One of the most common questions a Christian can ask is also one of the most troubling: What does my ongoing sin say about me?
The question is common because all Christians deal with ongoing sin, and many with patterns of repetitive sin. And the question is troubling because it ushers us into one of the great tensions of Scripture. We know, on the one hand, that “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). And we know, on the other hand, that “no one born of God makes a practice of sinning” (1 John 3:9). Every Christian sins — even every day (Matthew 6:11–12) — yet some practices of sin throw doubt on a person’s claim to be born of God.
So, what distinguishes Christians from the world when it comes to sin? Puritan pastor Richard Baxter, writing to “melancholy” (or depressed) Christians, offers one fruitful answer:
Remember what a comfortable evidence you carry about with you that your sin is not damning while you feel that you love it not but hate it and are weary of it. Scarce any sort of sinners have so little pleasure in their sin as the melancholy, or so little desire to keep them, and only beloved sins undo men. (The Genius of Puritanism, 88–89)
Christians commit sins. At times, they may even commit grievous sins, as David and Peter did. But Christians do not love their sins. And only beloved sins undo us.
Our Complex Hearts
Of course, Baxter’s answer forces us to ask another question: How can we know whether we hate or love sin? Answering that question requires great care.
We find many people in Scripture, for example, who only seemed to hate their sin. Israel’s wilderness generation “repented and sought God earnestly” at times, but in the end “their heart was not steadfast toward him” (Psalm 78:34, 37). The Pharisees likewise appeared to hate sin — yet beneath their religious exterior they were “lovers of money” (Luke 16:14). The love of sin, though smothered for a time, was never quenched.
Alternatively, we can find cases where genuine Christians, often immature ones, seemed for a time to love sin. Some surprising sins appear in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, for example, yet godly grief could also follow, and with it a restored indignation against sin (2 Corinthians 7:10–11).
How then can we tell whether, under all our conflicting feelings and internal wrestlings and contradictory actions, our fundamental attitude toward sin is an increasing hatred or love? We might begin by prayerfully asking ourselves four smaller questions.
How do you commit your sin?
Although we all sin, we do not all sin in the same way. The Old Testament distinguishes between types of transgressions, ranging from less severe unintentional sins to sins committed “with a high hand” (Numbers 15:22, 30). Our own sins likewise fall on a spectrum between defiant and reflexive — between those we pursue and those that pursue us.
If sin is a snare (Proverbs 5:22), then sometimes we walk into it with eyes wide open, and other times we find our foot caught before we know what happened. A mother may speak a harsh word, for example, after slowly brewing the cauldron of her self-pity — or she may do so in a rush of unlooked-for impatience. Similarly, a husband may indulge an illicit sexual image because he went looking for a website — or because a billboard went looking for him.
The mother and the husband sin in both cases, but how they do so — especially as a characteristic practice — reveals much about their heart’s orientation. Ongoing patterns of planned, premeditated sin expose a heart whose affections are dangerously entangled.
“Christians commit sins. But Christians do not love their sins. And only beloved sins undo us.”
In one sense, of course, we play the role of both pursuer and pursued whenever we sin. Even the most defiant sins have spiritual forces of evil behind them (Ephesians 2:2); even the most reflexive sins reveal a twisted inner willingness (James 1:14). More than that, genuine Christians still can fall into patterns of pursuing sin for a season. At times, we contradict the life of Christ within us and step into snares that we see. But in general, those who hate sin move — gradually but genuinely — farther from planned, pursued sins the longer they are in Christ.
How far have you come?
Now for a complication. Although everyone who hates sin gradually moves away from planned, pursued sins, we start moving from different spots. Some begin walking toward Mount Zion from Moab; others from as far as Babylon. And as with any journey, distance (though important) matters less than direction.
Some people, by virtue of God’s common grace, enter Christ with great degrees of decency and discipline. And others enter Christ with self-control threadbare, a conscience almost seared, and a soul still bearing the claw marks of addiction. Both receive in Christ the same Spirit, one “of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7). But if we expect their progress toward Christlikeness to look the same, we deny their radically different starting places.
