2 Corinthians 5:17 - “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation…”
Is there sin in those who are in Christ? Or, are we totally delivered from sin when we open our hearts to the grace of Christ? At a deeper than surface or appearance level, are we free from all sinful temperaments, passions, and affections, such as self-will, lust, anger, and love of the world? Are we made “new” from the inside out? This theological quandary is more than a question of curiosity. By facing it we help to illuminate possibilities for both our present and eternal happiness.
At one extreme, some well-meaning church leaders proclaim that all who truly believe are saved from the dominion of sin, both outward and inward sin. Most who lean in this direction will admit that sin still remains “in the flesh” but not “in the heart” of a true believer. It does not reign.
At the other extreme are leaders in the Reformed tradition who say corruption of heart remains. It is a bondage we must endure on this side of heaven. When this pessimistic view is taken, then there is little distinction between a believer and an unbeliever in terms of outward action. The difference is confined to declaration of faith and acceptance of a doctrine. That’s what saves, from this perspective. Some who take this position go so far as to caution us against struggling too much with our sin because that can lead to works-righteousness and cause us to nullify the grace of God. All we need to do is believe and, as a small sign, work to manage our sin this side of heaven. There is an emphasis on displaying outward righteousness even if we cannot control inward righteousness.
What is the truth regarding this matter? To explore this question, I will use the words “regenerate,” “justify,” and “faith” to help us. These words are related, but do not have the same precise meaning. Regeneration implies an inward transformation of the heart, where the turbulent passions of pride, self-will, discontent, anger, and fear give way to humility, trust, patience, forgiveness, and deep compassion. Justification implies a relational change whereby we are aligned to God and set in a right relationship. We believe this happens by grace and not by our own works. With our heart full of grace, we are able to give ourselves to this grace and to trust in its transforming power. We call this faith. A “believer” is the subject in which this transformation happens.
As we examine scripture, it seems that those in the earliest church were in agreement. Even believers in Christ still have need to “wrestle with flesh and blood,” and “with principalities and powers” that bring so much harm into the world. Growing out of these scriptures comes the ninth article of religion where we read: “Original sin is the corruption of the nature of everyone where the flesh lust is contrary to the Spirit. This infection remains in those who have been regenerated. While there is no condemnation in those who believe, we are still called to struggle with the nature of sin that remains.” This doctrine is not unique to us. It can be found in the Greek, Roman, and Reformed Churches.
This scriptural doctrine motivates us to take a positive view of the possibilities. To be justified is a great and glorious thing. To be justified is to be born of God, to become an heir with Christ of the kingdom of heaven. The peace of God, which passes all human understanding, comes. And, a regeneration takes place. We heard in our scripture reading that we are a new creation in Christ where the old has passed away. In this regeneration, our hearts are purified. The love of God fills our hearts by the Holy Spirit. To be regenerated is to have dominion over both outward and inward sin, even from the moment we are justified. We can overcome sin by the power of the Holy Spirit at work within us.
But this does not mean that we are completely free from all sin. Sin remains even if it no longer has full reign. This is clear in the scriptures. The Apostle Paul shared his continuing struggle often. (See Galatians 5:17; I Corinthians 1:3, 3:13). In his own struggle, he exhorted believers to “cleanse themselves from all filthiness of flesh and of spirit.” (2 Corinthians 7:1). It is not enough to simply look clean on the outside; the real spiritual work takes place from the inside out. Our spirits need cleansing as well.
As we are justified, or aligned to God, in a relationship of pure and perfect love through Jesus Christ, we become a “new creation.” We are taken in as beloved children of God and learn that nothing, in life or in death, can separate us from God’s love. Yet, we start this journey as “babes,” to use an analogy from the Apostle Paul (I Corinthians 3:1f). Our transformation into maturity comes from “one degree of glory to another.” (See I Corinthians 6:9-11,19). We are called to grow into our new identity and to give it our all. As with a child moving through adolescent into adulthood, we acknowledge the many ups and downs, even as our love remains steadfast.
Imagine this scenario. Say that another person insults me, or even engages in abusive verbal behavior, demeaning me before others in some way. I will naturally feel resentment, anger, perhaps even hatred. These temperaments will then naturally pollute my spirit to some degree. But imagine that I am able to avoid retaliation, and even refrain from any harsh words, either to or about this person who has engaged in harmful behavior. This restrain is noble, and a step into the light, but it does not cleanse me from the darkness within my spirit. The sorrow that comes from this violation is still there. That’s what we work on through the means of grace.
To claim that there is no sin in a believer, no backsliding or falling, is contrary to God’s word and to our experience. The honest testimony is a bent to backsliding, a proneness to depart from God, and a desire to cleave to the things of the earth. Yet, at the same time, we are able to know that we are of God. We feel God’s Spirit witnessing with their spirit that we are the children of God. We are equally assured that, while sin is present, Christ is working in us and through us as well.
To make this claim is to admit that theology is messy. It is not always possible to put in a neat systematic box. Some ask, “Can Christ be in the same heart where sin is?” The neat answer is “no” but the real answer is “yes.” Otherwise, Christ could not save. To draw upon his own analogy, where the sickness is there is the Physician. Christ cannot reign where sin reigns; neither can he dwell where sin is allowed. But Christ does dwell in the heart of every believer who is wrestling against sin, even if purification has not yet come. In this way, Christ is “with us” always.
Whenever one says that they are having difficulty doing something that they know is the right thing to do, must we then call upon God’s wrath and judgment? Why would we ever think it is right to cause this kind of grief, perhaps destroying any confidence in the possibility of growth and victory? Such a response is even more evidence that there is sin in believers! Be aware all who notice the speck in the eye of another and miss the board in your own. Oh, what harm is caused by this great sin!
In summary: Even after we are justified there are two contrary principles, nature and grace, termed by the Apostle Paul as flesh and spirit. The goal of the Christian walk is for the latter to increase, more and more, and the former to fade away. As we “grow up,” self will, for example, is transformed into humility; anger and arrogance is transformed into gentle, patience, and kind love for other sinners saved by grace. The great tragedy is to never grow up and experience the blessings of maturity in Christ, where we are “tossed to and fro,” where it is hard to find our way.
Therefore, “fight the good fight of faith.” Put on the whole armor of God,” that you might “grow up into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body is joined together, and with parts working properly, we are able to promote the whole body’s growth in building itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:14-15). That is our calling. We engage in this glorious struggle, knowing that we are never alone. Amen.