Three Layers to Fighting Sin

Struggling with sin is hard!  And we all want to feel like we are becoming more like Jesus.  That growth of character and heart is what Christians have called “sanctification.”  The Bible has much to say about sanctification, especially the letters of the New Testament to the new believers around the Roman empire who had just come to faith.

This growth can be hard.  And I think it is made more difficult when we believe wrongly about how we grow as Christians. If I believe that sin is overcome by sheer will-power, then life is going to be quite difficult.  I’ve gotten to walk with some folks, recently, for whom victory over a particular sin was slow in coming or who were downright hopeless.  As I dug a little deeper, they each seemed to believe, at least subconsciously, that they were losing to sin because they just couldn’t muster enough effort.

At the center of these thoughts is this question:  “As Christians, what do we believe about how people change?”  And a related question: “What can I do to grow in Christlikeness?”  Here’s how I’ve begun to think about this.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  I see that there are 3 layers of activity that we need to think about when we consider fighting sin or growing in Christlike character.  And these three layers – they accomplish different things.  I’ll deal with the 2nd and 3rd layers in a later post, but let’s look at the first one here.

Layer 1 – Boundaries

Often when someone is struggling with a particular sin, they will think through what boundaries they need to establish.  If they struggle with drunkenness, they avoid the bar.  If the struggle is pornography, the research internet filters, etc.  This is a Biblical step.  In Proverbs, we are instructed to avoid altogether the temptations of the prostitute for instance: 5:8 Keep your way far from her, and do not go near the door of her house.  When Paul instructs the Corinthians to “flee” from idolatry or from sexual immorality, it gives the impression of putting a lot of space between us and the object of our temptation.  Run! Don’t go near it!

So, we should create boundaries that will help us stay as far from sin as possible.  Flee!  Sometimes the problem is that we try to choose boundaries that won’t require too much of us.  I’ve seen many people choose a boundary that was completely ineffective because they needed much more distance from their sin.  For the man addicted to work, changing jobs might be necessary.  And that’s demanding.  For some women addicted to streaming entertainment, they need to not only remove the TV from their bedroom, but also from the entire house.  Flee!

This is a good layer, but this layer does not change your heart.  Read that line again because it’s very important.  Jesus said, “if your eye causes your to sin, pluck it out,” but it’s clear from the rest of the Sermon on the Mount that it’s not the eye that causes us to sin…it’s the heart!  That is where all sin resides.  Boundaries do not deal with the heart.  Instead, they simply help clear the immediate danger out of our context so that we can then have space to engage in the heart.

Imagine an athlete, perhaps a quarterback in American Football, who injures his shoulder.  Before anything can get better he has to stop using his arm.  He has to protect it from further external harm.  Boundaries are like casts.  They don’t make you a good quarterback, but they can create a context in which healing can start.

At the same time, if we think that simply adding internet filters will change the lust in our hearts that drives us to look at pornography, then we are in trouble.  Brothers and sisters, the battle has only begun when we’ve built good boundaries.  We have a cast, but we are not yet healed and healthy and holy.  In Christianity, holiness begins in the heart.  It begins by replacing and destroying former loves and former idols.  And that is what Layers 2 and 3 are about.

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What is Holiness?

I think the puritans do such a better job of answering this question: What is holiness?  Their answer may surprise you.  We often think of the Puritans as stuffy, no-fun-allowed sort of folk.  That’s unfortunate.  Surely some of them were that way, just like some of us are, but the best Puritans actually made pleasure and joy central to our faith.  How they answer a question like “What is Holiness?” shows us a little of this.

Before I give you Jonathan Edwards and Thomas Goodwin’s answers, I want to ask how many people today would answer it.  What is holiness?  Is it primarily about whether and how much we sin?  Is it about ticking all the “thou shalt not” boxes?  What about God…what does it mean that He is holy?  Does it, primarily, mean that he can’t allow those who haven’t checked all those boxes in His presence?  I’ve said elsewhere that I often hear people say things like, “God is loving, but he’s also holy,” as if those things are opposites or mutually exclusive.  And that’s part of what’s wrong with our understanding of holiness.  So, let’s look at a couple of Puritans.

First, Jonathan Edwards. I’m going to invite Mike Reeves to share this as he’s who I first heart it from.  Go read his whole article at Desiring God, but here he is on Edwards and God’s holiness.

For the reality is that I am the cold, selfish, vicious one, full of darkness and dirtiness. And God is holy — “set apart” from me — precisely in that he is not like that. He is not set apart from us in priggishness, but by the fact that there are no such ugly traits in him as there are in us.

“God is God,” wrote Edwards, “and distinguished from [that is, set apart from] all other beings, and exalted above ’em, chiefly by his divine beauty” (for the connection between holiness and beauty, see verses like Psalm 96:9).2

God’s holiness, according to Edwards is primarily in His beauty, in His spreading and never changing goodness!  He’s not like us in our meanness, in all our ugly thoughts, words, and actions.  All the ways we hurt and hate others.  Isn’t that so much grander than “not sinning?”  Isn’t holiness as beauty just so much more, well, beautiful!!!

Now, Thomas Goodwin answers this question of God’s holiness as well (Vol 7, Book 1, Chapter 3).  Here’s what he says:

Matthew 19.17: “There is none good but God,” so therefore holy.  He is separate and alone in his holiness in the manner that he is alone in his (good) being.  And if he is the only one who is good, then much more is he the only holy one, for holiness is the height and perfection of goodness; it is so for man, and so in God.*

What does that mean?  It means that, at His core (in his being), God is good.  This is seen before creation ever existed as the Father, Son, and Spirit were in loving communion with one another, John 17 says, sharing glory and loving one another.  Before there were laws to give or keep, God was loving and sharing.  He was GOOD!  His holiness, then, can only be what is core to God.  What sets him apart?  His being, his nature, which we’ve just seen is loving, beautiful, and good.  And that is what sets him apart.  As you may know, holy means “set apart.”  His spreading goodness is what sets him apart, what differentiates God from us.

Holiness, then, according to these two puritans is beautiful goodness.  He’s not hot and cold towards us, he is consistently kind and good.  He’s holy.  In any day, I’m likely to despise and want ill for those that I should most love (sorry wifey and dear kiddos!), not to mention the random celebrity or Facebook stranger with whom I disagree.  Not so with God.  He’s holy.  He’s good.  He’s beautiful.

So, then, the invitation to be holy as God is holy becomes something amazing.  It’s now an invitation to share in the very goodness and beauty of God.  “Come, child, let me share my love and glory with you.  Let’s us experience unbroken, perfect love and fellowship.  Come, enjoy all this…that is, be holy like me.”

*I updated the language for clarity.  Italics are mine.