Overcoming Doctrinal Opposition to Ceasing from Sin
One complaint against prayer to overcome sin is that it leads to legalism and away from grace. This is false. Overcoming sin and true righteousness is not possible through rule keeping. Righteousness can only be experienced by the incorruptible seed of the Word of God producing righteousness. Moreover, grace instructs us to overcome sin - in this present life.
God’s grace, which brings salvation, has appeared to all people. It teaches us to renounce godlessness and worldly desires, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives now, in this age. (Titus 2:11-12)
How Free From Sin Has Jesus Made Us?
Another dispute in overcoming sin is the degree to which it can be overcome in this life. Some hold that we can cease from sin in this life, some hold that (contrary to Jesus’ teaching that all things are possible) this is not possible.
Jesus said, I tell you the truth, everyone working sin is a slave to sin. (John 8:34)
If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed (truly free). (John 8:36)
Everyone working sin - whether they are working full time, part time, or the occasional odd job when a convenient opportunity arises - are slaves to sin. Sin has dominion over them. If, however, Jesus makes us free, we will be free indeed. How free is free indeed? Is it, as some suggest, that we are merely free from the penalty and guilt of sin and that we must wait for a time when Jesus does another work to free us from the effects and doing the works of sin? Or is it, as some others suggest, that we are positionally free but not actually free?
The word indeed, the word that describes how free Jesus has made us, is used again in 1 Timothy 5:16. There Paul instructs Timothy regarding the ministry of assistance to widows. The church was to care for those who were widows indeed - those widows who were completely widowed: no husband, no children, no family - their widowhood was complete and total.
And since you have been freed from sin, you have become slaves of righteousness. (Romans 6:18)
We have been freed from sin - completely, totally, positionally, actually. We are free to cease from working sin and to be workers of righteousness.
Paul - Worst Sinner
Those opposing prayer to overcome sin frequently cite 1 Timothy 1:15 and claim that Paul said that even after being saved he was the worst sinner.
So here is a statement that you can trust, one that fully deserves to be accepted: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am πρῶτός. (1 Timothy 1:15)
Correctly understanding what Paul wrote requires that we correctly understand how he viewed Jesus saving sinners. Paul taught that through Jesus sinners were freed from sin and made righteous. They were made new creatures with a new life. When Paul says he is πρῶτός, he is saying he is πρῶτός of those Jesus saved, not πρῶτός of sinners. This becomes even more clear when we understand what he meant by the word πρῶτός. πρῶτός means first or foremost. Foremost means most visible or most conspicuous. Paul’s salvation - his being made a new creature with a new life - was, and in many respects still is, the most conspicuous conversion. This understanding is confirmed in the following verse.
But this is precisely why I received mercy - so that in me πρῶτός (the most conspicuous), Christ Jesus might demonstrate how very patient he is, as an example to those who would later come to trust in him and thereby have eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:16)
Paul was, and still is, a conspicuous example of a person saved by the Lord Jesus Christ, who died to his old life and lived a new life unto Christ as a new creature.
In Judea, the assemblies didn’t even know what I looked like - they were only hearing the report, “The one who used to persecute us now preaches the Good News of the faith he was formerly out to destroy,” and they praised God for me. (Galatians 1:22-24)
Paul - Not Perfect
Another scripture cited by opponents of prayer to overcome sin is Philippians . The opponents claim that Paul said he wasn’t perfect. The Greek text translated perfect doesn’t talk about being perfect in the way we think about being perfect today.
That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead. Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded. (Philippians 3:10-15)
Paul uses one Greek word translated perfect in verse 12 to describe what he had not yet attained - τετελειωμαι and a different one translated perfect in verse 15 - τελειοι. In verse 15 Paul is addressing a group who he says has attained τελειοι. English fails us here by translating both words as perfect.
τελειοι describes spiritually mature, of full age. It is the same word used in Hebrew 5:14 and translated as spiritually mature of full age. In Philippians Paul is addressing those who had attained spiritual maturity - they were no longer babes needing milk.
τετελειωμαι is used to describe consummation. Paul could be talking about the consummation of life in his mortal body. In verses 10 and 11 Paul said that he pressed after the goal of knowing Jesus, the power of his resurrection, and being conformable to his death, if by any means he might attain to the resurrection of the dead. Then in verse 12 he states that he had not yet attained, either had already been consummated. What had he not attained? What he sought to attain - the resurrection of the dead. Neither yet had life in his mortal body been consummated. The context of what Paul wrote leads to this understanding of what he was saying when he said he had not yet been consummated.
