HISTORICAL EXCERPT

On Sin in Believers

“If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

Is there any sin in those who are born of God, or are they completely delivered from it? This is a point of greatest importance to every serious Christian. I do not know that it was ever debated in the early Church, for all Christians were agreed on it. It seems that all ancient Christians who have left anything in writing declare with one voice that even believers, until they are “strong in the Lord and in the power of His might,” must wrestle with an evil nature. 

In this the Church of England copies the early church exactly; declaring in her Ninth Article, “Original sin is the corruption of the nature of every man, whereby man is in his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth contrary to the Spirit. And this infection of nature doth remain even in them that are regenerated; whereby the lust of the flesh is not subject to the law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe, yet this lust hath of itself the nature of sin.” The same testimony is given by all other churches; not only by the Greek and Roman Churches, but by every Reformed church in Europe, of any denomination. Indeed, some of these seem extreme, describing the corruption of heart in a believer in a way which implies that he is a slave to it, and leaving hardly any distinction between a believer and an unbeliever. 

To avoid this extreme, many well-meaning men, particularly the followers of the late Count Zinzendorf, ran to the opposite; affirming that all true believers are not only saved from the dominion of sin, but also from the existence of inward and outward sin, so that it no longer remains in them. And from them, about twenty years ago, many of our countrymen accepted the same opinion that even the corruption of nature no longer exists in those who believe in Christ. It is true that when the Germans were debated, many of them gave up the point; allowing that sin did still remain, though not reign, in one that is born of God. But the English who had received it from them were not so easily persuaded to part with a favorite opinion.  Even though most of them were convinced of its error, a few still hold it. 

For the sake of those who truly fear God and desire to know the truth, it may be helpful to discuss this question calmly. In this discussion, I use as synonyms the words regeneratejustified, or believers; since, though they do not have exactly the same meaning (the first implying an inward, actual change, the second a relative one, and the third the means by which both are done), they all come to the same thing; since everyone that believes is both justified and born of God. By sin, I mean inward sin;  any sinful temper, passion, or affection: such as pride, self-will, love of the world, in any kind or degree; such as lust, anger, the tendency to take offense; or any disposition which is contrary to the mind which was in Christ. The question is not concerning outward sin; whether a child of God commits sin or not. We all agree, “He that committeth sin is of the devil.” We agree, “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin.” Neither do we now discuss whether inward sin will always remain in the children of God or whether sin will continue in the soul as long as it is in the body. We consider simply this: is a justified man freed from all sin as soon as he is justified? Is there no sin remaining in his heart? 

We acknowledge that the state of a justified person is inexpressibly glorious. He is born again, “not of blood, nor of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” He is a child of God, a member of Christ, an heir of the kingdom of heaven. “The peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keepeth his heart and mind in Christ Jesus.” His very body is a “temple of the Holy Spirit,” and a “dwelling of God through the Spirit.” He is “created new in Christ Jesus.” He is washed; he is sanctified. His heart is purified by faith. He is cleansed “from the corruption that is in the world.” “The love of God is shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Spirit which is given unto him.” And as long as he “walks in love” (which he may always do), he worships God in spirit and in truth. He keeps the commandments of God and does those things that are pleasing in His sight; so as to “have a conscience void of offense, both toward God and toward men.” He has power over both outward and inward sin from the moment he is justified. 

Some say, “But was he not then freed from all sin, so that there is no sin in his heart?” I cannot believe it, because St. Paul says the opposite. He is speaking to believers, and describing the state of believers in general, when he says, “the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: These are contrary one to the other” (Galatians 5:17).  The apostle here affirms that the flesh, the evil nature, opposes the Spirit, even in believers; that even in the regenerated there are two principles, “contrary one to the other.” Again, when he writes to the believers at Corinth, to those who were sanctified in Christ Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:2), he says, “I, brethren, could not speak unto you, as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, as unto babes in Christ. . . Ye are yet carnal: For whereas there is among you envying and strife, are ye not carnal?” (3:1–3). Now here the Apostle speaks to those who were unquestionably believers, as still being carnal, to some extent. He affirms that there was envying, which was causing fighting among them, and yet does not give the least indication that they had lost their faith. No, he clearly declares they had not; for then they would not have been babes in Christ. And (what is most remarkable of all) he speaks of being carnal and being babes in Christ as one and the same thing; clearly showing that every believer is to some extent carnal while still a babe in Christ. Indeed, almost all the exhortations of Scripture are based on this supposition; pointing at wrong tempers or practices in those who are acknowledged to be believers. They are continually urged to fight with and conquer these by the power of faith which is in them. 

