It is quite common today for Christians to be very unsure in regard to how they might overcome sin in their life. This article will attempt to present a coherent view of Christian growth and sanctification that can clear up some of that confusion.
At the outset, we need to take seriously the multiple ways in which Scripture itself addresses this issue, and not attempt to water down those parts that we have trouble with because they do not correlate well with our own personal experience of sin. In many places, the NT authors declare that victory over sin is total, while in other passages they speak of an ongoing process of victory. Here is a short list:
Complete Victory == Rom 6:1-7; 8:30; 2Cor 5:17; 1Jn 3:9
Gradual Victory == Rom 6.12-14; 8:13; 12:2; 1Jn 1:7-10; 3:3
Both/And == Rom 6:18-19; Gal 3:3; Col 3:10; 1Jn 2:1
Interestingly (and significantly) this parallels rather well what the NT authors say about the victory of Christ over the world.
Victory Completed == Eph 1:20-22; Col 2:15; Heb 2:14; 1Pet 3:22; 1Jn 3:4,8
Victory Not Yet Complete == 1Cor 15:24-27; Eph 6:12
Both/And == Heb 2:8
To be honest, most of us have trouble visualizing how any of this could be viewed as “complete” because we see evil everywhere, including within our own soul. But frankly, many people also struggle with the “gradual” and “not yet” aspects of victory over evil, because their experience is one of bondage to certain forms of sin.
Yet both the “now” and “not yet” views are clearly in the Bible. And given that Jesus came to free us from sin, we need to try to come to terms with these passages without watering them down to make them fit our broken world.
On a cosmic scale, I think we can make some sense of this if we think about what it means to rule a domain. In the story of King Arthur, for example, we have a good man who was given supreme power over England, with total say-so over what happened there. Yet there were many rebel forces in the kingdom that refused to submit to his rule. So Arthur and his knights could only gradually bring about what was already the law of the land — a kind of already-but-not-yet situation.
What God has done in Christ is somewhat analogous to this. In His death and resurrection, Jesus dealt a fatal blow to the kingdom of evil, as the verses above will demonstrate. And today He quite routinely now rescues individuals from the grip of the enemy and brings them into His own realm. That is the Good News we preach.
I think one way to look at this is that while the real work of overcoming evil is still underway, what has been fully accomplished is to turn the rules of the universe right-side up, so that total victory is possible. In other words, something incredibly significant has already occurred, so that we are able to witness and participate in the ongoing fulfillment of that reality.
Personal Victory Over Sin
That same basic reality applies to each of us personally as Christians. Something incredibly important has already happened to us — we have been recreated, regenerated, reborn as a child of God. That means we are no longer slaves to sin; we now have dominion over our own flesh. And with God as our constant companion, healer and restorer, we now have the means by which we can subdue and eradicate all that remains of evil (except that we do not have enough time left on earth to finish the task!). None of that was true before we accepted Christ or when we lived under the law.
Of course it is also true that the work is not yet done. But the good news is that we can be free of sin, one stronghold after another, and this can continue for the rest of our life! We are not chained to an “old nature” that is intractable or irredeemable. That is a terrible and very faulty view of Christian Identity (topic for another article). We are new creations that are now in progress (Col.3:9-10) toward becoming more and more like Jesus.
For a critical historical review of all the ways that the Church has struggled with sanctification, please download this article: Toward a Theology of Sanctification