Do Christians sin?
It is a commonplace for even we Wesleyans to say our congregations are full of sinners and to comfort ourselves with the reassurance that “nobody is perfect” when dealing with sins that we cannot seem to overcome. But are such ideas in keeping with our Methodist roots?
John Wesley’s sermon “The First Fruits of the Spirit” has a fairly detailed discussion about the relationship between being a Christian and sin. It reveals the careful distinctions that mark his diagnosis of the soul.
To trace every distinction here would require a post nearly as long as his sermon, so I will offer an outline and leave it to you to read the sermon in full.
When it comes to sin he writes of:
- Past sin, both its power and guilt
- Present sin (willful violation of the laws of God)
- Inward sin
- Sin clinging to all we do because of a corrupt nature
- Sins of infirmity, which he does not call sin
- Lack of ability to do our duty or avoid harm
- Sins of surprise
Scholars and critics point out problems in Wesley’s theology of sin, but no one can accuse him of not thinking carefully about it.
As I read his sermons, the metaphor that constantly comes to mind is that of a doctor of the soul. Wesley is a careful observer of the diseases of the soul who offers treatments that are fitted to the ailment.
To answer my own initial question, John Wesley would argue that a Christian does not commit any willful, knowing violation of the commands of God. If a person were to do so he or she would cease to be a Christian. But living as we do in corrupted and finite flesh, Christians are never fully free from sin. It is ever present and we are prone to commit all manner of wrongs or harms arising from our limited understanding and weaknesses. Even our most noble acts are stained by pride. Even our prayers are plagued by dull spirits and wandering thoughts.
A Christian does not sin, Wesley would say, but in this life we are never totally free of the effects and the threat of sin. This is why we need Jesus Christ at every point in our Christian journey. We need him to strengthen us and protect us from the ongoing presence of sin, and we need him to forgive us if we fall away from faith and back into the sin would pull us from the light and into the darkness again.