Do Christians sin?

Do Christians sin?

If we know any Christians at all, the answer appears obvious. We all know Christians who sin. If we are honest, we can name times in which we have sinned despite our professed allegiance and obedience to our Lord and Savior. In light of our own experiences, therefore, we are led to conclude that, yes, all Christians sin and this cannot be avoided. We may even recall the words of 1 John 8:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. (NRSV)

So it appears we have experience confirmed by Scripture to support this doctrine. Of course, Christians sin.

Or do they?

We who walk in the way of Christ in companionship with John Wesley have a different answer, radically different.

The first distinction we need to draw is between those who bear the name of Christian and those who are truly born of God. As it happens, anyone may declare themselves a Christian. So the mere fact that someone who claims to be a Christian commits a sin does not really settle the question. To be a Christian means we have been born again — or in the language of 1 John been “born of God.” This is a teaching so fundamental to Wesleyan doctrine that I cannot imagine how we could deny it and still claim any connection to Wesley or the tradition that he inhabits.

To be a Christian in the full sense, then, means to be born of God. And those who are born of God, do not sin.

Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God. (1 John 3:9, NRSV)

We know that those who are born of God do not sin, but the one who was born of God protects them, and the evil one does not touch them. (1 John 5:18, NRSV)

This is one of those cases where the translation you read matters. In the NIV and several other translations the key phrases are rendered in English as “do not continue to sin” rather than “do not sin.”* This gets into an argument over the sense and meaning of a single Greek word, an argument I am not qualified to enter into. But I have read enough on this to be persuaded that Wesley’s reading certainly has merit on scriptural grounds: Those who are truly born of God cannot sin and do not sin.

But, we might object, we know of people who were not merely nominal Christians but truly born of God and who subsequently sinned. Doesn’t this make the reading advanced here contradict our experience?

Here is the Wesleyan reply: It does not pose a contradiction because we hold that a person born of God can, by neglecting to worship, pray, study Scripture, and practice other spiritual disciplines, fall back into their old life. They can — in the spiritual sense — pass from life to death and give way again to sin. Properly speaking, when we do this, we have ceased to be born of God and have enlisted again in the family of the devil.

This teaching, of course, runs against the Reformed tradition’s doctrine of perseverance of the saints. Exploring that theological disagreement, however, is a topic for another day.

Another objection to the Wesleyan teaching that Christians do not sin might be that we will never be free from the kinds of ignorance and weakness that lead us to hurt each other and violate the will of God. We are imperfect people, we say, and so can never expect to live without making mistakes. Therefore, Christians will sin, if only by accident.

Wesley’s answer to this runs like this: “A mistake is not a sin.” Wesley taught repeatedly that sin — an inward or outward action that tends to our condemnation — is a voluntary breaking of a known law or command of God. Acts we commit in ignorance or by accident may violate the law of God, but they do not threaten our salvation. This is also a doctrine that leads to argument, but it is thoroughly Wesleyan and consistent with the wider body of his preaching and teaching.

So how, then, do Wesleyan Christians answer the question whether Christians can sin?

We say that they cannot. So long as one born of God “guards himself or herself” they cannot sin, but if we do not maintain our connection to Christ, if we stop seeking him, we will find ourselves cut off from the grace that allows us to trample down sin and temptation. We will fall away. We will sin.

So Christians do not sin, but we may find ourselves sinning even if we have at one time been a true follower of Christ. The good news is this:

If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9, NRSV)

If you have read this far, you may be wondering why anyone would spend so much energy trying to work all this out — especially in the face of so much disagreement among Christian communions.

I can only answer for myself.

First, it matters because sin matters. Whether or not you agree with Wesleyan teaching about the nature of sin, you should care about the questions raised here. Sin destroys our life and — the same thing — separates us from God. If we care about that at all, then we need to understand the nature of our affliction.

Second, it matters because it matters to people I pastor. Questions about sin come up all the time even in the small churches that I serve. As one who will one day — God willing — take a vow to teach and preach the doctrine of the United Methodist Church, I am compelled to understand those doctrines and find a way to explain them.

Finally, it matters because I am a pastor. If my charge is to shepherd people toward and into the kingdom of God, then I need to understand what threatens and hinders people’s progress toward that goal. I can’t help people avoid pitfalls and dangers that I cannot see myself. Having a doctrine of sin is for the spiritual shepherd as important as having a knowledge of the diseases and dangers that afflict sheep is for the herder of sheep.

If you want to read more about Wesley’s teaching, I’d suggest the following sermons:

The Great Privilege of Those that Are Born of God

On Sin in Believers

The Repentance of Believers

*This is one place where the Common English Bible reflects a Wesleyan translation. Some of the CEB’s translation decisions in other places obscure Wesleyan doctrinal emphases, but 1 John is one place where the CEB can be read by Wesleyans without having to reinterpret the English.

