Wednesday, April 11, 2018

How Occasional is Occasional?

I have a Christian acquaintance of many years who is morbidly obese at the very high end of the spectrum. No quasi-medical justification (hormones, glands, depression, etc.) can fully account for her inability to lose weight. While there are certainly other factors involved, one is surely the consumption of large quantities of superfluous calories.

It is well established in scripture that gluttony is a sin, like any other out-of-control behavior. While obesity and gluttony are not synonymous (one can be thin and voraciously gluttonous), it is hard to argue that the inability to say no is normal, healthy Christian behavior.

My simple question: is she saved?

The Seven Deadlies

Large numbers of internet commentators that strongly disparage the doctrine of eternal security suggest she is not. I will avoid taking their side for reasons that will shortly become evident.

If I were tasked with choosing seven representative sins to be considered “deadly” (something scripture itself does not do), I confess I would probably leave out gluttony. Murder, adultery, kidnapping and numerous other vices would surely bump it way down the list. Of course in one sense all sin is deadly, but some sins are surely deadlier than others. Unlike some vices, gluttony hurts most those who engage in it. (It can be argued that there is a social cost to morbid obesity, not to mention a relationship cost and a negative impact on family life, but these pale in comparison to the physical and emotional toll obesity exacts on the obese, especially in later years.)

Further, maintaining a bulk of hundreds and hundreds of pounds involves not just the occasional slip in self-control but a repeated, habitual error that we might reasonably call a defining characteristic. But would we really say that such a lifestyle involves making “a practice of sinning”?

The Practice of Sinning

That’s a fair question. Making a practice of sinning is the subject of 1 John 3. Do it, you’re not a believer: that seems fairly cut and dried if you attend carefully to verses 4 through 10. John says a person who makes a practice of sinning is “of the devil”, and not “born of God”.

If you have a King James translation and are a new Christian, you might momentarily (and mistakenly) think that John is speaking about the consequences of occasional, individual sins. The KJV credits the apostle with saying things like the following:
“Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.”
However, modern scholars better translate the sense of the Greek tense John uses here, so that in the ESV we get:
“No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God.”
The difference between “he cannot sin” and “he cannot keep on sinning” is considerable, and I believe the latter better conveys John’s intent. He is talking about the ongoing practice of sin, not the occasional slip.

What Does That Look Like?

But that brings up the question “How occasional is occasional?” How are we to identify the practice of sin? What does it look like? We are not discussing a trivial matter, nor a pattern of behavior impossible to identify. John says, “... it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil.” Evidence exists to enable us to draw conclusions, and so we should.

But we had better be careful to draw the right ones.

For one thing, a “practice of sinning” cannot reasonably be assumed on the basis of the sheer number of failures involved, or even by the fact that a person fails in precisely the same way repeatedly.

Seven Times in the Day

It is hardly reasonable for us to complain to a struggling believer, “You should have got control of that habit by now,” when the Lord himself told his disciples:
“If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
On another occasion, the number is even higher:
“Then Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.’ ”
It seems difficult to imagine that the Lord was requiring of his disciples a standard more rigorous than God’s. If we are asked to forgive sin so freely, it is because God’s forgiveness to the repentant sinner abounds even more. If God forgives the same sorts of failures time after time, it should be evident that sheer numbers of sins do not make one a “child of the devil”. My brother in Christ may be climbing out of a deep, dark hole of addiction, while I was born entirely unmoved by the temptations that afflict him (though almost certainly beset by others which may be of a subtler nature).

Real Repentance vs. No Repentance at All

“But surely my brother’s professed repentance cannot be genuine if he keeps doing the same thing!” A perfectly reasonable rejoinder, since we are reliably informed that repentance involves not just a change of heart but a change of direction. And yet we are still instructed to extend forgiveness whenever repentance is expressed.

One thing is for sure: if the Lord’s words in Matthew and Luke do not help us instantly identify the children of the devil who falsely profess repentance (and there are surely some of those), they certainly help us identify those who don’t. A person who claims to be a follower of Christ while defending, rationalizing and clinging to his sin is in a different class altogether from the one who repeatedly confesses his guilt and inadequacy and begs for forgiveness, then falls back into learned patterns on occasion. The latter may or may not be sincere; the former is thumbing his nose at Heaven.

That suggests that there is more to John’s “practice of sin” than mere volume of transgressions. John contrasts the practice of sin with the “practice of righteousness” (same continuous tense), which is very much an active pursuit, not some kind of default Christian setting. Likewise, I think the practice of sin is more than just repeatedly sinning — it is looking for and actively welcoming sin’s dark embrace.

Could that be said of my large friend? Not a chance.

Confidence Before God

One thing that can be said about repeatedly engaging in the same sins, though, is that it saps the believer’s confidence in prayer. I had an email exchange a few years ago with a man who professed to know Christ, but had made a number of horrible post-profession choices with respect to his sex life. These had led to a cycle of self-loathing and insecurity about salvation that nobody would wish on anyone.

I can’t say with 100% certainty whether this man was saved, though I think it likely. But I can say this: one of the values of practicing righteousness, especially in connection with the practical expression of love to fellow believers, is that loving others in deed and truth produces spiritual confidence when we come into the presence of God.

And that’s something all Christians ought to experience.

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