I know the things I’m about to say will likely ruffle a lot of feathers. Some people might even call me legalistic. But legalism is not what I’m trying to promote here. Rather, I believe we are called to freedom, which requires absolute surrender.
Recently God has been giving me a lot of clarity about sin and righteousness, and I felt compelled to write about it. This is an issue that is so misunderstood in the church, and this misunderstanding causes people so much grief. I know it’s caused me a lot of grief.
In the west we’ve been sold an alternative gospel. Many Christians have been told that Jesus died to forgive us of our sins rather than to set us free from our sins. Many Christians aren’t told about the significance of baptism and being Spirit-filled when it comes to being set free from sin. So many Christian leaders are way too casual about sin and don’t seem to encourage young people to live righteously.
I just want to make it completely clear that this is not a judgmental, self-righteous post. I am certainly not saying that I am really holy and other people aren’t. I’m criticizing myself as well as anyone else. Lately it’s just hit me how so many of us supposed born again believers seem to be kind of indifferent and complacent when it coes to sin and righteousness.
We often talk so much about God’s grace and forgiveness that we forget about His holiness and wrath. We act like God’s character is somehow different than it was in the Old Testament, like we have a new God now. But He’s still the same; He’s just chosen to show us grace. God is not any more okay with sin now than He was before. Jesus didn’t lower the standards of holiness; He actually raised them.
I want to make it clear that we should never be shocked by sin. Jesus wasn’t shocked by sin. He didn’t go around acting judgmental and disgusted by the prostitutes’ and tax collectors’ questionable practices. He reached out to the worst sinners in Israel, the people the Pharisees wouldn’t go anywhere near. When it comes to unbelievers and those who aren’t born again, we shouldn’t be surprised by sin.
However, those who are God’s children should most definitely have higher standards. God now expects us to be holy as He is holy (1 Peter 1:16). We’re often told that we’re under God’s grace so it’s all good if we carry on sinning. But this is so not what the Bible tells us.
Once we’re born again, we’re no longer identified as sinners, but as the consecrated, set apart children of God. Therefore we should be different than we were before, and we shouldn’t look the same as the world.
Christians will often say that “sanctification is a process.” Although I agree with this statement to an extent, I think it can often set people up for failure. Instead of making a conscious effort to be righteous right now like God expects us to, we often think of holiness as being some distant goal in the future, something that we will eventually arrive at once we’re “spiritually mature,” or, on the more extreme end of the spectrum, that we won’t reach until we’re in heaven.
Holiness cannot be achieved solely in our own effort, but we also can’t expect God to do all the work for us while we sit back and do nothing. Being a follower of Christ is about partnership with the Holy Spirit. If we’re Spirit-filled then change should happen organically, but God does expect us to make a little effort too. The Bible even tells us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). That’s a very different message than this modern gospel we hear that says you don’t have to do anything because God loves you just the way you are.
I’d like to clarify that we will obviously never be perfect while we are here on earth. If we think we can be sinless then we clearly don’t understand the definition of sin and how much we fall short of God’s standards. However, we can certainly be holy and righteous in God’s eyes. But most of the time we don’t even try because we’re told it’s impossible, and we look around and see a bunch of Christians who don’t act any different than the world.
You tend to get two main types of Christians: those who are sheltered and judgmental (like the people who think you have to homeschool your kids and that it’s bad to wear shorts) or those who are so casual about sin that they look exactly like the world (like the people who fly rainbow flags and think Beyonce is great).
Okay, so I know I’m being pretty harsh in my description of Christians in America. There are obviously people who are balanced and who look nothing like this. But in my experience, there doesn’t really seem to be too much middle ground. The people who only talk about grace and excuse sin clearly don’t have it right, but the people who are judgmental and sheltered don’t have it right either and are very rarely any holier than anyone else.
What we see throughout the New Testament is that God doesn’t call us to be this group of sheltered weirdos who can’t relate to anyone in the world, but He does call us to be holy and set apart from the world. Our behavior and our lifestyles should make people ask what’s so different about us.
