As I listen to conversations and read articles written by various Christian authors, there seems to be a lot of confusion about what constitutes sin, and how to deal with it in the life of a believer. What kind of thing needs forgiveness? What is sin? What about the role of accountability in our lives?
In the distant past a holy God clearly stated His basic requirements for man’s fellowship with Him (through man’s own efforts) through the key points of the Law. The Law presents a problem.
There is no way I can read the Ten Commandments and believe that I have fully met these standards. I have also chosen to exercise my will over His in countless ways. To this extent I have broken fellowship with Him, and this is called sin. His holiness demands a consequence for sin: “The wages of sin is death….” (Romans 6:23) In spite of this, He continues to love us and to want our fellowship. The whole basis of my faith is the promise of forgiveness and reconciliation with the Father only because Christ has paid
the penalty for my sin in His own body. The miracle of His mercy and grace is that, through the obedience and humility of the Savior, Love has found a way to forgive what Holiness demands.
It is in the area of daily living that I think many of us have become confused as to what and what does not constitute sin, and the nature of forgiveness. As believers we are instructed to live lives which will honor and glorify God, and to reflect His love in the world. Various scripture passages offer us firm guidelines regarding morality and Godly behavior. However, over time some have read these guidelines and inferred very specific rules and regulations which God may or may not have intended. For example, some may take a clear, scriptural, and Godly principle (such as chastity before marriage) and tack on so many additional legalities that ordinary human relationships become distorted. These added conditions (such as no unchaperoned contact even when engaged, no hand-holding, etc.) are limits we may or may not choose to practice, but we need to be clear that they are not specifically mentioned by God in Scripture. They are man-made and arbitrary, and whether or not they are actually “sin” in God’s eyes is, at least, ambiguous. These rules are probably meant to be protective, but in fact may delay spiritual growth. Too much protective structure circumvents the process of learning how to make our own choices within the boundaries of God’s will. Christ came to set us free under grace, not to bind us all up again in a different kind of law and a life of fear. We need to be clear about the difference between acts or thoughts which need God’s forgiveness and the consequences of disobeying the rules we have made up because we hope they may help us be more faithful.
On the other hand, lately some Christians have chosen to edit out the whole concept of sin, and prefer to call sin merely “mistakes”. However, we cannot change the nature of sin simply by calling it a “mistake”. A mistake is when you think something is one thing, and it turns out to be something else. When you know from the beginning that something is wrong and you do it anyhow, it isn’t a mistake; it is a deliberate choice. Sin can be forgiven, yes ~ that is the joyous news of salvation ~ but don’t minimize it by calling it “just a mistake”.
If we make deliberate choices driven by sin ~ choosing to do something we know is wrong ~ then we may have to accept the natural consequences of that sin, even though later we may repent and may be forgiven by God. Even our repentance and God’s forgiveness does not always get us off the hook completely because sin often carries its own punishment. For example, the physical laws of biology do not change just because we are repentant. You cannot consistently drink to excess and expect that forgiveness will keep your liver healthy or your job intact. You cannot indulge in unprotected promiscuity and think forgiveness will prevent you from getting STD’s or getting pregnant. You can’t steal or murder or perjure yourself and expect that the law of the land will not prosecute you just because you have later repented and God has forgiven you. Your spirit may be forgiven if you genuinely repent and change your behavior (“Go and sin no more.” John 8:11), but there still may be the natural repercussions of the laws of nature and government. God may use these consequences to teach us some hard lessons in accountability, even though He has blotted out that specific sin in the eternal scheme of things.
God doesn’t just turn His head and look the other way and change the laws of nature so that we can be irresponsible. We usually reap what we sow in this life. With repentance we may be forgiven for eternity thanks to the sacrifice of Christ, but we don’t walk around inside a magic fence which allows us to do just as we choose without any accountability. That is not forgiveness; that is anarchy.
Even though we now live under grace, we are still to live lives which honor and obey the will of God. Paul writes to the Romans, “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? Certainly not!” (Rom. 6:15) We are called to present our bodies to God; to live holy lives before Him ~ which is our reasonable (not extraordinary) service. We are not to live just like the unbelievers of this world, but are to be changed and deepened by the renewing of our minds through scripture so that we may demonstrate “what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” (Rom. 12:1-2 ) Does this sound as if we can continue to live just as we please and then expect that God will forgive us even if we don’t change our ways? We have a responsibility to represent Him in this world, and to live lives which will not dishonor Him. Of course we can be forgiven of all our sins ~ but that forgiveness involves gut-level repentance and a change of behavior, not just a superficial, “Oh, sorry” because we got caught. From the very beginning of His ministry Jesus preached, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17)
What keeps us from being honest with God about our sin? It is pride and self-will. We may tell ourselves that we are doing something for God’s glory that is really designed to bring glory to us. We can become so sure of the rightness of our own specific viewpoint that we sometimes lose sight of the fact that we are being self-serving and/or in denial about our motives. We dredge up internal arguments to prove to ourselves that we are doing the right thing, or that our reasons are sufficient to justify our behavior, even if we may have unspoken doubts about something. We just shut down that small whisper of conscience and tell ourselves that this untruth is really just an insignificant bit of exaggeration, or that in this action we aren’t hurting anyone but ourselves, or whatever other lie we may use as a cover in order to continue to do our own will. We can harshly judge others and tell ourselves that we are virtuous because we don’t do that particular thing ~ ignoring our own pride and self-righteousness. We can justify almost anything if we pretend often enough that no one will notice. God notices.
Can all things be forgiven? Yes, they can ~ but it requires the choice to stop justifying ourselves and to admit that we have sinned. Forgiveness presumes a genuine desire to change direction by confessing our sin, asking God’s forgiveness and help, and persevering to make changes, however that best may be accomplished. In certain circumstances, like substance abuse or anger management, this may involve getting highly qualified professional help.
As children of God, it comes down to this: the life in Christ is all about learning to love God so much that we are fully prepared to set aside our own wills and to seek to know and obey His will in all things. This was the witness of Christ. He chose to set aside His glory and humble Himself in order to do the Father’s will. We all need to remember that forgiveness is not an entitlement, but is based on genuine confession of sin and a desire to turn our lives around to live a life of submission to the will of God in all things. We can rest in the knowledge that God still loves us, no matter what, and that He will recognize and help in our sincere efforts to please Him with lives of trust and submission.