A vital aspect of God's purpose for us involves our coming to repentance, recognizing our sinful state and how far short we fall of God's standards, and determining to begin living God's way of life. We strive to identify and overcome our sins and live a sin-free life.
However, when God helps us recognize the enormity of our sins, a natural human response is dejection and discouragement. Even the apostle Paul struggled with his weaknesses, lamenting that "in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find . . . The evil I will not to do, that I practice" (Romans 7:18-19).
How can we possibly overcome our deficiencies of character and attain to the eternal life that God offers us? How can we change and overcome sin?
During Jesus' ministry a rich young man came to Him and asked what he should do to achieve eternal life. Christ told him, ". . . If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments" (Matthew 19:17). When the man asked which commandments Jesus was talking about, Christ referred to five of the Ten Commandments, along with the command to "love your neighbor as yourself." But He omitted mention of the Tenth Commandment, which forbids coveting. Covetousness was the man's problem and one of the reasons this account is in the Bible. The young man was just too attached to his riches to give them up, so he "went away sorrowful" (verse 21-22).
Christ noted how difficult it is for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God because of the human tendency to covet and rely on physical possessions rather than God. The disciples, amazed, asked, "Who then can be saved?" Christ's answer provides the key to overcoming sin: "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (verse 26, added emphasis throughout).
None of us can overcome our deficiencies, our sins, our shortcomings, without God's help. Even if we could by our own will alter our actions, only God can change our hearts. This is why Paul appealed to members of the church in Rome not to be conformed to the world but to be transformed by God's Spirit and "by the renewing of your mind" (Romans 12:1-2).
To come to grips with our sins, each of us must surrender to God. When God is calling a person to fundamental change, He leads the person to this point of surrender. Repentance comes through God's goodness, not our own (Romans 2:4). God grants repentance so we may know the truth (2 Timothy 2:25) and live (Acts 11:18). We are free, however, to decide whether to repent. Peter exhorted his countrymen to "repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord" (Acts 3:19).
After repentance, and after baptism as an outward sign of our repentance, God promises to give us His Spirit. That Spirit empowers us to recognize and overcome sin. Through conversion we become a "new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17) as far as God is concerned. He enables us to live as a different person, leaving behind our sins.
We can overcome sin
In 1 John 3:9 the apostle John tells us, "Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God." We should understand several points from this verse. First, the converted Christian does not habitually sin. He has, after all, turned away from sin. The sense here is not that a Christian will never sin, because we remain human, imperfect and subject to the pulls of our nature and a degenerate world around us. Instead, the sense is that a Christian will not remain in the practice of sin.
A second point of this scripture is that God's Spirit is like sperm. It impregnates Christians and enables us not to sin. We are empowered not to sin by God's "seed" (Greek sperma), which lives in us. Cannot in the Greek does not mean can never, as it is often used in English. Rather, it means enabled or empowered not to sin. This is encouraging news—that we can, with God's help, overcome sin!
Nevertheless, in practice how do we go about rooting out sin? It is not as simple as asking for more of God's Spirit and sitting back to relax as God somehow miraculously and instantaneously nullifies our trespasses. We have work to do and must make a conscientious effort while God's Spirit continues to empower and reinforce our efforts.
In Ephesians 4 Paul presents an easy-to-understand formula for change. He illustrates the method with several examples so we may clearly understand what is involved in overcoming sin. When we examine these verses, we notice three steps we must take to shift from a sinful life to one that properly represents God's working with and within us. If we miss any one of these steps, change either cannot take place or will remain incomplete.
Paul's instruction regarding overcoming sin is to "put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in righteousness and true holiness" (Ephesians 4:22-24).
Out with the old
The first step, says Paul, is to "put off . . . the old man." To do this we must realize that our nature, the old man, is our carnal, selfish nature, which lives hostile to God (Romans 8:7). Our unconverted human heart will not obey God (Deuteronomy 5:29) and is in God's eyes "deceitful" and "desperately wicked" (Jeremiah 17:9). Our self-centered way of sin inexorably earns us death (Proverbs 14:12; 16:25; Romans 6:23).
The "old man" to whom Paul referred is both our unconverted mind and the individual acts of sin that spring from it. He, the old man, must be put to a symbolic death through the waters of baptism (Romans 6:1-4). Spiritually, we must lay the ax to the root so that the evil tree with its corrupt fruit will cease producing sin.
Over time God can work with the worst of us; He can free us from the many sins that imprison us—sins that we may feel we can never overcome. We can be released from the myriad bonds that ensnare us and hold us captive, even as Gulliver was held captive by Lilliputians with hundreds of tiny ropes as described in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. We can be free, even though now we lie helplessly caught in the cords of sin (Proverbs 5:22).
God, in granting us repentance and reconciling us to Himself by the death of His Son, wipes out our past sins and gives us the help we need to overcome.
With God's help we are progressively liberated from a wrong way of life that Paul described as slavery (Romans 6:16). To break free of enslavement we must "put to death" our "members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry" (Colossians 3:5).
As we study God's Word, we see our sins revealed to us. The Scriptures help us identify changes we must make. The Word of God, if we let it, powerfully cuts and penetrates to the core of our being "and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12).
