How to Know If a Sin Characterizes a Professing Believer

The New Testament has several passages that claim certain sins cannot characterize genuine believers (Gal 5:19-21; Eph 5:3-5; etc.). These passages mean that some people that claim salvation don’t actually possess it.

That begs the question, what does it mean to be characterized by a sin? If believers can commit any or all of those sins (and they can), but they cannot be characterized by them, then what constitutes being characterized by these sins?

I think another of the Apostle Paul’s epistles helps us.

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. 1 Cor 6:9–11 (ESV)

This occurs in a section forbidding lawsuits among believers, and it seems like a rough segue by Paul. He prefaces this paragraph by saying don’t be deceived. Apparently, what Paul is about to say is controversial. He knew that it’s easy to get it wrong even though what he says is very plain. It’s important that you get this right because your eternal destiny could be in danger. Going astray from the truth (being deceived) in this context means believing that these sins could characterize a genuine believer. No. Believers don’t habitually commit these sins. Don’t be deceived. Don’t let your sin tell you otherwise.

Paul then lists ten sins in verses 9 and 10.

  • sexual immorality
  • idolatry
  • adultery
  • passive homosexuals
  • active homosexuals
  • thievery
  • covetousness
  • drunkenness
  • slander
  • swindling

The passage says that none of these sins can characterize believers. Unbelievers will not inherit salvation, and these sins are characteristic of unbelievers. So what does it mean that these sins characterize you?

Here’s how I’ve thought through this.

No One Sin Is Worse than Another—Any Is Evidence that You Are Unregenerate

That’s not how we look at this list, is it? There’s one sin reflected in two words that we think is worse than any other sin on the list.

The two words for homosexual conduct have some controversy, but only because it’s not culturally acceptable to say that engaging in homosexuality is sin. It’s hard to deny the plain understanding of condemning homosexuality in these two words unless you have a bias or an agenda. There is no linguistic controversy here.

So homosexual behavior is clearly condemned, but it’s no worse than any other sin on the list. Any of these sins is evidence that you are unregenerate—that you’ve not truly been saved.

It’s just our culture that singles out homosexuality. Corinthian culture might have said that covetousness was the worst sin on the list. Corinth was a sex-drenched city, so the sexual sins on the list probably didn’t seem so bad to them. But covetousness might have been frowned upon.

Both the Corinthians and us are wrong if we try to single out a sin and say that one is worse than the others. It’s not. Any sin on this list is evidence that you are unregenerate. Greed is just as likely to keep you out of the kingdom as homosexuality.

No One-Off Is Condemning—It’s the Inability to Say No to Your Sin that Condemns

Paul is not telling us that the single slip makes your salvation questionable. It’s the persistent unrestrained practice of these sins that prove your salvation was never genuine. 

These behaviors cannot characterize genuine Christians. Persisting in such sins is the problem. It’s the habitual practice of them. When you quit fighting the good fight against these sins, your profession of salvation is questionable.

This is again where we get it wrong. It’s not having homosexual temptations that proves you are unregenerate. It’s consistently giving in to them that proves you’re unregenerate. Just like it’s not having adulterous temptations that proves you’re unregenerate. It’s refusing to fight them and giving in that puts your salvation in danger.

As long as you are fighting the good fight against these sins, then you are not the one Paul is talking about. It’s when we give in and become characterized by them that we are in danger. The occasional slip-up is not what Paul is talking about here. It’s the habitual practice of these sins that puts your salvation in jeopardy.

What About Homosexuals (and Others) that Still Claim Christ?

Sometimes homosexuals that claim Christ and their sin will say essentially, “Nothing is different. I still love Christ. I’m just being true to who I am.” You could have this discussion about many of the sins on the list. A drunkard can say that he’s being true to who he is. So could the fornicator. And then they go a step further and say it hasn’t affected their relationship with God. “My prayer life is just as good—maybe better—than it ever has been.” Is it possible that nothing is different?

Do we believe God’s Word or do we believe their experience? One likely answer to this dilemma is this. Their Christianity has always been external. They may have grown up in church and served in so many ways, but they’ve never known a real relationship with God, so nothing is different. It was all works righteousness before, and it’s still works righteousness. God was absent from their religious experience before, and He’s still absent. They never were genuinely saved, that’s why they don’t notice a difference.

