The Bible stresses both the importance of confessing ( James 5:16 ) and forsaking sin ( Ezekiel 18:31 ; Matthew 5:29 ; Luke 14:27 ; Romans 13:12 ; Ephesians 4:22 ). But just because Christians should confess and forsake their sins doesn’t mean that they are capable of achieving sinless perfection.
Certainly some sins are the outward and obvious kind that can be clearly confessed, forsaken, and avoided. No genuine Christian could commit an obvious, outward sin like adultery, murder, or theft without realizing it is wrong. In fact, it would be hard for a genuine Christian to commit such a clearly defined, obvious sin without a major struggle of conscience.
But not all of our sins are so outward and obvious or under our conscious control. There is another type of sin so deeply rooted in our depraved human nature that it seems to have its own life within us like a parasite or an alien being with a destructive craving to live independent of God.1 This kind of sin is present in all of us — not just in obvious sinners, like thieves, adulterers, and murderers. Regarding this kind of sin, the apostle John wrote:
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. . . . If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10 NKJV)
The apostle Paul described his struggle with this kind of sin in Romans 7:15-25:
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. (Romans 7:14-19 NKJV)
This kind of inner sin is often carried out unconsciously and in ignorance, but it eventually leads to death ( Romans 8:6,13 ) It appears in forms that are often subtle — like greed, pride, sloth, indifference to others, and lust. This inner sin is often so much a part of us that we recognize it only with difficulty, although others around us may see it clearly. Like an addictive poison, it has become so much a part of us — infecting every aspect of our personality and identity — that in this life it is impossible for us to be instantly freed from it. To be instantly purified of its influence would be more than we could bear.2
When we have faith in Christ we are instantly freed from the eternal penalty of our sin, but we can not be freed of the burden of inner sin itself except through a process — the process of sanctification by the power of the Holy Spirit ( 1 Corinthians 6:11 ; 2 Corinthians 3:18 ; 2 Thessalonians 2:13 ; 1 Peter 1:2 ) Sanctification creates a “new man” within us in the image of Christ, a new “nature” that is drawn to life and immortality instead of death and corruption. Unlike the instantaneous event of justification, the process of sanctification continues through our entire life on earth, reaching completion only in heaven ( 1 John 3:2,3 ).
See the ATQ article Are Christians Held Responsible for Unpremeditated and Unconscious Sins?
- This is implied by numerous passages in Scripture that describe the immense gap between sinful humanity and the Holy God. ( Exodus 33:20-23 ; Isaiah 6:5 ; John 1:18 ; 1 Timothy 6:16 ). Back To Article
- The biblical name for this instantaneous act of forgiveness is justification ( Romans 3:21-28 ; Romans 5:8, 9 ; Philippians 3:8, 9 ; Titus 3:4-7 ). Back To Article