(Photo: Dan Delzell)
Every Christian hits rough spots at times where a particular sin just seems to get the upper hand for awhile. It might be a grudge....or impure thoughts....or jealousy....or whatever. By God's grace, believers somehow manage to bounce back and get beyond these spiritual setbacks. It's so much better to be living "in the zone" of God's abundant love, power, and boundaries.
But what about the professing believer who never bounces back? He just continues charging into sin while pursuing those desires which are contrary to God's will. What are we to make of such a person?
Well....the Arminian might say that such a person has lost his salvation....while the Calvinist might say that such a person was never saved in the first place....or that he will eventually repent and return to God. What does God's Word say? Can deliberate sin negate your conversion experience? It's a question worth addressing because it's a question that comes up quite often.
Maybe the place to begin is to pose this question: "How reliable is a 'conversion experience' anyway?" Consider all the people who have gone forward to an altar call....or prayed "the sinner's prayer" at a worship service or Christian event....or were baptized as a child or an adult....and then at some point just disappeared from everyone's radar. It is very heartbreaking when you see a number of these "converts" go "missing in action." Should folks like that, or anyone for that matter, ever be encouraged to rely upon their perceived conversion experience?
The problem with relying upon an experience is that it is just that....a subjective experience. That doesn't mean God wasn't right in the middle of it. He may have been....but is that personal experience really the best place to look in order to draw comfort and find assurance that you are saved?
Many professing believers have had various spiritual experiences. But those experiences are fleeting. The cross where Jesus died, on the other hand, isn't fleeting. It is an anchor in history....and it will be an anchor for your soul if you rely upon it....and upon the One who hung there for you. Now there is something objective and solid to rely upon....rather than relying upon your walk down the aisle, or a prayer from your past, or any other subjective religious experience. Faith in Christ equals faith in His death for your sins....not faith in your spiritual experiences. Do you see the difference between the two?
If you are a Christian, there was indeed a moment in time when you were truly converted by the Holy Spirit. Having said that, you may or may not know the exact day when God worked the miracle of faith in your soul....and that's OK. The main thing is that you now trust in Christ's work on the cross to forgive your sins....rather than relying upon your obedience to God's commands. In fact, you now understand the fallacy and the impossibility of trying to earn your way into heaven.
So then what about deliberate sin? Can it nullify your relationship with God? While we won't come up with an answer from Scripture that will completely satisfy every Arminian and every Calvinist, there are nevertheless some clear insights on this matter in God's Word.
In addressing the churches in Galatia, St. Paul wrote, "Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life." (Galatians 6:7,8) Paul differentiated between those who were deliberately living for their Savior....and those who were deliberating living for sin. That is, after all, what tends to confirm or refute a person's profession of faith in Christ.
You see....there is a human tendency to try to find assurance for salvation in your conversion experience. St. Paul was more interested in making sure that those in the church were truly saved through faith in Christ....and that they were sowing to "please the Spirit" as further evidence of their conversion.
St. John explained it this way: "We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin." (1 John 5:18) Obviously, this does not mean that believers never commit any sin. Rather, it means that believers do not live in continual and deliberate premeditated sin. Deliberate sin certainly negates the work of the Holy Spirit in my life at the present time....and this in effect negates much of His prior work in my life, unless I repent and turn away from the present sin which is threatening to devour me.
Therefore, it is not really an issue of whether or not deliberate sin negates my conversion experience. Scripture doesn't seem to tackle it from that angle. The real issue is this....how born again people live, as compared to the way unsaved people live. Jesus said, "By their fruit, you will recognize them." (Matthew 7:16) Those who are not saved "sow to please the sinful nature." That is the intent of their heart. Why debate whether or not their previous "conversion experience" was authentic? What matters most is where their heart and their life is at today.
God's Word says, "If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God." (Hebrews 10:26,27) Not all Christians interpret this passage the same way.
The Arminian would likely say that those who "received the knowledge of the truth" refers to saved people who then fell from grace by continuing to live in deliberate sin. The Calvinist, on the other hand, would likely say that it does not refer to people who were previously saved. Both camps agree that deliberate sin ultimately leads a person to the "raging fire that will consume the enemies of God." So why debate whether or not a person was ever converted in the past? Isn't their present state....and future state....a more critical concern? The biblical authors seemed to think so.
Christians are not in agreement concerning the state of King David's soul while he persisted in an adulterous relationship with Bathsheba. Was he still living "under God's grace," or not? The bottom line is that David did repent of his adultery and murder, and he did once again experience the joy of his salvation and the forgiveness of his sins. But what about the professing believer who never repents and never leaves a lifestyle of deliberate sin? In that case, as in every other, God cannot be mocked....and a man reaps what he sows.
You and I as believers don't move in and out of salvation every time we sin. But does perpetual and intentional sin ever cause a professing believer to lose his salvation? Or is it only proof that the person was never saved in the first place? Those questions will be debated until the day when born again Calvinists and born again Arminians are united together in heaven. In paradise, there will be no man-made theological labels and no doctrinal controversies. What all believers can certainly agree upon today is that a person who truly knows Christ is someone who then sincerely wants to stop sinning. A Christian is someone who "sows to please the Spirit." (Galatians 6:8)
Born again people have the will and desire to do the right thing. Lost people intentionally and continually point the compass of their affections in the opposite direction. It's not a question of a previous conversion experience. It has to do with what you are relying upon for the forgiveness of your sins.....your religious efforts, or the cross....as well as your new attitude toward sin. Your attitude toward sin will help to reveal whether or not your perceived spiritual conversion was genuine.
The reason St. Paul warns those in the church not to be deceived is very simple. Self-deception happens all the time....especially when a professing believer is claiming Christ, while cuddling sin. Many people have been able to fool their spouse for awhile when they are smack-dab in the middle of an affair....but you can never fool the Lord. If you are traveling down the road of deliberate sin my friend, the only person being fooled is you.
Perhaps you have been living like Peter, whose sinful denials lasted for a short time....or maybe you have been living like King David, whose love affair with sin took him quite a distance from the Lord for a longer period of time. Either way, the way back home is through the cross....with a heart full of faith in the blood of Jesus to wash away your sins, and with an attitude of sincere repentance.
As long as your faith is in Christ alone for salvation and there is good fruit in your life, forget about trying to pinpoint the moment the tree of life was planted in your soul. You see....your theological system doesn't have to get in the way of your relationship with the Lord, or the assurance of your salvation. At the end of the day, Christian discipleship really isn't as complicated as we sometimes make it out to be.
In 1887, following an evangelistic meeting held by D.L. Moody, a young man stood up to share his testimony. His closing lines summarized his new relationship with the Lord this way: "I'm not quite sure....but I'm going to trust, and I'm going to obey." Those words were delivered to John Sammis, who then developed the lyrics to the famous hymn, "Trust and Obey."
The young man who inspired that hymn was just a simple Christian....like you, and me. Rather than deliberate sin, that young man stated his resolve to live in deliberate trust in the cross and deliberate obedience to Christ. May these words from that hymn continue to inspire us today as disciples of our Lord and Savior: "Trust and obey, for there's no other way....To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey."