Do Christians sin?

A letter to the editor in the latest edition of The Interpreter raises an old but an important issue.

I agree that, in the eyes of God, one sin is not worse than another. I don’t agree with the statement, “We are all sinners.” (Letters, March/April) The term “sinning Christian” is a misnomer. If Christ doesn’t save us from our sins, then his sacrifice on the cross was useless.

Among the early Methodists the question of whether a Christian could sin was an important one. John Wesley wrote about it often. It is one of the many issues where careful reading of Wesley shows a nuanced understanding of sin and the work of grace. Let’s look at some of what he wrote.

The keystone Scripture for Wesley was 1 John 3, specifically verse 9: “Those who have been born of God do not sin” (NRSV). He wrestled most explicitly with what this means in two sermons that are printed sequentially in the Thomas Jackson edition of Wesley’s works. The sermons are “On Sin in Believers” and “The Repentance of Believers.”

In the first sermon, Wesley draws a distinction between inward and outward sin. Outward sin is action in violation of known commands of God. Inward sin is a disposition or an inclination in the heart contrary to the mind of Christ. Wesley asserts that a Christian does not commit any outward sin but will always be tempted by and need to struggle against inward sin.

As long as we have bodies, we will have to fight against sin. Sin remains in us, even when it no longer reigns over us.

Christ indeed cannot reign, where sin reigns; neither will he dwell where any sin is allowed. But he is and dwells in the heart of every believer, who is fighting against all sin; although it be not yet purified, according to the purification of the sanctuary. …

A man may be in God’s favor though he feel sin; but not if he yields to it. Having sin does not forfeit the favor of God; giving way to sin does.

And because our journey to entire sanctification is not always a straight one, we have need of repentance. But that is the topic of another post.