Christians are not powerless against sin

There is a form of antinomianism, I believe, that comes from the belief that even Christians are helpless against the power of sin. I use the term “anti-nomianism” because this belief leads one to excuse his sins, and to think that fighting against sin and temptation is pointless. If God wills it, so goes this thinking, then I will be able to avoid sin without any hard work of my own. The power will come spontaneously. I say this because I used to think this way. I used to think that Christians were in the same boat as the rest of sinful humanity, that even though we were baptized, possessed the Holy Spirit and faith, we were helpless, powerless even against sin. So, when the temptation comes, don’t fight it.

It is true that by ourselves we are powerless. By ourselves, without the aid of the Holy Spirit, without the aid of prayer and sanctified wisdom, we are helpless. But a Christian is not without these tools. If it were true that Christians were powerless against sin’s invitations, then what would be the use of inviting believers to pray? What would be the point in instructing Christians in holy living, as the Epistles do, and as Christ himself does in the Holy Gospels? If Christians were incapable of resisting sin, then why bother telling them to do so? 

I think we Christians, and we preachers especially, need to beware of this tendency to see ourselves and those to whom we preach as being no different than the common unbeliever, as if every time we preached we were preaching to the unregenerate. The Law may “always accuse,” but we do not preach the Law for this purpose alone. The Law “semper accusat” because of sin, and certainly we must never forget that, or rely on the preaching of the Law to make one acceptable to God. Surely this acceptance is through faith alone. Justification. But make no mistake: the Christian is not powerless against sin and the devil. We do not *have* to obey it. To the extent that we do of course shows that we have not yet cast off these bodies of sin completely. But we dare not allow sin to reign in our minds or our mortal bodies, as St. Paul says. We fight it, we wrestle with it, we struggle against it, we use every means at our disposal to say “no” to it, not because by doing so we gain favor with God, but because we want, as St. Peter says, to “be found by Him without spot or blemish” when Christ returns. And Christ has not left us without help, without weapons. He has given us a regenerate will, and wants us to use these wills in service to holiness and sanctification.

We cannot keep our hearts free from sin, but we can keep the wind from blowing on those ever-glowing embers which lay just beneath the surface, and we need not be its slave. When we do fall, we pray that God would have mercy on us. We know it will happen. We know that we will let our guard down at some point just long enough for sin’s tentacles to creep into our hearts, and we know that “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus is the propitiation for our sins.” But let us not fail to fight, struggle, and mortify the flesh with all its passions and desires. We are not completely powerless. We are weak, but not powerless.  We are not unregenerate, and neither are the members of our flocks. We should, I think, preach to them differently than we would an unbeliever, who is powerless against sin.

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About Rev. Paul L. Beisel

Graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN in 2001 (M Div.) and 2004 (S.T.M.); LC-MS Pastor and Adjunct Instructor for John Wood Community College; Husband of Amy and father of Susan, Elizabeth, Martin, and Theodore.
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7 Responses to Christians are not powerless against sin

  1. Amen, amen, amen! Luther said you can’t prevent birds from flying above you, but you can prevent them from making a nest on your head. How often does St. Paul and our Lord Christ tell us to fight against sin and the devil? Therefore we have no right not to.

  2. Well said. Likewise, I believe the supposed “sin boldly” statement by Luther is a horrible mistranslation of an excellent sentiment. http://tinyurl.com/5wrg92 It is used as a similar excuse for all kinds of sin. Rather, what Luther said was “let your sins be strong” – in other words, don’t minimize your sins. http://tinyurl.com/5kzwjt

  3. I’m not entirely certain it’s a matter of preaching to them differently. It certainly is received differently. Really I don’t think it’s a matter of not preaching the Law properly. I think it’s a matter of not preaching the Gospel properly. We don’t believe that the Gospel actually changes us.

    I wonder if this doesn’t come from a misunderstanding of forensic justification. Justification is declared to us and for us. But (as we pray in the Second Petition) God does break and hinder the plans of the Devil, including his leading us to sin.

    Good post. Thanks.

    P

  4. Rev. Paul L. Beisel says:

    Todd, you may be right about the preaching aspect. I guess I’m thinking of my own experience, and the way my preaching has evolved over the years. What has really influenced me is reading Martin Chemnitz’ Enchirdion on Ministry, Word, and Sacraments. In seminary homiletics classes, we were given a fairly simple outline: Law and Gospel. (Or if you went to St. Louis: Goal, Malady, Means). This is, in my opinion, overly simplistic. Chemnitz lists several things that ought to form the subject matter of our preaching. Exhortation, doctrine, new obedience, repentance, faith, etc. (not necessarily in that order). I used to think that I had done my duty when I had sufficiently applied Law and Gospel, sin and grace, drawn from the texts of course, to my congregation. Though these ought to be central, they are not all there is to preaching. If I was teaching homiletics, I would be sure to emphasize the necessity of preaching not only Law (repentance) and Gospel (faith), but also all of the things mentioned by Chemnitz.

    The thrust of my post was basically that there is a tendency among confessional Lutherans to think that holy living (1) is impossible, and (2) requires no effort or hard work on the part of the Christian. Perhaps this is a straw man right now. I don’t have any proof of it. Perhaps instead of saying there is a tendency among others, I should just say that I have noticed it in myself. I don’t have anyone to accuse except myself.

  5. As I see it, 1=LC-MS, 2=ELCA…That is, as a broad generalization.

  6. Rev. Mike Grieve says:

    Goal, Malady, Means not only taught at St. Louis. Yes, that’s right, at Fort Wayne too. I had it in my first homiletics course.

  7. Dusty says:

    I find that once I fight off a certain sin in my life that it just brings another sin in it’s place. For example, when I fight off lust and have victory over it for awhile then pride immediately kicks in and I start to act feel and act like I’m “better” than everyone else because I’ve “conquered” this lust for awhile. It’s like I’m no better off for fighting off one sin because it just invites another to take it’s place.

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