Remember how Paul starts verse 9? Don’t be deceived. They are deceived.

What About Addictions?

If someone is addicted to alcohol—they’re a drunkard, does drunkenness characterize their life? Or if a young man is addicted to pornography, does that characterize his life?

I think the key with addictions is whether the person is fighting it or giving in. A believer will fight sin. He might have lots of failures and only a few successes, but he won’t give up. He will keep fighting until sin is eradicated in his life.

What does progress for a believer mired in an addiction look like? You should see incremental steps in the right direction. Ed Welch developed some guidelines, and I like them.[1]Edward T. Welch, “Breaking Pornography Addiction,” CCEF, https://www.ccef.org/resources/blog/breaking-pornography-addiction-part-1, Accessed on August 10, 2022.

  • A decrease in the frequency of a sin is a true good. It’s not good that you are still indulging in pornography, but if you are doing it less, you are going in the right direction.
  • A change in the actual nature of the sin is progress. If you are no longer having an affair or premarital sex, and now you are battling pornographic fantasy, it’s good that your struggle has changed from your actions to your imagination.
  • A change in the battleground is progress. When your battle has moved from purchasing materials or going onto explicit internet sites to battling the old fantasy tapes that are still in your mind, that’s movement in the right direction.
  • An increase in honesty and accountability is progress. You are moving forward when you are willing to be truly candid and accountable to a trusted friend, spouse, or pastor and say, “Here’s where I’m struggling.” An appropriate openness to others is a very significant step towards change.
  • Not always responding to difficult circumstances by indulging in sin is progress. If your life gets hard and instead of going straight to your fantasy life, you pray for help and ask others to pray for you, then God is at work.
  • Repenting more quickly is progress. Learning to go more quickly to the Lord of life, instead of wallowing for days, weeks, and months in the gloom of “I failed again,” is a sign that God is at work in your life.
  • Learning to love and consider the interest of real people is progress. Your immoral fantasies use other people in an imaginary world. Caring for others, even in small ways, means that Jesus is changing you

So a believer can be addicted to, but cannot be characterized by sin.

God’s Saving Grace Will Change Your Behavior

“And such were some of you.” What a great verse! The Corinthian church was full of ex-drunks, ex-fornicators, ex-idolaters, ex-swindlers, ex-adulterers, and ex-homosexuals. They were washed, sanctified, and justified.

If what I’ve said about the list of sins in 1 Cor 6:9-10 is true, and it is, then it’s possible that your fellow Christian that struggles with homosexual temptations is the genuine Christian, and you are the so-called one. They’re fighting against their temptations, but you’ve given in to yours. You don’t fight your slandering tongue. You don’t fight your covetous heart. Even though they’re tempted by a sin you find appalling, you’re the one in danger of hellfire because you love your sin. You don’t hate it. You covet all the time and don’t fight it. That’s not characteristic of a Christian.

Salvation changes people. They cannot habitually do the same sins they used to. You cannot experience God’s grace and have behavior that contradicts that grace.

Fight the good fight. The fact that I want to fight against these sins is evidence that my salvation is genuine. Real Christians hate these sins—even the ones that come naturally to them, like adultery. Fight them in the power of the Holy Spirit. Don’t give in.

References

References
1 Edward T. Welch, “Breaking Pornography Addiction,” CCEF, https://www.ccef.org/resources/blog/breaking-pornography-addiction-part-1, Accessed on August 10, 2022.

I Hate Neediness. Do You?

My family has driven tens of thousands of miles for vacations and visiting family. We’ve driven to Florida, Maryland, Arizona, Wyoming—you get the picture. Our cars have always been iffy. We’ve never owned a new car or even a newer used car. However, we’ve also never been in an accident, and we’ve never had any real mechanical problems. We did have three flat tires within a few hours on one excursion, but that’s another story. 😉 We’ve trusted God and prayed for safety, and God has been gracious—especially with the amount of miles we have driven. One Spring break we drove from Minnesota to Maryland to North Carolina to Florida and back to Minnesota—over 3500 miles!

Last week we drove 10 hours home from Wyoming. At one point in Iowa the opposite lanes were completely blocked because of a motorcycle accident. The person was life-flighted out right from the highway. We saw the helicopter on the interstate. Less than 10 miles later we came across another accident that had just occurred where the interstate split—cars were in the opposite direction and blocking one of our lanes.