When I look at a lot of Christians, I unfortunately see people who don’t look that different from anyone else but just go along with church culture. In fact, Christians I’ve met have often been even worse than non-Christians I’ve known. That’s so not what God intended. Honestly, if you got to observe me at home every day for the last few months, you would probably have thought I could have been an atheist. And that’s so not okay.
So much of the time I’ve gone along with the distorted view that God’s standards for His people are somehow different today than they were for those in the early church. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Spiritual things have not changed since then. The harsh things that God said to the early Christians still apply to us. We’re not somehow exempt because of our cultural and historical context.
It’s so easy to become complacent about righteousness just because we don’t see any strong Christians setting examples. When all the other Christians we know excuse things that are unacceptable and set the bar so low, we often end up living the same way.
There are so many areas in my life that have been practically untouched by my relationship with God the last few months. I dishonored God by watching stuff on Netflix and Hulu that I know He doesn’t approve of. I used crass language and talked in a way that wasn’t gracious and holy at all. I was mean and critical about people, and I snapped at my family members and disrespected my mum. I basically let my thought life go haywire, and I thought about guys in a dishonoring way. I started to listen to the world’s warped messages about sexuality. I eventually became so spiritually lethargic and failed to notice that I had stopped bearing fruit.
But lately I’ve let the Holy Spirit in for the first time in a while, and God has woken me up and showed me how much of a mess I’ve been the last few months. But it hasn’t made me feel condemned or discouraged; it’s actually made me feel hopeful and even kind of excited. Excited that freedom is possible, regardless of what the world or other Christians may tell me. I now see that I can’t keep thinking and living like the world and still expect to follow Jesus. I can’t compare myself to those around me, because their standards aren’t very high. I have to look to Jesus and the standards given in scripture.
I think a big mistake lots of Christians make is that they fill their minds with worldly media and then wonder why they start thinking like the world. If you’re always listening to secular music and watching popular shows (depending on what they are, of course), you’re going to start thinking more like the world than like God. We can’t fill our minds with trash and then act surprised when we become desensitized and start finding unacceptable things to be normal. Our consciences can become seared by the things we expose ourselves to.
I have to be honest: in the past I’ve often tried to convince myself that my sin wasn’t that big of a deal or that it’s all good because God’s grace covers me. I didn’t like living in sin and didn’t totally go along with the grace doctrine like a lot of Christians, but I often wondered if I was just being “too austere” and if I’d set my standards too high. But in reality I was just aware of the fact that the Holy Spirit was convicting me. We should never let our consciences become seared by accepting things that God doesn’t find acceptable.
The problem with sin is that once you let a little bit in, it infects everything. You can think one sin won’t touch other parts of your life, but it will. Sin corrupts and destroys and defiles. And it makes you spiritually numb. That’s why we have to make a conscious effort to kill it.
God’s commands to be holy shouldn’t discourage us or make us feel like we may as well give up because we’ll never be good enough. They should motivate us and inspire us to live righteously. Pursuing purity and holiness is the most freeing thing we can do.
When talking about sin, Jesus used the analogy of chopping one’s own hands off (Matthew 5:30). That’s the length He said we should go to to avoid sin. He was pretty darn serious about it. He even emphasized the importance of our thoughts, which most people don’t seem to think matter that much. He explained how sins like lust and even murder always begin in the heart (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28), and impure thoughts still count as sin.
Throughout the whole New Testament, we see the seriousness of sin spoken of again and again. In Hebrews, Paul even said that Jesus’ blood no longer covers us if we consciously live in sin (Hebrews 10:26). And in Romans he said that we would only be set free from the law if we live in the Spirit (Romans 8:1-4). He spoke so poignantly about the flesh vs. the Spirit. And just read 1 John and you’ll realize that John was pretty harsh about sin too. He said quite a few things most modern-day Christians like to avoid.
