We are not our sins

We are not our sins July 29, 2010

We are Not our Sins
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I recently learned that an acquaintance of mine had announced a pretty significant life change, and not one for the better. As often happens, many people met this revelation with encouragement, impressed by his supposed authenticity and commitment to “finally being true to himself.”

While I get the sentiment, I reject the thought. Admitting sin and identifying with it are two very different things. The first is something we all must do. If there is one scripture I recall my dad reciting in his prayers over and again it was the line from Romans 3: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” It’s an ontological fact, courtesy of that disaster in the Garden and our own propensity for perpetuating the mess. But it’s also conditional, relative to Christ’s saving work in our lives.

Because of that work, says Paul in Romans 7, “it is no longer I who [sin], but sin that dwells within me.” He makes a clean break between his identity and his actions. As the rest of the chapter shows, Paul is quick to confess his faults—he wrestles and grapples and admits his frustrations with them—but he refuses to identify with them. Sin lives within Paul, but Paul is not his sin. In making his admissions, he is not “finally being true to himself.” He is explaining what he calls the strength of his “old nature.”

That is because Paul and all of us, including the person who started this reflection, is a new creation. Our ontology has been overhauled, changed, re-created, reborn. We have a new nature. Because of our participation in Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, we are now in him. Constituted in the church, believers are the body of Christ. We are to mature into Christ. We are to grow in the image of Christ. Our identity is in Christ.

People once had a better understanding of this connection between faith and identity. Traditionally, Christians followed the Jewish practice and named their children at their initiation into the covenant—Jews at circumcision, Christians at baptism. This usually happened when the child was only a few days old. Christians “christened” their children, giving them their “Christian name,” every participant from the parents to the pastor to the people in the pews all confessing that these children are now part of Christ’s body and find their identity in him.

This vision of life swerves dramatically from any pronouncement that links sin and self-recognition and self-acceptance. The moment we sin and say, “That’s just who I am,” we have said a horrible lie about ourselves and Christ. When we see sin in our lives, we do not recognize ourselves; we see our enemy. When we find sin in ourselves, we do not reconcile with it; we reject it. Our sin is not something with which to get comfortable. Our sin is the measure to which we must still grow and mature into the image and likeness of Jesus, which is our primary occupation in this life.

That growth and maturation happens through many different means and down several different paths, not least our trials, temptations, and struggles. The battles with our old nature are what bring perfection to our new nature. So whatever else it might be, giving into sin is forfeiting an opportunity for holiness.

Every sin we face is a chance for us to grow in grace. This is why James tells us to “Count it all joy . . . when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete. . . .” Don’t waste your sins by giving into them.

Perhaps we face a very powerful sin, over which we struggle to gain the least bit of victory. Rather than capitulate, we should consider that sin—whatever it might be—as a defining battle of our sanctification, our cross to bear, one that may mark our lives until the grave but a fight that we must engage nevertheless. It may not seem like it in the moment, but the victory is ours in Christ because our identity is the same place.

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  • Beautifully written. This is THE foundation of the Christian doctrine of sanctification (or theosis). It all starts here. Well done.

  • Mark Chaffee

    Thanks Joel, too often we define ourselves by what we do, not who we are – both good and bad. It’s a wonderful reminder that the victory is Christ’s and not ours!

  • Fantastic post!!

  • Thanks, Joel.

    This was perfectly timed for me to read this morning.

  • Thanks, Joel. Such an important concept in the current cultural milieu.

    We dare not live our lives based on what “feels right.” Feelings won’t deliver us. God’s truth and power will. Yes, even if it involves a life-long struggle.

  • Manolo Rivera

    All I can say is thank you for writing this – I mean it with all my heart – Thank you!

  • Kathleen Godwin

    Dr. Piper posted this on his FB page and it caught my attention. My sentiments are exactly what you just wrote. Thank you for posting it for everyone to read!

  • Thanks for this today, Joel. It is Truth that lives in the marrow of our faith—like it or not, embrace it or not. Every sin carries a choice to refine or define. I choose the fire of sanctification (my, our cross to bear). So many forks in the road. Grateful I don’t carry the cross alone—the upside of this holy, kind, boundless equation.

  • Dan

    What are you referring to when you mention a “pretty significant life change,” exactly. You’re very vague on that point, and it’s hard to see whether I agree with you or not without knowing what it is that you’re talking about.

    • The specific sin is not particularly important to the point.

  • Dan

    Does your friend agree that her “pretty significant life change” is a sin?

    • I’m not certain that matters to the point of the article either. There is an objectivity to moral categories like sin; our agreement matters very little. And the issue turns less on him and more on the reader (and me) who realize certain things are sinful and have the choice to give in and identify with them or not. I’m encouraging the reader and myself to find our identity in Christ, not the many different sins which beset us.

  • Dan

    I never said that morality was anything but objective. However, just because there is an objectivity to morality doesn’t mean that you know what things are wrong and what things are right any better than the next guy.

    The fact that there are some who applaud this “life change” would make me think that it’s at least in the realm of debate as to whether this is something good or not.

    Further, real-life examples of actual, clear-eyed akrasia are rather uncommon, which makes me a little uncomfortable with endorsing your position without knowing the details.

    If your friend doesn’t even admit that what he’s doing is wrong, then this may not be an example of “identifying with one’s sin” at all, if it is you who is mistaken about the morality of the life change in question, and not him.

    For example, let’s imagine that the “pretty significant life change” that you’re referring to is a man’s decision to become a stay-at-home father. In this example, you think that’s sinful, and that the Bible is very clear that men should be out in the workforce, and women should be staying home to take care of children.

