“Help! I can’t stop sinning!” [Studies in the New Covenant]

The Bible says that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). That’s why, when we come to Christ, we experience rapid changes in our conduct. People start telling us, “You’ve changed, you’re different.” Different, yes: but we haven’t become perfect, not yet. That is why the Bible tells us that we must keep on fighting against sin, every day, every minute. [1] Whenever we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we prepare ourselves. The leader tell us to examine our hearts and confess whatever sin that’s there, so that we will not partake “in an unworthy manner” (1 Cor 11:27). So then, right now, think back to the last time you took part in the Supper, and recall what you told the Lord in the privacy of your heart. Some of us said, “Lord forgive me: I have committed some of Sin A, a little of Sin B, a lot of Sin C, none of Sin D, but some of Sin E. Please cleanse me.” Others of us said: “Lord, I’ve committed Sin A, and other things, but more than anything, this Sin A. The other month, Lord, when we celebrated your Supper, I also confessed that I’d fallen into that same sin. The month before too. And so on and so on, as far back as I can remember.” And now that you’re hearing this, you’re thinking, “Yeah, and I’ve fallen into the same sin, like always, just this week.” Your prayers start to sound alike, “Here we are, Lord, the same thing once again.” So, some of us sin “randomly” – a little of this, a little of that, and next time it will be something different. Others of us, maybe even the majority of us, fight against a certain sinful habit or habits. Now, sin is sin, and every sin is an offense against God. Nevertheless, habitual sin is particularly offensive, since by it we are “serving two masters”: we have a life with God and another life that we’ve constructed with another “lord.” Just as James 1:8 says, some people live in two minds, and “double-minded people are unstable in all their ways.” Here is a common sin today: internet pornography is perhaps the greatest addiction, and it affects Christians as well us non-Christians; to this we may add sexual relations outside of marriage, of whatever type. Nevertheless there are plenty of others: of course, drugs and alcohol. Gambling. Theft. Anger. Pride. A fantasy life, where one does wrong, but in the mind. The lack of love. Bitterness. Obsession to get more and more money. Gossip. Bad language. Sarcastic attitude. Running with a few friends and making fun of others. Not bothering to help those in need. Chronic fear, that too is a sin. Not sharing Christ with others. Refusing to take responsibility for one’s own actions. Judgmentalism. We could make a larger list, but if there’s any chronic sin in your life, you already know what it is. What we will develop tonight is one specific gospel truth, in order to give you fresh direction and restore hope that God can transform you. That truth has to do with the New Covenant. You remember that Israel lived under the Old Covenant. God gave the Law to Moses, and he told them to obey it. Did Israel obey the Law? They did not. They knew that God had given them the Law, they knew that God would punish them if they didn’t obey it, but they kept on doing what they wanted to do. What was their problem? Because we know that “the Law of the Lord is perfect” and “by the commandments is your servant warned, in keeping them there is great reward” (Ps 19). But, from Genesis to Malachi the people of God did not obey the Lord, because they could not do so, nor did they wish to. But God did not permit the story to end there. He promised a New Covenant, one which did not depend on human effort and strength:

Jer 31:31-33 says – “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

That is, God did not simply tell them the correct way and then say, “Okay, now go and do it.” Rather, he said that he would re-create people from the inside out. He would make us transformed people, whether spiritually, psychologically or emotionally. He was going to reprogram us, not to make us robots, but people with the freedom to live in a holy way. Likewise in Ezek 36:25-27 we read:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

Here we have a reference to the Holy Spirit. And doesn’t Paul say that “your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit”? In the Old Covenant, the glory of God dwelled in the Tabernacle or the Temple. In the New Covenant, we do not have to go to Jerusalem in order to be near the Spirit – he lives within us, and he teaches us to obey God. Do you appreciate what God is saying through Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and in other passages? It means that, as Christians, as people of the New Covenant, we have the Holy Spirit dwelling within each of us. Some of us have more of his “filling” than others; nevertheless, if we are the people of God we are by definition people of the indwelling Holy Spirit. I just looked up some information about what people today do when they have trouble with a bad habit. One method is called “aversion therapy.” For example, people who lose control of their temper might go to a laboratory. The scientist says, “Okay then, think about something that makes you angry,” and when they do so, the scientist lets lose a disgusting odor or may even give the person a mild electric shock. The idea is that, the angry people would associate anger with something disagreeable and so they would learn to not be so angry. But do you know what they discovered? That it didn’t work! It seems that when you give a shock to an angry person, well, he just gets angrier! I’m disappointed that even Christians lose their grasp on this truth of the Spirit and the New Covenant. So one blogger talks about how a Christian can kick an addiction: “The person who wants to quit smoking ought to throw out his cigarettes and not buy any new ones. He should avoid the company of those who smoke, and avoid places and circumstances that lead to temptation.” This is good and practical counsel, but it is the exact advice that some unbelieving counselor might offer. I wonder, then, “But where is the miraculous power of the New Covenant: ‘I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts’? Where is the fact that in Christ we are a different kind of people, that we have the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit to live holy lives? Where is the truth that the Lord has re-written and re-programmed us, even our deepest desires, inclinations and motivations?” Another Christian writes that we ought to “resist and defeat” sin, but he does not tell us how! Jeremiah and Ezekiel wrote in their day that Israel did not stop sinning, nor did it wish to! But there will come a day, they said, when God would give a New Covenant to his people, and that he would put his Spirit in them. Then, they will wish to live in holiness and then they will be able to defeat sin. And it doesn’t matter if we’re speaking of sin in general or habitual sin or even an addiction. We are a kind of human being that didn’t exist on this earth before Christ. But since the Day of Pentecost, 2000 years ago, we and the rest of the people of God have been living under the New Covenant and its power. Jesus did not just die to give us forgiveness, but to transform us. As he said, on the night in which he was betrayed:

