Strategies for the War on Sin

Life is filled with temptations. These temptations can be small and they can be substantial. Temptation that you experience may be a real trial for you, but for others it may be merely trivial, and vice versa. What is it that causes such a struggle within us when it comes to temptation? It would be easy to give in to the natural tendency of people to shift the blame away from themselves. We may blame the environment we are in, the upbringing we had or even our personality type. The problem with doing this is that we are wrongly diagnosing the problem and therefore don’t receive the biblical solution. The reality is that there is a deeper and more potent source causing the lure to temptation. What is it? In James 1:13-15 we learn about the source and sequence of temptation,

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death

The Source of Temptation
James makes it clear that God is not the source of our temptation. He cannot be tempted because He has no capacity or vulnerability to temptation (cf. Psalm 5:4; Isaiah 6:3 and Habakkuk 1:3) and therefore He does not tempt (James 1:13). So then, where does temptation come from? Verse 14 says, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire”. He illustrates the source of temptation with fishing metaphors. Like a fish that is enticed by the bait and then lured away, we fall into temptation when our “own desire” drags us to the bait. The problem is within us (cf. Matt. 15:19). Again, notice that the text says, “his own desire”. We all have different tendencies, which come from our different upbringings and personal choices in life. One person’s temptation isn’t always the same as another’s. Nonetheless they are still real.

The Sequence of Temptation 
Consider the sequence of temptation. In verse 15, James changes metaphors from fishing to gestation (“Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death”). “Desire” represents the mother and its child is “sin”. The gestation period of a human is nine months, whereas the gestation process of temptation is instantaneous. Once mother “desire” has given birth to her child “sin”, it grows, and if allowed to become mature it “brings forth death”. The apostle Paul said on the same lines, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Sin should not become the object of our entertainment. The results of allowing our desires to conceive are devastating, and must be avoided.

James concludes this section with a firm yet pastoral warning, “do not be deceived, my beloved brothers” (James 1:16). It is not God who brings such evils in our life; the problem is with our own desires. In the words of the great puritan pastor-theologian John Owen, Temptations and occasions put nothing into a man, but only draw out what was in him before”. In this article I would like to consider some specific and practical strategies for the war on sin and temptation. But before I do this, I want to discuss briefly three important and foundational truths that you need to know and understand before you enter the fight with temptation.

Firstly, if we are going to be effective in our war on sin, we need to be a genuine believer in Christ. As a genuine believer in Christ, we are at peace with God (Rom. 5:1). Then we are granted a new nature in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17) and are granted the indwelling presence and power of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18). Without the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, it is impossible for us to fight against sin. For the apostle Paul stated, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). Only those who have the residing Holy Spirit will be able to take up arms against the evil of sin’s seduction. Secondly, the most sinful act committed by one person could very easily be committed by any of us. What prevents us from being as bad as we could be is the restraining grace of God. Before we consider biblical strategies for fighting sin, it is essential that we recognize that sin is a wicked act against our holy Lord. Therefore, we ought to be strategic in our approach to putting it to death. Remember, our war on sin is not about us fighting it for the sake of fighting sin; our goal is to fight it because sin is contrary to the character of our holy Lord. Thirdly, if we are going to be effective in our war on sin, we need to be strategic and thorough in our dealing with sin – we need a battle plan. Again, John Owen said these very wise words,

“Let no man think to kill sin with few, easy, or gentle strokes. He who hath once smitten a serpent, if he follow not on his blow until it be slain, may repent that ever he began the quarrel. And so he who undertakes to deal with sin, and pursues it not constantly to the death.”

So then, it will be useless if we fight sin occasionally; we need to be strategic and thorough. Let us now consider four strategies for the war on temptation and sin.

If you are going to put to death and put off sin, it is first essential to recognise sin. Today’s culture continues to re-define sin so that people’s consciences may be soothed. For example, drunkenness is changed to being called an “alcoholic”, the sin of fornication is re-named “living together” or a “de-facto relationship”, and the list could go on. Though the world refuses to call sin for what it is, we as Christians are to be concerned about being biblical and honouring to our Lord. We need to call sin for what it is! Sin is no small matter – it is the believer’s greatest enemy. John MacArthur noted, Anything as severe as sin needs a definition so people can understand it and know why they need to be free from it.”[1] The classic verse in the New Testament that provides an insightful definition of sin is 1 John 3:4: “sin is lawlessness.” Such a text reveals that sin is anything that does not conform to God’s standard; it is simply breaking God’s law.