As we give ourselves to the penetrating light of God's Word, God helps us identify our wrong practices and thoughts. We must turn away from them and adopt godly thoughts and perform godly works. But we cannot do it alone.
Having begun to identify what we need to change, with God's Word and His Spirit we can ask God for the help to overcome. We need to stir up God's gift of His Spirit within us (2 Timothy 1:6). That Spirit can renew us every day and will empower our new nature for the successful fight against sin (2 Corinthians 4:16). By this Spirit we can "put to death the deeds of the body" (Romans 8:13).
Many fail in their fight against sin by attempting to overcome it by their own strength rather than relying on God's Spirit. Paul acknowledges this human deficiency. He knew full well the impact of the law of human nature and conduct. ". . . Evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good," he wrote (Romans 7:21). This scripture describes the struggle of Paul's—and every Christian's—corrupt nature with his new godly nature.
It is through Jesus Christ, through His sacrifice for sin and by His nature dwelling in us (Galatians 2:20), that we can live a new, godly life. We can be redeemed "from every lawless deed" and purified as "His own special people, zealous for good works" (Titus 2:14). With God's help we can overcome.
In with the new
If we only put off the old man, the process of overcoming is incomplete. A Christian life is a life of changes. We may have identified what is wrong: the ungodly characteristics of the old man. We may have gone to God to ask for more of His help to change. Yet now comes the hard part: We must, with God's help, incorporate the positive traits that are the opposite of the flaws we have identified. Paul described this as "put[ting] on the new man" (Ephesians 4:24) with all its godly attributes. We must focus our attention and effort on the godly behavior we desire to practice.
We must concentrate on the positive to eliminate the negative. This is where the examples Paul uses are so instructive and clear, as in his first example of lying (verse 25). Someone came to me once and admitted he had a problem with lying. I quipped that I wasn't sure I could believe him. After all, when is a liar not a liar? He doesn't stop being a liar just because he keeps his mouth shut. He may be a liar between lies, so to speak. The only way a liar can demonstrate proof of a change in character is to "speak truth with his neighbor" (same verse). He must put off the old by putting on the new.
When a former liar begins consistently to tell the truth, his old ways of prevarication begin to shrivel up and die. This is how God's Spirit helps us overcome.
Paul lists another example, that of stealing. When is a thief not a thief? Someone who is not stealing something may be only a thief between jobs. The only demonstrable proof that a thief has changed his ways is his starting to do the opposite. Stealing is simply the act of unlawfully getting and taking. The opposite trait is giving. God can help a thief to learn to work "that he may have something to give him who has need" (verse 28).
Destructive or constructive words?
Paul cites yet another example of the way we communicate. Our tongue is often an accurate indicator of our dominant nature, whether good or bad. Jesus Christ noted that "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (Matthew 12:34). James tells us that the unbridled tongue is "a world of iniquity" (James 3:6).
Keeping silent so that no corrupt communication slips out may be a step in the right direction. But keeping your mouth shut is not at all proof that your nature has changed. After all, "even a fool is counted wise when he holds his peace" (Proverbs 17:28). Your nature has fundamentally changed when you begin using your tongue in a positive way. "Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearer" (Ephesians 4:29).
To overcome the wrong use of speech, we need to ask God to help us concentrate on encouraging and building up someone instead of tearing him down. Let your words spring from "a well of life" (Proverbs 10:11). Make your talk as "choice silver" (Proverbs 10:20). We should pray for God to let our speech be "always with grace, seasoned with salt" (Colossians 4:6).
Likewise, consider the contrast in behavior mentioned in Ephesians 4:31-32. We can rid ourselves of our base traits by concentrating on upright characteristics. We can apply the principle of these simple points to every aspect of our behavior. Apply this formula and, with God's help, change becomes at long last realistically possible.
Which force will be with you?
Two somewhat obscure verses appear in this section of Scripture that should now make sense. When we indulge the nature of the old man with all its corrupt practices, we "grieve the Holy Spirit" (verse 30) and "give place to the devil" (verse 27). Perhaps now we can understand that God's Spirit cannot dwell or work in an alien environment of lying, stealing and corrupt communication and attitudes, whereas Satan thrives in such surroundings and indeed encourages them.
On the other hand, when we put on the behavior of the new man, the opposite attitude prevails. Satan hates godly behavior and cannot remain long in such a setting. God's Spirit, however, flourishes in a person who lives a godly life.
All this beautifully illustrates some simple yet profound truths: If you "submit to God" and "resist the devil," he will flee from you (James 4:7). "Walk in the spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh" (Galatians 5:16). We can remove the air from a glass by filling it with water. Likewise we can rid ourselves of corrupt human nature by filling our life with the nature of God and its many wonderful attributes.
The good news is that by the grace of God we can overcome sin. That does not mean we will never sin again, because as long as we are physical we are subject to human weakness. However, we need not become discouraged in the face of our sins. Indeed, we should rejoice that we are mindful of them, because this awareness provides the first step toward their eradication.God helps us recognize our misdeeds. Through the power of His Spirit working in us we are strengthened, encouraged and filled with hope in our battle against sin, knowing that our victory is assured. When we put off the old man, are renewed in the spirit of our mind and put on the new man, we will ultimately overcome sin. It is inevitable!