1 John 3:6
“No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him.” (1 John 3:6)
For Christians who are experiencing a subnormal life, reentry into normal, supernatural Christian living is through the gate of surrender. They may concentrate their energies on gaining a more accurate understanding or on experiencing some emotional sense of release or well-being, but such efforts will all prove fruitless until they make the choice to yield.
Depending on the intensity of conflict, the length of time out of fellowship, and one’s personality, this decision may be a major emotional crisis. But even without any emotion, in the sense of a turning point or a decisive event, this decision is rightly called a crisis. For such a person, a normal, successful Christian experience is not the product of a gradual process of spiritual development, let alone automatic progress. A decisive turning point is needed.
Is such a crisis event necessary in the life of every believer? As we have seen, Scripture points the failing Christian back to his or her original covenant relationship with God. Ideally, then, a person who enters that saving relationship can and should maintain it; there is no theological necessity for a second spiritual crisis. But in practical experience most believers do violate their covenant responsibilities, either through open rebellion or through spiritual drift, and therefore need to make a decision to turn from what they have become to what they can and should be in Christ.
God Himself is the key to successful Christian living, and both He and His resources are available only to the person of faith. By faith alone we enter and maintain a personal relationship that releases an unending flow of grace. This biblical faith is both choice and attitude. The choice is to obey; and obedience begins with repentance, continues in a yielded spirit, and proves itself in aggressive participation in using the means of grace and in eager affirmative action to be all that God intends. The attitude is childlike trust, relying with loving confidence on Him alone.
Faith results in salvation by the grace of God, but how do we define this salvation? Some hold that “full salvation” means a morally perfect life. The only way to describe any mortal as morally perfect is to define sin as the deliberate violation of the known will of God and perfection as a condition in which one consistently chooses to act obediently.
The distinction between deliberate and unintentional sin helps solve the problem of the teaching about sin in I John, for example, where the apostle tells us in the same short letter that (1) those who say they have no sin are lying (1:8-10) and (2) those who sin are not Christians at all (3:6, 8-10)! The apparent contradiction is at least partially alleviated when we note that the verb tense (in 3:6, 8-10) may easily be understood as referring to a continuing activity of sin, which by definition is at least conscious, if not certainly deliberate. This continuing sinful activity, says John, is the sure sign of an unconverted state. At the same time, when a person claims to have no sin whatsoever, he includes, by definition, all varieties of sin, including unintentional, even involuntary and dispositional sin. No one can claim freedom from all sin, says John, so no one is sinlessly perfect on biblical grounds, for at least he or she is constantly guilty of falling short of God’s perfection, even when unconscious of the shortfall. On the other hand, to continue on deliberately in the practice of sin is to evidence alienation from God.
Though the distinction between deliberate and unintentional sin maybe a helpful key to unlocking some of the mysteries of our salvation, in everyday life the borderline between these two cannot always be easily or precisely identified. For example, when one becomes angry, is this attitude deliberate and conscious or is it involuntary? Perhaps it was involuntary to begin with, but if one continues in a state of anger, it surely becomes voluntary. But at what precise point does sin begin and perfection become forfeit (for one who believes in perfection)? No one wants to lose such a preferred condition, so it is much easier simply to baptize the response and call it “righteous indignation.” The greatest hazard in distinguishing between presumptuous sin and unwitting sin is the infinite human capacity to rationalize. Furthermore, should we classify habitual sins like drunkenness or gluttony as voluntary or involuntary?
Having recognized the difficulties of distinguishing between sins, we must admit that for most behavior the distinction is clear and readily identified: people deliberately choose to do what they know is wrong or, on the other hand, they are genuinely unaware of their failure to measure up to God’s perfection. But the problem here is much more basic: I believe that neither the definition of sin (as limited to deliberate choice) nor that of perfection (as the absence of volitional sin) is biblical.
As we have pointed out, sin according to the Bible, is any falling short of the glorious perfection of God Himself (e.g., Romans 3:23). The Bible does speak of Christian perfection (e.g., Matthew 5:48; Philippians 3:15; James 1:4), but the Greek word is often used of maturity, a term that fits the biblical teaching on sanctification much better than does the idea of being flawless. Let us take a few minutes and consider the following: “Do I rationalize my sin?” “Am I fully choosing God’s will?” and “Will I pursue full maturity as a Christian?”