Tag Archives: forgiveness

Can I be a Christian and still struggle with impure thoughts?

The Bible says that becoming a follower of Christ is like a dead person coming to life.[1] Moving from spiritual death to spiritual life is a drastic change. Spiritual rebirth makes it possible for us to consciously share God’s love and partner with Him in bringing about his kingdom. Although spiritual rebirth brings instant change, it doesn’t result in an immediate transformation. We are too deeply flawed for an instant cure. When we choose to follow Christ, a process begins that will continue to the end of our lives.

Before we followed Christ we were, in a sense, like zombies—spiritually dead and driven by urges and emotions we didn’t understand. Even after we were awakened by spiritual life the same urges and emotions remained, although we were no longer entirely under their control (Galatians 5:17–21; 6:8; Ephesians 2:2–6). The New Testament uses a special term to refer to these urges and emotions: the “sinful nature.” [2]

Our natural inclination to sin continues to generate impure thoughts that are out of sorts with our new life. But these bad thoughts don’t represent our current spiritual state. They represent the death we are leaving behind.

In addition to our own natural faults and weaknesses, Satan acts as an adversary (see Job 1:7–12), “slanderer,”[3] and “accuser” (Revelation 12:10). He wants us to be obsessed with our dark thoughts. If we do, he—like a vampire—can drain away our joy and the influence of our new life.

Since we will never be completely free of lustful, unkind, and self-destructive desires in this life, we need to have realistic expectations. Experiencing a bad thought isn’t the same as hanging on to and nurturing it. Our goal shouldn’t be to eliminate bad thoughts but to be quicker to recognize and resist them when they appear. Far from indicating that our faith isn’t real, our awareness of continuing impure thoughts and unfree tendencies that still lurk within us proves that we are being transformed. If we weren’t becoming more spiritually aware, we wouldn’t even recognize the lingering shadows of spiritual death. First John 1:8 says, “If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth,” and the apostle Paul describes his continuing struggle with sin (Romans 7:15–25).

In fact, it is important that we recognize the wrong within. If we didn’t recognize the impurity that still remained in us, we might be drawn into the most dangerous sin of all—spiritual pride.

[1] John 5:21; Romans 6:13; 8:11; Ephesians 2:1–3; 5:14; Colossians 2:13

[2] In the New Testament the Greek term, sarx, often translated “flesh,” occasionally refers to the body, but most often refers to the destructive, death-prone tendencies within us. These tendencies still reside in us even after conversion, while we are moving from spiritual death to spiritual life. Paul calls it the “law of sin at work within me” in Romans 7:23 (niv). The Bible calls this the “sinful nature” in Romans 7:18 and 7:25.

[3] The name “devil” is from the Greek word diabolos, meaning “slanderer, false accuser.”

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Why doesn’t God just forgive everyone?

I’ve often wondered something similar myself. “Why doesn’t God save everyone?” After all, he has the power to do so.

Did you know that some Christians do believe that God saves everyone … eventually?

Saving everyone would entail forgiving everyone. But not everyone is truly sorry for their sins. Some people show no remorse for their sins or even acknowledge that they have sinned against others and God. How can God forgive the unrepentant? Some people talk as though forgiveness doesn’t require repentance, like when we speak of forgiving unrepentant abusive parents or violent terrorists. But it seems best to me to keep those concepts—forgiveness and repentance—connected while acknowledging that something else is going on in the cases just mentioned.

My husband (a philosophy professor) and I have often discussed this question. He offers this example. Suppose a parent offers to forgive a child for a particular misdeed, yet the child keeps sinning against the parent with no remorse. The relationship between the parent and the child is still fractured even though the parent extended forgiveness to the child. The parent desires an intimate, joy-filled relationship exemplifying reconciliation. God is like that parent.

God is good, beautiful, and full of compassion (Psalm 136:1). Forgiveness through Jesus Christ is for all (John 3:16; 2 Peter 3:9), but not all of us have it. Some of us continue to arrogantly resist God because we think we know better than God. Like Satan, we desire to be God (see Isaiah 14:12–15; Matthew 4).

But some say that in the end, even if people experience hell, they’ll have a chance to escape hell. Furthermore, they claim God’s love is irresistible and unconditional, so the unrepentant in this life cannot help but be wooed and so repent even after death. As for me, I’m inclined to think that some will stubbornly resist God in this life and in the next.

This question leads to many other theological questions about the nature of hell, the problem of evil, and the salvation of people such as babies, the intellectually disabled, and others who cannot understand the propositions of the gospel. There is quite a bit I don’t know about this topic. But I do know God is loving, compassionate, and just. And I truly trust him to judge rightly.

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Are some sins more wrong than others?

