Can we stop sinning?

Question
My friend says it is technically possible as a Christian to completely stop sinning since God provides a way out of temptation every time we are tempted. Is this true?
Answer
Your friend is incorrect, and I’ll address this with some general observations and then with 1 Corinthians 10:13 in particular.

Some General Observations on the Fantasy of a Sinless State this Side of Glory

Christians sin. A person who says they can get to such a state of grace that they are sinless this side of glory is preaching a false gospel. The very claim is sin. 1 John 1:8-10 makes this clear:

  • A. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
    • B. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
  • A'. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.

Note that John has written the truth – not once but twice (A and A' above) – using the Old Testament fact that two people must establish a truth (cf. Deut. 19:15; Matt. 18:16; John 8:17; 2 Cor. 13:1; 1 Tim. 5:19; Heb. 10:28, etc.). In addition, we observe a chiastic pattern (a style of writing that uses a unique repetition pattern for clarification and/or emphasis) highlighting the need for us to confess our sins (B above). John's emphasis is very clear: Christians still sin and require ongoing divine forgiveness. (Please see "What are Biblical Chiasms?" below.)

Adam was made sinless from the very beginning (Gen. 1:31) and yet he sinned (Gen. 3). So, even beginning from an absolutely pure, holy, "very good" slate, Adam sinned! However, because of Adam and this original sin, we don't begin with a clean slate (cf. Psa. 51:5; Jer. 17:9). Actually, it's worse than just being dirty; we are totally depraved. Thus people aren't sinners because they sin, but they sin because they are sinners. Unlike Adam before the Fall, sin is our very nature. We're corrupt from head to toe … and then some (cf. Matt. 15:18-20). (Please see "Total Depravity" and "How are original sin and imputed sin different?" below.)

Paul struggled with sin (Rom. 7:7-25; cf. 2 Cor. 2:1-5) and thanked God he had Jesus – or rather that Jesus had him (Rom. 7:25; cf. John 17:2, 9). So did Peter (cf. Gal. 2:11). The longer someone is in the kingdom of God the more they will understand this. As Tim Keller writes: "We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope." As one gets closer and closer to God and his unapproachable light (speaking of his glory, purity, nature, etc.), more and more is revealed about what great sinners one actually is (cf. Isa. 6:5, etc.). A person may walk into a dark room and not see much, but when the lights come on even the very small dust particles become more visible. Imagine unapproachable light (1 Tim. 6:16; cf. Jas. 1:17; 1 John 1:5) magnifying all our dust – our sin – in our lives! All people genuinely growing in grace recognize this. In fact, to not acknowledge this is a very good sign of not genuinely communing with God in word, prayer, and deed.

While Christians should sin less and less, on this side of glory we will never be sinless. If we were or even could be sinless, we wouldn't die. But we do — the wages of sin are death (Rom. 6:23). Are we immune from death this side of glory? Can we even match Methuselah's 969-year lifespan? We may learn to sin less and less in some areas of life, but we still act like toddlers in others. Sanctification is an ongoing lifetime process and we need ongoing divine forgiveness. And then we die — proving that we are all still sinners. (Please see "If Jesus conquered death then why do Christians still die?" below.)

Satan is very tricky. (Please see "How does temptation work?” below.) It takes time to learn how to battle him. He has thousands of years of experience and some genuine success. While he was defeated and conquered at the cross (Col. 2:15), in this "already but not yet kingdom" the battle continues. If this were not the case, Paul wouldn't have needed to tell us that the last enemy to be destroyed is death (1 Cor. 15:26).

There is no sinless state this side of glory.

1 Corinthians 10:13 in Context

Now to the text that is likely behind the question, 1 Corinthians 10:13:

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

Chapter 10 of 1 Corinthians begins by mentioning baptized Old Testament Israelites (1 Cor. 10:1-2) which is a reference to the new covenant sign and seal (please see, "Baptism in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2?" below). Paul goes on to show that many of these baptized Israelites sinned and died because of their ongoing idolatry (1 Cor. 10:3-10). Then he writes: "These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!" (1 Cor. 10:11-12; cf. 1 Cor. 10:6). Following this in 1 Corinthians 10:13 is a command for baptized New Testament Christians to flee from idolatry (1 Cor. 10:14) and then a brief discourse on how to participate properly in the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 10:15-22). If Paul's point was about the sinless perfection of saints, why didn't he just write a chapter on sinlessness instead of mentioning all these verses on baptized sinners (cf. 1 Cor. 10:5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 14)? One of his main points was that even New Testament baptized Christians are tempted and very capable of sin too.

But what was in Paul's bigger picture? The Old Testament saints had a way of escape as well. What was their way of escape? Faith! Remember, Paul had just written, "We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents" (1 Cor. 10:9). Similar to the Israelites who faithfully gazed upon the serpent in the wilderness (which was symbolic of Christ bearing the elect's sin), we are to continuously gaze upon Christ and his finished work (Num. 21:8-9; John 3:14-15; cf. Heb. 12:2). Faith is the singular way of escape.

So, it can be seen in 1 Corinthians 10:13 that the way of escape, or the way out, is faith, but it is twofold. One can and should faithfully study (gaze) to show themselves approved unto God (2 Tim. 2:15), pray, rejoice, and give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thess. 5:16-18), and learn to sin less and less by understanding how Satan works in their life and the lives of other people (cf. 2 Cor. 2:11). BUT when we fall – and we will (1 John 1:8-10) – we still have the blood of Jesus and the cross. Writing just a few verses later, Paul makes it absolutely clear that we still need faith in the cross: "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?" (1 Cor. 10:16).

Paul is teaching us to live by faith in all aspects of dealing with our sin. It is not about sinless perfection.

Related Topics

What are Biblical Chiasms?
Total Depravity
How are original sin and imputed sin different?
If Jesus conquered death then why do Christians still die?
How does temptation work?
Baptism in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2?

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).