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.
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