God's Sinless Use of Our Sins

Dear Friends,

One of the most painful and perplexing features of Christian living for us to understand and accept is that we continue to sin after our conversion.  We reason that if we have been saved from our sins then we should simply go and sin no more. Why then do we who have been freed from sin still find that we sin?  Does such sinning indicate that we have not truly been regenerated by God, or that God, who has regenerated us, is not capable of saving us entirely from our sins?
We cannot come to right answers to these questions by our own reasoning.  We must seek our understanding in the light of God’s Word.  What does Scripture teach us about our post-conversion sinning?  What does Scripture teach us about God and His saving work in view of our continued sinning, and what does the Word teach us about our own responsibilities and resources in our continued sinning?

Concerning the person and work of our God, we know from His Word that He is holy and that without such holiness in our lives we cannot see the Lord (Heb. 12:14).  Our sin separates us from Him, and for that reason, if for no other, we should hate sin and seek to mortify it.  God hates sin for that reason, and also because it offends Him and makes us guilty and corrupt in His sight.  If sin is so awful for God and for us, it seems, then, that our God would deliver us from it swiftly and thoroughly.  However, the fact that sin remains in us tells us that this has not occurred.  Neither we nor any of our brethren, nor even the apostles of Christ themselves show that any Christian has ever been fully delivered from sin in this life.  Paul speaks of this wretched state in Romans 7:18-25.  John writes clearly and categorically of this in 1 John 1:8.

Where does our recognition of this prevailing reality of sin in the lives of Christians leave us?  Does it indicate that God cannot save to the uttermost?  Certainly not.  Does it indicate that God is not so radically opposed to sin as we had thought He was?  Certainly not!  Does it mean that God tolerates sin and permits it because He is patient?  Here we may be seeing something that is true.  And yet why should our God be patient?  Surely He can deliver perfectly and instantaneously so that neither He nor we would have to endure the painfully lingering effects of our sins.  If sin remains in us, therefore, it must be because our God has sovereignly ordained that our deliverance from our sin should be progressive rather than instantaneous.  Therefore, we may say that our God sinlessly has determined to save us at our conversion substantially but not entirely.  He has now saved us from the dominating power of sin but not yet from its residual presence.

Can we apprehend any reason why He should choose this progressive deliverance over an instant and perfect deliverance at our regeneration?  The Word of the Lord in Romans 8:28 provides the key to our understanding this question. When we are told that God causes all things to work together for our good, we should understand that He not only tolerates our sinning but that He actively uses those very sins that He essentially hates and that we, too, hate.  God uses even our sins for our highest good and for the manifestation of His glory.

However, much of the ultimate manifestation of God’s glory and our good in His sinless use of our sin will remain to us a mystery until the day when we see His face. Only then will we know so fully the divine love, wisdom, and goodness that have prompted His operations in our lives that all of our tears of pain and perplexity will be wiped away.  Until that day we can apprehend only a measure of the divine glory in God’s sinless use of our sins and of the sins of others.  That measure is sufficient for us to be comforted in our knowing that even such sins, in God’s hands, serve for our help and not for our harm. 

That the sins of others serve not to frustrate but rather to further the good that God is working in our lives may be seen supremely in our Lord’s employment of the sins of the wicked to crucify His Son.  That most evil of all sins has served in the accomplishment of the salvation of a multitude that no person can number.  That our own sins serve for our growth in grace and sanctification may not be quite so evident.  Why would God call and equip us to work out our salvation and yet ordain that some of our sins still plague us?  One part of the answer to this question is found in the divine provision for the prevention of and recovery from our sins.  For prevention, we have the call to live holy lives and not to let sin reign over us.  To the extent that we take such a calling from our Lord seriously we will by faith appropriate His grace to resist temptation and the deceitfulness of sin.  The whole Word of God has been written so that we might not sin (1 Jn. 2:1) and the whole character of our new nature in Christ and of the work of the Holy Spirit to produce the fruit of Christ’s character in us work together to this end.  Yet, when we do sin, there is also divine provision for our recovery.  When we sin, we have an Advocate with the Father (1 Jn. 2:1,2), and that Advocate has taught us to confess our sins and ask forgiveness countless times so that we might be restored to all righteousness (Mt. 6:12; 1 Jn. 1:9).

However, this still leaves us wondering what holy purpose can be served by our actually sinning in contradiction to such gracious and empowering divine provision. We can at least glimpse something of the good and holy purpose of God in His ordaining that we sin even after our conversion when we consider the illustration that Scripture gives us of our Christian life being as a race set before us (Heb. 12:1,2).  A race involves not only effort but also practice to prepare us for the effort.  Our sins weigh heavily upon us and press against us in our striving to be holy and perfect as our Father is and has called us to be.  In our exerting ourselves against such contrary force, something wonderful happens to us that would not occur apart from our contending with that force.  We grow stronger in our faith, in humility, in our loving patience with others, in our gratitude to God.  Only our God is wise and bold enough to use the remnants of the sin that was killing us to make us strong in the righteousness of our Redeemer who has given to us new life.  Only He can cause His gracious and sanctifying work in us to abound when our sin increases (Rom. 5:20).  Are we to continue in sin that this grace might increase?  No, we are to contend against it (Rom. 6:1,2), knowing that even when we stumble and fall in exhaustion, we shall rise again, being stronger in Christ than ever.

Yours in Him,

William Harrell

Immanuel Presbyterian Church is a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) located in Norfolk, VA. Home