My kids are grown and we now drive to see them. They’re all over the country—from Florida to Washington State. I’m now fighting a spiritual battle that I don’t remember fighting as often when my kids were in our house. Maybe with how I introduced this, you guess I’m anxious about a car accident. No. That’s not really the case. However, my heart is anxious about a car breakdown. That’s far less serious, and yet it causes me far more angst. I pray and worry about our car having a mechanical problem on the highway. I pray, but I dream of getting a newer car that I wouldn’t have to fear might have mechanical problems. I want a dependable car rather than trusting my dependable God. Certainly it can be good stewardship to sell a car that’s too risky and buy a more dependable one. But in my heart it’s an exchange. I want a newer car because then I won’t have to trust God. That’s what I see in me.

It’s remarkably similar to why I maintain the balance in my savings account that I do. If a financial emergency comes, I will pray, but I don’t want to have to depend upon prayer. I want to know that I already have it covered in my savings. God has provided my savings, so certainly I’m dependent upon him somewhat. However, I don’t like to be unprepared. Maybe, rather, I don’t like to be needy.

Yet neediness is good in Scripture. It doesn’t seem good in my heart, but God likes it. I want to depend upon God when I know it will work out as I want. But that’s not really dependence, is it? God wants his people to call out to him. He wants them to depend upon him. If Proverbs 3:5-6 means anything, it means that.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Proverbs 3:5–6 (ESV)

Consider also,

I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. Psalm 121:1–2 (ESV)

I can have a full bank account and a new car, but it’s all unsuccessful if God is not watching over me. And he is.

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep. Psalm 127:1–2 (ESV)

I think as a family we’re done with the long trips for the summer. We have another one over Labor Day weekend, and I will need to trust God. I need to be needy. I must know and live as if dependence upon God and not my own plans is better. God, help me love neediness.

He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap, 8 to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people. Psalm 113:7–8 (ESV)

My Relationship Status with My Emotions? It’s Complicated.

Recently I woke up in the night feeling terrible, like I had sinned in some great way. Over the course of my life I’m sure I’ve had this experience dozens of times, maybe hundreds. How do I make sense of that? Where did that emotion, that feeling come from?

Scripture commands us to feel certain emotions. We’re told to rejoice and be joyful. Other emotions are commanded like love, peace, compassion, and fear. Those are virtues, but aren’t they also emotions? We’re told to mourn and to weep. Most (all?) of those are certainly more than just a feeling, but they are not less.[1]Brian S. Borgman, Feelings and Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 62-63. For example, what makes a Christian definition of joy actually Christian is that it involves a mental evaluation. The Apostle James tells us to assess trials as joy (Jam 1:2). So it’s a feeling we feel after evaluating our trial. Of course Scripture also tells me not to have certain emotions—sinful anger or anxiety for example.

Unwanted emotions have been compared to the warning lights on the dashboard of your car. They tell you that something is wrong. The warning light is not the problem; it just points out that something is a problem. Others have said that emotions or feelings tell us what we value, what’s important to us, what we think or believe. “Emotions are the surface expression of deeper desires and values” and “Different emotions are valuations. Emotions gauge how desirable or undesirable people find the particular situations or objects to which they respond.” [2]Jeremy Pierre, The Dynamic Heart in Daily Life (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2016), 41, 42.

I believe all that. Yet… I’ve woken up in the night and felt guilty, but with no obvious reason for it. As I scan my day I cannot recall a reason or circumstance that would justify this feeling.

What do I do with that feeling? That emotion? I tell God that I will confess whatever his Spirit brings to mind, but I rest in the gospel. My status with God doesn’t change because I have (as far as I can tell) an unwarranted feeling of guilt. My standing with God is always through Christ’s righteousness, not my own (2 Cor 5:21) and it’s not at all based on what I feel.

In our theology of emotions, can we make an allowance for some emotions being unwanted and not related to our values or beliefs? Maybe some times they are like the check engine light which is normally on in all my cars–I have terrible cars ;)–which some times just means the dealer wants me to bring my car in for expensive service. It doesn’t really signify more than that. In other words, in some cases the dashboard light means nothing.

