What is to be a Christian’s attitude towards sin? While most would agree that becoming a Christian involves an acknowledgement of and change in attitude towards sin (called repentance), there is less agreement about a Christian’s disposition towards sin as they continue on in the life of faith.
Both within the secular culture at large and within the church culture, this seems to be a hot-button issue at present, with many shifting convictions. And I think some of this is good. I think many of us Christians have focused more on sin—and along with it doctrines such as God’s holiness and justice and wrath—than we have on God’s love, as well as the joy and delight and pleasure he finds in his people. As Samuel James suggested about the astonishing success of the recent book Gentle and Lowly, it seems we have “failed to really reckon with the love of God.”
Many of us who tend to take doctrine and sin very seriously, and insist that Christianity—and all of reality!–is God-centered, not man-centered, have insufficiently devoted ourselves to grasping and beholding the love of God for mankind.
And yet, as with any good and necessary correction, there is the potential for an overcorrection. Both within and outside of the church, there is a suggestion—at times an insistence—that the best response to sin is to downplay, dismiss and ignore it. When this is suggested by Christians, it is presented as a result of the work of Jesus on the cross: because he died for our sin, we no longer need to think or talk much about sin, if at all.
Now, let me just say that the aim of the Christian life is not simply or primarily “Don’t sin.” The aim of the Christian life is positive and relational: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Mt. 22:37). Or as the Westminster Catechism puts it: “Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy Him forever.” Loving, enjoying, and glorifying God: this is what we are called to, and what God empowers us towards.
Back to our initial question: What, then, is to be a Christian’s attitude towards sin, if not downplaying, dismissing and ignoring it? Here’s the thing: our attempts to downplay, dismiss or ignore sin are often (if not always) a refusal to accept Christ’s gracious work as sufficient. They are attempts to deal with sin and guilt on our own terms, with our own methods, in our own strength, rather than trusting in God’s salvation to be enough!
But through the death and resurrection of Jesus, a Christian is actually free from the condemning, identity-defining power of sin. In Jesus, sin has been defeated and disarmed.
Here’s how Paul puts it:
“God made (us) alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col. 2:13-15).
When we rest in the sufficiency of God’s defeat of our sin and guilt, we can freely acknowledge our sin. We can even confess that our sin is likely greater and more pervasive than we realize. Jesus’ disciple John writes, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (John 1:8). James tells believers to “confess your sins to one another” (James 5:16).
And we can do this because we know that in Christ, our sin no longer stands against us, or defines us. It no longer separates us from God and his favor, because “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24). This is objectively true whether we feel it or not, on our best days and worst days, whether our sin seems menial or despicable.
Still, one might respond: “I get that a Christian can freely acknowledge their sin, but should they? Is there any value in it?”
Yes! When we confess our sin AND embrace again the free and sufficient grace of God to cover our sin, we behold anew the glory and goodness of God: he alone has done what we needed most, and at great cost to himself.
John Stott writes,
“It is only when we see (the seriousness of our sin) that, stripped of our self-righteousness and self-satisfaction, we are ready to put our trust in Jesus Christ as the Savior we urgently need.”
And the reality is that we need “stripped of our self-righteousness and self-satisfaction” not just once, at the beginning of the Christian life, but continually, day by day. And Jesus Christ is the Savior we urgently need not just once, at the beginning of the Christian life, but continually, day-by-day. The gospel itself—the message of Christ crucified for sinners—continually leads us to trust—and boast and glory!—not in ourselves, but in Christ, and Christ alone.