One of the over-arching messages of the New Testament is that a sinful lifestyle is not compatible with being a child of God. The apostles’ teaching in this regard starts with this foundational truth: people who have embraced the gospel message become a member of God’s family and are given a brand new identity. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new person; the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come” (II Cor 5:17).
The new identity is indwelt by God Himself through His own Spirit and carries a moral resemblance to God. How is this possible? Earlier in II Corinthians 5, Paul attributes our entrance into God’s kingdom and His indwelling as based on Christ’s death in our place (II Cor 5:14-17). Our old sin nature died with Christ on the cross. Christ’s death – and our acceptance of His sacrifice for us – brought us to our place of a new person, indwelt with a new identity. And it only makes sense that God’s nature that now indwells us and sin (moral trespass against God) are incompatible.
Then why do we struggle with sin? The short answer is because we don’t always live into our God-compatible new identity. There is a fine, but important, distinction between being a sinner and looking like a sinner. Being a sinner means never becoming a member of God’s family. It means never accepting His gospel, His message of good news. Believers cannot be labeled sinners in that regard because our sin nature was crucified with Christ on the cross (Rom 6:6-7) and we have been joined with Christ (Rom 7:3-4). Now stick with me if you think I am suggesting that believers never sin.
Believers have a choice that sinners do not have. We can choose to “walk in the Spirit”; living into our new nature and exhibiting the fruits of the Spirit who indwells us. But we also have the choice to “walk in the flesh.” In the second case – walking in the flesh – we do commit sins. These sins do not label us as sinners by nature, but to the world and to all who are watching, these sins make us look like sinners. They make us look no different than the sinner by nature.
That is why in Paul’s walking by the Spirit vs walking by the flesh discussion in Galatians chapter 5, he lays out an explicit list of “deeds of the flesh” (Gal 5:19-21). Paul’s point is that, yes, believers can carry out these acts of sin, but when done on a regular basis, they are the hallmark of a lost person; a person who “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:21). These acts, practiced on a regular basis, are simply not compatible with your new Spirit-infused nature.
So what is the remedy for the temptation to carry out the deeds of the flesh? “Walk in the Spirit [walk in who you really are, act like the person that in some ways you have already become] and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh” (Gal 5:16). For a longer, expository, thoroughly biblical explanation of this idea see our article, Your Moral Resemblance to Christ.
John Stott was a great Bible teacher of the late twentieth century. He recently passed away at age 90. Among his many well known quotes is: “Sin and the child of God are incompatible. They may occasionally meet; they cannot live together in harmony.” He understood the message of a life set free from sin’s power. He understood the incompatibility of a sinful lifestyle and living the Christian life. May we understand and put it into practice as well.