fulfilled and God’s righteousness satisfied by Jesus Christ so that certain foods which the Jews were forbidden by the law to eat were now to be eaten with thanksgiving. Peter told God that he could not in good conscience eat those foods for he had never eaten any “common” food. God’s response to Peter’s resistance to this new revelation of grace is appropriate to this discussion. He said to Peter
Acts 10:15 …What God hath cleansed, [that] call not thou common.
You see, this revelation was about more than food. It was a revelation of God’s amazing grace whereby all who trust in the crosswork of Jesus Christ, both Jews and Gentiles, become equal heirs of God’s salvation and the glories of heaven. Peter began to understood this later when he met the Gentile Cornelius and his household, and witnessed the gracious, saving work of the Spirit in their lives, the same work that had been accomplished in him and his brethren.
How does this apply to this discussion? As born again believers we are no longer “common” sinners, but the exalted and soon to be glorified sons of God. With this broader perspective, then, I can say that “No, the true believer is not a sinner.” Rather, he is a joint heir with Christ (Romans 8:17) who has been “washed… sanctified… justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11). So, “What God hath cleansed, call thou not common.” To do so dims the glory of the salvation we have all received by grace alone through faith alone in the finished and perfect work of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ alone.
Consider one more thing. No sinner has any right to heaven or any of its blessings. But God has blessed each and every believer “with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ” (Eph 1:3), and has "quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus" (Eph 2:5-6), so that even now He has "translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son:" (Col 1:13).
Brethren, we are not “sinners.” We are God’s holy children and eternal heirs of the glories of heaven by His grace. We have been saved to bring glory to God by evidencing in our lives the victory grace has given us. Given this exalted position and high calling, let the exhortation of the apostle John be a provocation.
1 John 3:1-3 Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.
In closing, remember this: it is the "accuser of the brethren" (Rev 12:10), i.e. Satan, who attempts to convince God that the believer is a sinner whose just end is damnation, not blessing. But the believer’s advocate, Jesus Christ the righteous (1 John 2:1-2), responds on his behalf "I know he sins, but he is NOT a sinner. He is the righteousness of God, my redeemed, my chosen, my holy abode, my own precious possession, purchased with my own blood, for whom I have secured an incorruptible inheritance in heaven."
Understand and rest in this. You have been saved by grace, and have been forever reconciled to God by the work of the Lord Jesus Christ on your behalf (2 Cor 5:17-21). Having received such grace and been given liberty from sin and an exalted position in the family of God, walk as the sons of God that you are, in purity according to the will of your heavenly Father for the sake of His glory.
Ephesians 5:8-10 For ye were sometimes darkness, but now [are ye] light in the Lord: walk as children of light: (For the fruit of the Spirit [is] in all goodness and righteousness and truth;) Proving what is acceptable unto the Lord.
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