Can Christians Sin? | Perfection and Permission

“Mrs. Kunkle, can I go to the bathroom?”

“I don’t know, can you?”

*audible sigh* "may I?”

Sound familiar? Chances are this was you at some point, rolling your eyes at the hair-splitting dialogue standing between you and a potty break. As cliché as this exchange has become, your teacher was making a valid point. Can I go to the bathroom? and may I go to the bathroom? are two technically different questions.

If I could distill the world’s problems down to one, I’d be tempted to submit semantics—the meaning of words—as a frontrunner. Conflict often stems from a simple disagreement of terms. Is Aaron Rodgers the “GOAT” or is it Tom Brady? Hard to say, especially if one person defines the GOAT (the greatest of all time) as the person with the most Superbowl rings, and the other as the one who is actually better at football. We can avoid this kind of confusion by taking time to define terms. Today, we’ll be applying this philosophy to the question, can Christians sin?

Double Meaning
When our fictional student asks to use the restroom, he is using the word “can” to ask for permission. Though this might be okay in casual conversation, the teacher, seizing the teachable moment, pounces on the opportunity to emphasize the fact that the word "can" actually denotes possibility rather than permissibility. The student, having learned this lesson before, begrudgingly mutters the correct permission-seeking term, “may,” and all is right in the world.

Since can is used casually for both permission and possibility (“Mom, can James come over?” or “Can we get to the movie before it starts?”) when we ask, “Can Christians sin?” we should respond to both meanings.

Can Christians sin (is it possible)?
I won’t keep you in suspense; yes, it is possible for Christians to sin. For most of us, this is hardly news. But as we’ll learn, contrasting understandings exist. What’s important to know is, since Christians can sin, our sin does not disqualify us from being, or becoming one. The real controversy starts when we look at a related question, can Christians not sin?
This new question can be interpreted a few different ways. First, it could be asking if Christians can, at any given moment, choose not to sin. Are we able to spot that shiny new bike in our neighbor's yard and choose not to steal it? The answer to this question is an emphatic yes! Freedom from sin is an essential part of our new birth in Christ. Though not totally free from sin’s burden, we are presently empowered by the Holy Spirit to resist and even refrain from sin moment-by-moment. This marks an important distinction between those united to Christ and those who are not. Those without Christ actually cannot refrain from sin. Everything they do is corrupt, and the Bible calls their life “walking in darkness” (1 Jn. 2:11).

The second way we can understand the question, can Christians not sin? is can Christians completely stop sinning? To answer this question, we must take a brief trip through history.

Long before settling their disputes on Facebook and Twitter, interested parties matched wits by writing literal books to one another. Debates that presently take hours, previously took years. One of the more famous interactions occurred during the early 5th century involving the competitive pairing of Saint Augustine of Hippo, a Church Father, and Pelagius, a British philosopher. The content of their debate: sin.

The debate between Pelagius and Augustine stemmed from the doctrine of original sin, which is the sinful nature we inherit from Adam. What interests us today is the doctrine’s implications for potential sinlessness.

To summarize, Pelagius believed that the fall of mankind had no impact on human nature, instead arguing it only increased mankind’s tendency towards sin. Meaning man was free to choose not-sin, just as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Yet, Pelagius maintained that the fall made sin more common due to Adam’s bad example. Naturally, this meant Pelagius believed it possible to overcome temptation and sin altogether. Christians could achieve “sinless perfectionism,” a life totally free of sin. Augustine, on the other hand, argued that the fall effected such a radical change in man’s nature that sinfulness became our natural condition. Though God ‌created man in innocence, the fall brought about the reign of sin in every heart from birth. In short, we are not sinful because we sin, we sin because we are already sinful. Bound by this, Augustine would never concede the possibility of sinless perfectionism.

Though sinless perfectionism has gone by a variety of titles (entire sanctification, over-realized eschatology, etc.) the idea is the same: Christians can achieve total sinlessness. Proponents lean on verses like the following to make their case:

. . .God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.
-1 John 1:5–7

Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.
- 1 John 3:4–6

We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin.
- 1 John 5:18

Admittedly, some of these are rather convincing. “No one born of God continues to sin”? . . .okay, I continue to sin. . .right? However, the problem is the way these texts are being interpreted. John is not suggesting Christians must be sinless, quite the contrary. John is reinforcing the sustained presence of sin in the Christian life paired with the committed mortification (putting to death) of said sin. Consider what he says elsewhere in the same letter:

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.
- 1 John 1:8–2:1

A couple of things... First, John clearly condemns any claim to be “without sin:” “If we say we are without sin, we lie to ourselves, we make God a liar, and the truth is not in us.” Case closed, right? Not so fast. Proponents of sinless perfectionism will suggest that John is talking about sins that occurred before salvation—before new birth. They believe John is saying, “If you say you have never sinned in your life, you deceive yourselves. . .” But consider the final verse, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” In other words, John's message is, “My little children (Christian audience), I am writing these things to you (Christians) so that you may not sin. But if any [Christian] does sin, we (Christians) have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ.”