Again, when the Apostle calls believers to “cleanse themselves from all filthiness of flesh and spirit” (2 Corinthians 7:1), he clearly teaches that those believers were not yet cleansed from them. Will you answer, “He that keeps from every appearance of evil, in reality cleanses himself from all filthiness?” This is not true at all. For instance, when a man treats me hatefully I feel resentment, which is filthiness of spirit; yet I do not say a word. Here I “keep from every appearance of evil;” but this does not cleanse me from that filthiness of spirit, as I find to my sorrow.  And just as this idea that “There is no sin in a believer, no carnal mind, no bent to backsliding,” is contrary to the word of God, it is also contrary to the experience of His children. They continually feel a heart bent to backsliding: a natural tendency to evil; a tendency to leave God, and hold to the things of earth. Every day they are conscious of sin remaining in their hearts: pride, self will, unbelief. They are aware of sin clinging to all they say and do, even their best actions and holiest duties. Yet at the same time they “know that they are of God;” they cannot doubt it. They feel His Spirit clearly “witnessing with their spirit, that they are the children of God.” They “rejoice in God through Christ Jesus, by whom they have now received the atonement.” So they are equally sure, both that sin is in them, and that “Christ is in them the hope of glory.”

“But can Christ be in the same heart where sin is?” Undoubtedly He can; otherwise it never could be saved. Where the sickness is, there is the Physician, doing His work, fighting until He drives sin out. Christ  cannot reign where sin reigns; neither will He live where any sin is allowed. But He lives in the heart of every believer who is fighting against sin; even though the heart is not yet purified. 

As observed before, the opposite doctrine, that there is no sin in believers, is quite new in the church. But whatever doctrine is new must be wrong; for the old religion is the only true one; and no doctrine can be right, unless it is the same “which was from the beginning.”  One more argument against this new, unscriptural doctrine may be drawn from the terrible results of it. One says, “I felt anger today.” Must I reply, “Then you have no faith?” Another says, “I know what you advise is good, but my will is strongly opposed to it.” Must I tell him, “Then you are an unbeliever, under the wrath and the curse of God?” What will be the natural result of this? If he believes what I say, his soul will not only be grieved and wounded, but perhaps completely destroyed; so much that he will “cast away” that “confidence which hath great recompense of reward.” And having thrown away his shield, how will he “quench the fiery darts of the wicked one?” How will he overcome the world, since “this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith?” He stands defenseless among his enemies, open to all their attacks. So I cannot accept this statement, that there is no sin in a believer from the moment he is justified; first, because it is contrary to the whole theme of Scripture; second, because it is contrary to the experience of the children of God; third, because it is absolutely new, never heard of in the world until yesterday; and last, because it naturally brings the most deadly results.

However, to be fair, let us consider the arguments of those who try to support it. It is first from Scripture that they try to prove that there is no sin in a believer. They argue in this way: “The Scripture says that every believer is born of God, is clean, is holy, is sanctified, is pure in heart, has a new heart, is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Now, as ‘that which is born of the flesh is flesh,’ that is, altogether evil; so ‘that which is born of the Spirit is spirit,’ that is, altogether good. Surely a man cannot be clean, sanctified, holy, and at the same time unclean, unsanctified, unholy. He cannot be pure and impure, or have a new and an old heart at the same time. Neither can his soul be unholy while it is a temple of the Holy Spirit.” 

I have stated this reasoning as strongly as possible, so that its full weight may appear. Let us now examine it, part by part. First, “‘That which is born of the Spirit is spirit,’ that is, altogether good.” I accept the text, but not the comment. For the text affirms only that every man who is “born of the Spirit,” is a spiritual man. He is so: but he may be so, and still not be altogether spiritual. The Christians at Corinth were spiritual men, or else they were not Christians at all, and yet they were not entirely spiritual. They were still partly carnal. Second, “But a man cannot be clean, sanctified, holy, and at the same time unclean, unsanctified, unholy.” Yes, he can. The Corinthians were. “Ye are washed,” says the Apostle, “ye are sanctified;” that is, cleansed from “fornication, idolatry, drunkenness,” and all other outward sin (1 Corinthians 6:9-11); and yet at the same time, in another sense of the word, they were unsanctified; they were not washed, not inwardly cleansed from envy, evil thinking, partiality. “But surely, they did not have a new heart and an old heart at the same time.” It is most certain that they had, for at that time, their hearts were truly, but not entirely, renewed. “But could they be unholy while they were ‘temples of the Holy Spirit?’” Yes, that they were temples of the Holy Spirit, is certain (1 Corinthians 6:19); and it is equally certain that they were, to some degree, carnal, that is, unholy. 

