“Here’s the thing. Every week I go to church and someone at the front tells me I’m a sinner and that I should stop. But no one ever tells me how.”
That’s how Nick Page opens his article, 7 Ways To Stop Sinning, in Premier Christianity the other month.
I’d not long read Sinclair Ferguson voicing much the same complaint.
“Here again it is possible to become a little frustrated with Paul. Once more we find him issuing the same directives – put on, put off, put to death. But we may feel like saying, ‘It is all very well for you to keep talking about these things, Paul, but how are we to do them?’”
That’s in his recent book, Devoted to God (Banner of Truth, 2016, p140).
Nick Page’s article takes insights from psychology to help us sin less. There are seven helpful suggestions for how to break (or at least weaken) bad habits. Of course, he says, “we need forgiveness, salvation, and all the grace we can get.” “We need prayer. We need the Holy Spirit.” But the seven pieces of advice are all to do with your willpower and how to increase it, so as to establish new habits, or break addictions and compulsions.
Admittedly this is a 2,000 word article and Sinclair Ferguson has written a 200+ page book, but the two approaches to answering basically the same question are strikingly different, and I prefer Sinclair Ferguson’s.
There is more to the Christian’s challenge than simply sinning less. There is also a need for becoming more holy – growing in specific, actual graces.
Putting our sins to death is one thing – pulling our graces into life is another thing. But Christian is called to do both. Both are impossible for a sinner acting off their own bat, but both are possible and expected for a sinner who is united to Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Sinners have to become holy.
Sinclair Ferguson explains: “whatever the precise nuance of meaning of ‘holy’, it involves not only belonging to God but being influenced by him – being claimed by him in order to be possessed by him and to become increasingly like him. In that sense holiness involves being separated off from whatever is sinful. The effect of this will be a new shining in our lives, a new brightness beginning to emerge. … This is why in the Old Testament holiness and beauty belong together.” (p11-12)
There is more, even, to the problem of sinning less, than simply adjusting problematic habits and behaviours. We also need to factor in the underlying source of bad habits and sinful behaviour.
It is obviously important to exercise self-discipline and strive against our own characteristic bad behaviours. In this struggle, insights from psychology are undoubtedly useful. We need all the help we can get. But our external behaviours have their source in the heart, in our attitudes, in our nature. The only effective way to stop sinning is for sin to be tackled at its root, by getting a new nature, a new heart. Then it will dawn on us that the goal is not really to sin less, but to not sin at all. Granting that we will never achieve sinlessness until we reach glory, there is still no excuse for aspiring to anything less than not sinning at all. We have to go and sin no more.
We do actually need the Holy Spirit for this. Nobody can give themselves a new heart. As Sinclair Ferguson explains:
“The Spirit brings us to new life and into the family of God. … He brings about a rebirth in us that creates new dispositions. … We experience not only a change of status (as in adoption) so that we belong to God’s family, but also a real transformation of our lives so that we begin to develop the characteristics of our adoptive family. … [T]he Holy Spirit who unites us to Christ for justification, in that very act of union also sanctifies us, transforming our dispositions and desires. Now we love what we once despised, and despise much that we once loved. Now, while the Christian life remains a battle to the end, we find that there is all the difference in the world between seeking to be holy when that is a burden, and seeking to be holy because we belong to the family of God and have the new family nature.” (p25-26)
“[There is a] difference between mortifying sin (i.e., putting it to death), and merely diverting it – so that it lives on in a different but less obvious guise. We are all past-masters of doing this. Social pressure, or expectations within Christian fellowship, cause us to divert obvious sin to some other less obvious sphere. Sin is not so much put to death as channelled in a different direction. … We have not made any real progress in overcoming sin as sin.” (p153-154)
There is more to our psyche than just willpower. If you take a holistic view of the human person, you also need to reference the mind, or the intellect. Maybe other things too, but at least also the mind.
In fact, the intellect is supposed to inform the will, when human beings are at their best. Which is perhaps why the New Testament, especially in the epistles, is so keen to explain things – to present truths to our minds for us to grasp and then act on – to engage our intellects and expand our intellectual horizons with always bigger and more sharply focussed truths about God our Saviour.
When Sinclair Ferguson begins to answer his own question about sanctification, ‘But how?!’ his first port of call is not the will, but the intellect. His Principle Number One is ‘Developing a mindset.’
“The Spirit does not bypass our minds and work directly on our emotions or affections. It would be both bad theology and poor psychology to think so. Rather he addresses our minds through the Word of God, simply because we are created as rational, thinking beings. How and what we think determines how we feel, will, and live. … As we have already seen, we are transformed through the renewing of our minds.” (p141-142)
So here are some things we need to understand.
For one thing, that our salvation is the work of the triune God. How the Father has loved us and what Christ has done for us and what the Spirit is doing for us. (1 Peter 1:2: “Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ.”)
For another thing, our identity in Christ. “I am no longer the person I was in Adam; I am a new person in Jesus Christ. In Christ I am someone who has died to the dominion of sin and been raised to new life. In Christ I am someone who has been delivered from the dominion of sin and has been transferred into the kingdom of God.” (p88) “Do you know who you really are in Christ? Do you understand what it means to be renamed in Christ? Do you think of yourself each day as someone who has died to sin and been raised into newness of life and therefore cannot go on living in sin?” (p89)
For a third, the things of the Spirit. These things, Paul advises, are what we have to fill our minds with: “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable.” “If we are to overcome sin we must develop the ability to fix our minds on the things of the Spirit and the glory of Jesus Christ. And that can take place only when we are being filled with the truth of Scripture. … The remedy is soaking ourselves frequently in God’s word: allowing our minds to be filled to saturation point with its truth. … There is no immediate pathway to getting to know God’s word intimately. There is no quick fix. We can only do this the old-fashioned way, by reading it often and learning it well.” (p158-159)
This isn’t a proper review of Devoted to God but I would thoroughly recommend it. Anyone who prays, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me,” can’t fail to benefit from its teaching.