It is worth noting that Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible cites several instances where τετελειωμαι is used to describe martyrdom - the consummation of life. Clarke cites Clement of Alexandria
"We call martyrdom τελειωσις, or perfection, not because man receives it as the end, τελος, or completion of life; but because it is the consummation τελειος, of the work of charity."
Clearly, the fact that Paul’s life in his mortal body had not yet been completed does not say he failed to cease from sin.
Another possibility is that Paul was talking about striving to become consummate in being: with as much love as is possible to have, as much faith, etc.. This too does not in any way say that he hadn’t ceased from sin. If we give ourselves to serve a new employer we start as babes in skillfulness. That we are babes does not mean we do anything, or even have anything in our hearts contrary to the employer. As we gain experience we become more useful. We learn what things are fruitful and what causes harm - we become more mature servants. The employer can give us meatier tasks to do. That doesn’t mean that we can’t become still more fruitful, nor does it mean we should quit striving to become more fruitful. The fact that we can still become more fruitful does not in any way say that we have done anything contrary to what our employer wanted done or that we have done harm. When we cease from sin, we quit working for our employer’s enemy - we quit doing harm. We grow in maturity and recognition of truth and error, things fruitful and things harmful. We strive to be more and more profitable servants.
Paul - None Righteous
Paul said that none were righteous.
As it is written, “There is no one righteous, not even one!” (Romans 3:10)
Paul certainly says this, but we have to look at it in context in order to correctly understand what he is referring to when he says it.
In the letter to the Romans Paul outlines what God called him to do: promote trust-grounded obedience to God. He states this in Romans 1:5. At the very end of Romans he states again that his effort in the letter is to promote trust-grounded obedience and that the Good News of what God has done through Jesus has been communicated to them to do that. This Good News of what God has done through Jesus is the focus of what Paul writes. He explains why in 1:16-17.
The Good News is God’s powerful means of bringing salvation (freedom from sin) to everyone who keeps trusting, to the Jew especially, but equally to the Gentile. For in the Good News is revealed how God makes people righteous (makes people new creatures created in true righteousness) in his sight (according to God’s measure of the person against the standard of true righteousness); and from beginning to end it is through trust (trust-grounded obedience). (Romans 1:16-17)
From 1:16-17 Paul makes the case why the Good News is God’s means of making people free from sin and making them righteous. To make his case Paul presents the following:
all people are in bondage to sin
all people are unrighteous
The Law is not God’s means to free people from sin or make them righteous
righteousness comes from trusting obedience and not legalistic rule keeping
From 1:18 to 3:20 he makes the charge that all people, Jew and Gentile alike, are controlled by sin and are unrighteous and stand in need of means to be made free from sin and made righteous. In the process of making this case he makes an allusion to Psalm 14:1-3 and 53:1-3 and this is where he writes that there is no one righteous, not even one. So what shall we say then, that all people are in bondage to sin and unrighteous? No, rather that all people who do not submit themselves to God’s means to be made free from sin and made righteous are in bondage to sin and unrighteous. Taken in context this is the case Paul is making in Romans 3:10. Those who submit themselves to the means of the Good News Paul is in the process of presenting are made free from sin and made righteous.
In Romans 7 doesn’t Paul say that he was unable to cease from sin? No, he doesn’t. If what he says is taken out of context, like what John says in 1 John, then it sounds like that he what he says. What is the context? To whom is Paul writing Romans 7? Jews, Gentiles, or both? Why is he writing what he is writing?
Surely you know, brothers - for I am speaking to those who understand The Law (Romans 7:1)
This is an important piece of the context of Romans 7. It is written to those who understand The Law - to Jews and not just any Jews, but to those who are educated in The Law. Why is he speaking to them specifically? He is speaking to them specifically to explain how The Law fits in God’s plan. He explains what The Law does do and why it is not the means God uses to free people from sin and make them righteous. This is a critical issue to Jews, but is not an issue to Gentiles because they do not have The Law (Romans 2:14)
In Romans 3:20 Paul states:
In God’s sight (according to God’s measure of righteousness) no one alive will be considered righteous on the ground of legalistic observance of the commandments of The Law, because through The Law is the knowledge of sin.