Stealing the bishop’s silver

From the Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren, one of the doctrinal standards for the United Methodist Church:

We believe man is fallen from righteousness and, apart from the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, is destitute of holiness and inclined to evil. Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.

I’m not sure why this has come home so strongly in the last week. Maybe it has to do with some things in my personal life. Maybe it has to do with this book I’ve been reading about spirituality of the unchurched.

The thought that has lodged in my brain is how poorly suited Christianity is for America. At the very heart of Christianity is the belief that we — all of us — have gone wrong. We are slaves to sin and death. And we will never be free but for the grace of God.

This does not sound like an American story to me.

In our version of the story, Jean Valjean not only steals the bishop’s silver, but he goes on to success and glory based on his own determination and will to win. He writes a series of best-selling books on seizing the moment and cheers for the New England Patriots.

What we fail to understand is that our lives are not ours. They are a gift from God. Not a single one of us has any right to be alive or expect to draw another breath. That we live at all is because God is good and generous to us. Only if we understand that, can we see our own arrogance when we speak about what we deserve and what we have earned. We’ve grabbed the silver off the bishop’s table and convinced ourselves that it was ours all along. We gobble down the apples of Eden and throw the cores at Yahweh’s feet.

But despite our arrogance and greed, there is grace. God loves us. God forgives us. God gives us life. Praise be to God.

I’m not sure how to write these things or preach these things in ways that will be heard, really heard. I know that what I’ve written here is so much gobbledy-gook to those who have no ears to hear it. I’m not sure how to make it otherwise, but the question has been with me this week.

What is sin?

Is the problem within United Methodism at its root theological rather than ethical?

I was reading Robert Fuller’s book Spiritual but Not Religious for my evangelism class, when I was struck by how well it describes the tensions within our denomination. The book is a study of the ways throughout American history that large groups of people have adopted spiritual beliefs and practices outside the domain of church-based Christianity. Fuller argues that such spiritualities tend to reject notions of original sin and the fallen nature of humanity in favor of a belief in the goodness of human beings and the innate divinity within us.

Here is one version of that contrast:

A doctrine of divine immanence affirms that divine spirit is equally present in all creation … This new understanding of God’s relationship to the universe also helps to correct outmoded ideas of “sin.” The biblical view of sin is the act of breaking the commands of a male authority figure. A theology that stresses divine immanence recasts sin as our failure to recognize the presence of God within us and our fellow creatures.

This one quote does not capture everything to be said, but it gives the gist of the contrast. And it is reading about this contrast that has me wondering about United Methodism.

Is our internal conflict these days fundamentally about differing understandings of who God is and what it means to sin?

‘Rise again’ we Methodists say

Here is the best post I’ve ever read on Article XII of the United Methodist Articles of Religion.

Okay, it is the first one I’ve ever read, but it is excellent, especially for those of us trying to get a handle on Wesleyan distinctives. Here’s the article in question.

Not every sin willingly committed after justification is the sin against the Holy Ghost, and unpardonable. Wherefore, the grant of repentance is not to be denied to such as fall into sin after justification. After we have received the Holy Ghost, we may depart from grace given, and fall into sin, and, by the grace of God, rise again and amend our lives. And therefore they are to be condemned who say they can no more sin as long as they live here; or deny the place of forgiveness to such as truly repent.

Now, go read the post.

If they ask for bread

This post by Ellen Martin at Seedbed has some links to other good resources regarding healthy sexuality and talking about it in the church.

The post also includes some of Martin’s experiences when she was seeking guidance, correction, and support from the church during a time of bondage to sexual sin.

Six years later when I came to the church to be a part of the body of Christ, I lived in sexual bondage.  I sought guidance and understanding about my sexual temptations and sins.  I wanted to know the voice of Christ.  I asked a young adult ministry leader.  I was told it wasn’t one of the top 10 sins and to not be so hard on myself.  I never went back. I did find a wonderful congregation, but I wandered for weeks and months alone in bondage and shame as I worshipped with no help from the church.  I quit asking because it seemed clear that this was not a conversation the church wanted to have.  It seemed I would have to go at this part of discipleship alone with Jesus.  The world celebrated and offered every opportunity for me to embrace my sexual desires.  The church either condemned my sin, abstained their voice, or belittled my bondage.


Sex we accept, sex we don’t

From the above linked post comparing fornication with homosexual sex.

“So here is the main point at which I am driving. Christians have no chance whatever of challenging homosexual behavior with integrity unless they start with the sexual sins of heterosexuals. We cannot take a morally credible stand against the sexual sins of the small minority of the population if we condone the sexual sins favored by over 90% percent of the population. If fornication is okay, if casual divorce is no big deal, then it rings utterly hollow to try to take a loud (or even a quiet) stand on homosexual behavior.”