Ongoing Sin in the Christian Life

How can someone claim to be a Christian while continuing in sin? Recently I heard the testimony of a Christian woman who had left the abortion industry to become a leader in the pro-life movement. Most of what she had to say was inspiring. But she made one statement that frustrated and confused me: she claimed that she had been a church-going Christian even while working in the abortion clinic. How could a true Christian possibly remain associated with such murderous practices even for a single minute? Shouldn't she have said, "I thought I was a Christian at that time, but later on I saw the light and experienced genuine conversion?"

We’re sensitive to the perspective you’ve articulated. We understand why you’d prefer that this woman alter the wording of her testimony and retract her claim to have been a believer while working in the “enemy” camp. Your sentiments reflect a commendable zeal for holiness. Nevertheless, we can’t help feeling that you’re missing a very basic point.

That point is this: one doesn’t have to be perfect to qualify as a follower of Jesus. The Christian life isn’t about instant sanctification and purification. Instead, it’s a long process of gradual change and growth. The moment we are born again we begin to grow like the seed in Jesus’ parable (Mark 4:26-29). But we don’t reach our full spiritual stature overnight. The shoot doesn’t put forth “the blade, the head, and the full grain in the head” all at once. All of this takes time. There are many of us, both young and old in the faith, who continue to be hampered by habitual failings as long as we live. We all have our spiritual blind spots.

We could offer several biblical examples of this principle. Consider David. At the height of his glory as King of Israel he committed adultery and murder – and the Lord still called him “a man after God’s own heart.” (2 Samuel 11). Then there’s Paul. In spite of a spectacular conversion, he wasn’t ready to meet the other apostles and begin his ministry until he had spent three years in the Arabian desert (Galatians 1:17-18). The list could be extended. But perhaps the best example (and, in this instance, the most pertinent) comes not from the Bible but from the experience of the Reverend John Newton, the famous slave-trader-turned-preacher and author of the beloved hymn “Amazing Grace.”

Newton was dramatically converted in the middle of a storm at sea. In spite of this, he went on working in the slave trade for five years after coming to Christ. Incredible as it sounds, he doesn’t seem to have noticed the clash between his manner of livelihood and his profession of faith. When he finally quit, it wasn’t because of spiritual convictions. It was simply because he had a stroke and was no longer able to go to sea.

Only some thirty years later was the aging Newton able to write an essay entitled Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (1788). In this essay he expressed deep remorse over his participation in “a commerce so iniquitous, so cruel, so oppressive, and so destructive.” His zeal for the Lord had been real and fervent since the day of his conversion. Yet somehow it took three decades for his eyes to be fully opened to the horror of his past sins. We’d suggest that something similar may have been happening in the life of the woman whose testimony planted these doubts and questions in your mind.

If you would like to discuss these concepts further, call our staff of pastoral counselors. They’d love to speak with you over the phone.


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