It’s complicated. I’ve counseled people whose feelings were not in synch with their circumstances. Often they’ve been given a diagnosis of depression by others, and they come wanting help with their feelings. They would welcome sadness if it were appropriate. They have no reason to feel sadness, yet they do. Maybe it sounds like not much help, but I can’t assist them in feeling any particular way. That’s beyond my abilities, and I think, the abilities of any Christian counselor.

I do encourage them to keep their focus on Christ. I tell them that God can give them the strength to do right even when they don’t feel like it. That Jesus really is more satisfying than they think. But I don’t promise that feelings will change. Often they do, but sometimes they don’t.

In a world broken by sin I’m not surprised that sometimes the warning light of our emotions is going off at the wrong times. It’s a type of suffering. I’m not putting my situation in this category. The lack of synchronicity between my feelings and my life has normally been rare, short-term, and not severe. The depressed people I’ve had the privilege to counsel have had a larger gap between what they should feel and what they do feel and for a longer time.

Ed Welch says that “God doesn’t prescribe a happy life.” [3]Ed Welch, Depression: Looking Up from the Stubborn Darkness (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2011), 15. And, “It is a myth that faith is always smiling. The truth is that faith often feels like the very ordinary process of dragging one foot in front of the other because we are conscious of God.”[4]Welch, 31.

How do I help? I tell them that doing right when they really, really don’t feel like it takes an extraordinary faith. I think that. I believe that. I know that. They are exercising more faith than I am when they do right. Attending church on Sunday morning is really hard when every cell of your body tells you to stay in bed. I like attending church. I love my fellow church members. I am getting something out of attending church that does feel good. But what if you feel worse after obedience than you did before? That’s how some counselees have felt over the years. If so, then doing right really becomes an act of faith that is far more than my faith in showing up Sunday morning.

When your feelings don’t seem to fit your circumstances, you can be satisfied that God gives grace to do right. Your weakness lets the power of Christ rest on you (2 Cor 12:9-10). When your feelings don’t align with your life, you can remember that your feelings don’t define your status with God. He sees you as righteous because you are clothed in Jesus’ righteousness.

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 2 Cor 5:21 (ESV)

References

References
1 Brian S. Borgman, Feelings and Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 62-63.
2 Jeremy Pierre, The Dynamic Heart in Daily Life (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2016), 41, 42.
3 Ed Welch, Depression: Looking Up from the Stubborn Darkness (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2011), 15.
4 Welch, 31.

Husband, Unlock Your Phone!

When we lived in North Carolina, our neighborhood had a pool, and my wife and kids were there all the time. Sometimes my family would have lunch at the pool and I would meet them there. I would drive there, eat, change clothes, jump in the pool with the kids, change back, and drive to work. We had four kids which wasn’t so many that I couldn’t count them. 😉 I’d look for my almost three-year-old Riley and not see him in or around the pool. Turns out he was hiding in the shadows under the cabana. If I caught him under there, he would say something fearfully like, “Are you going back to work soon, Dad?” because he was nervous that I would take him to the “deep water” and make him jump off the side. And that’s exactly what I wanted to do.

He thought hiding in the shadows was the place to be. I thought bringing him out into the sunshine was a better idea. Better for him to come out into the light and deal with his fear of the water.

It seems better to hide in the shadows, but God encourages us to come out into the light.

It happened again recently, but it’s a story that is repeated over and over again throughout the last 20 years of ministry. A wife knows that something is wrong in her marriage, but she cannot figure out what is going on. Or maybe she actually suspects that her husband is unfaithful.

What’s a common warning sign that I’ve seen pretty much since the advent of the cellular phone? “Well, he wouldn’t let me look at his phone. He was really secretive about it.”

A husband that won’t let you look at his phone is a big deal. I cannot think of a good reason for why a husband would keep his phone private from his wife. He’s hiding something.

Husband, unlock your phone!

I’m saying unlock it, but I really mean give your wife your password. My iPhone has two faces that can open it: mine and my wife’s. She and my adult kids know the numeric password. Why do you need your phone locked from your family? Live in the light.

Of course unlocking your phone means nothing if you aren’t going to give up your sin. The problem isn’t the advent of passwords on phones, The problem is that too many men are hiding who they really are.

Proverbs 28:13 (ESV) Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.

