What do you say to the person who comes to you and tells you, “I believe in Jesus; I know I’m a Christian, but I still find myself struggling with sin. There are times when I see progress, but there are also times when I still make the same mistakes. It can be very discouraging. What do I do? How should I handle this?” When it comes to the Christian life, these are common feelings and common questions. But what are the biblical answers? How can Christians understand the ongoing struggle with sin? And how should they respond to it?
Understanding the struggle
It’s a universal struggle for all believers. The first thing Christians can understand about this struggle is that every Christian faces it. The Bible is clear; “If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth” (1 John 1:8 NLT). Every Christian struggles with sin to some degree. There was once a young man who came to J.I. Packer, the great author and theologian, and said, “I don’t understand Romans 7. How can Paul be this mature Christian and still be struggling with sin?”
And Packer said, “It’s precisely because Paul is such a mature Christian that he is struggling with sin.” Packer explained that Paul in Romans 7 is not a picture of the almost Christian or the defeated Christian; he’s a picture of the fighting Christian. Romans 7 isn’t about Paul still living in sin; it’s about sin still living in Paul. It’s not that Paul wasn’t making any progress. It’s that the more he drew near to God the more aware he became of his sin and his inability to perfectly meet the high standards of God’s law.
Imagine you’ve just washed a drinking glass, and you think it’s as clean as it can be, but then you hold it up to the light of the sun, and you see more and more spots. What happened? The glass didn’t become dirtier; you became more aware of the dirt. Such is the Christian life. God is light and the nearer you are to him the more dirt you’re going to be able to see. A Christian never becomes more sinful; he or she becomes more aware of the sin. God causes Christians to see their sin not to make them hopeless but to make them humble — not to make them depressed but to make them more dependent upon his grace.
A battle of desires
It’s an inward struggle of competing desires. The struggle with sin is a battle of inward desires. “The desires of the flesh are against the desires of the Spirit …to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Galatians 5:17). Notice there are now two competing desires in the Christian. Unlike the Buddhist solution of trying to get rid of desire, Christianity claims that desire is not the problem. It’s the direction and degree of desire that matters. Every Christian is a new person in Christ with a new nature. Yet it’s precisely because of this new nature that there is now an inward conflict between following the right master and trying to be your own master. The unbeliever is at peace with sin and at war with God, but the believer is at peace with God and at war with sin.
It’s a lifelong struggle until you see Christ. Sin will remain until you see Christ; therefore, the struggle and conflict will remain. There was once a “higher-life” preacher at the Keswick Convention teaching people how to live a victorious Christian life free from all known sin. After his talk one of his collogues asked him if that had been his own experience or did he still struggle to do the right thing. The preacher admitted that he still struggled with sin, but he had been a Christian for a long time and didn’t want to discourage the younger Christians in the audience. Perhaps the truth would have been more encouraging — the truth that the normal Christian life from start to finish is full of ups and downs, real progress yet periodic failures. So if this is how we understand the struggle, how should Christians respond to it?
Responding to the struggle
Christians confess their wretchedness. The great Apostle Paul was not afraid to say, “Wretched man that I am” (Romans 7:24). The new Paul saw the remnants of the old Paul, and it humbled him. In light of the holiness of God, the mature Christian doesn’t declare, “Wonderful man that I am” but rather, “Wretched man that I am.”
Christians seek out God’s deliverance. “Who shall deliver me from this body of death?” Paul was seeking complete deliverance. This was not a cry of despair; it was a cry of desire. Paul desired to be free not just from the penalty and power of sin but from the presence of sin. In the midst of this struggle with sin, genuine Christians seek the complete deliverance that will one day be theirs.
Christians give thanks to God for Christ. Because Jesus died, Paul could find complete forgiveness, and because Jesus rose again, he could find continued power and complete assurance to keep fighting. Someone may ask, “Are you living in the defeat of Romans 7 or in the victory of Romans 8?” However, a Christian is still putting sin to death and groaning inwardly in chapter 8. Paul is not moving from defeat to victory in those chapters; he is moving from struggle to assurance. Paul is teaching that the Christian life involves both great struggle and great assurance. He wants every Christian to know that although the struggle with sin remains, the final victory over it is certain.
Jeremy McKeen is the lead pastor of Truth Point Church. Jeremy received his B.A. in communications and philosophy from Florida Southern College and his MDiv from Knox Theologica