Even if we thought John was addressing past sins at the start, he is evidently describing present and future sins here. Moreover, John places those who “might” sin in the same category as those who have an advocate before the Father—Christians! If we look closely, John also does this earlier when he says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Here, John puts sinful people in the same category as those who have the truth within them. As the rest of the New Testament reveals, having the truth is synonymous with having Christ (2 Pt. 1:12, Eph. 1:13, Jn. 14:16-17).

Clearly, John knew that in this life Christians would wrestle with sin, which is why he exhorts them to continued confession and repentance, even calling other Christians to pray for those among them grappling with sin (1 Jn. 5:16).

The following verses are from the Apostle Paul and add to our understanding of the Christian’s relationship with sin.

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.
- 1 Timothy 1:15

So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
- Romans 7:25

After his encounter with the risen Christ, there is little doubt of Paul’s salvation. In fact, apart from Jesus, many consider Paul to be the most holy man who ever lived. Yet here he is in Timothy identifying himself as the foremost, or “chief,” of all sinners. Then, in Romans 7, Paul spends most of the chapter explaining the complicated tensions of life in the Spirit while yet bound by the flesh. When we are reborn, Christ frees us from sin’s power, but we remain vulnerable to its influence. We still carry our fleshly “body of death” until Christ’s return (1 John 3:2, Phil. 1:6). To Paul, the battle with sin was not over, meaning even he practiced repentance.

So, not only is it possible for Christians to sin, but it is impossible to completely abstain. Sin is inevitable; we will sin. Like Paul and Peter—and even those righteous Old Testament figures like Abraham, Lot, and David before them—sin is an inescapable reality of life until God glorifies us with Christ in the last day.

May Christians sin (is it permissible?) 
“Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” is another timeless saying with special relevance to our topic. This is where the rubber meets the road in the may-versus-can controversy. Though Scripture teaches us that sin is a part of life, it also deliberately instructs us to abstain from it. Our inborn propensity for sin is not a license to indulge; God calls us to obedience.

We see this idea forming in 1st John. There, John describes what it looks like to “walk in the light,” which involves keeping God’s commandments (vv. 2:3-6). In verse 3:6 he says, “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him,” which is one of the verses we highlighted in defense of sinless perfectionism. But two verses later, John clarifies when he says, “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil” (vs. 8). Think about it like this: if your basketball coach said, “Those who make a habit of missing class cannot play on my team,” you would understand the grace worked into the message. Coach isn’t saying you can never miss class. He understands life happens. But if you continually miss class (it's a habit), then you're clearly not cut out for his team.

God promises in His Word to sanctify His people, growing us in personal holiness to reflect in greater degrees the perfect righteousness of Christ within. Like all good things, we are fully reliant on God’s providence and grace, while at the same time called to action. We are told to trust in God for all that we need, yet His Word teaches us to work hard so we can eat. We must rely on God for sanctification, yet His Word calls us to holy living. The point is darkness and light are ways of life. To walk in the light is to “practice” or make a habit of righteous conduct. Walking in the darkness is to make a habit of sin. John’s teaching is clear, those who claim to be in Christ must practice walking in the light, just as Jesus did.

As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.
- 1 Peter 1:14

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.
- 1 Peter 2:11-12

“If you love me (Jesus), you will keep my commandments.”
- John 14:15

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?
- Romans 6:1-2

When the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, he made a point of stressing the distinction between believers and the world. After concluding a short list of some of the most popular sins, drunkenness, greed, homosexuality, etc., Paul says, “And such were some of you.” Paul places his audience's connection to these sins in the past, saying, “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 Corinthians 6:11). Just because you’re a Christian who can sin doesn’t mean you have permission to sin. In reality, Paul says you’re especially mandated to avoid sin, embracing the character of Jesus, empowered by His Spirit.

Most of today's content is true not only for Christians, but for all people. Every person can and will sin, but God calls everyone to obey. The Bible is binding and authoritative for all people, aware of that fact or not. The difference between Christians and the lost is the Spirit has empowered us to respond out of conviction in repentance and faith, addressing the sin we were once blind to.

God’s standard of perfect obedience, combined with our sinfulness, is a recipe for disaster. It’s our sinful condition that separates us from our Creator, alienating us from God on account of our inability to keep His law. But as Christians, we have been liberated from the condemnation of sin and empowered by the Spirit to grow in obedience. We can take steps forward in sanctification because God’s Spirit lives within us. And when we do sin, the gospel assures us our standing with God is unaffected. We are forgiven, not because of our own obedience, but because of Christ, whose obedience is perfect and will never fail. So sin no more, but if you do, and you will from time to time, John reminds us you have an advocate before the Father, and His name is Jesus.

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