100 Answers in 100 Days

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Sharing answers to the various questions of faith I have faced, and which others have been challenged with also.

Friday, April 8, 2011

#98: How can a Christian keep themselves from sin?

One of the marks of a true Christian is their hate for sin. We know that sin is contrary to what mankind was made to do. We were made to glorify God, but to sin is to do something we were not designed to do. However, the Christian is faced with a dilemma. In a fallen world, how do we escape sin? It seems that the closer we get to God, the more we realize just how sinful we are. How can we keep ourselves from sin?

Since we blame the world for the various temptations we face, some people think that the solution is to essentially escape from the world. To become a monk, for example, and live in a remote part of the world away from the sinfulness of society is one way in which people try to flee the corruption of the world. But there’s a problem with this. Apart from the fact that they’re still in the world, it’s not actually the world that’s the problem! We, ourselves, are the problem. Jesus said...

But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. (Matthew 15:18-19)

You cannot escape your own heart, or mind. Sinfulness is our very nature. Sin always begins with our own internal thoughts. External temptations would not cause us to sin if we were able to control our thoughts towards them. When a man commits adultery, for example, he cannot blame the woman for being beautiful. Rather, he is to blame because one thought led to another in his own mind, and eventually the physical act was committed as a result of what the man had thought to do in his mind. James echoes this thought as follows...

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. (James 1:14-15)

So escaping from the world is not the answer. We really need to escape our own minds. What the Bible teaches is that through Christ (who is God and therefore creator of all), we can receive a new heart. Christ promises to give us a heart that desires to be obedient to Christ, which is why Christians do hate sin.

But if we were able to receive a new heart, surely we would no longer be ourselves? Well, this is essentially correct in a sense. When a person becomes a Christian we ought to see a difference. It’s most often the case that when a person comes to Christ they will rapidly cease all manner of things that were once characteristic of them... speaking profanity and telling dirty jokes, losing their temper at people, belittling people, dishonesty, greed and selfishness. And people will say “It’s like they’re a different person!” This very thing was said of me when I became a Christian, for example. But there is also a sense in which I am the same person... my experiences throughout my whole life still influence the way I think and behave. But whether those experiences affect my thoughts so that my thoughts and actions are sinful... well, I consider this to be much like any external influence upon us. As we discussed earlier, we are responsible for the thoughts we have towards what we see and experience in the present. I think it’s quite similar as we reflect on the things we’ve seen and experienced in the past. Our present thoughts towards those things can be “renewed”. If, for example, someone was once unkind to me and I had thoughts of revenge towards them, I can now reflect on that experience and think, in the present, that revenge is wrong and “turning the other cheek” is right.

The Apostle Paul writes:

We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:5)

When Paul refers to “arguments and every lofty opinion...”, he essentially refers to whole philosophies and world views; the very foundations of our thought life. We “take every thought captive to obey Christ”. Not only should we align every individual thought to the will of God, but we need to critically examine the sort of “philosophies of life” that have become a central part of our personality. We need to replace what may be a wrong way of thinking altogether with Biblical principles. This happens through daily reading of God’s Word. But we need to realize that we do require that Spiritual transformation; a “new heart” given to us by the Holy Spirit which hungers for righteousness and hates sin. Ultimately it is the Holy Spirit working in us through His Word.

So keeping from sin is a matter of controlling my own thought life, and this is done through the renewal of my mind by the Holy Spirit though His Word. Trying to escape from the world is not the answer. Not many Christians become monks, but Christians can tend to try to escape the world nonetheless by involving themselves exclusively with the Church. They only have Church friends, they work for a man who only hires Christians, they send their children to a Christian school and so the only contacts they have through their child’s school is with Christian children and Christian parents and Christian teachers. Believe it or not, I do know of some people who’s lives are just like this. Whether this is a conscious effort to escape from the world I don’t know, but more likely it is part of that “life philosophy” which needs to be considered carefully in light of Scripture. We are supposed to be “the light of the world”! As Christ said...

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)

It’s wonderful news that we cannot escape sin ourselves by fleeing the world! The fact that Christ is renewing our minds in the very midst of the world we live in means that we can remain in the midst of the world we live in and be a “light to the world”, demonstrating our good works which testify of the work of Christ in our hearts.

Now some people will object saying “No, we should be separate from the world! We cannot live like the world does!” Well, this is a misunderstanding of what I’ve been saying, but I might need to make this point clear... Prohibitions against certain things are right. “Do not watch pornography” would be a valid prohibition for Christians. The idea of fleeing the world is to avoid living in a world where I might have to walk down the same street as a woman and potentially be tempted to lust after her. I’ve been saying that we should not flee from that, but rather we should “renew” the way our minds think through devotion to God and His Word. But being tempted to think lustful thoughts towards a woman walking down the street is quite different from watching pornography. Sure, in the latter case you can’t help but think lustful thoughts; but I think that more generally, the former is a temptation to sin, whilst the latter is a sin.

The whole point of being a light to the world is to be an example of righteousness for sinners. Jesus doesn’t want us to hide ourselves away.

Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. (Luke 10:3)

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