There are also further objections to consider: “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature. Old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). “Certainly a man cannot be a new creature and an old creature at once.”  I respond, yes, he may. He may be partly renewed, which was the case with those at Corinth. They were unquestionably “renewed in the spirit of their mind,” or they could not have been so much as “babes in Christ;” yet they did not have the whole mind which was in Christ, for they envied one another. This whole argument, “If he is clean, he is clean;” “If he is holy, he is holy;” is really no more than playing with words. Frame the sentence logically, and it goes like this: “If he is holy at all, he is holy completely.” That is unreasonable. Every babe in Christ is holy, only not completely so. Sin remains, though it does not reign. If you think it does not remain, at least in immature Christians, you certainly have not considered the extent of the law of God (even the law of love, laid down by St. Paul in the 13th chapter of Corinthians); that every anomia, failure to conform to, or deviation from, this law is sin. Now, is there no failure to conform to this in the heart or life of any believer?

Another objection is as follows: “But believers walk after the Spirit (Romans 8:1), and the Spirit of God lives in them; therefore, they are delivered from the guilt, the power, or, in one word, the ‘being’ of sin” In response, we observe that these are linked together as if they were one thing, but they are not. We agree that believers are delivered from the guilt and power of sin; but we deny that they are delivered from the being of it we.  A man may have the Spirit of God living in him, and may “walk after the Spirit,” though he still feels “the flesh lusting against the Spirit.” 

“But ‘they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh, with its affections and lusts’” (Galatians 5:24). They have, but it still remains in them, and often struggles to break free from the cross. “But they have ‘put off the old man with his deeds’” (Colossians 3:9). They have; and, in the sense described above, “old things are passed away; all things are become new.” A hundred texts may be cited to the same effect; and they will all arrive at the same answer. “But, ‘Christ gave himself for the Church, that it might be holy, and without blemish’” (Ephesians 5:25, 27). And so it will be in the end: but it has not yet been, from the beginning to this day. 

“But from the very nature of things, can a man have pride in him, and not be proud; have anger, and still not be angry?” A man may have pride in him, he may think of himself in some respects higher than he should (and so be proud in those respects), and yet not be a proud man in his general character. He may have anger in him, even a tendency to become furiously angry, without giving way to it. “But can anger and pride be in that heart, where only meekness and humility are felt?” No, but some pride and anger may be in that heart where there is much humility and meekness. 

“But sin cannot exist where it does not reign; for guilt and power are essential qualities of sin.” Strange indeed! Sin cannot, in any kind or degree, exist where it does not reign? This contradicts all experience, all Scripture, all common sense. Resentment is sin; it is anomia, a failure to conform to the law of love. This has existed in me a thousand times. Yet it did not, and does not reign. “But guilt and power are essential qualities of sin; therefore, where one is, all must be.” No. In the example just given, if the resentment I feel is not yielded to, even for a moment, there is no guilt at all, no condemnation from God. And in this case, it has no power. Though it “lusteth against the Spirit,” it cannot conquer. Here, therefore, there is sin without either guilt or power. 

“But if sin remains in a believer, he is a sinful man: if pride, for instance, then he is proud; if self-will, then he is self-willed; if unbelief, then he is an unbeliever; and, consequently, no believer at all. How does he differ then from unbelievers, from unregenerate men?” This is still a matter of playing with words. It means no more than, if there is sin, pride, or self-will in him, then there is sin, pride, or self-will. In that sense then he is proud or self-willed. But not in the same sense that unbelievers are; that is, governed by pride or self-will. In this he differs from unregenerate men. They obey sin; he does not. They “walk after the flesh;” he “walks after the Spirit.” 

“But this doctrine, that sin remains in a believer, that a man may be in the favor of God while he has sin in his heart, tends to encourage men to sin.” Understand the doctrine right, and this will not happen. A man may be in God’s favor though he feels sin; but not if he yields to it. Having sin does not forfeit the favor of God; giving in to sin does. Though the flesh in you “lust against the Spirit,” you may still be a child of God; but if you “walk after the flesh,” you are a child of the devil. Now this doctrine does not encourage us to obey sin, but to resist it with all our power. 

To sum it all up, there are in every person, even after he is justified, two opposing principles, nature and grace, called by St. Paul the flesh and the Spirit.  This agrees with the experience of the children of God. While they feel the witness of grace in themselves, they feel a will not entirely surrendered to the will of God. They know they are in Him and yet find a heart ready to leave Him, a tendency to do evil, and a reluctance to do that which is good. Although we are renewed, cleansed, purified, and sanctified the moment we truly believe in Christ, we are not completely renewed, cleansed, purified altogether at that time. The flesh, the evil nature, still remains (though subdued), and wars against the Spirit.  So let us more earnestly “watch and pray” against the enemy within. Let us guard ourselves more carefully, and “put on the whole armor of God;” so that “we may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.”


This sermon by John Wesley, edited for conciseness and readability, was originally published in A Timeless Faith: John Wesley for the 21st Century, edited by Stephen Gibson.