In the Scriptures there are many words used when describing sin. The most common word for sin is the Greek word hamartia, which literally means, “to miss the mark.” In classical Greek literature it could be used of a soldier throwing his spear and missing his enemy. But when used in Scripture, it refers to any individual missing the mark of God’s standard. A simple definition could be: sin is any thought or action that does not conform to God’s holy character. Many people trivialize sin and sadly are easily entertained by it. As the people of God, we ought to be disgusted by it and recognize that it is our enemy.

If we are going to enter the pathway to purity and effectively wage war on sin, we need to call sin for what it is. Can you spot sin on the horizon? Are you carefully looking at your life and trying to be aware of anything that will cause you or your brother spiritual harm (cf. Matt. 18:6)? There is nothing beautiful or good about sin – it is the believer’s foe!

In my last point I raised the importance of being able to recognize sin. By doing this, the enemy becomes easier for us to identify. This is crucial because sin comes in many subtle forms, it even tries to deny that it is even sin! However, our war on sin must not end with this simple yet necessary recognition. A second strategy for waging war on sin is to replace sin. Sin tries to consume our mind, and once it has done so it then produces evil actions. As a believer, we ought to replace evil with good. Instead of being consumed with unrighteousness, we ought to be consumed with righteousness. The principle of replacing calls for the believer to crowd sin out of their life. If we have a sinful thought, it is not enough to recognize it as sin, as important as that is. We need to replace that sin. What do we replace it with? We need to be filling our minds with the glorious truths of God’s Word. Paul said in his letter to the Philippians,

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Phil. 4:8).

The notion of replacing can also be seen in the principle of Putting off and Putting on. Once we remove sin we replace it with righteousness. In his letter to the Colossians Paul commanded his readers to put off sexual (Col. 3:5-7) and social sins (Col. 3:8-11). These are the garments of wickedness. In place of those corrupt clothes he then calls for them to put on garments of godliness (Col. 3:12-14). Just as the priests in the Old Testament were to put on particular garments for their priestly service (cf. Ex. 29:8-9), every believer is to put on particular spiritual garments for their Christian service. If we are going to wage war on sin, we must make it our business by God’s grace to be actively replacing sin.

Now we come to the third strategy: Refusing Sin. The apostle Paul spoke these words in his letter to the Thessalonians, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thess. 4:3). The word “abstain” literally means “to hold oneself off” or “to stay completely away from.” It is used again in 1 Thess. 5:22 where Paul said, “abstain from every form of evil.” This is a deliberate act in which the believer refuses to associate with sin.

What is Paul exactly addressing here? What are believers to abstain from? The answer is sexual immorality. In the New Testament this term is often translated “fornication” or “immorality.” It is actually a very general and broad term that refers to any sexual sin. So when it comes to sexual immorality the believer must abstain. An excellent example of someone who removes himself from the presence of sexual immorality and refuses it was Joseph. In Genesis 39:7-12, Potiphar’s wife offered herself to Joseph; he reacted in a way that was honouring to God by fleeing from the scene. He refused the sin.

It is important to consider what the source of sexual immorality is in our lives (and the source of any sin for that matter). According to the teaching of the Lord Jesus, any act of sin originates within the individual’s heart (Marl 7:20-23). It is clear that such sins originate within the individual, but it is also important to understand that this is still sinful if this sin doesn’t manifest itself to the public eye. Jesus said, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28). It is the duty of the believer to be sexually pure in thought and deed. This means that you are to stand clear of all sexual immorality including things in your thought-life. If you desire to refuse impurity and pursue purity, it is critical that you abstain from sexual immorality.

Of course, this doesn’t only apply to sexual immorality. As it was said earlier, we are also commanded to “abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess. 5:22). With the help of the Lord’s empowering, we are to refuse sin in the midst of this intense battle. Consider the helpful words of Steve Lawson, In the battle with sin, common to all believers, sin must be refused, even put to death, through the power of the Holy Spirit.”[2]

As we approach this final strategy on the war on sin, I want to discuss a right action and plan for us for when we fall short of the Lord’s command and actually sin. Of course, such an action is not rare for the believer. Think about the following scenario: The believer is in a battle against the world, the flesh and the devil. This individual finds himself in a tempting situation and fails in his attempt to refuse sin, as he is lured away and then “enticed by his own desire” (James 1:14). Sin has been committed. What now? The wound is there, it is too late to prevent it. Is there any hope?

