Christian Churches of God
Steps to Overcoming Sin
(Edition 2.0 19940402-19970301)
Analyses the relationship between sin and the exodus over the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Those lessons are developed.
Steps to Overcoming Sin
Each Passover season, we reflect on the exodus of Israel from Egypt. God brought Israel out with a high hand. They were triumphant – delivered by God’s power – Egypt lay mostly in ruins. Yet, it wasn’t long after Israel left Egypt that something anticipated by God, but unexpected by Israel, took place.
Exodus 14:1-4 1 Then the LORD said to Moses, 2 “Tell the people of Israel to turn back and encamp in front of Pi-ha-hi’roth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Ba’al-ze’phon; you shall encamp over against it, by the sea. 3 For Pharaoh will say of the people of Israel, `They are entangled in the land; the wilderness has shut them in.’ 4 And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD.” And they did so. (RSV)
God knew Pharaoh and his army would come after Israel.
Exodus 14:5-13 5 When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the mind of Pharaoh and his servants was changed toward the people, and they said, “What is this we have done, that we have let Israel go from serving us?” 6 So he made ready his chariot and took his army with him, 7 and took six hundred picked chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them. 8 And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt and he pursued the people of Israel as they went forth defiantly. 9 The Egyptians pursued them, all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and his horsemen and his army, and overtook them encamped at the sea, by Pi-ha-hi’roth, in front of Ba’al-ze’phon. 10 When Pharaoh drew near, the people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them; and they were in great fear. And the people of Israel cried out to the LORD; 11 and they said to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, in bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Is not this what we said to you in Egypt, `Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” 13 And Moses said to the people, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. (RSV)
The Israelites were terrified when they noticed Pharaoh’s army in pursuit of them. However, verses 15-31 explain how God overthrew the Egyptian army in the sea.
But the matter did not end there. Paul summarises the next 40 years of Israel’s wanderings in 1Corinthians 10.
1Corinthians 10:1-10 1 I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same supernatural food 4 and all drank the same supernatural drink. For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless with most of them God was not pleased; for they were overthrown in the wilderness. 6 Now these things are warnings for us, not to desire evil as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to dance.” 8 We must not indulge in immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. 9 We must not put the Lord to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents; 10 nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. (RSV)
So we see something very interesting. Israel’s departure from Egypt, as we understand, was a type of our departure from sin and the system of this world’s god, Satan. Pharaoh, of course, was a type of Satan. In fact, he was Satan’s pawn. But after Israel left Egypt, Pharaoh pursued them. Now God destroyed Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea. God took Israel out of Egypt. But he didn’t take Egypt out of Israel. They sinned, fell short, and missed the mark of obedience, because Egypt was still in their minds and because Egypt’s unseen ruler, Satan, kept urging and prodding them to sin. This was true even after they had left Egypt and been “baptised” into Moses in the Sea.
Paul uses this example of Israel as a lesson for Christians. Let’s pick up the context.
1Corinthians 9:24-27 24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; 27 but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (RSV)
Verse 27 leads straight into verse 1 of chapter 10. Paul uses the example of Israel as a warning of not running our race in vain.
1Corinthians 10:11-12 11 Now these things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come. 12 Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. (RSV)
If you think you stand, says Paul, be careful that you don’t fall!
How could we fall from God’s grace or pardon of our sinful past in Christ’s sacrifice? By falling into the same kind of problems that Israel did when they let the mind-set they had acquired in Egypt, dominate and gain control of their thinking.
What we need to face is that, although God has led us out of “Egypt”, he hasn’t taken “Egypt” or “sin” out of our nature. Even as Pharaoh pursued Israel, so “sin” will “pursue” us. Even as the “mind of Egypt” was still resident in the hearts and minds of Israel in the wilderness, and led to the overthrow of all those 20 years and older, so the “mind” or “power” of sin is still resident in our nature and could lead to our overthrow if we are not diligent. Also, God conquered Pharaoh, but He let Pharaoh’s ruler, Satan, continue on in the background and so feed this “mind of Egypt” which was still in Israel.
We need to understand first off that sin is not just the transgressing of God’s law. Rather, sin is a living and dynamic power, a force resident in human nature. Paul described it as a law.