Having made this point Paul has to explain it. This is what he is doing in Romans 7. In verse 7 he repeats his point that the function of The Law is to make known what sin is. In verses 14 through 23 he gives his personal testimony of how The Law worked in his life to expose sin working within his being and how The Law does not provide the means to be made free from sin and made righteous.
So what are we to make of Paul’s use of the present tense verbs in verses 14 through 23?
What happens if we understand his use of the present tense to refer to his present state of being?
It would still demonstrate how The Law worked in his life to expose sin working within his being, but it would also make a case against the Good News Paul was proclaiming as the means God used to free people from sin and make them righteous. If Paul, trusting in the faithfulness and work of Jesus Christ to free him from sin and make him righteous was still under the dominion of sin within him, then he had no case to make with regards to the Good News.
Such an understanding would also be contrary to what Paul wrote in Romans 5, 6, 8, and much of the rest of the New Testament.
Some have suggested a means of reconciling Romans 7 with the rest of what Paul wrote by suggesting that Romans 7 describes Paul’s actual condition with respect to sin and the rest of what he wrote describes his “positional” condition. The effort to reconcile what he wrote is commendable, but “positionally” free from sin, but actually sold under sin is not free indeed and fails to fully reconcile.
So why did Paul use present tense verbs in verses 14 through 23?
Paul used the present tense in Romans 14 through 23 in his effort to persuade the jury of the Jews who knew The Law to whom he was writing. Paul was drawing from means of jury persuasion established in Rome by Cicero. Cicero was a famed Roman attorney and orator who lived in Rome from 106 BC to 43 BC. He established Six Maxims of Persuasion, the fourth of which is:
Draw the audience into the story. Tell the story in the present tense as if the jury was watching the events unfold in front of them, rather than hearing a narrative of something that happened in the past.
The panel of Roman Jewish jurists hearing Paul’s case that The Law was not the means God used to make people free from sin and make people righteous would have understood exactly what Paul was doing and why he was doing it. It would have added credibility and weight to his case.
Further evidence linking Paul’s writing in Romans 7 and Cicero:
"To will is present with me, but how to perform that which is good, I find not. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from this dead body?" Such thoughts are not confined to Scripture; they may be found in other forms in the writings of Lucretius, Cicero, Virgil, Seneca or Marcus Aurelius.
O wretched man, wretched not just because of what you are, but also because you do not know how wretched you are! (Cicero)
Paul writing in Galatians and Cicero
Do not be deceived. God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. (Galatians 6:7)
As you sow, so shall you reap. (Cicero)
It is also worth noting that Cicero was the governor of Tarsus, Paul’s hometown, from 51 to 50 BC.
If we say we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. (1 John 1:8)
If we say we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our hearts. (1 John 1:10)
Using this scripture for doctrinal opposition to being able to overcome (cease from) sin in this life holds saying “we have ceased from sin” to be the same as saying “we have no sin.” This is an error.
We need to read 1 John in the context in which it was written. Gnostics taught, and still teach, that man has no sin, that sin is a man-made concept that stems from ignorance. Gnostics taught, and still teach, that man has no need of a Savior who cleanses them from sin, but rather that man has need for a revealer of knowledge who will lift them from ignorance. There were some gnostics who did attempt to reconcile their beliefs with Christianity, but they still denied the need for a Savior who cleanses them from sin. They claimed that man could not incur guilt for sin until man had received revealed knowledge: i.e that they had not sinned prior to receiving revealed knowledge and therefore had no need to be saved, forgiven, and cleansed from sin.
Prayer to overcome sin holds that we can receive power from God to remove sin from our being - indeed this is what Jesus instructed us to do to overcome sin, but that this is not the same as the gnostic claim to have no sin. The gnostic claim is that man is not held accountable for sin under any circumstances. Prayer to overcome sin holds that man is accountable for sin if we have sin in our being and for acts of sin if we commit them.
Prayer to overcome sin does not deny that we all have sinned. It holds that we can receive power from God to cease.
James - We All Sin, No Man Can Tame the Tongue
Some claim that James said that we all sin and that this proves it is not possible to cease from sin.
