Righteous Wrongs #1: You do “bad things” because you “refuse to let go of your sin”.
In a short series of posts, I’ll be looking at what I call “Righteous Wrongs” — things Christians say and teach about morality that are simply not in the Bible, and don’t reflect the way Jesus dealt with matters. This post is about probably the most common idea I have often heard: that you keep doing ‘bad things’ because you ‘refuse to let go of your sin’, and you must just ‘stop it’.
In Romans 7, Paul summed up a huge part of the human experience: “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.” (Romans 7:15, NLT). What I find interesting about this is that Paul — a great Christian hero — says nothing about ending this pitiful experience by just ‘stopping it’. One would expect him to say, “But I realize it’s because I don’t want to let go of my sin, that’s why I keep doing these things. I must just stop it.”
He doesn’t say that, though. Instead he asks the question: “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” and he answers, “Thanks be to Jesus Christ, our Lord!” (Romans 7:24,25.) So, he sees is rescue in Jesus, not himself.
In fact, when you look at the context of Romans 7, it seems that ‘just stopping it’ is precisely the idea that Paul is saying contributes to creating the problem in the first place. He calls it trying to live by ‘the law’ — trying to live up to righteousness by your own strength.
When you go to Jesus, you find there is not one single instance where he tells anyone that they do wrong because they just don’t want to let go of their sin. There are instances where he says, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11) and you find this is in the context of (1) not condemning a person, (2) declaring their sins as forgiven, (3) THEN telling them they need no longer live in sin.
However, when Christians teach or say “you don’t want to let go of your sin, and that’s your problem,” they’re doing anything but not condemning a person. There is an underlying arrogance: be like me, watch how amazing I am, see how I can just stop it.
It’s also an idea adopted from psychotherapy, but not from the Bible. In many cases, it’s true that we simply don’t want to let go of our sin, that we enjoy it. But surely Jesus means to save us from this — save us from not wanting to let go of it?
And that’s precisely what Jesus is getting at when he says, “go and sin no more”. It’s not a call to stronger willpower— it’s a call to faith in him and his authority to make ‘sinning no more’ real in our lives. That’s why, in John 8, after telling an adulterous woman to “go and sin no more” Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. The one who follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (See John 8:12). Then in verse 21 he tells the religious leaders of the day, “I told you that you will die in your sins. For unless you believe that I am he, you will die in your sins.”
“Go and sin no more” is Jesus’ typical way of using hyperbole to grab our attention. We’re supposed to ask, “How on earth would that even be possible?” and then see him present the answer — it’s possible because he can make it so. Sure, we need to make better decisions in life, but we don’t have the willpower to do it. In some cases we do, in many cases we simply don’t. Jesus wasn’t speaking to a woman in John 8 who stole a small cookie out of a jar, but a woman who had been caught committing adultery — the kind of thing that happens due to a whole host of circumstances and reasons, and is often the result of a list of bad choices. Who can rescue her out of the system of bad choices she has gotten herself entangled in? Jesus answers: himself.
And so, the point. The answer to why you keep doing bad things is because we all keep doing bad things, there’s no exception. That’s the state of the human race. But things don’t end there. The answer to how to stop it is to surrender to Jesus and rest in him. Not ‘fight’ against sin, but ‘rest’ in Jesus. There is a difference! The more you try to stop it, the more you won’t, and — in fact — the worse it’ll probably get. Instead, believe in Jesus as the only one who can, miraculously, have you stop it. That belief, that faith, is the answer to how we can get out of the ‘sin cycle’ so many of us find ourselves entangled in. The answer is not to pursue your own righteousness, but to trust in the righteousness of Jesus. The answer is not to let go of your sin, but to hold on to Jesus. The answer is not ‘law’ — living up to a righteous code — but grace through faith. Not just grace, but faith coupled with grace.
What that means is for a future post. First, we’ll cover a couple of other misnomers — “righteous wrongs”. The next will be the idea that the reason you can’t stop sinning is because you’re not ‘born again’.
If you’re interested in exploring this topic in greater and more theological detail, you can get my book Jesus Crushes Sin.