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Struggling with Sin

Jesus said, “You…must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Have you ever thought about the far- reaching implications of those simple words? The call of Christ is a call to perfection. But if I’m being honest, just a quick glance at my own life will reveal anything but perfection. In fact, I am increasingly aware of just how imperfect I actually am.

The problem with my ability to accomplish this particular command of Christ comes not from a lack of desire or intellect or will, but rather as a result of sin. Yes, it is sin that keeps me from being perfect. It is sin that leads me down the path of disobedience. It is sin that manufactures and sustains the idols of my heart. And it is sin that I am forced to wage war against each and every day of my life.

I have found that Christians tend to be confused about their relationship to sin. On one hand, I understand the confusion that surrounds a topic like this. Trying to make sense of everything the Scriptures say on the subject can seem like a daunting task, and, if not done carefully, can result in missing the glorious truths of the Gospel altogether. On the other hand, I would contend that there are few things in all of life worth knowing with greater clarity than who we are in Christ and how that affects our relationship with sin.

The work of Jesus Christ on the cross radically changes things for those who have been saved “by grace through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). But how has it changed us? More specifically, how has it changed our relationship with sin?

the penalty of sin

First, we have been set free from the penalty of sin through the work of Jesus Christ. This is the past tense aspect of salvation that is often at the forefront of our minds. When someone says they have been saved, they are referring to this past, completed work of God to remove the penalty of sin in their lives. Now, they might not articulate it quite like that, but that is what they are talking about. In
theological terms, this is the first aspect of our justification.

The emphasis here clearly falls on the past and completed work. We have all sinned (Romans 3:23) and deserve the full punishment or penalty of our sin, which is death (Romans 6:23). Because of Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice, He has paid in full this penalty or “record of debt” (Colossians 2:14) that stood against us. Now I don’t mean He simply got the ball rolling or put down a hefty down payment. No, He paid it in full! As Christians, we must both recognize and rejoice in the reality that we have been set free, completely free, from the penalty of our sin in Christ Jesus.

the power of sin

Second, we are being set free from the power of sin in our lives. This is the present tense, here and now, aspect of our salvation. While it is true that the penalty of our sin has been fully paid in the finished work of Christ, we must recognize that the power of sin is still being defeated in the life of a believer. Again, to apply a theological label, this is what we call the process of sanctification.

Romans 7 has long been one of my favorite chapters in all of Scripture because it is a source of great hope for me. Here is the apostle Paul, who is arguably the greatest theologian in the history of the human race, talking about his present relationship with sin. And here is how he describes it:

For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me (Romans 7:18-20).

He would go on to describe this relationship a few verses later as the law of sin waging war against him. Now I don’t know about you, but I find great hope in knowing I am not the only one who still struggles with sin.

the presence of sin

Third, we will be set free from the presence of sin. Oh, there is a glorious day coming when we will be with Christ and the very presence of sin will be gone forever! This is the hope we look forward to, the future aspect of our salvation. There is a day coming when we will exchange the constant presence of sin for the eternal presence of Christ. This is the final process of our salvation, simply referred to as glorification. keeping things in perspective So what’s the point in all of this? I’m glad you asked! If you are anything like me, it’s really easy to lose perspective on things, especially when it comes to sin. Far too often, when I see sin at work, especially in a believer, my initial reaction is one of judgment and condemnation. Questions like, “How can they claim to be a Christian and do that?” come flooding into my mind. In my own life, I see the sin and imperfection in my own heart and often ask myself, “What did I do wrong?”  However, I want to challenge us to see things from the right perspective.

Far too often we impose the expectations of the future upon the present with almost no regard for the past. One day we will receive glorified bodies and the presence of sin will be gone forever, but that day is not today. However, as Christians we are so often shocked by the presence and power of sin at work in our lives, even now. Yes, Christ will one day set us free from sin’s presence once and for all. But until that day comes, we have been called to fight, to kill, to mortify the sin in our lives. However, instead of fighting against the power of sin through the strength of the Holy Spirit, we are far too prone to simply write people off, make excuses, or judge wrongly.

May I remind us that the penalty of sin has been paid in full, the power of sin is being defeated even now, and one day the presence of sin will be gone forever? How freeing would it be for us to live and operate within these glorious realities? As we uncover sin in our own hearts or see it at work in the lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ, do not despair. Our identity is sure and our penalty has been paid. And though the struggle now is long and grueling, it is worth it, because the sufferings of the present don’t even compare to the glory that awaits us (Romans 8:18). So as we continue to live in this present reality, let us hold fast to what Christ has done as we look forward to what He will finish one day. May we join with the apostle John and say, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20).

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. Matthew 5:48 is a verse that I have known for years but never understood. It did not make sense to me that Jesus would command us to be perfect just as He is when He knows that we are not. So I decided to study it a little bit and what I learned was that the word “perfect” used in this context means “complete” in the Greek. I don’t understand why, in this article, the meaning of the verse is not mentioned. It sounds like you are using this verse out of context.

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  2. Hi Lauren,

    The verse in reference is a challenging one indeed. I appreciate your question though I would respectfully submit that it is both translated and used correctly. The word in question here, τέλειος (teleios), is a Greek word that certainly can mean “complete,” but the syntax of its use in Matt 5:48 doesn’t support that interpretation. In fact, virtually every English translation has used “perfect” in this passage because it is the most accurate and precise word to represent the original thought. Some Greek lexicons even use Matt 5:48 as a reference text for translating teleios as “perfect” (See the Louw-Nida lexicon for further information).

    Theologically speaking, I believe perfection is exactly what Jesus had in mind. It is true that we are not perfect nor capable of attaining it on our own, but that doesn’t mean Jesus did not command it. The Bible is replete with commands that we cannot or will not obey (many found here in Matt 5), but they are true and applicable to us none the less. Each and every one of these commands is a reminder of our inability to earn salvation or right standing with God by our own works. We are utterly hopeless without someone working on our behalf. But this is why the gospel is such good news! While we cannot be perfect, God sent his Son, who is perfect, to live a life of obedience and submission to the Father. On the cross, the great exchange took place where Christ’s perfect life was laid down and the penalty of our sin was laid upon him. Because of this work, his perfect righteousness is now credited or imputed to us by grace through faith.

    So can we be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect? On our own, not a chance. However, we are not on our own. In Christ Jesus, we are now perfect before the Father by the blood of the Son. Matt 5:48, like every other command in Scripture, is a reminder of our desperate need of a Savior who could do what we never could on our own. Praise God we have that Savior in Jesus.

    I hope that helps clarify my use of the text.

    Nathan

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