I think a big part of the problem with the western church’s view of sin is that we’re taught false doctrine. Although it is clearly stated throughout the New Testament that baptism is extremely important, and even essential, for being born again and dying to your old self, many churches today teach that baptism is “just a symbol” or merely a “demonstration of one’s faith in front of others.” This teaching is not even remotely biblical, as the Bible says that baptism is an extremely profound spiritual thing that is far from being merely symbolic. This is when one makes the decision to die to their sin and their old self and rise as a new creation in Christ. Baptism is the obvious next step after repentance.
It is also essential to be Spirit-filled if one wants to be free of sin and live righteously. However, churches are also extremely vague on this topic. Many churches teach that you receive the Holy Spirit as soon as you believe and say nothing of being filled with Him. Once again, this is not what you see in the Bible. In the book of Acts, new believers immediately got baptized and tangibly received the Holy Spirit. These were the first steps new believers took after accepting Christ and repenting of their sin, as they mark the beginning of a new life in Christ. However, we’re often taught that they’re not important, and instead we’re told to go along with religious tradition that doesn’t set anyone free. But we can’t do anything without the Spirit’s power.
I really wish people would have told me the truth about baptism and being Spirit-filled when I first became a Christian, because it would have made my walk with God a lot easier and a lot less confusing. I also wish people would have been honest about sin instead of trying to make me feel comfortable.
My generation in particular is obsessed with comfort, and we go out of our way to never offend anyone. But the gospel is offensive, and it’s far from comfortable. No one wants to be told that they’re sinful and that they need to change. People want to believe that they’re fine just the way they are. But this isn’t what we read in the Bible.
There’s no point teaching people a false gospel, because all it will do is create a lot of religious people who haven’t changed at all. What’s the point of believing in an alternative gospel that is ineffective and untrue? We’d just be fooling ourselves. Yet that’s what so many supposed Christians do.
If you haven’t felt overwhelmed by how sinful you are in the presence of a holy God, you might want to ask yourself if you’ve encountered the real God of the Bible. Yes, His love and grace are overwhelming too, and we should certainly feel that. But His kindness should lead us to repentance, and if our supposed experiences with God are all about warm fuzzy feelings but don’t result in conviction and repentance and internal change, we might want to make sure we’re not just getting caught up in emotional hype.
Let’s stop excusing sin in order to avoid feeling convicted. God convicts us because He loves us and He doesn’t want us to stay in a place that will eventually kill us. His harsh standards are there for our own good. We can’t lower those standards in order to feel comfortable and accepted.
Something someone recommended in a testimony video I just watched is to write down all of the things you feel convicted about and repent of them. I’ve been doing doing this, and I totally recommend it, because it’s really freeing. We’re often told that we don’t need to feel guilty about our sins and that repentance is a one time thing you do when you get saved. But we should constantly be confessing our sins to God and repenting of them. It can also be helpful to confess your sins to other Christians you trust so that they can hold you accountable.
I just want to clarify that I am not suggesting overcoming sin is a really easy thing and that if you struggle with sin then you’re not saved. It’s a very common thing to still be battling sin even after you’re saved (heck, I know I still am), but we should never excuse sin in order to avoid feeling guilty. Guilt is there for a reason and is often a good thing.
Shame and condemnation, on the other hand, do not come from God but from the enemy. The Holy Spirit’s conviction never condemns us but motivates us to change and to become more like Christ. If you feel condemned and defeated by your sin, you need to recognize that this is probably the enemy trying to sabotage your walk with God and deceive you about your identity. Sin issues are often rooted in identity issues. If we want to live holy lives, we have to believe that we are God’s children rather than slaves who are trying to earn God’s favor (Galatians 4:7).
I hope this post encouraged you rather than overwhelmed you. I just firmly believe we need to be more honest about sin and stop making excuses. Because at the end of the day it only hurts us and separates us from God.
Let’s compare ourselves to Christ rather than to those around us, and let’s obey the Spirit’s conviction even if we’re alone in that obedience.
Here’s a really helpful video on repentance.