The Jesus Call: What is a PERSON to do with sin?
Are the things we call “sin” sinful because a group of people got together and decided they were wrong? Or is something deeper, more insidious going on with sin?
By Nick Fox
Jesus calls us to be different — different from the world, different from our old selves, different in a lot of ways.
Pastor Erwin McManus says, “You cannot follow Jesus and remain the same.”1
For most of us, that is a refreshing shift. Different isn’t always better, but the same is seldom better — and change from our old, sinful lives is a very good thing.
But what does different look like? Does this change mean we will never sin? Does God kick out, expel, or disown Christians the moment they mess up? Of course not!
So, then, can we sin as much as we want, and it’s no big deal? As the apostle Paul would say, “By no means!” (Romans 6:2)
So what is a Christian to do with this thing called sin?
What Is Sin?
I think an important starting point is to figure out what sin is. Are the things we call “sin” sinful because a group of people got together and decided they were wrong? Or is something deeper, more insidious going on with sin?
I think the idea we get of sin in Scripture is that of a perversion of something good, a corruption of something beautiful, and a disturbance of something holy. God does not arbitrarily make laws and rules to spoil our fun. He gives us rules and laws to keep us from the things that hurt us. In fact, in the Book of Deuteronomy, a book in the Old Testament made up of a series of speeches by Moses, the speaker asks the rhetorical question, “[W]hat other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?” (Deuteronomy 4:8).
Moses saw God’s restrictions as blessings, as guidelines to keep the people from straying from the Lord. I don’t know about you, but I need that guidance in my life. When left to my own devices, I typically do not end up any place good. My natural drift is to a dark and sinful place, where I try to meet my core desires apart from God. However, the way of Jesus leads me to redemption, and His ways empower and release me to live the best kind of life, and to meet those needs in a God-honoring, healthy way. That is the only way we find true fulfillment. That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
That is what Jesus came to accomplish. In Matthew 1:21, the angel foretells the birth of Jesus and says, “[Mary] will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
In Hebrew, the name Jesus or Yeshua means, “God is salvation,” or, “He saves.” Notice the emphasis is on saving us from sin, as opposed to many of the other things we typically worry about, such as death or pain. Jesus is committed to removing sin’s control over our lives for our own good. That is the act of a loving Father.
A lot changes when we start seeing God this way. Like most other things, so much of who we are and how we live flows from how we see God. Author and speaker N.T. Wright puts it this way: “In Jesus himself, I suggest, we see the biblical portrait of Yahweh come to life: the loving God, rolling up His sleeves (Isaiah 52:10) to do in person the job that no one else could do; the creator God, giving new life; the God who works through His created world and supremely through His human creatures; the faithful God, dwelling in the midst of His people; the stern and tender God, relentlessly opposed to all that destroys or distorts the good creation and especially human beings, but recklessly loving all those in need and distress.”2
When we see God this way, as recklessly loving and fighting against anything that would distort or destroy us, it helps us rightly understand sin and the issue at hand.
So, I will ask again, what is the place of sin in the life of a Christian?
How Should We Frame the Question?
Having worked with new Christians for many years, I feel like the discussion about why sin isn’t in a Christian’s life tends to center around heaven and hell. While I believe these places are biblical realities, I’m not sure that is the healthiest way to frame this discussion. For example, I once had a student ask if he would go to hell for smoking after he graduated. This inquiry troubled me because I think it is the wrong question.
What if I went to my wife and asked her, “Honey, will you divorce me if I go on a date with another woman?”
What would her response to that be? Regardless of her answer — yes or no — the question itself is pretty offensive, isn’t it? It is not respecting of her or our relationship. It is solely concerned with me — and what I can get. So, for the sake of this hypothetical situation, let’s assume my wife responded this way: “Well, I guess I wouldn’t divorce you, but I would be pretty hurt.”
Imagine I followed that with, “Okay good! So let’s say I kiss another woman. Would you divorce me then?”
