November 16, 2012

How to Rout Sin

by Wyatt Graham

The truth is that we all sin. But it’s also true that we have the power to overcome sin. Consider Paul’s argument in Romans 6. He tells us that we have died to sin (Rom 6:2) and that the body of sin has been brought to nothing (Rom 6:6). He argues further that we are free from sin (Rom 6:7) and that sin will have no dominion over our bodies (Rom 6:14). This happened, says Paul, when we believed in Christ. Thus, we died with him in a death like his and were raised in a resurrection like his (Rom 6:3–5). In short, sin died when you believed.

Still, no one is sinless (1 John 1:10; cf. Rom 7). Remarkably, we both live with the power to overcome sin and yet daily battle sin. The tension between these two opposing principles will not disappear this side of eternity. Sin and the power to overcome it through the Spirit (Rom 8:4) describe the our life-long dual. This rough fabric of sin rubs against our flesh, causing all sorts discomfort and pain. At the same time, the smooth silk of holiness is a balm and refreshment to us. We wear a garment sewn with both cloths, though we true believers only want the garment of holiness.

It is because of this tension that believers must learn to rout sin. After all, if we have the power to overcome sin, we had better learn to use that power. A major reason why our fight against sin seems powerless is because we have wrong views of sanctification. There are about four ways people try to rout sin. The first three ways unconsciously weave sin into our coats, while the last way allows believers wear a a coat of holiness. To be clear, I am not advocating a sinless existence before Christ returns, but I am advocating that through the Spirit we can put to death the deeds of the flesh (Rom 8:13).  

The Sin Hunter

The first way we try to hammer sin to oblivion is by creating specific spiritual goals to overcome ornery sins. We realize we fall into anger easily, so we create a program that deadens our anger. We quote a proverb, we picture a calming image, and we feel satisfied when we succeed. Or, perhaps, we have a problem with lust, so we block our internet explorers, and create a plethora of other steps to prevent sin. We create these axiomatic standards that we will in nowise transgress. We pick and choose the big sins of our life and proclaim, “The Balrog of gossip shall not pass!”

All the while we miss the fact that all we have done is create a set of laws that separate us from the presence of God. If the Old Testament has taught us anything, it is that law separates believers from God’s presence. Instead of meeting God on the mountain of Sinai, Israel ran and demanded that Moses mediate God’s presence to them (Ex 20:19). Not only did Moses separate God from Israel, but the priesthood also began to assist Moses in mediating God’s presence to them (Ex 24:1). Adding to all this, a complex system of laws and purity rituals separated the people from God’s presence (e.g. Lev 1–7). While these gracious laws protected Israel from falling into sin, the whole system by design created distance between Israel and God.

Likewise, when we single out sins and create a complex system whereby we try to overcome it, we create law. As law by necessity separated Israel from the presence of God, so also do we separate ourselves from God when we try overcome sin in this way. We feel empty, dry, and alone. We overcame anger, sure, but we feel separated from God. Unlike Israel, every believer today has free access to God through Jesus Christ (1 Tim 2:5). So we can boldly draw near to the throne of Grace (Heb 4:16).

What makes this way to battle sin even more deadly is that we often focus on one sin to the detriment of our fight against all other sins. If anger is our problem, we battle that vice by creating a system to eradicate it all the while forgetting that we struggle with lust. Note well, Scripture tells us not to focus and attack one sin at a time but to tackle all sin at all times. “Let therefore sin no longer reign in your mortal body,” says Paul (cf. Rom 6:12). He does not say, ‘let there be one particular sin that will no longer reign in your body’.

To sum it up, good intentioned laws/rules can often end up separating us from God. When we try to build a single rampart against the wall of sin, we focus so much on it that we miss the counteroffensive launched against our defenses  Other sins creep up and possess our souls, which adds to that feeling of emptiness and spiritual deadness that our creation of law has already add.

Bitterness takes over and yet we don’t know why. I have overcome anger/lust/gossip/etc. this week, so why am I so bitter and empty? Answer: because you have created methods or laws and have forgotten to fight all sin at all times. 

