Why Does He Let Me Sin At All?
Hey Ryan, I have a question about how we think about sanctification. It occurred to me today and I can’t think where to begin looking for the answer, although I suspect it’s somewhere in our confessions. Question: since the Holy Spirit working in me is the only reason I do anything good, and is not any doing of my own, why doesn’t he always work in me? I know that the answer must be that he is always working in me, but how is that possible since that would seem to imply that I can overpower his work in me. For example, in a day I might do a number of things considered good that can only be attributed to the Holy Spirit working in me. So, what about the rest of the day when I was able to ignore the Holy Spirit and sin anyway. If God chooses to overpower my base nature sometimes, why does he let me sin at all?
First I want to say that I love your question! I often have struggled with similar questions. I have also asked myself, “If I am dead to sin…why do I keep sinning?” or If God is sovereign, why does he permit me to sin? I think that is essentially what you are asking as well. We know that we are redeemed by Jesus Christ. We know that we have been given the Holy Spirit. Yet we still sin. We are grieved that we grieve God. We know that He could make us perfect now, so why doesn’t he?
Your question reminds me of the Apostle Paul in Romans 7:14-25:
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 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.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
Here we read an account of Paul in great conflict with himself, much the same as the question you asked. And I have asked, and I am sure that every believer in history has asked. Who has not asked it…Why can’t I stop sinning? I hate it, but I keep doing it. Why isn’t God working in me faster? And remember that this is not some unbeliever, or some baby Christian new convert, but the Apostle Paul. He loves God and His law and wants to obey it, but is pulled away by the sin that remains in him.
In verse 14 Paul says he is, “of the flesh, sold to sin.”
Wait a minute..
Only a mere chapter earlier in Romans 6, he says we should count ourselves dead to sin and alive to Christ. And just a chapter later in Romans 8 he says, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.” And from this text in Chapter 8 we can plainly see that if we are “in the flesh” we are unregenerate, that is, we do not have the spirit of God living in us.
But Paul says in chapter 7 that he is of the flesh.
So what is the difference between “in” and “of?”…those two words make a world of difference. Simply saying that you are “of the flesh”, means that you are a sinner. Saying that you are “in the flesh” means that you are an unregenerate sinner.
Subtle difference. But significant.
What about the phrase, “sold under sin?” Well that does not mean the sin we currently commit, but the original sin that plunged humanity from grace under Adam. We are sold under sin because Adam sinned. He was our head, and when he sinned he essentially sold us into slavery.
Jesus came and paid the price and redeemed us. Now, for those who believe, we are no longer slaves to sin.
We need to distinguish between the activity of committing sin and the dominion or reign of sin. While we will never be free of the presence of sin in this life, its dominion can, and must be destroyed if we are believers. For instance, an unregenerate person may be a slave to a sexual addiction. He is under the dominion of sin; he is a slave to sin. When he is regenerated by the Holy Spirit and redeemed by Christ, he is freed from the dominion of sin, that is, his sin no longer rules him, he is no longer a slave to it. However, while he has a new love of Christ, and the Holy Spirit living in him, and now sees God’s holy law as good… his body is still sinful. He is still “of the flesh”. The old sins will still appeal to his flesh, but now he has the power of Christ to fight against it.
This is where the doctrine of sanctification comes in.
We can make a distinction between two types of sanctification. Definitive and progressive. Without going too deep…Definitive sanctification is at the moment of salvation. When you are regenerated, you are definitely sanctified. You are definitely set apart and made holy because of Christ. Progressive sanctification is the Holy Spirit’s work over the course of our lives in bringing us to Christlike-ness. It will only be complete at the time we are glorified. Both are completely works of God in us, however we are not to be passive in our progressive sanctification, we are to be active participants in it, seeking to wage war on our sin, and seeking to grow in love. As Jerry Bridges says,
Progressive sanctification is not a partnership with the Spirit in the sense that we each – the believer and the Holy Spirit – do our respective tasks. Rather, we work as He enables us to work. His work lies behind all our work and makes our work possible.
You asked about our confessions. The Canons of Dordt in the 5th head of doctrine certainly speaks to this… (read the entire thing it is fantastic):
Article 1 : Those whom God according to His purpose calls into the fellowship of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and regenerates by His Holy Spirit, He certainly sets free from the dominion and slavery of sin, but not entirely in this life from the flesh and the body of sin.
Article 2: Therefore daily sins of weakness spring up and defects cling to even the best works of the saints. These are for them a constant reason to humble themselves before God, to flee to the crucified Christ, to put the flesh to death more and more through the Spirit of prayer and by holy exercises of godliness, and to long and strive for the goal of perfection until at last, delivered from this body of death, they reign with the Lamb of God in heaven.
A believer cannot live in sin, he cannot be under the dominion of sin. He can fall into sin, because he is still “of the flesh”… But it grieves his heart that he has offended a holy God. Unlike the unbeliever, he finds no lasting pleasure in his sin, rather sin is a burden. The unbeliever does not feel the burden of sin, just like a corpse cannot feel the weight of dirt upon his grave. But when a person is regenerated, made alive in Christ, he notices the dirt. He hates the dirt. He will do anything to get out of the dirt, and while the Holy Spirit is lifting him out of the dirt, he is not going to just sit there, he will do whatever he can. Ultimately realizing that he cannot get out on his own, so he clings to the grace of God with the sure hope that God will bring him home and wash the dirt away for good.
To close I will quote Herman Bavinck from Reformed Dogmatics where he addresses the why of sin and evil:
“For even when God wants there to be evil, he only wants it in a way that is holy: though using it, he never commits it. And for that reason, he has also allowed sin in his creation. He would not have tolerated it had he not been able to govern it in an absolute holy and sovereign manner. He would not have put up with it if he were not God, the Holy and Omnipotent One. But being God, he did not fear its existence and power. He willed it so that in it and against it he might bring to light his divine attributes. If he had not allowed it to exist, there would always have been a rationale for the idea that he was not in all his attributes superior to a power whose possibility was inherent in creation itself. For all rational creatures, as creatures, as finite, limited, changeable beings, have the possibility of apostatizing. But God, because he is God, never feared the way of freedom, the reality of sin, the eruption of wickedness, or the power of Satan. So, both in its origin and its development, God always exercises his rule over sin. He does not force it, nor does he block it with violence but rather allows it to reach its full dynamic potential. He remains king yet still gives it free reign in his kingdom. He allows it to have everything– his world, his creatures, even his Anointed– for evils cannot exist without goods. He allows it to use all that is his; he gives it opportunity to show what it can do in order, in the end, as King of kings, to leave the theater of battle. For sin is of such a nature that it destroys itself by the very freedom granted it; it dies of its own diseases; it dooms itself to death. At the apex of its power, it is, by the cross alone, publicly shown up in its powerlessness (Col. 2:15).” Reformed Dogmatics, Volume III, Chapter 1, p. 64
Anyway, I hope that helps. As I read it back, there is SO much more to be said. If you want to investigate further, check out the following list:
Remainders of Indwelling Sin in Unbelievers By John Owen
Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen
Mortification of Sin by John Owen
Notes on the Canons of Dordt by Rev. Clarence Bouwman
Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ. by Herman Bavinck (Amazon link)
Systematic Theology. by Louis Berkhof