Luke 22:20 – And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”

Paul repeats the same words, about 25 years after Jesus died for our sin:

1 Cor 11:25 – In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

So that which the prophets predicted, Jesus and later Paul said was now a fact:

2 Cor 3:6 – who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

We can unpack that verse as:

He has empowered us to be servants of a New Covenant, not of the written letter of the Old Covenant but of the Holy Spirit, the New Covenant; because the letter of the kills, but the Spirit gives life under the New Covenant.

And later on in 2 Cor 5:17 – “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” And in Galatians 5, Paul speaks of the “fruit of the Holy Spirit,” attitudes and conduct that we can experience only through a miracle of the Spirit. Not fruit of my efforts or self-discipline, but fruit of the Spirit. Some of us make New Year’s Resolutions; for example, someone will say, “This year I want to lose weight; I will be nicer to my family; be less critical toward others; be wiser with money.” And the joke, every year, is, “Well, I lasted until about Jan 15 and then I broke my resolution and said, ‘Forget it.’” May I add a personal note? This past year I made a resolution, and I have kept it until today, in July. The January before, in 2011, I made another resolution, which I’m still following. In 2010, the same. And I can assure you, I do not have any more will-power than the average person does; so I’m not bragging about my self-discipline. So, how is it that I have followed up my resolutions, when others have not? Precisely because I do not depend on my will-power, or efforts, or rules which I’ve made to follow, or some program that I’ve joined. I do not pray, “O, God, this time things will be different!” No, I simply asked God, “Will you please teach me to obey you in area X of my life? Will you transform me?” I asked him this once, than again, then many times, again and again. And he answered my prayer – my thinking changed, and based on that, my actions changed. The Old Covenant, the “letter,” had all the correct rules, but it did not create In people the desire to do them or the power to carry them out. “The letter kills” says Paul: if I just try to follow the rules, or be disciplined, or use more will-power, these are all examples of “the letter.” Not only does it not help, but it even causes me spiritual damage, it “kills.” But “the Holy Spirit gives life.” In the New Covenant he changes us. We can ask the Spirit, Would you please change my mind? My motivations? My conduct? My attitude? Will you reprogram me? When we speak about sin, sometimes we go to Psalm 51, and that is a good option. But I believe that at times we neglect one of its important points. We concentrate on David’s confession in vv. 1-3, which says:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.

But we neglect what he says in Ps 51:10 –

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

David did not just ask for forgiveness; he asked that the Lord would transform him. He did not just ask for pardon; he asked for victory over sin. Change me, Lord. David, since he was the beloved of God and the anointed king of Israel, received special favor from God. It was a wonderful gift that he could ask for personal transformation. But now, in this age, we Christians, every single one of us, have the same gift as a promise: in Christ, we can ask God to change our mind; that God would make us hate sin; that God would give us holy motivations. I want you to make that connection between your sinful actions and attitudes in the New Covenant. Let us pray the following as we close:

God of eternal grace, Jesus, mediator of the New Covenant, Holy Spirit of unlimited power: I do not make you promises, I do not set my own rules, I say No to my own plans and efforts. Instead, I ask you for a renewed heart. Rewrite my will to accord with yours. Redesign my motivations. I pray for new attitudes. I pray for miraculous transformation. I ask that you renew me, today And tomorrow and tomorrow and the tomorrow after that. That all victory might bring glory to you, Father, In the name of Christ Jesus, through your powerful Holy Spirit. Amen.

NOTE:

[1] This essay stresses the basics of the New Covenant, not its deeper implications. I originally gave this talk in Spanish, to a group in Costa Rica. One fact that guided me is that there is little teaching about the New Covenant. Another factor is the prevalent doctrine in some circles that the Christian no long struggles with sin. One study of attrition within the Costa Rican church showed that ¼ believe that it is possible to live in perfection; and that 21.2% said that the Christian does not fall into temptation or indeed experience temptation. [Data taken from Jorge I. Gomez V., El crecimiento y la desercion en la iglesia evangelica costarricense (San Francisco de Dos Rios, CR: IINDEF, 1996), 103]. On top of this, many preachers tell their flocks to simply alter their behavior, as if this could be accomplished by good intentions and a human decisión.