Letting go and letting God

The second way we try to fell sin is through giving up in the hope that God will take over. When we realize that we have only succeeded in mortifying sins in only a few areas but have failed in many other places, we become depressed. We pine over the fact that we cannot accomplish our spiritual goals for the week, month or year. “It worked for so long, what happened?” we think. “Why do I feel so spiritually dry,” we muse. Soon we begin to suspect the problem is that we have attempted to battle sin on our own power, and we would be right.

“Perhaps,” we reason, “if I simply let go and let God win the battle for us, we will be okay.” But the battle is exhausting, sin grows, and we feel alone. Thus, we let go of our effort and let God do it for us. While our heart may be right in many ways, what this often amounts to is giving up in our fight against sin because we are discouraged.

The biggest problem with this “method” to battle sin is that God does not want his people to live this way. He desires that you “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:12–13). Sanctification engages both us and God. He wants us to conquer sin through our efforts with his Spirit working through us. Paul elsewhere writes, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom 8:13). It is the Spirit who empowers us to overcome sin through our efforts.

Sadly, when we feel empty because law and hidden sins separate us from God’s presence, we give up. We simply stop, thinking that giving up and letting God take care of our sin is right. In the end, this is not how God has called us to live. God calls us to struggle against sin through his Spirit. Giving up is simply not an option.

The Execution List

A third way we try to smash sin is through creating a detailed itinerary of sins to kill and virtues to cultivate; and often we succeed when we do this. We stopped being angry, gossiping, and we started to talk to our neighbors more. “Hey, we’ve hit a stride in our spiritual life,” we note to ourselves. Occasionally, we fail to do what we must do according to our standards, which rushes us headlong into depression. But we get over this. And soon enough we start along our way again, succeeding in our impassioned triumph over sin; or so we think.

As we feel good about accomplishing our spiritual goals, we can begin to feel somewhat satisfied in our fight because we have checked off our weekly holiness list. Soon we judge ourselves and others by our list of what is “right” and what is “wrong.” It may be a correct list but surely some things on it are culturally derived or simply external standards. We might have done as John Owen once wrote, “imposed the yoke of a self-wrought-out mortification (killing) on the necks of [ourselves and others], which neither [us] nor [our] forefathers were ever able to bear” (Owen, 7). We soon start to judge other people’s spiritual condition on the basis of our “execution list” or “itinerary of sins.”

This is called legalism, and it happens when we look down on people who do not accomplish the same spiritual goals we do. We look down on those who are late to church or don’t dress right. We look down on those who we feel take their freedom in Christ too far. We look down on those because of their theological stance. All of this can amount to legalism; and thus we immerse ourselves in transgressions, though we think we are floating on the water’s surface.

This execution-list-sanctification suffers from the problem of having a ginormous timber piercing its eye, while it judges others who have splinters in their eyes (cf. Matt 7:3–5). At the same time, it also suffers from a form legalism that believes that by creating and accomplishing a laundry list of sins weekly it will make one holy.

The struggle against ALL sin at ALL times by the Spirit technique

Sniping individual sins, forsaking the struggle, and writing out encyclopedic hit lists fails to reach the goal. Each technique misses the mark. Through focusing on one sin, one creates a long list of rules (or laws) to fight one sin and overlooks the hundred other sins rushing through the back door. By giving up, we simply disobey the Lord in our fight against sin. Finally, through creating a cornucopian ledger of sin, we suffer from legalism and false assurance that we  gain from esteeming ourselves as “holy.”

The fourth, and I believe the way God intends for us to overcome sin, is by struggling against all sin at all times by means of relying on the Spirit. When Paul says that sin no longer dominates us, he means it. And the reason this is true is because the Spirit is the power source for our change (Rom 8:13).

Practically, this means we accept some sins have a greater presence in our life. We note our weaknesses and are conscious of them. But we don’t over-focus and so forget we battle against all sin. It means we never give up—we don’t even dream of it. It means that we burn our titanic-length pages of sins that we battle weekly and overcome/fail. Instead, we realize that we must fight all sin and dive head in, all the while trusting in God’s Spirit to change us.