Don’t pretend to be what you are not. The locked phone is just a symptom of a heart that likes to hide in the dark. What this verse is saying is that when I have an attitude that says I must cover myself; I must hide my sin, I won’t prosper. I won’t be growing at the rate that God wants me to.

Take some steps out into the open. Have a lifestyle of transparency. Your marriage needs this. You need this. Husband, unlock your phone.

Identity in Christ Fuels Vulnerability

I have two stories that might not seem related, but I think they both illustrate something important in relationships. In my first pastoral ministry the church owned a Christian camp in the Colorado Rockies. It was a gorgeous location with a view of the Continental Divide, and they provided some Rocky Mountain activities like rock climbing. Now I had never rock climbed in my life, but they trained me, and I belayed campers along with the rest of the staff. My own first experience involved me really trusting the rope and the belayer on my way up. When it came time to rappel, I had a hard time taking that first step off the rock face. Eventually, rappelling became my favorite part of rock climbing. With both climbing and rappelling, because I was tied to the rock at the top, I could venture out. I could take a risk. I could scramble all over the cliff face because I was tied to the rock.[1]That’s a vintage pic by the way ;).

The second story is set in my college and seminary years. I had various student leadership positions in the small college and seminary I attended and even in the Christian camp I worked at for five summers. I didn’t reject these roles, but I knew something wasn’t right about how insecure I was in them. I had a hard time taking initiative and risks. In the camp I was eventually put in charge of our comedy sketch show where I felt this stress to make apathetic teens laugh on a weekly basis. It was great when they did, but when they didn’t… it was a long night. I knew something was wrong inside me, but I couldn’t put it into words until I read Ed Welch’s 1997 book, When People Are Big and God Is Small. That was the first time that I understood that I wanted others to like me more than I wanted to please God. It helped me make sense of a lot of angst in those years

I’m thankful that Welch’s book has given many of the college students I disciple a biblical category to describe their battle with sin. One primary way the fear of man shows up is in a fear of rejection. College students won’t pursue relationships because they imagine that it will eventually fall apart, and they might be rejected. This affects potential dating relationships, but it also can affect even godly same-sex relationships. A girl is afraid of starting a potential iron-sharpening-iron relationship because the other girl might eventually decide she doesn’t like her. Guys can think this too. They fear this, and therefore, they won’t risk.

That’s the problem, and Scripture has the answer to it. One passage to consider is in Ephesians.

Ephesians 1:3–6 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. (ESV)

“Beloved” is a term of affection for Jesus Christ. He’s the darling and special Son of the Father. So you being in the Beloved means you are in union with Christ. The New Testament often says we are in Christ or He is in us. It means we have a union with Christ that allows us to receive all of these spiritual blessings from God. It’s in Christ that God has poured out his grace on us.

Jesus is the supreme object of God’s love—that’s why he’s called the Beloved. Since we are in Christ, we are also the objects of God’s love. Do you wonder why God the Father would ever love you? I’ve wondered that about myself. It’s because He loves his Son, Jesus Christ, and you are united to Christ. I’ve blogged before about the practical blessings of our union with Christ (see here and here).

In Ephesians 1:6 the Apostle Paul thought God was worthy of praise because God loves you and me. It is pretty amazing, isn’t it? God loves you. You with all of your failings, weaknesses, rebellion, wanderings, apathy, misplaced values and priorities. You with all of your love of the wrong things and carelessness towards the right things. God loves you.

Good theology should lead to good practice.

Your relationship with God through Christ won’t ever change. God’s love for Jesus doesn’t ebb and flow and therefore his love for you doesn’t vary. The relationship that matters the most in your life is the one that is rock solid; it’s secure. Therefore, you can risk relationship with others.

Identity in Christ fuels vulnerability. Because you don’t fear being rejected by the Father, you can handle rejection from others. God won’t ever reject you because he won’t reject his Son. So, like a rock climber, with that anchor point, you can venture out and hazard relationship with others. They might reject you, and that is not preferable. We all prefer people loving us to hating us. But it also doesn’t have to be devastating. Your relationship with the Father is most important, and it’s secure.

If you’re not vulnerable, if instead you’re self-protective, could it be that you don’t see the security of your relationship with the Father through Christ? But if you do, you can be vulnerable with others. Your identity in Christ can motivate vulnerability with others.

References

References
1 That’s a vintage pic by the way ;).
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