    Again, in the example, the man’s friends meet this revelation with encouragement, impressed by his authenticity and commitment to “finally being true to himself.” Neither the man, nor his encouraging friends hold your position on the matter, that what he’s doing is wrong at all.

    You think the objective truth about the matter is that he’s sinning, and identifying himself with his sin, by calling himself “a stay-at-home father.” He thinks the objective truth about the matter is that he’s not doing anything even slightly wrong. You can’t both be right.

    This is why I think it matters very much whether or not you agree on if it’s wrong, and what the nature of the sin is. If you’re the one who’s wrong about whether or not the guy is sinning in the first place, you might be sinning by using your blog as a platform for couching thinly-veiled gossip in the language of the gospel.

    Then again, if the guy’s “life change” is something that’s completely non-controversially wrong (like a decision to start a child pornography ring, despite fully agreeing that such conduct is morally reprehensible), but he’s decided to identify with it anyway (he now self-identifies as a “child pornographer”), that’s another thing entirely.

    • I see your point. I’d say that he’s well aware of the immorality of the decision.

      • Dan

        Do you mean that he agrees that it is wrong, but does it out of a weakness of will?

        The way you phrased it—”he’s well aware of the immorality of the decision”—makes me wonder if you mean that he’s aware that it is considered by many to be immoral, although he might not hold that position himself.

        The “many people” who have encouraged your friend in his decision—do they see his decision as being non-controversially wrong as well?

      • Dan, at some point you’re going to have to trust that I’m aware enough of the situation to say what’s happening here.

        He’s aware that his decision is sin, a sin recognized as sin by the church since the beginning.

  • Dan

    There you did it again. You avoided the question by the way you phrased your answer. By saying “He’s aware that his decision is sin, a sin recognised as sin by the church since the beginning,” you might mean that he does not accept that his actions are wrong at all, but just that he knows the church’s position on it (and disagrees).

    I guess I get nervous when someone claims a privileged moral position that they expect others to accept without justification, despite the fact that it sounds like this guy and his friends are all okay with it.

    Are you saying that this sort of “life change” is considered non-controversially wrong, even among Christians?

    • Dan, like I said, at some point you’re going to have to trust that I’ve sized the situation properly. If you can’t do that, there is not much point reading here.

      • Dan

        I’m trying to explore the situation using the limited information that you have given me. It sounds like you’re not taking the point seriously that it might be you who is in error here, and not your friend.

        First off, if this man’s friends are encouraging him in his life change and applauding his authenticity, then it probably means that he needed encouragement. Likely life change was difficult for the man in question.

        I’m just guessing at this point, because I haven’t got too much to go on, but it sounds like he’s getting divorced, or coming out as gay, (or for all I know, maybe he actually is becoming a stay-at-home father) or doing something that’s really difficult that conservative Christians have a hard time dealing with, but non-Christians don’t even recognise as wrong. At this point, he’s probably very vulnerable and hurting and even if you are right about the morality of his actions, he doesn’t need one more Christian talking about him behind his back. (I assume you wrote this without sending it to him. Or did you send him the link? No? Maybe you thought it would have been insensitive to do so.) It is the vulnerability that of this man that gets me uncomfortable about the passive-aggressive way he’s being attacked in this post.

        As you pointed out earlier, there is a certain objectivity to morality, and if there are people like this man and his many friends who disagree with you as to whether his “life change” is wrong, then at some point you might have to seriously consider whether it is you or him who is objectively wrong.

        He is intimately familiar with the moral details of his own life in a way you can never be. He is motivated to think through the consequences of his own decisions (especially difficult ones like this) in a way that you are not. For you to make an armchair judgement that you know better than him when you are not in his situation is a very proud thing to do.

        Based on the tricky way you’ve been “answering” my questions, he probably doesn’t even think that what he’s doing is wrong, and neither do most of the people around him. You mentioned that the church has “recognised it as sin from the beginning.” Well, the church has been objectively wrong before (just ask Wycliffe, Luther, Calvin or any of the great reformers), or for all I know, you might just be mis-representing your case as being much stronger than it actually is. Frankly, you just haven’t given us much to go on, and the “either just trust me or get out” response just makes your case look like it’s too weak to sustain debate.

        I don’t know you personally. I don’t know the man you’re referring to. I don’t even what decision he has made, but I bet that for many of the people who are close to you, it is painfully obvious who it is you’re referring to.

        My worry is that you’re using using this blog to bully some poor guy and gossip about him and no one is standing up to you because you framed your gossip as an introduction to a presentation of the gospel.

        You hold your nose over some “sin” he’s committing, cluck your tongue and say “poor, poor misguided soul,” thank the Lord that you’re not a sinner like him, do some sleight-of-hand and now magically now you’re waxing eloquent over the delights of the gospel. Afterward, all your readers say “amen,” “hallelujah,” etc. and everyone feels really spiritual about the way you just trashed this guy’s name behind his back, and all without mentioning who it was or even what he did.

        Christians don’t treat other human beings that way. Even if they’re in the wrong.

      • I’ve not clucked or held myself to be superior; nor have I trashed someone. I’ve not revealed who this person is or what’s happened, despite your agitation for me to do so. There is no gossip happening; I’ve passed along virtually no information. What I have passed along is meant to point to the question of authenticity and identity — points on which the post turn. The person is incidental.

        You said, “I guess I get nervous when someone claims a privileged moral position that they expect others to accept without justification.” I claim no privileged moral position, and the only thing I’m hoping my reader will accept is that our identity is in Christ, not our sins. All of us struggle with sin. None of us is morally privileged, as all of us are capable of sinning.

  • Dan

    Did you send a link to this article to your friend?