Let’s say that you are a new Christian, earnest and eager to follow the narrow path and repent of sin and all its damaging consequences. Which is a good goal. Both the Greek and Hebrew words for sin mean to miss the mark. The mark being union with God. Since union with God is the full fruit of redemption and sin means missing that fruit, avoiding sin is a worthwhile goal. But how to do that?
Well, in general, there are three paths you can take. One will take you to God. One will take you destruction. And one will get you somewhere between the two. Allow me to explain these paths and you see if you can pick out which is which.
The first path is one favored by many in the church. It is to identify sin and target it for elimination. It may mean that you refrain from engaging in worldly activities like drinking, swearing, watching questionable movies, hanging out with friends who are up to no good and the like. Perhaps you get involved in a small group or pursue relationships with more mature Christians as a way of building accountability for yourself.
This path does have its uses, particularly for those who are new to the faith. When a person converts to Christianity, it means adopting a new identity and with it, a new way of life. If your old identity was grounded in being a promiscuous partier who was known for your outrageous antics, it may be necessary to swear off those old behaviors in order to make room for your new identity in Christ.
The danger of this path is that identifying and eliminating sin can become the way you live out your faith and the basis of your Christian identity. Those on this path are too often the public face of the church, defined by what it is vocally against. In fact, the church has no end of self appointed gatekeepers for whom a willingness to identify and target sin for elimination is synonymous with being a faithful Christian. They think they are protecting the church when really all they are doing is attempting to lock everyone in the nursery.
This path only takes you so far. At its best, it helps a baby believer break old, destructive patterns as part of the process of claiming their new identity. However, as Paul says about Christians who wouldn’t eat meat sacrificed to idols, it’s for those who are weak and young in their faith. And simply avoiding sin is not the same thing as finding union with God. There are plenty of Christians who are harsh, judgmental, unloving, argumentative, combative, angry and discontent who are experts at identifying and attempting to eliminate sin. The fruits of the Spirit are not at work in their life because instead of grounding their identity in Christ, they’ve simply grounded their identity in opposing sin.
The second path for dealing with sin grows out of the first. It is the path of protecting purity. Now, purity is a very good thing. Jesus says that the pure in heart will see God. However, purity is the result of a long process of God working in your life. It requires that all that is not God be purged from you by the work of the Holy Spirit. However, as is often the case, people want the end results without having first gone through the process required to obtain those results.
Frequently the church treats purity not as a level of sanctification to be worked towards, but as a requirement to be lived up to. This view of purity is necessarily very superficial. It is purity as a performance rather than a state of being one grows into. As such, this version of purity relies on our own powers. Which means it is doomed to failure. This road leads to destruction.
When you have grounded your identity as a Christian in a performance driven purity, one of two things will happen. The first possibility is that you will be disciplined enough to avoid obvious sin as well as the appearance of sin. However, since this purity relies on your own power to attain, it will not lead to the sort of Godly fruit that is supposed to mark the life of a Christian. There will be a lack of charity, patience, tolerance, gentleness, kindness and such. You may be able to fake it, the same way you fake purity, but relying on your own power. But the goodness obtained this way will be small and narrow. It will be directed towards those who please you, while those you disapprove of or who you view as a threat will find you cold, hard and callous. But you will consider yourself above reproach because of your purity in avoiding sin.
The other possibility is that you will fail to live up to the standard of purity you claim to uphold. Some of this failure can be covered by an appeal to our forgiveness in Christ and our imperfection as human beings. But typically, this failure to live up to your own standards leads a person into a state of denial which they then demand that others participate in. When someone does not have the discipline to achieve the expected purity by their own power, they will substitute the appearance of purity for the real thing. Which is exactly how so many seemingly upstanding Christians fall into secret sins while continuing to present themselves as trustworthy arbiters of right and wrong.
This is the path to destruction. You see, there is one narrow path, and protecting purity is not it. It does not lead to union with God, which by definition, means it is sinful; it misses the mark. When we sin, God corrects us. If our identity is wound up in our own purity, or at least our appearance of purity, it is incredibly hard to accept correction. To accept correction means to face our errors. To face our errors means to face our impurity. Being impure is anathema to the person whose Christian faith is built around protecting purity.
God’s deepest desire is for us to live in union with him. To be redeemed from our sin. And to live out of our true identity as image bearers. So, he is not wont to allow those who claim the name of Christ to continue in their sin. And he has a particular method for dealing with our sin. He allows our sin to increase. Frequently this takes the shape of allowing circumstances into our lives which require fruits of the Spirit, so that our failure to manifest these fruits will open our eyes to our lack and lead us to repent. If that doesn’t work, the magnitude of our failures will make it clear to all that our purity is false and useless.
So a prideful man may be faced with a fallen or hurt son or daughter who needs compassion and care. If he recognizes that his purity is no good in this situation and turns towards love and compassion, then he will be rescued from the destructive path he had been on. If he elevates purity over the needs of his own children, then his heart will be revealed as ungodly and depraved. If even this evidence of his need to repent and seek God does not open his eyes, God will allow him to follow his chosen path to its logical ends. Such a man will sink deeper and deeper into the depravity and denial which is the fruit of this path. When ever and where ever his actions are exposed to the light, people will be appalled and repulsed by what they see. He will live under condemnation of his own making.
Much of the church has chosen the road of overcoming sin by protecting purity. Thus, we have headlines filled with stories of physical, sexual and spiritual abuse by churches and the wonton callousness towards those who have been hurt. It’s how so many Christian leaders have fallen and been exposed as small, cruel, petty people who wouldn’t know God’s love if it walked up and slapped them. It’s why we have a church that looks nothing like the Christ it claims to follow.
There is one path to overcoming sin which leads to life. It’s simple and easy, although demanding. It’s open to anyone at any time. In fact, it’s the only response to sin which actually leads to God. It’s simply to seek God and nothing else. Since God is love, it means to turn towards love alone. Over and over.
The more you seek Love, the more you experience the fruits of the Spirit. The more you experience the fruits of the Spirit, the less appealing the fruits of sin will be. Once you’ve acquired a taste for the things of God, you won’t have an appetite for anything else. Far from requiring a great deal of discipline or power or purity on your part, this path works best when you are weak and struggling and failing in your efforts to overcome sin.
On this path, your weakness is a great benefit. When you are weak and failing, you will feel your need for God more keenly. The more keenly you need God, the more you will seek him. The more you seek him, the more he will reveal himself to you. The more he reveals himself to you, the more you will love him. The more you love him, the less you will desire anything that is not from him.
This is the secret hidden from many Christians: there are no short cuts to what they seek. The purity, the redemption from sin, the power of a life lived for God are not demands to be lived up to. They are the gifts we receive when we seek after Love without regard for anything else.