I recently had a conversation with someone in which we were talking about sin. A particular, habitual sin. They made a comment to the effect that “this sin is incompatible with ministry.” In other words, if someone wanted to be a pastor or a missionary, they couldn’t be involved with this specific sin.
My response, which may have surprised them, was that this sin is incompatible with being a Christian. Because sinning, period, is incompatible with being a Christian.
Here are three lines of Biblical evidence to support the conclusion that sin is incompatible with the Christian life, followed up by three questions this discussion may prompt.
1. The Accomplishment(s) of the Cross
The New Testament repeatedly tells us that Jesus died on the cross so that we would not sin.
This is not the first aspect of the atonement we tend to think about. If we did a game of word association, starting with “Jesus” and “died” and “sin,” the next word we’d often think of would be “forgive.”
Because Jesus died to forgive us for our sins.
And this is true, and infinitely precious. Jesus died to purchase our forgiveness—praise God! We desperately needed forgiveness when we first came to Christ, and we need forgiveness all throughout the Christian life. At our church, we confess our need for forgiveness every Sunday, and that’s because our pastoral prayers are modelled after “the disciple’s prayer” in Matthew 6:9-13. Jesus taught us to pray, regularly, for forgiveness—which means that we regularly need it.
Jesus died for your forgiveness! But that’s not all Jesus died for. He died for more than just forgiveness. Consider what the following passages say about the aim of Christ’s death:
“For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:14–15).
One of the aims of Christ’s death was His people living for Him instead of themselves.
1 Peter 1:18-19 reminds us that we were “ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18–19).
We were not just ransomed from the penalty for sin. We were ransomed from sin’s ways themselves.
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24). Dying to sin and living to righteousness was one of the goals of the death of Christ—just like Romans 6:6 tells us: “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:6).
Titus 2:14 says that Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). This is what Jesus died for.
And as John reminds us, “You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him… Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:5-6, 8-9).
Jesus died not just to take away sin’s penalty, but to take away our sins themselves, such that we might not do them anymore.
So yes, He died for our forgiveness and our justification, and praise God for that. But He also died to remove our sins and make us righteous. Therefore, since one of the outcomes of the death of Jesus is our triumph over sin, sinning is incompatible with being a Christian.
2. The Nature of Faith in Christ
The second reason why sin is incompatible with the Christian life has to do with the nature of faith. We can put it this way: that the faith that receives Jesus is a faith that refuses to make peace with sin. Or, the faith that saves is a faith that puts sin to death.
John shows us this dynamic when he writes,
“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are… Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:1–2).
The faith that trusts and hopes in Christ is a faith that leads to purity. Romans 6:8-11 teases out this same dynamic: “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:8–11).
Notice how our belief in Christ flows right into our own relationship (or lack thereof) with sin.
One of the reasons for this dynamic has to do with the person of Jesus. Faith receives Jesus, and Jesus is not only our Saviour. He is also the Lord. We don’t get to pick and choose which parts of Jesus we believe in. Thus, faith will always result in to practical obedience to Jesus, because faith receives the whole Christ.
The Christ who said things like, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18–20).
Even the book of Romans, which so repeatedly celebrates justification by the free grace of God, can describe our salvation in obedience-oriented language: “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:17-18).
Christians are not justified by our obedience. But a Christian who has been justified will be obedient to the risen Lord Jesus. Therefore, sin is incompatible with the Christian life.
3. The New Birth and the Presence of the Spirit
The third line of evidence for why sinning is incompatible with the Christian life has to do with the way in which the Holy Spirit has caused us to be born again and continues to live within us. And this Spirit-wrought, Spirit-sustained new life is incompatible with sin.
“No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9–10).
This was one of the great promises of the New Covenant: “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33).
It’s explained by Paul in this language: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Romans 8:11–14).
The presence of the Spirit within us results in us putting our sin to death.
There’s much more than could be said, but these three lines of reasoning (the aim of the cross, the nature of faith in Christ, and the presence of the Spirit) help us to safely conclude, on the basis of the word of God, that sinning is incompatible with the Christian life.
Naturally, when things are put so starkly, some questions arise. Here’s three that may be going through some minds at this point:
“Are You Teaching Sinless Perfection?”
No, of course not. Jesus taught us to pray for forgiveness, which means, we’re going to need it. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).
The point is not that we will never sin. The point is that we will never make peace with sin. We will never stop fighting our sin.
Think of it this way: saying “sinning is incompatible with the Christian life” is kind of like saying that “weeds and pests are incompatible with a vegetable garden,” or, “cancer is incompatible with long life,” or, “the other team scoring points is incompatible with you winning the game.”
It’s not that a single weed in your garden means it’s all over, or that a single cancer cell means you’re dead, or that if the other team scores one point, you’re done.
It does mean that if you want a garden, you’ll deal with the weeds in short order. If you want to live, you’ll take action against the cancer. If you want to win the game, you won’t sit around and give the other team an empty net to score on.
Sin is the same way. Yes, Christians will still deal with sin in their lives. But they will deal with it. Yes, Christians will battle sin, but the point is they will battle. They’ll never sign a peace treaty with sin. They’ll keep up the offensive, putting it to death (Romans 8:13, Colossians 3:5). They will heed the warning in Hebrews to “take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (Hebrews 3:12–14).
So no, I’m not embracing sinless perfection or a Wesleyan view of “entire sanctification” this side of heaven. I am, on the basis of God’s word, rejecting the idea that our sin is ever something we can be okay with.
“Isn’t This Legalistic?”
This is a question that sometimes gets asked in these kinds of conversations. And it’s an interesting one, because we’re all afraid of legalism, right? Nobody wants to be called a legalist.
But, what is legalism? Can you find the word “legalism” in the Bible? Nope—it’s not there.
And isn’t it interesting how we use the word “legalism” to refer to fairly different attitudes or beliefs? Sometimes we use the word to describe the attempt to earn salvation by our good behaviour. Other times, “legalism” refers to man-made rules and regulations, like “Christians shouldn’t play cards or listen to rock music.” Or, we use “legalism” to describe those who, like the false teachers in the book of Galatians, think Christians need to still follow the law of Moses.
And of course, none of that has anything to do with what we’ve been talking about so far. All we’re doing here is considering what the Bible says about sin and the Christian life.
Sadly, in my experience, “legalism” can get used even in this context. Some people throw down the “legalism” card any time someone else starts taking the Bible a bit too seriously.
And that just makes no sense. Reading the Bible carefully and seeking to follow it diligently is not “legalism,” it’s just basic Christianity (Hebrews 4:12, 2 Timothy 3:16-17). So no, this conversation is not legalistic; it’s just about taking God at His word.
“What About Grace?”
The third question that might get asked is, “What about grace?”
My answer is, “this is grace.” Consider what Titus 2:11-14 tells us about grace: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”
That’s what grace does. It saves us and it trains us to renounce ungodliness, because Jesus died to purify us and make us zealous for good works.
What kind of a grace would save us from the penalty of sin, but allow us to keep indulging in passions and behaviours that destroy us and others? Forgiveness alone wouldn’t actually be all that gracious, would it be?
Now, we should recognize that it is grace which trains us to fight sin and live righteously. So we don’t pursue holiness in a panicked, uptight way. We’re not afraid that God is going to un-save us or cast us out of His family. We don’t pursue holiness because we’re trying to earn His love.
We fight sin because we already have way more of His love and grace than we’ll ever be able to fathom. And that love and grace will cause us to take our sin seriously and put it to death.
So take heart, and in the power of His grace, go to war against your sin. You can and must win, because that’s what Jesus died for.
And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.(Galatians 5:24)