Can Christians Stop Sinning?

Question
How would you answer the question, "Can the Christian stop from sinning by developing spiritual disciplines of prayer, trusting Christ in all things, Bible study, and developing a biblical mind-set based on our new identity in Christ?" What is your view of the old man, new man controversy? Is the sin nature still present in our new nature and does it still hold sway?
Answer
I would answer with Paul and the rest of the biblical authors that a Christian cannot totally cease from sinning. As Paul wrote in Galatians 5:17, "The flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please." The presence of sin in our flesh prevents us from ceasing totally from sin (cf. Rom. 7:14-25). As we read in 1 Kings 8:46 and 2 Chronicles 6:36 regarding the faithful people of God, "There is no man who does not sin." And as John wrote in exhortation of the Christian's life of continuing repentance, "If we say we have no sin we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8).

I would also add that to suggest that we can stop sinning by developing spiritual disciplines is to fall into the Galatian trap of trying to be perfected by our works: "Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain -- if indeed it was in vain? So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?" Whether "works of the law" or "spiritual disciplines," our works do not perfect us, nor do they lead to our perfection. They are acts of obedience which please God, but they do not make us better. Rather than being the cause of our perfection, good works are the result of the perfecting work of the Holy Spirit (Phil. 2:13).

The "old man vs. new man" is somewhat ambiguous because it is metaphoric. In Ephesians 4:22-24, the language appears as Paul specifically tells the Ephesian Christians that their old man is being corrupted, and that they are actively to put on the new man. Whatever else one says about the controversy, it is clear from this context that the old man is present in believers, and that we are to resist him. At the same time, the new man is to be actively pursued. In my opinion, this is another way of speaking of the same conflict that Paul mentions often, whether he calls it flesh vs. spirit, or mind vs. body, or something else.

In Romans 6:6, Paul mentions the old man again. In this context, it might appear that the old man died once and for all at our baptisms. A closer inspection of the passage, however, indicates to us that Paul fluctuates between present and future tenses as he speaks of the benefits of our union with Christ. In modern Reformed theological circles, we often refer to this as the tension between the "already" and the "not yet." These terms refer to the fact that the kingdom of God has begun, but has not yet come in full. As a result, we have been initiated into the blessings of the kingdom, but we have not received them in full. One easy place to see this in action is in Paul's contrasts between the present "first fruits" of the blessings and the future full harvest (Rom. 8:23; 1 Cor. 15:20,23). Another is his reference to the Holy Spirit as a "downpayment" or "pledge" of future blessings (Eph. 1:13-14). With regard to nearly every blessing of which we partake in Christ, we now experience only a fraction of the blessing, and we await the full blessing at Christ's second coming. In Romans 6:6, Paul is teaching that the old man has been dethroned, but that he has not yet been destroyed. Therefore, it still takes effort to resist him (e.g. Rom. 6:12-13).

One major source of the misinterpretations and misapplications regarding the presence and influence of sin in believers is the failure to recognize the "already" and the "not yet." The process of salvation has begun, but it is not finished. Unfortunately, many interpreters latch on to a verse here and a passage there which speak of the "already" without mentioning the "not yet," and they think that these things have already come in full. Because they fail to study the full context of Scripture on these issues, they fall into error. As previously stated, many aspects of our salvation are in process, and sanctification is one of them. We must never fall into the error of thinking that we can attain the "not yet" before the appointed time, namely at the return of Christ. Only then will Christ subdue every enemy (1 Cor. 15:25), and only then will he totally and finally free us. If even Christ won't conquer his enemies until then, how can we possibly imagine that we will conquer ours before then?

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.