Becoming a Better Sinner

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“This time I’m going to do better.”

The words come muttered with determination, filled with equal parts guilt and gratitude. I’ve just sinned. One of my favorite temptations came along, and I saw it for what it was but let it get me anyway. Now my conscience feels bruised, my spirit feels sheepish, and I struggle to convince myself that next time I’ll do better.

I remember once as a child asking my parents if grown-ups ever sinned. They smiled and tried to explain to me that sometimes grown-ups lost their tempers or did things to hurt people. As a pastor and his wife, my parents knew full well the depravity that still leaks from Christian adults. But it was difficult for me to imagine any adults in my church struggling with sin. From my elementary-school perspective, sin was something eventually to be outgrown, along with the need to go to bed at 8:00. I just had to wait.

I’m still waiting.

Cleaned Up?

There is a myth passed along among Christians that we can conquer sin in our lives. It’s hinted at in our conversations, reinforced in songs we listen to, and sometimes preached with vigor from our pulpits. Given enough time, enough willpower, enough of the right conferences or radio shows or religious paperbacks, we should be able to get our spiritual acts fully together.

The Bible seems to support this point of view. The book of Romans speaks freely about being “dead to sin” (6:2). Even Jesus himself calls us to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).

It would seem we’re supposed to get past this sin problem. But somehow we never quite outgrow our taste for iniquity. Over time we learn to curb some of our behaviors, and some temptations genuinely subside as the Holy Spirit settles deeper into our hearts. But our bias toward evil never seems to completely vanish, no matter how hard we try to leave it behind.

We still lose our temper, even if the words we say sound a little more acceptable. We still harbor grudges, even if our resentments now center on more noble causes. We still turn to lust to provide secret comforts or obsess over food or “toys” to soothe our stress. We still strain to buy the best technology or the most impressive clothing we can, even if it loads our credit cards with debt. We still scurry around in clouds of self-importance, neglecting the needs of those closest to us. And even on the days we do manage to resist such temptations, a candid look might show us how much of our apparent holiness is actually prompted by lesser motives: avoiding guilt or having to explain things to an accountability partner.

As time goes on it becomes obvious our sin-stains won’t scrub off so easily. What’s wrong?

Maybe our trouble isn’t on the outside but rather on the inside. That’s what the prophet Jeremiah seems to point to with his dark diagnosis: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jer. 17:9).

Many of today’s more expensive kitchen countertops boast that their color is molded in, all the way through. Perhaps much the same can be said for our hearts. No matter how much we try to buff our outer, guilt-stained layers, we discover that our sinfulness seems molded in, all the way through. The further God leads us into the secrets of our hearts, the more we discover the depth to which sin has affected us.

We not only commit sins, we are sinful. It’s part of us.

A Second Look at Original Sin

Theologians tell us that our struggle has to do with what’s known as original sin. In Genesis 3 we read the story of Adam and Eve and their fall into sin. Just as God had warned them, that transgression affected them deeply, far beyond the scope of one poor choice. God’s warning was that they would “surely die” (Gen. 2:17).

Because of their choices, sin soaked deep into the groundwater of humanity, contaminating each one of us. Adam and Eve might have had the option to remain sinless; we do not. Our spiritual DNA has been corrupted. Simply put, we are not capable of not sinning. Theologians refer to this as total depravity.

In Romans 7 the apostle Paul reveals his own struggles with sin, describing himself as a “slave to sin,” adding that “what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate I do” (vv. 14-15). The chapter ends with a full-throated cry for grace: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (v. 24-25).

We can easily blanch at Paul’s candidness about his own struggles. But a closer look shows a similar pattern with other pillars of the faith. Think especially of King David—his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah certainly qualifies him as a sinner; yet God describes him as a “man after God’s own heart.”

That makes me wonder: if David was a man after God’s own heart, does that mean he was also somehow a sinner after God’s own heart?

If so . . . what would that look like?

Saved . . . from What?

This speculation, of course, quickly raises some questions. For instance, what exactly is God doing in the lives of his people, if he’s not freeing us from sin?

The Bible separates our salvation into two important functions. Justification refers to the settling of our accounts regarding sin. Through Christ, God instantly and permanently settles our debt of guilt (Rom. 8:33-34). The other dynamic in redemption is called sanctification. This refers to the ongoing, difficult process of Christ being “formed in us” (Gal. 4:19). Sanctification involves a process of growth, one that continues through every day of our lives until eventually we reach the Day promised in Revelation 21 when Jesus will “make all things new” and will “wipe away every tear from our eyes.”

God justifies us when we, by faith, receive the salvation he offers through Christ. The thief on the cross was forgiven immediately upon his repentance (Luke 23:43). But God’s process of making us new usually takes longer than that. Much longer. And the aggravation of this lifelong process leads many of us to either hide in denial, pretending to be better than we really are, or to give up completely in despair.

Somehow we as God’s people need to come to terms with this ongoing process.

In Recovery

Perhaps we can borrow a helpful image from the study of addiction recovery. Someone who has escaped the grip of an addiction will enthusiastically celebrate her sobriety while still identifying herself as an addict. Not as a former addict, but a recovering addict. She might tell you how the grip of the addiction still pulls at her, but the changes she has experienced now lead her to respond much differently, usually with the help of a Higher Power. In short, she would say she’s still an addict, but a healthier, more whole addict who has regained control of a life that was once careening toward self-destruction.

In other words, she has become a better addict.

What would happen if we looked at our fallenness in the same way? Still sinners. Always sinners this side of that loud trumpet blast, but steadily becoming much healthier sinners. Recovering sinners. In short, better sinners.

There’s something here that resonates with the New Testament’s description of our new life in Christ. As recovering sinners, our growth in Christ then would not involve the charade of sinlessness but instead would involve learning to more fully and freely absorb the astonishing grace Christ offers to us. To repent more easily, be forgiven more freely, and fight spiritual battles more powerfully, clothed in the armor that God makes available (Eph. 6).

Instead of pretending the pull of sin inside us is gone, we could celebrate more freely how God is leading us to respond to it. We’d still be sinners, but we’d be much better ones. Perhaps even sinners after God’s own heart.

About the Author

Ron Vanderwell is lead pastor for The Gathering, a church plant in Sacramento, Calif. He also co-leads the re-start church plant of another congregation in nearby Napa, Calif. He is married and has three sons, two dogs, and one classic VW Beetle.

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