The Bible tells us that we’re free from sin but what exactly does that freedom entail?
In the Lord of the Rings’ second volume, The Two Towers, Frodo and Sam are a journey to destroy the One Ring, a terrible weapon of evil. They’re joined, rather unwillingly, by Sméagol who held the ring before Frodo and was corrupted by it. One night, Sam awakes to the sound of Sméagol quite literally debating with his own alter ego, Gollum.
“’But the Precious holds the promise,’ the voice of Sméagol objected.
“’Then take it,’ said the other, ‘and let’s hold it ourselfs! Then we shall be master, gollum! Make the other hobbit, the nasty suspicious hobbit, make him crawl, yes, gollum!”
“’But not the nice hobbit?’
“’Oh no, not if it doesn’t please us. …if we has it, then we can escape, even from Him, eh? Perhaps we grows very strong, stronger than Wraiths. Lord Sméagol? Gollum the Great? The Gollum? Eat fish every day, three times a day, fresh from the sea. Most Precious Gollum! Must have it. We wants it, we wants it, we wants it!’
“’But there’s two of them. They’ll wake too quick and kill us,’ whined Sméagol in a last effort. ‘Not now. Not yet.’
“’We wants it! But’ — and here there was a long pause, as if a new thought had wakened. ‘Not yet, eh? Perhaps not. She might help. She might, yes.’
“’No, no! Not that way!’ wailed Sméagol.
“’Yes! We wants it! We wants it!’
“Sam had lain still, fascinated by this debate…. To his simple mind ordinary hunger, the desire to eat hobbits, had seemed to chief danger in Gollum. He realized now that it was not so: Gollum was feeling the terrible call of the Ring.”
A Promise or a Paradox?
Early in my Christian walk, I was taught that I no longer was a captive to sin, according to Romans 6:5-7, “Since we have been united with him in his death, we will also be raised to life as he was. We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin. For when we died with Christ we were set free from the power of sin” (NLT).
This sounded wonderful. I no longer needed to feel hopelessly trapped by certain nasty habits or addictions. Christ broke the chains of sin’s power and tore down all barriers and strongholds. Complete freedom beckoned!
The only problem was I didn’t feel entirely liberated.
I’d visit old friends and realize halfway through the conversation that I was merrily gossiping along with the rest. Someone would make a snide comment in line to board a plane, and I’d be furious, shooting back a less than godly response to a random stranger. Someone honked their horn at me on the freeway — Cue instant rage — or a posse of small children would be running amuck in the department store while I shopped, and I definitely sinned, in my heart if not with my mouth or actions.
Where was this ‘complete freedom’ I supposedly had? I felt more like Sméagol, constantly trying to restrain or bargain with my evil alter ego.
Then I read where James is telling early believers things like “Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death” (James 1:14-15).
To top this off, only one chapter after Romans 6, Paul openly admits, “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate” (Romans 7:15).
This struggle is one we see even in the lives of biblical ‘heroes.’ “David was a God-possessed man,” David Wilkerson noted. “Even though he was a giant killer, an anointed psalm writer, and a great king, he battled a fierce compulsion in his heart. At the very height of God’s blessing and favor, he was overtaken by a violent attack of lust. He fell into sin with another man’s wife and even had the woman’s husband murdered in battle.”
On the other side of the mulberry bush, however, I come up against verses like John 8:36, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
One minute it seems like struggling with sin is normal and the next I feel intense guilt for not being free and am left wondering if I’ve missed the boat. Are we free from sin or not? Is the Bible contradicting itself?
Not Living in Our Element
In his commentary on this troubling part of chapter 6 in Romans, Matthew Henry explained, “Though there are none that live without sin, yet, blessed be God, there are those that do not live in sin, do not live in it as their element, do not make a trade of it: this is to be sanctified….
“Though sin may remain as an outlaw, though it may oppress as a tyrant, yet let it not reign as a king. Let it not make laws, nor preside in councils, nor command the militia; let it not be uppermost in the soul, so that we should obey it. Though we may be sometimes overtaken and overcome by it, yet let us never be obedient to it in the lusts thereof; let not sinful lusts be a law to you, to which you would yield a consenting obedience.”
The freedom, then, that Paul discusses in his letters would seem to be having a choice when before there was none.
Not only do we now have the freedom to choose between sin and not sinning, but we also have the Spirit who convicts us and offers us his strength to endure or escape temptation. If that weren’t enough, God may also heal the after-effects of sin.
This hope we have even in our struggles with sin is something that David Wilkerson explored while writing about the biblical king with whom he shared his name. “David suffered dire consequences for his sin, but God preserved him through the ordeal. In fact, David was prepared for even greater ministry after his fall. His voice was heard throughout the land as never before and today we read his anointed words in the Psalms. The truth that God revealed to David through his trial is still being preached today.
“Remember, the Lord will never give up on you no matter what struggle you face. You are the Lord’s, so receive his love, power, forgiveness and freedom. ‘For the Lord will not cast off His people, nor will He forsake His inheritance’ (Psalm 94:14).”
As long as we are alive, we will struggle with sin. Our freedom is not found in no longer experiencing temptations or difficulties. However, we are now free to choose an alternative.
The Most Worthwhile Battle
Tim Challies discussed John Owen’s seminal work Overcoming Sin and Temptation, condensing it into nine steps; but he rightfully pointed out that our work must begin with some serious and honest self-evaluation.
“Evaluate whether your sin is especially serious and deep-rooted. You have heard it said that ‘all sin is the same,’ and there is a sense in which this is true—every single sin alienates you from God. However, some sins are more serious than others because they bring more serious consequences. The most serious sins are the ones that have gone so deep that they are now habitual; your subconscious habits now lead you to sin again and again.
“Consider your sin. Is it manifested in your habits? Do you sin almost on auto-pilot? Is it easier to sin than to do what is right? If it is, your sin is especially deep and you will need an extra measure of God’s help to battle it and overcome it.”
These are often the sins that cause us to question our freedom in Christ because they feel so ingrained and overwhelming.
Just because a deep-seated sin may require routine prayer, allies beside us and long wrestling — think months or years — does not mean that God has failed to offer us escape from it. Hearing that is often disheartening or frightening. I know it certainly is for me. If trench warfare is what we must do, though, to pursue liberty from the tyranny of sin, then by all means, let us fight. Our heavenly Father has sacrificed to be able to give us this great gift. If we love him with all our hearts, we’ll claim it.
Never was a battle more worthwhile.