Most Christians would be happy to label themselves as sinners. We know that we need Jesus, and that we cannot save ourselves. That’s Christianity 101.
Most Christians would be happy to go further than this as well, to say that they struggle with particular sins in their lives. Unlike some previous generations where people were encouraged to be private and reserved at what they share with other people, the younger generations now are more in touch with their feelings and expressing their issues. So it would not be all that unusual for a Christian to share with a friend that they struggle with anger or lust or gossip, whatever the case might be. The growth of one-to-one relationships and accountability has given us a forum to have those kinds of conversations.
This is a positive thing. But it is not enough.
I have been working through Romans 5 to 7 at church in recent times, and the controlling imagery is pretty clear. Christians are those people who have moved from one state to another because of Jesus. Chapter 5 says that we were in Adam, and now we are in Christ. Chapter 6 says that we have died to sin and are no longer slaves to sin, but we live for God in newness of life. We are God’s slaves, the slaves of the best master there ever could be. Chapter 7 goes even further: we are no longer married to sin, but now we are married to Jesus. We live to serve Jesus as a good spouse lives to serve the one they are married to, from the heart, not just because of the law.
The thrust of the application of this section of Romans is clear enough. Christians are new people because of Jesus, and because of our new identity we are to live in line with the new people we now are. We are to offer our bodies to God as tools for righteousness, not to serve sin.
This leads us to the latter part of chapter 7, where Paul describes the Christian life in terms of a struggle with sin. Christians love God and want to serve Him well, but so often we sin instead. Our sin is deeper in us than we thought. So often Christians are hypocrites: we say we value one thing yet we then live a different way. We are sinners, wretched sinners (to use the word Paul uses in 7:24). We need to acknowledge this regularly if we are to understand that we are saved by grace, and confession before God, and to other believers we trust, is important.
Which brings me to my main point.
Confessing and naming our sin is not enough. It is half of the picture. The language Paul uses in this section of Romans 7 is full of pain, of struggle and anguish. His sin bothers him a great deal. He fights it, striving to serve God, only to be thwarted by his own nature. The struggle makes him cry out to God for help and to better appreciate the work of Christ.
I see that so often I know where my repeated sins lie yet I don’t always struggle against them enough. Honestly, they don’t always bother me as much as Paul’s sins seem to bother him. But if I want to be like Jesus and serve him like a newlywed (as the start of chapter 7 describes), then I need to confess more often and more specifically. And I need to pick myself up and practically work on my sins. The Puritans called this work ‘mortification’, the putting to death of sin our lives. It might mean being accountable to others, reflecting hard on the gospel, putting boundaries up to protect ourselves from our sins, or working hard to replace sinful habits with godly ones.
As we are exposed to the Word, the Spirit works in us to convict us of our sin and to encourage us to holiness. We are not alone in our fighting of sin! The Christian life is one of continuing grace, not just grace to start us off.
It is a hard work but an essential one for believers. We are to work on our character and godliness, to strive towards the prize, to make every effort (to use just a few New Testament metaphors). Sin is serious and leads to death; how can we live in it any longer? Are we actually improving in how we deal with our particular sins and becoming more like Jesus, or are we resigned to just being at the level we are now?
Repentance means to turn – not just to name the problem and stop for a while. It means turning to Jesus often in confession, turning back, picking yourself up once more. Work at what matters, at dealing with sin in your life, so that we can serve our wonderful Saviour better than before.