Imagine, for example, the sin of drunkenness, which falls nearer the defiant side of the spectrum. A night of drunkenness for the first Christian may raise a serious concern: here is a planned, pursued sin unknown even in his pre-Christian days. But for the second Christian, a night of drunkenness may be only one brief backward step on an otherwise forward journey. (Which is no reason, of course, for resting satisfied with even one backward step: repentance means opposing all known sin now, not on a gradually reduced schedule.)
The Christian life goes “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18); the sky above us “shines brighter and brighter until full day” (Proverbs 4:18); we travel “from strength to strength” (Psalm 84:7). But as important as asking, “How far along are you?” is “How far have you come?”
How do you confess your sin?
Just as we can commit sin in more ways than one, so we can confess sin in more ways than one. While some confess with sincere resolve not to commit that sin again, others confess with silent resignation to sin’s power in their lives. The second kind of confession, as John Piper puts it, expresses
guilt and sorrow for sinning, but underneath there is the quiet assumption that this sin is going to happen again, probably before the week is out. . . . It’s a cloak for fatalism about your besetting sins. You feel bad about them, but you have surrendered to their inevitability.
Those who confess in this way often treat forgiveness as only a balm for a wounded conscience, and not also as a sword for the fight against sin. They hate the guilt that sin brings, but they may not hate the sin itself, or at least not enough to rage against the lie that sin is ever inevitable.
To be sure, those who hate sin often need to confess the same sins repeatedly (especially sins of the more reflexive kind), even over years and decades. But apart from some regrettable seasons, their confessions hold no hints of fatalism or inevitability. Rather, their confessions match the pattern of Proverbs 28:13:
Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper,
but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.
Those who confess sin sincerely also strive to forsake sin completely. So, when they rise from their knees and return to the battle, they do not hold their weapon loosely, as one who expects defeat. They enter with head held high, shielded with new mercy, clothed with fresh power.
How do you fight your sin?
Some of the clearest displays of our loves and hates appear on the battlefield. While some fight their sin half expecting and (if truth be told) half hoping to lose, others learn to fight like their souls are at stake — like Jesus spoke seriously, even if not literally, when he talked about cutting off hands and tearing out eyes (Matthew 5:29–30).
Sin haters walk through this world armed with spiritual weapons (Romans 8:13; Ephesians 6:17) — not to harm others, but to harm every enemy within themselves. They watch and pray against temptation, needy enough to ask for daily deliverance (Matthew 6:13). They resolve to make no provision for the flesh, even if doing so requires abstaining from otherwise neutral substances, situations, and forms of entertainment (Romans 13:14). Their battle plans are not vague (“Read the Bible and pray more”) but specific (“Wake up at 6:00 to read and pray for an hour”). And though they know that no wall of accountability can rise higher than their sin, they also live like they are dead without help (Hebrews 3:13).
“Sin seems beloved to us only when Christ does not.”
And what’s more, they do not fight for a day or a season or a year, but for a life. They know this warfare ends only when their breath does (2 Timothy 4:7). So, though they sometimes feel weary in the war, they refuse to lie down on the battlefield. In time, fresh strength comes from above, fresh resolves fire from within, and despite many discouragements and defeats, they make progress.
Those who, at bottom, still love their sin will not fight their sin like this. They may raise a resistance of sorts, but not a whole-souled war. We cannot kill what we still love.
So then, how do you commit your sin? How far have you come? How do you confess your sin? How do you fight your sin? Questions like these call for our attention — but only some of our attention. Self-examination can help us discern the state of our souls, but it cannot change the state of our souls. Wherever we find ourselves in these questions, if we would hate sin increasingly, then only one path lies before us: love Christ increasingly.
Richard Baxter’s contemporary John Owen once wrote,
Be frequent in thoughts of faith, comparing [Christ] with other beloveds, sin, world, legal righteousness; and preferring him before them, counting them all loss and dung in comparison of him. (A Quest for Godliness, 206)
Sin seems beloved to us only when Christ does not. So go ahead and compare your sins to him: their blackness with his light, their shame with his glory, their cruelty with his mercy, their hell with his heaven. For now, we see only the rays of Christ’s beauty. But even the faintest of them outshines the most attractive sin.
Only beloved sins undo us. And the only Savior from beloved sins is a beloved Christ.