RELATED POST:

New Year’s Resolutions or New Covenant Miracles?

“Help! I can’t stop sinning!,” by Gary Shogren, PhD, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

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12 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] Help! I can’t stop sinning! [New Covenant Studies] […]

  2. Hi, I’ve been a Christian most of my life, but have also struggled with addiction most of my life as well. I always doubt my salvation when I am in the midst of it.

    As I’ve learned more about Covenant recently it has really started changing my perspective though. What I’m still not sure about though is can we ever fall out of Covenant? I guess it goes back to the whole, “once saved, always saved” debate.

    Is that what you would tend to believe?

    Thanks! Great article.

    • Dear Trevor, thanks for your note.

      I do classify myself as one who believes in “once saved, always saved.” Nevertheless, it’s that first part “once saved” that is tricky. How do I know who is saved or not? God knows the heart and he alone knows whether we have truly experienced the new birth. So while I don’t think people can “fall out of” the New Covenant, I do believe that there are plenty of church members who never experienced the Spirit’s work in the Covenant and were thus merely going through the motions.

      The Lord taught us that we know true followers of him by our “fruit”, that is, actions that reflect God’s work in us.

      The passages that have to do with the assurance of our salvation, notably Rom 8, were not delivered to people who were straying spiritually, but to those who were under persecution and might conclude from that that God had abandoned them. “Don’t worry,” Paul says, “God won’t condemn you.”

      Peter taught, very importantly, “Therefore, brothers and sisters, be all the more eager to confirm your call and election, for if you do this, you will never stumble.” (2 Pet 1:10). That means that we cannot assume we are saved simply because we raised our hand at a meeting or prayed a prayer. This is the verse I would leave with you. I have also published a book called Running in Circles, which is a guide for Christians who struggle with addiction. You can also download it here: https://openoureyeslord.com/2011/07/15/1236/

      Please keep in touch! Gary

  3. […] I just published an article on chronic sin (CLICK HERE), I thought I’d follow it up with another about the Wretched Man passage of Romans 7:14-25. […]

  4. Hello Gary,

    Excellent essay. Very helpful indeed.
    I can see why Paul said; “In the flesh dwelleth no good thing”! And also that “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God”.
    Recently I was in a conversation with another believer who said that the “Whole law was ‘done away with’ as we are now under grace”.

    Surely it was only the priestly/Levitical ceremonial law?!

    On another note. I have often heard Paul as being described as a “liberal theologian”. Can this be true if one reads Galatians 1?

    • Hi Colin, I take “in my flesh there dwelleth no good thing,” along with all of Rom 7:14-25, to refer to the person outside of Christ. Someone just yesterday asked me about Rom 7, and I will probably publish an article that I wrote on it, shortly.

      “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” in 1 Cor 15:50, I take as Paul’s proof that not only dead believers but also the living, must be transformed into Christ’s likeness at his coming.

      “Liberal” and “conservative” and “moderate” are relative terms – if someone will define what he/she means by “liberal” I would be able to respond!

  5. Love the practicality of this message Gary. It’s so easy for us to say to someone “You need Jesus”. Like Jesus is a magic potion or genie or something. It’s a whole other thing to show them HOW Jesus is the answer. I just got back from Saddleback Church where Rick Warren preached a great message on this. It’s one thing for Jesus to save us from our sins. As for sanctification, we need Jesus to save us from ourselves! With Him, we know have the power that we need to overcome the sins that “so easily beset us”.

  6. Thanks Gary! I would love to read your work on Rom. 7. I understand the difference of the Holy Spirit in the OT and NT as his special ministry to empower Christians to preach the Gospel (a continuation of Jesus’ ministry) mainly.

    • I will try to publish the Rom 7 article soon, Nathan, but meanwhile I’ll send you a copy by email. I would regard the difference between the OT and NT ministry as much broader than the power to preach the gospel, although of course that is a vital part of it.

  7. Great article Gary! What do you think of the indwelling Holy Spirit in the OT to empower saints to live godly lives? What do you think of the “divided man” debate regarding Rom. 7:14-25 (Paul as a Christian or as an unbeliever)?
    I ask the first question because I’ve turned away from dispensationalism because of the sharp division it creates between the OT and NT rather than looking at the way they come together with one message (same with Israel and the Church).
    I ask the second question because I did a study several years ago and studied the different views of Rom. 7:14-25 where both sides had good arguments but I ended up leaning towards Paul’s struggle as a Christian as my own interpretation of the text.

    Thanks!

    • Hi! Since acc to my theology, all true repentance must result from the Spirit’s work, then yes, the Spirit was active in some way before Pentecost, but to a minor degree.

      I have done a lot of work on Rom 7:14ff. as well. I think a literal reading shows that he is not just a struggler – he is consistently a loser, 100% of the time. I published a journal article on it a few years back, I should post it as a blog. I agree with W. G. Kummel, that the man is not Paul, but a typical Jew under the Old Covenant. On the other hand, I hold that the flesh vs. Spirit (not “spirit”) struggle in Gal 5 is the description of the normal Christian life.


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