Straight Lines and Winding Roads
Peter said, “he who suffers in the flesh ceases from sin.” Since Jesus has suffered in the flesh, he has put to death the power of sin. The implication is that If we walk in the Spirit, we could live sinless lives. Paul says to walk in a manner worthy of our calling. Jesus instructed that we live holy lives just as the Father is holy. Statements like these lend themselves to a doctrine of perfectionism. Is living a holy life the same as living a perfect life? And what would a perfect life look like?
Legalism is trying to live perfect lives to be accepted by God. Living a holy life is living according to the law of Christ because Jesus set us free from sin and death. Holiness or godly living, then, is not legalism. It is a sincere desire to live and love the way that Jesus did. The question still stands, can a person live a sinless life after receiving the righteousness of Christ?
This is nothing new; during the middle ages, monks forsook the world to buffet their bodies and kept them under control and free from sin. In their attempt to live a simple life, they had to remove themselves from the temptations of the world. Their asceticism was a testimony to the difficulty, if not the impossibility, to live a sinless life. Even in their ascetic lifestyle, they found sin crouching at the door. If not a constant companion, sin was a persistent predator who, more often than not, devoured its prey.
An attempt to live a holy life almost always spirals into legalism. When sinlessness results in failure, shame and shame become the motivation instead of love. Like the Corinthians, perfectionists shake their heads and say, “don’t touch, don’t eat, and don’t look.” Of course, sinlessness would also have to include our attitudes and imaginations, and widening that circle decreases the possibility of a sinless life. Let me give an example of how proper motivation is essential, and focusing on the right motivation produces a greater reward.
I participate in an excessive program geared around boxing. The more circles I hit with power, the more points I get. Did I mention other people are doing the same thing, and our scores are on a leader board? During the program, I can move up or down in the leader board depending on how many circles I hit. The routine can be demanding on the shoulders, and when my muscles get tired, I drop my shoulders and miss targets, moving me down the leader board. In my ear, the coach is saying, “don’t worry about missing a few targets because you are still in the game.” It’s not about the leader boards but the intensity I put into the excessive program and my health. Yet, that leader board is just off to my right, and when I start looking to see how I am doing, I miss targets, move down the board, and in frustration, end up missing more targets. When I focus on the targets and my rhythm, the better I do.
Walking in the spirit is the same way. If I focus on what God puts in front of me and depend on his righteousness, I will do better. If I worry about what people think of me, or if they are judging me, I take my eyes off of the prize of knowing Jesus and end up doing worse. When your motivation is to look good in front of others so their judgment won’t fall on you, checklists of proper behavior becomes the goal. When we fail, we double our effort, and if we fail again, shame enters the picture, and we begin a cycle of failure, increased effort, shame until we give up altogether or begin judging others in the same way.
When we are in Christ, we live according to the law of Christ. When we fail, God does not judge us, but grace is extended, forgiveness is given, and we are strengthened to walk again in the law of Christ. Our motivation is the love and grace of God in Christ. The other is judgment and shame. As believers, Jesus’ righteousness has been imputed onto us, and when we focus on Jesus, we can live that righteousness in real-time. Can we live a perfect, sinless life? The answer is given to us in Hebrews and 1 John.
“Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest Jesus to arise” Hebrews:11
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:8-10).
Can we live a sinless life? It’s possible but not probable. I’m just saying.