We don’t have to become depressed when we fail in one area often; this is because we have not over-focused on this sin and so become overwhelmed by failing in what we think is “the” only sin we must face. We don’t create laws to fight this sin, separating us from God. Instead, we have the peace of God that is beyond all understanding and the feeling of intimacy with our Lord.

We don’t simply give up, because we trust that God really is and will change us from one level of glory unto another. This is not an empty promise. Thus, we struggle to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.

We stop with legalism. We realize that no matter how “well” we do one week, we are have sinned in a thousand ways that we have not recognized. We stop judging people by the artificial standards of righteousness we made. Instead, we learn to focus on our relationship with the Lord by mediating on his Scripture and prayer. Through this means will the Spirit change us.

In sum, routing sin is not so much a matter of methods or techniques, but rather it is a recognition of our daily sin with the hope of daily renewal by the Spirit. It is a constant and vigilant battle against all forms of sin at all times, noting weaknesses in the lines and taking courage in victories. And it never gives up until the day lord takes us home

Wyatt Graham

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Wyatt is the Executive Director of The Gospel Coalition Canada. He also blogs at Follow him at @wagraham.
  • “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature” – Galatians 5:16

  • Marco Scouvert

    Hey Wyatt,

    Appreciate the post as the battle with against sin is so crucial. It is very easy for us to error in each of the first three models you gave, either completely in one or partially in a combination of two or all three of them at different times. We can slip into those mindsets when we don’t see victory as quickly as we would like. Having read it through though, I am left wondering what your technique of “the struggle against all sin at all times through the Spirit” practically looks like? I know you began a paragraph with “practically, this means . . .” but it seemed like a mix of attitudes we should and shouldn’t have, combined with a continuation of your critique of the three previous incorrect approaches. Just to give a concrete example: someone is battling the use of drugs – how would they practically mortify this sin? As I am reading my question, perhaps I can forsee the response being something like “He shouldn’t focus on mortifying drug use, but focus on mortifying all sin at all times through the Spirit . . .” I guess what I’m asking is what it practically looks like to obey commands like Matthew 5:29-30; Rom. 13:14; and various verses in the NT that talk about putting off, laying aside, and stopping particular sins. I think I would take a combined approach that fights against all sin in general and also focuses energies to mortify particular sins that prove over time to our main or stronger battles against the flesh. Thanks Wyatt.

    • Hey Marco,

      That’s a great question. I’d advocate an approach that focuses on avoiding temptations to use/abuse drugs. So, you might focus on it, sure. Practically, you could create ways to help you do this: reminders, accountability partners etc. I would do this in the context of the local church, where believers can encourage you and you are fed the word through preaching.

      My caution would be not to make this the ONLY sin you think about. Realize this is a big deal sin, but also realize that a hundred other sins are trying to creep up into your life. Keep all you defenses up. I’m not against focusing on one sin per se. I am against focusing on one sin so much that you forget about all the other sins you must resist through the Spirit.

      And yes. Putting off the old person and putting on the new person is important. You put on the new person by means of living a spirit filled life. Kevin quoted Galatians 5:16. I like it. That’s the goal.

      • Marco Scouvert

        Thanks for the response and clarification. I think it helps balance a bit what you had originally posted, as focusing too much on general sin seems to neglect the mortification of particular sins and focusing too much on particular sins seems to neglect the acknowledgment and struggle against other/all sins. This just reminds me of how comprehensively sinful we are as a result still of the remnant indwelling sin from Adam, and how much we need the grace of Christ to keep watchful against all sin in our lives. Again I appreciate the post, as often nowadays the seriousness with which we approach the topic of fighting sin and the vigilence with which we ourselves personally battle sin seems to be missing.

  • Mark

    Discussing the realities of sin in light of the gospel of Christ is often needed and wonderful. It is a delights to consider the truth of all that Christ has accomplished on our behalf and the full sufficiency there is in Christ with the power of the Holy Spirit to mortify sin.