Many of us have a tendency to judge certain sins as worse than others. We say, “I have my struggles, but at least I don’t struggle with that.”

Surely some attitudes and behaviors carry the potential for greater, far-reaching consequences than others. But that does not make one set of sins worse than another. The New Testament calls us to take all sin seriously:

Yes indeed, it is good when you obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law. (James 2:8–9 nlt)

James, the author of these words, does not seem to be setting up a hierarchy of sins. He wrote to people who were guilty of such things as favoring the rich over the poor,[1] and he is confronting the self-righteous attitudes of those who don’t feel they have sinned enough to need God’s grace. He told his readers that this kind of thinking is not only prideful but also self-deceiving. Everyone sins and needs God’s grace.

The mercy of God is not just for those who commit obvious and heinous kinds of sin. A person who doesn’t murder or commit adultery but shows partiality to the rich while ignoring the poor is a lawbreaker, too.

Sin is a struggle for all of us. And none of us have reason to feel superior to those who sin in ways we don’t. Most of all, let us never forget that our gracious God longs to extend His hand of mercy to all.

[1] James 2:1-4

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What Should the Church do with a Christian Swindler?

Earthly restitution isn’t always possible. King David could never undo the consequences of his sin with Bathsheba because his arranged murder of  Uriah was irrevocable. On the other hand, when Zacchaeus became a  follower of Christ, he expressed a willingness to make more than a full  restitution to those he had abused in his office as a Roman tax  collector. The basic question is therefore not whether we can make restitution, but whether we are willing to do so if it is within our  ability.

In Matthew 5:23-24, Jesus placed the emphasis on reconciliation:

Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your
brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the
altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then
come and offer your gift (NKJV).

William Barclay gives some important background for understanding Jesus’ words:

But two most important things have to be noted. First, it was never held that sacrifice could atone for deliberate sin, for what the Jews called “the sins of a high hand.” If a man committed a sin unawares, if he was swept into sin in a moment of passion when self-control broke, then sacrifice was effective; but if a man deliberately, defiantly, callously and open-eyed committed sin, then sacrifice was powerless to atone. Second, to be effective, sacrifice had to include confession of sin and true penitence; and true penitence involved the attempt to rectify any consequences sin might have had. The great Day of Atonement was held to make atonement for the sins of the whole nation, but the Jews were quite clear that not even the sacrifices of the Day of Atonement could avail for a man unless he was first reconciled to his neighbour. The breach between man and God could not be healed until the breach between man and man was healed. If a man was making a sin-offering for instance, to atone for a theft, the offering was held to be completely unavailing until the thing stolen had been restored; and, if it was discovered that the thing had not  been restored, then the sacrifice had to be destroyed as unclean and  burned outside the Temple. The Jews were quite clear that a man had to  do his utmost to put things right himself before he could be right with God (The Gospel of Matthew, pp. 139-40, emphasis mine).

An intelligent white-collar criminal who knows how to evade significant punishment and continue to live more affluently than people he has
exploited demonstrates no repentance or desire for reconciliation. If such an individual is able to make significant restitution but is  unwilling, a church that neglects to hold him accountable enables his sin.

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How Should I Respond When a Fellow Christian Wrongs Me?

Matthew 18:15-17 provides the “ground rules” for the resolution of conflicts between Christians. It applies to peer relationships, not sexual abuse or other offenses that fall in the category of criminal law. Although this is a brief passage of Scripture, it is more than a simple formula. It needs to be obeyed in the spirit of wisdom and compassion that should mark all Christian relationships. The purpose of any confrontation is spiritual healing and restoration of relationship, not revenge.

As verse 15 states, the first step in resolving a damaged relationship is for the one who feels sinned against to confidentially confront the one who has committed the offense. Unfortunately, this first private step is often overlooked. Instead of taking the initiative to personally speak with the one who has offended us, we are inclined to look for allies by sharing our side of the issue with uninvolved people. This failure to face our offender in person allows the offender to go unconfronted, and it increases the distance and distrust between him and us.

If the offending brother or sister does not accept our correction, that is not the end of the matter. It then becomes appropriate to involve two or three other people as witnesses to our problem. While continuing to protect confidentiality, these witnesses are to join us in a second attempt at confrontation and reconciliation.

If the one who has harmed us expresses no repentance or change of heart, even after this confrontation with two or three witnesses, the authority of the whole church is required. Jesus declared:

If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector (Matthew 18:17).

This means that if the offending party will not accept the authority of the church, we are no longer to fellowship with this person as a brother or sister in Christ. Instead we are to love him or her in the way Jesus loved tax collectors and public sinners who desperately needed spiritual conversion.

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