“For the death he died, he died to sin once for all time; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So, you too consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, so that you obey its desires.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
I’m going to ask you a question about which I want you to be totally honest with me. In fact, I don’t want you to answer immediately. I want you to think about it for a second. Then, I want you to raise your hand in the air if the answer is yes. No, really, raise your hand. Commit to your answer. If you’re by yourself, no one will see it; and if you’re in public, it’ll just look like you’re stretching. (If you’re reading this in class, you might want to raise two hands to disguise it a little better…and also stop reading this in class and pay attention to your teacher.) Are you ready now? Here goes: Do you struggle with sin?
Okay, survey time: How many of you raised your hand? I suspect it wasn’t just a few. But, in doing that, some of you are lying to me. In fact, I might even go so far as to say many of you are. You can’t fairly characterize your interaction with sin as a struggle because there really isn’t any struggle. When sin comes calling, you go right along with it. Maybe there’s a brief flash of resistance, but that doesn’t last long. What I want to talk about this morning with you is how to actually struggle with sin and why it will eventually become no struggle at all.
Let me ask another question here: Have you ever really thought about your engagement with sin in those terms before? I was once someone who would have characterized all my interactions with sin in terms of struggle. It was C.S. Lewis who first cued me in on my misunderstanding. When you are struggling with something, you are genuinely endeavoring to not do whatever it is. But while there may be some areas of sin where you are sincerely trying to plant your flag, if you’re like most people, there are more where you’re just kind of going along with it. You may even be going along with it without realizing it. You may have struggled in the past, but you’ve long since given up any kind of meaningful struggle. Now, you’re mostly just managing your sin habit, not struggling with it.
Lewis’ insight came in the context of talking about the objection sometimes leveled against Jesus that He can’t really know what it’s like to struggle with sin because He never committed it. On the contrary, Lewis argued, Jesus’ full humanity combined with His lack of sin means He understands the struggle better than anyone. His struggles’ success doesn’t mean they went away. It means they lasted His whole life. He knows not only what it’s like to struggle against sin, He knows better than anyone else how to struggle in such a way that you don’t ultimately given in. He knows how to keep the struggle from become a futile exercise. Paul, in this passage, points to some of the ideas that can help set us on the right track.
Before Jesus, sin owned the world. Everyone who ever lived was consumed by it. That consumption didn’t always – or even often – mean every person on the planet was an amoral sociopath, but it did mean that sin defined our lives. It set the boundaries on what we could do and how we could do it. It was the lens through which we engaged with all our relationships. Now, yes, God gave us help through things like the Law of Moses, but as various New Testament authors like Paul himself later observed, that didn’t so much give us a way out of sin as to highlight our utter inability to get out of sin on our own. The Law said, all you have to do is X, Y, and Z, and you can be free from sin, and live with the righteousness of God. And we couldn’t do it. At all. It wasn’t actually even close.
Then came Jesus. And Jesus didn’t sin. Sin tried every way it possibly could to get Him to break, but it failed. It failed over and over and over again. It failed in small ways. It failed in big ways. The closer Jesus came to the end of His life, the harder and more desperate became sin’s attempts to get Him to cave. But He just wouldn’t do it. Finally, sin put Jesus through the ordeal of the cross. With enough torture and torment, surely, He would finally give in and do something other than God wanted Him to do. He would use His powers in a way that benefited Himself rather than in submission to God’s will. But He didn’t. He died an unjust death, forgiving His abusers with some of His final breaths.
And sin’s power was broken.
As long as everyone, always, eventually gave in to sin, it’s power over this world was absolute. But when Jesus struggled against it His whole life and came away with perfect success, sin’s power was shattered. Oh, it still has some power. It still dominates the lives of most people. But it can’t have everyone any longer. It has been defeated. If one person managed to beat it, then others can too. They can simply do what He did, with His help, and they can experience the victory He achieved.
Let’s talk more specifically about what this means for us and how we can experience it. I’ll start here: Sin does not have to be your master. You never have to give in to sin. Ever. It is not a foregone conclusion. And the reason for this is simple: Jesus defeated it.
That idea is critical here to understand. It was Jesus who defeated sin; not you. What that means is you don’t have the power to resist sin on your own. You didn’t defeat it. Jesus does have that power. If you want to experience victory over sin, you have to rely on His power to do it. Yours isn’t sufficient. It won’t ever be.
That’s another important point here. When we have successfully relied on Jesus’ power to overcome sin for a season, it sometimes begins to use a bit of reverse psychology on us. It comes to us and says, “Wow, you’re really kicking my tail lately! It’s pretty impressive that you’re able to do that as well as you are. Not many folks manage to do this kind of thing. Since you seem to have things so well in hand, I guess I’m going to have to just leave you alone and go bother someone else.” And it is so easy for us to take in this false flattery and think to ourselves, “You know, I am getting really good at this. I think I’ve got it down pat. I can probably let my guard down a bit and relax.” Yet as soon as we do that, BAM! There is sin to attack when our guard is down and down we go once again.
Understanding all of this, we can start to see how our engagement with sin can become a real struggle, and a successful one at that. Jesus defeated sin by dying. That’s what Paul says right here. “The death he died, he died to sin once for all time.” Because sin’s power over this world was so great, the only way anyone could escape it was by dying. The trouble is, when it comes to you and me, that meant we could meaningfully escape the power of sin only once. Then we were dead. Because of Jesus’ righteousness, though, His unjust death was made right by His being given His life back again, but this time freed forever from the power of death and sin.
Our efforts against sin will find success only in Him. Because He died, we don’t have to die. What we do is to participate in His death. We align our lives with death and with His life. We lean into and rely on His power to overcome sin’s power. We let His Spirit enable us to say, “No,” when sin comes calling. We say, “No,” and instead say, “yes,” to God’s righteousness in Christ. We embrace His graciousness and love and forgiveness and humility. We give ourselves over entirely to joy and peace and hope. And we keep doing that day in and day out because the moment we stop, sin is waiting in the wings to claim another victim. Peter described it as a roaring lion, “looking for anyone he can devour.” We keep on in the struggle – making sure it is a struggle – because we know that rest has been promised in Christ that will be perfect and eternal. There is a day coming when we won’t have to struggle anymore because our victory will be complete. Let’s live toward that day.