For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a (spiritually) mature man, able also to bridle his whole body. (James 3:2)
There are two problems in understanding what James is saying. The first is his use of the word all - is it literal, i.e. every single individual, or figurative? All is frequently used figuratively in Hebrew thinking to “the majority, or the essential part, or even a significant or highly visible component possibly much smaller than a majority.” (Stern, David H. Jewish New Testament Commentary. Clarksville, MD: Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc., 1989. 422. Print.) Sometimes such figurative use is followed by a list of exceptions. This is the case in James 3:2. James immediately follows the statement that all stumble in many ways with the exception that if anyone does not stumble in what he says.
The second problem is how we understand the word πταίω translated stumble. James use here is clearly figurative rather than the literal stumble or trip. Figuratively such a stumble could be anything from a simple mistake like a factual error, sin, or completely falling from salvation. What we know is that at least a highly visible number of people “stumble” and that those who are spiritually mature do not “stumble” in what they say. The context in which James uses stumble is important. In the preceding verse James says,
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (James 3:1)
This is helpful. In Timothy Paul writes of a problem with spiritually immature people seeking to become teachers.
As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. the aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions. (1 Timothy 1:3-7)
Certainly a highly visible part of the early church stumbled into vain discussion. Judaizers taught the Galatians they must be circumcised. Gnostics claimed to have no sin. Others taught regarding eating of meat and observing holy days. Teachers teaching without understanding what they were saying or the things about which they were making confident assertions. Stumbling and causing others to stumble. Too many teachers and not enough truth. Too many teachers teaching when they had need for someone to teach them the basic principles and without experience in applying the word about righteousness.
Doctrinal stumbling - stumbling in applying the word about righteousness - better fits the context of James warning about becoming teachers and fits the known problems of the time. It also better fits the nature of the spiritually mature person who have their senses exercised to recognize good and evil and are no longer tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine. Assigning the meaning of sin to the figurative use of stumble in James 3:2 is not warranted by the context and especially not when doing so results in a meaning contrary to scripture that says that Jesus, by his death and resurrection, has made us free indeed free from sin.
James - No Man Can Tame the Tongue
Some claim that when James says no man can tame the tongue it means that we are unable to keep from sinning in what we say.
No man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water. (James 3:8-12)
James says that no man can tame the tongue and the from the same tongue comes praise and cursing. He also says that this should not be. Using the power of man it is impossible to tame the tongue, but using the power of God through faith all things are possible and nothing is impossible - including taming the tongue. If we seek God about why it is and how to overcome, then we find the power and means to tame the tongue.
For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. (Luke 6:43-45)
The tongue will speak according to the content of the abundance of the heart. We tame the tongue not by trying to exert our will over the tongue, but by using the power of God to fill our heart with the abundance of God’s word and remove the content that is producing corrupt fruit.
Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. (Matthew 12:33)
James is describing a double minded or double hearted condition: out of the same mouth comes praise and cursing, blessing and cursing, fresh water and salt. This is the result of some fruit being produced by a good tree in the heart and some fruit being produced by a corrupt tree in the heart. When we command the corrupt tree to be plucked up by the roots and cast into the sea and fill our hearts with the incorruptible seed of the word of God, then we will speak from the abundance of the word of God in our heart. One tree, one fruit, one speech from our tongue.
According to the measure we use to measure the truth it will be measured back to us. It is absolutely imperative that we measure according to truth with respect to sin, overcoming sin, righteousness, and eternal life.
Jesus has given us specific instructions telling us how to overcome sin. His instructions are true and effective. The work he did to destroy the work of the enemy in causing man to sin is effective. Jesus overcame the work of the enemy and has made us free indeed free from sin. All things are possible and nothing is impossible to the one who believes.
Until it is removed, there is a corrupt tree bringing forth corrupt desires, actions, words, and beliefs. Chief among these beliefs is the belief that it is not possible to cease from sin in this life. The corrupt tree must bring forth this fruit to protect itself and remain undisturbed bringing forth corrupt fruit, sowing corrupt seed, and doing the work of Satan. The beliefs of those who might believe otherwise are taken captive by the corrupt desire and belief fruit of the corrupt tree. How shall one be free to know the truth?
Pray for fear of the Lord. Choose it. Seek it. Cry out for it. It is the power of God to depart from sin.
Ask God to send his Spirit of truth to guide you, to lead you into all the truth, and to show you about sin and righteousness.