Tag Archives: grace

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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If Christians believe in heaven, why do we still fear death?

Christians believe that when we die we will be resurrected with new bodies. But just like other people, we try to avoid it.

Change can be unnerving, and death is the ultimate unknown. We spend our entire lives investing ourselves in this world, assuming that our investment is meaningful. Death challenges that investment. It seems to deny the ultimate value of careers, possessions, friends, and families. Christians have to face this harsh reality just as much as unbelievers, and while faith in resurrection offers comfort, it isn’t easy to imagine how a future life can offer continuity with our investment in this one.

As human beings, resistance to death is physically and instinctively ingrained in us. Recently our family made the difficult decision to euthanize a pet terrier dying painfully of cancer. As I cuddled her in my arms, the veterinarian gave her an injection of anesthesia to relax her and put her to sleep in preparation for the fatal dose of barbiturate that would follow. She was afraid. She fought the drug’s relaxing effect, looking at me and making heart-rending sounds.

Deeply bonded with our little dog, I rocked her like a child until she gave in to the medication and fell asleep. It wasn’t easy. Knowing that life was departing from a little creature that was a cherished part of our family for nearly twenty years brought deep feelings of sadness and loss. Yet losing our little terrier, Effie, didn’t compare to the loss of parents and other human relatives we had experienced in recent years.

Humans easily overlook how much of our experience isn’t under rational control. Our emotional life (including our affection, joy, anger, and fear) is as influenced by instinct and hormones as by imagination and reason. The life within us, like that in our little terrier, reflexively seeks to avoid death. Our hopes and beliefs transcend death, but as physical creatures, we resist it.

Death reduces living bodies to physical objects—soon to become decaying corpses. It mocks relationships, personhood, and hopes (John 11:38–39). Facing the ugly physical and emotional reality of a close friend’s death, Jesus wept (John 11:32–25). The apostle Paul viewed death with such seriousness that he referred to it as the “last enemy” that the kingdom of Christ will overcome (1 Corinthians 15:25–26). Even when Christians approach death with faith and hope that has been reinforced by God’s faithfulness through a lifetime of experiences, facing such a hideous enemy is never just a dispassionate decision. It is a time for courage.

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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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Does James 2:10 imply that God doesn’t consider some sins more serious than others?

James 2:10 states: “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble at one point, he is guilty of all” (nkjv).

Some people have mistakenly thought that this verse means that all sins are equal in God’s view, that no sins are worse than others.

In the Old Testament, there were sacrifices to atone for sins done in ignorance or through weakness. But deliberate, premeditated transgressions were a more serious category of sin for which the law couldn’t atone (Hebrews 10). People who committed such sins (Leviticus 6:1-2; 10:1-2; 20:1-27; Numbers 15:32-35; 16:26-32) either had to make restitution (as in the cases of theft or lying) or be put to death (as in the cases of adultery, violating the Sabbath, cursing one’s parents). When David premeditatedly committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband killed, he wrote, “You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; . . . The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart” (Psalm 51:16-17 nkjv). David knew that no sacrifice could atone for what he did, and that he could only, like other Old Testament believers who committed such sins, cast himself on God’s mercy. The law provided no forgiveness. He needed grace.

Paul’s declaration in Romans 2 that God will judge “according to works,” “light,” and “opportunity” implies that there are degrees of guilt, as did Jesus’ declaration that rejecting Him and His gospel was a more serious sin than the sin of Sodom (Matthew 10:15; 11:23-24). If there are no degrees of sin, then it would be pointless to struggle to seek the lesser of two evils in the kinds of situations we all sometimes face.

What James is confronting in this verse is the self-righteous attitude that we don’t depend as much on God’s grace as someone who has committed more obvious and heinous kinds of sin. This kind of thinking is self-deceiving and encourages complacency. Any violation of the law is enough to keep us from being justified by the law’s standards. A person who doesn’t murder or commit adultery but shows partiality to the rich should not feel self-righteous. He is a lawbreaker too. The function of the law is not to justify but to bring awareness of sin (Romans 4:14-16; 5:19-21; 1 Corinthians 15:56). We should be humbled and conscience-stricken by the many sins we do commit, and not feel superior to those who sin in ways we don’t.

 

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