    My thinking is left a little muddied because I didn’t quite grasp a few details discussed. With respect to “the sin hunter” it was stated “all the while we miss the fact that all we have done is create a set of laws that separate us from the presence of God”. This section seems to be vague, because many do put things in place to help avoid temptations which does not necessarily “separate us from the presence of God”. Someone might struggle with lust, and put a program on the computer to block illicit websites. The goal and aim to ultimately be pleasing to God in obedience, by not giving way to sin. Jesus stated clearly we need to do whatever needs to be done to mortify sin (Matt 5:29-30). Obviously if the aim is to not sin which is the end in itself or for self-righteousness, this is idolatry and will separate us from God. But putting off sin, even by various means, should bring one closer to God. I think the issue has to do with the heart, whether an external law, if you will, separates us or brings us closer to God in mortifying sin.

    “Likewise, when we single out sins and create a complex system whereby we try to overcome it, we create law. As law by necessity separated Israel from the presence of God, so also do we separate ourselves from God when we try overcome sin in this way”.

    I am not sure if there is a misunderstanding in semantics here but when we seek to mortify sin by in part putting things in place or taking things away to help to not fall under temptation… I struggle to see this as creating law in the larger sense of the word. Sure we may place rules and obstacles in the paths of temptations but again, this does not have to be a Commandment. The rules and
    obstacles are not the end in themselves and are between me and sin, not between me and God. The law with respect to Israel was a different issue. This Law was to show that the separation between Israel and God was due to sin. Israel was condemned by the Law because they could not keep it (likewise as no one can) due to sin. So the problem was not with the Law, but with sin. Sin is what separated Israel from God. Our problem of separation from God is likewise due to sin, not the law. We mortify sin through various means to be pleasing to God, not to earn righteousness. Perhaps the discussion was about those who sought the means as the end goal with the attitude to earn righteousness or sanctification.

    “What makes this way to battle sin even more deadly is that we often focus on one sin to the detriment of our fight against all other sins. If anger is our problem, we battle that vice by creating a system to eradicate it all the while forgetting that we struggle with lust. Note well, Scripture
    tells us not to focus and attack one sin at a time but to tackle all sin at all times. “Let therefore sin no longer reign in your mortal body,” says Paul (cf. Rom 6:12). He does not say, ‘let there be one particular sin that will no longer reign in your body’.”

    The idea of focusing on sin in general is good such that we do not simply have a single minded focus only on one particular sin. However this discussion still seems to be ethereal. We focus on sin in general logically by looking at particular sins or else it is meaningless. Taken in the extreme one cannot have this general attitude when dealing with the sin of adultery. One cannot deal with adultery in the in the same way in the same moment as to deal with an outburst of anger.
    In dealing with sin in general often Paul lists specific sins in his exhortations (i.e. Col 3:8) just as he lists specific to put on (Col 3:12-14). Of course all sanctification is always through the power of the Holy Spirit which we must constantly remember and actively depend on, but this not contrary to
    human responsibility of actively striving to mortify any and all sin. Also humanly speaking we all fall short in every area, but some areas are more of a struggle than others, so it is good to put more focus and weight into these areas.

    I am encouraged be reminded and challenged in these things.
    Thank you for the post!

    • Hey Mark,

      Thanks for the thoughtful reply. Let me clarify what I think is the heart of the confusion. I don’t really mean we should not take practical steps (like restricting internet access) to overcome sin. We should do things like this!

      My warning is against creating a whole set of steps (i.e. laws) to overcome a particularly annoying sin, while (a) ignoring other sins and (b) ignoring the Spirit’s power to overcome sin. The way I see the “Sin Hunter” is this: A guy struggles with lust so he fights it day and night, creating rules/boundaries etc. All the while, he is getting frustrated at his wife and kids without realizing it, because of his fixation on one sin to the detriment of the others. I believe Scripture tells us to battle all sin at all times—and we do so by the Spirit’s power not our own.

      And yes. The whole analogy between’s Israel’s law and our law is a little vague. I grant that. I was trying to draw a comparison to Israel’s historical experience and our present/practical experience.

      In sum: Do many practical things to fight sin. Just don’t be consumed by the fight in one area that you lose track of the other areas of life. Balance is key. Also, fight by the Spirit and not by your own devices (though the Spirit might use those devices).


      • Mark

        Very helpful and clarifying! Thanks!

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