Once again, do you see how offensive even asking such a question is? It shows that the husband’s concern is only about figuring out what he can get away with, not what he can do to love, honor, and please his wife. Where is the heart in all of this? Is it trying to selfishly seek its own way or is it seeking the absolute best in the relationship?
I think it is helpful to understand these same realities when it comes to our relationship with Jesus. If we are still concerned with what we can get away with in the relationship, what we can control, and how much of our old life we can bring into our relationship with Jesus, it seems we have not yet really surrendered. When we frame the discussion only around rewards and punishments, we act as if we are relating to a crooked cop or a hardened judge rather than a loving Father.
In his book Uprising: A Revolution of the Soul, McManus tells the story of Narcissus, a fictional character from Greek mythology who encounters his own reflection in a pool and cannot leave because he is so enamored by his own beauty. It is from this story that we get the words narcissism and narcissistic, referring to a person who is incredibly selfish and self-centered.
And the reality is we all have this fundamental selfishness inside us, don’t we? It is part of our internal brokenness. If I am not careful to check my ego and pride, and continually strive to see myself the way God sees me — not too highly or too lowly — I will drift toward the dark and scary dungeon of self-absorption. Sin is enamored with self. It worships self.
On this point, McManus says, “If you are still relating to God through negotiations, you have not yet found the path of humility. If your question is still, ‘How much can I keep?’ or ‘How much do I have to give up?’ you’re still at the pool of Narcissus.”3
What Does Jesus Require of Us?
Compare this to the Jesus we see in the New Testament. Jesus is a Jewish rabbi who travels around speaking and teaching, with his ragtag group of disciples following along behind him. He encounters a number of people on his journeys and, interestingly enough, He seems to tell all of them to do different things to be saved. He tells the rich young ruler to go sell everything he has and give it to the poor (Matthew 19:16–20). He tells Nicodemus that he must be born again (John 3). He tells an expert in the law to love God and love his neighbor (Luke 10:25–37).
This seems confusing, because it appears that Jesus continually changes the game plan. But when we look closer, we see that Jesus is calling out whatever it is that comes between them and Him (money, religious affiliation, or prejudice) and asking that they totally surrender to Him. In each case, He requires exclusivity. He must be number one in our lives — over family, over money, over relationships, over sex, over status, over pride, over everything! That is the consistent call of Jesus.
It has been said that after the Roman Empire made Christianity the official religion in the 4th century, the emperor was baptized, and much of Rome followed suit. The story goes that Roman soldiers kept one hand out of the water — their sword hand — when they were dunked so they could continue to fight and kill for the Roman army. It was as if that part of them was not washed and sanctified, but the rest was.
I wonder how many people do that today. Some surrender everything to Jesus except perhaps their finances, sexual lives, careers, or desire for revenge. However, commitment to Jesus requires us to be all in. It does not mean we will be perfect; it does mean, however, we give all of ourselves to Him, including our hopes and dreams, our desires, our fears, and our relationships. It is a bold request by Jesus to demand all of us. But in fact, it is only in becoming fully His that we find true freedom. I can attest that surrendering to Jesus is the best way to live. As Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
Where Does That Leave Us?
So where does that leave us with sin? I think there are two enormous realities we must always keep in balance.
1. May we never think that God’s grace is not big enough to cover our sin. God has removed our sin as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). If we repent and turn to Jesus, our slate is wiped clean by His life, death, and resurrection. However, there is a second reality.
2. May we never treat sin like it is no big deal. Sin is costly. It kills, corrupts, destroys, tarnishes, and rots all good things. It cost Jesus His life. So may we never laugh off sin or pretend it is a small thing. May we continually fight to get better every day, cooperate fully with God, and trust Jesus to help us get free from the chains of sin and death. We will stumble and fall, but may we never remain on the ground. May we never be comfortable with where we are but continually seek to honor God more and more with our lives.
This, it seems, is the call of Jesus.
1. Erwin Raphael McManus, Uprising: A Revolution of the Soul, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2003), 34–35.
2. N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic,1999), 121.
3. McManus, 56.