Yes, there is! This leads us to another critical strategy for fighting sin, and that is repenting from sin. Though the believer must fight against sin by recognizing sin, replacing sin, and refusing sin, the believer will not be free from its presence and influence until they are glorified. Even in the midst of the battle, the believer will still sin. But this does not mean the war is over, it is then the believer is to repent. Instead of feeling sorry for ourselves, we are to recognize that our sin is against the Lord and we are to respond with swift and genuine repentance.

Genuine repentance involves the use of one’s intellect, emotions and volition. Or to put it another way, repentance will involve action from the head, heart, and hands.

Recognition of Personal Sin
This first component of the repentance involves the intellect. When one sins and repents, the individual is to recognise that what they have done is sin. This is the thought process of understanding that what was done by the individual is an actual sin and therefore it is a transgression against God. The temptation is for people to persuade themselves that was done was not actually sin. Genuine repentance will include the recognition of personal sin. 

Remorse for Personal Sin
Once somebody truly recognises that what he or she has done is sinful, the true process of repentance leads to remorse for his or her personal sin. This remorse involves an actual sorrow and regret for the transgression. This remorse occurs because the individual is persuaded in their mind that they sinned. This genuine kind of remorse is called “godly grief” (2 Cor. 7:9-10) in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. Counterfeit repentance may involve grief, but it is nothing more than a “worldly grief” (2 Cor. 7:10). 

Repulsion of Personal Sin
The next emotional (or internal) component is a repulsion of personal sin. This involves an intense hatred and disgust of the sin committed. This hatred is fuelled by the passion and desire to be holy as the Lord is holy. The holiness of God unmasks the sin for what it is. As the repentant individual’s eyes are firmly fixed upon the Lord, their love for Him results in a hatred of the sin. Counterfeit repentance doesn’t hate the sin because it is against the Holy character of God; they hate the sin because somehow it hasn’t satisfied their selfish desire.

Renouncing of Personal Sin
The fourth component is one of volition. It is the renouncing of personal sin. This is the act of renouncing and turning from the sin. Once this act of sin occurs, the individual pursues that which is according to the will of God (cf. Titus 2:12). It is the practical action of casting the sinful behaviour aside so as to walk in the will of God.

Repentance is a great gift that God grants a sinner and is practiced throughout the life of a believer. Let us be faithful to Scripture in our presentation and practice of the doctrine of repentance.

The Christian is in a battle and the chief enemy is sin. Sin is deceptive and employs the most subtle and harsh strategies against its opponent. In this chapter we have examined specific strategies that will help the believer in the war on sin. We saw the crucial starting points for this battle: the need for genuine salvation, a right view of sin, and the need for a battle plan. After establishing this, we considered the first strategy in this war, and that is Recognising Sin. The recognition of sin is crucial because sin will disguise itself and deceive us. The second strategy we noted was Replacing Sin. This strategy calls for an active pursuit of righteousness thus causing it crowd out evil in our lives (see Col. 3:5-11). Then we looked at the next strategy, which was Refusing Sin. This is the committed and constant act of denying wickedness and abstaining from it. What happens when we fall short and allow sin to consume us? What do we do when we bear the wound of sin in this war? The final strategy we considered was Repenting from Sin. When we fall short, we are to confess this sin, forsake it and keep following Christ.

Though this chapter is not exhaustive, my purpose was to remind you of the seriousness and sinfulness of sin. As the people of God, remember that we are at war. We must be serious about this. The battle we have with sin is a lifelong battle. Sin will keep on raging against us until our Lord returns. So it is our duty by His grace to stand firm in our war on sin, and be killing it before it kills us. May these strategies be repeated in an ongoing way as we strive to serve our Master and live a life of gratitude for Him because of all that He has done for us. By His grace, let us be Recognising Sin, Replacing Sin, Refusing Sin, and Repenting from Sin.  I conclude this chapter with the challenging words of John Owen,

“We will not be making progress in holiness without walking over the bellies of our own lust. He who does not kill sin along the way is making no progress in his journey.”[3]

[1] MacArthur, John. Nothing But the Truth, Crossway Books, 1999, 90

[2] Lawson, Steven. The Unwavering Resolve of Jonathan Edwards. Reformation Trust Publishing, 2008, pp. 89-90

[3] Owen, John. The Mortification of Sin. Banner of Truth Trust, 2004, p. 10.

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