There was a spot on my family's land where a previous owner had dumped their trash. Over the years, antique bottles in various blue, amber, and white hues would appear after rainstorms. Every time you thought you had gotten them all, more would appear.
Sin is similar to these ever-appearing bottles from my childhood. Often when we think a particular sin has been destroyed, it appears again. Why does this happen?
Sin is pervasive and deep-rooted, so we are never free of it in this life. Flower beds are a great illustration of this truth. To put in a flower bed, you clear the ground of rocks, debris, and weeds. You use good soil and quality plants. You stand over your work and admire it, but weeds are starting to pop up in just a few days. These weeds will take over the bed and choke out the flowers if left unattended.
Sin is no different. You can see where you are embracing holiness and starting to produce spiritual fruit. Spiritual growth is happening, but sin is always ready to pop up. Just as a gardener must be diligent in destroying the weeds, so must Christians be with sin. John Owen famously said, 'Be killing Sin, or Sin will be killing you.'
Growing up outside the Reformed Faith, my inclination often leads me toward a work's righteousness. My first thought was, how can ‘I’ destroy it? In my teens, I thought each sin took me out of the love of Christ. My relationship with the Lord would be in constant flux. The Lord would bounce back and forth between a loving father and a holy, wrathful judge. In reality, Jesus was not enough at this point. Ultimately I thought I had to be entirely holy to be saved. Holiness was a requirement, and backsliding would cause me to be damned. You must confess your sin, or else you were lost. This view sounds so foreign to us in the Reformed faith. How could this be?
It comes from a wrong understanding. It was both a low view of sin and a high view of our abilities as redeemed sinners. It taught that you could be completely sanctified. You could grow in this life to a point where you had no more sin. However, I never found one of these people who was without sin. Many good people had much spiritual fruit, but no one was without sin.
The plain fact is that no one will be without sin in this life. The sinlessness that Christians are longing for is not in this life. We will struggle with sin. We should have victories as we grow in our faith. It is important to remember that as we grow in Christ, we will see more of our sin. We will grow in our knowledge of just how sinful we are. The catechisms say that sanctification is a 'work' and not an 'act' like justification or adoption. This difference means we will always fight against sin, even while we are growing stronger and deeper in faith.
Christian, understand that Jesus' benefits are not just for heaven but are for you now (Ephesians 2:8-10). Jesus didn't die to leave us alone in the fight against sin. Christ died to save us from our sins. The Holy Spirit empowers us to kill sin. We will never kill it all in this life, but we will be free of it in the next. We must continue to look to Jesus' grace and mercy in this life, not only for our justification but for our sanctification too.
Some say this understanding of grace leads to licentiousness and antinomianism. If God alone saves us, we have no reason to be holy. I think that is the drive for many who say your obedience is required for your salvation. It is from a fear that it will lead to Christians not addressing their sin. There is another way to look at it.
Those who see their sin saved by the grace and mercy of Jesus are compelled to hate their sin. Seeing a holy and perfect Lord who has given you salvation you do not deserve compels obedience from us out of love for Jesus (John 14:15). The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. But the love of God for sinners is the true beginning of sanctification. In Christ's resurrection, we see the hope of new life both now and later (Romans 6:1-11).
Yes, we need to seek to be holy. God's law should be precious to the Christian. We should love it as we love Christ. However, see that Christ has saved you. Your obedience results from Jesus' work in your life, bringing holiness and fruit in you by the work of the Holy Spirit. Complete sanctification is coming, but until then, we fight sin trusting in the finished work of Jesus.