Romans 7:21-23 I find it [sin] to be a principle of life that, even when I want to do the right thing, the one thing that I can do is the wrong thing. In my inner self I delight in the law of God, but I am aware of a different law, operating in the physical parts of my body, and waging a constant campaign against the law which my reason accepts, and reducing me to captivity to that sinful principle which operates in my physical body. (Barclay)
The apostle John was inspired to write:
1John 1:8 To claim that we have no sin is an act of self-deception, and a proof that we have no idea of the truth. (Barclay)
Paul, of course, wrote after many years of being a Christian and John was near the end of his life around 90 CE. Even after so long a time, each man acknowledged he had an on-going battle with sin. The problem is that baptism and repentance and even the receipt of God’s spirit does not remove the sinful principle, as Paul termed it, from our nature. It remains as a dynamic power or force at work in us.
Sin is like a cancer. There are some cancers that literally eat away the body. They will eat through soft tissue and hard tissue alike, and even through bone if not checked. It is a similar process with sin. What starts as a small problem can end up being a major problem and if we are not careful, a fatal problem in the sense that we will miss out on being in the first resurrection.
Paul described the process using the analogy of leaven.
Galatians 5:9 A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough. (NIV)
Galatians 5:9 Once even the slightest infection gets into a society, it spreads until the whole society becomes infected. (Barclay)
Leaven or yeast is a living organism. It can represent the positive spirit of God or the negative things of the spirit of Satan. Because leaven is a living organism, it soon grows and spreads through all the dough, actually changing and assimilating to its own nature the original dough with which it is mixed.
When we come to God and are baptised, our lives are regarded as unleavened by God (1Cor. 5:7) and He gives us the new leaven of His spirit. It is this leaven that we should allow to grow and multiply within us. But the spores of sin are still resident in our nature and, if we are not careful, can also grow, multiply and spread throughout our lives given the correct conditions.
Of course it is not entirely our problem that we have to combat the destructive power of sin. Satan is there actively instigating and authoring sin. He is the one who gives sin its life and energy. Satan is the one who “broadcasts” the thoughts, attitudes, lusts and temptations that arouse within us the desires to transgress God’s laws and so we sin (Eph. 2:2). What this means is that we are engaged in a battle against sin on two fronts. We have to battle against the lusts of our own flesh.
1Peter 2:11 My dear friends, I plead with you as exiles of eternity and strangers in this world, to abstain from those passions which are part of sinful human nature, for they wage a continuous campaign against your soul. (Barclay)
We also have to resist the author of sin, Satan the devil.
1Peter 5:8-9 You must be abstemious (moderate in eating and drinking]. You must be on the alert, Your enemy the Devil prowls around, like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. You must resist him with a rock-like faith, and you must realise that, so long as they are in the world, all members of that Christian brotherhood of which you are a part must right to the very end experience the same kind of suffering. (Barclay)
So, we have within us two natures – the divine nature of God imparted by the spirit of God which wants to do righteousness and obey God’s law, and the sinful nature we originally acquired from Satan which receives its strength and life on an on-going basis from him. These coexist side by side within us but they are diametrically opposed to one another (Rom. 7:7-25; Gal 5:17).
Galatians 5:17 For the desires of our lower [or sinful] nature run counter to the desires of the spirit, and the desires of the spirit run counter to the desires of the lower [or sinful] nature. These two are permanently opposed to one another, and the result is that the very things you want to do are the very things you cannot do. (Barclay)
Life for each of us revolves around a battle – the battle within our minds – between these two natures. However, there is a key to winning this battle and that is we must feed the spiritual nature and starve the sinful nature. We’ve already seen evidence of this key in 1Peter 2:11, but in Galatians 5:16 Paul gives us the same battle instructions.
Galatians 5:16 What I mean is this - make the spirit the rule of your life, and then you will never be out to satisfy the desires of your lower [or sinful] nature. (Barclay)
We will now discuss several ways we can “feed the spiritual nature” and then look at a number of ways to “starve the sinful nature”.
1. Study the Bible
When Jesus was confronting the source of the sinful nature, Satan the Devil, in the temptation in the desert, he knew where his strength lay.
Matthew 4:4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”‘ (RSV)
Matthew 4:4 Jesus answered, ‘Scripture says: “It takes more than bread to keep a man alive; man’s life depends on every word that God speaks.”‘ (Barclay)
Matthew 4:4 Jesus answered, ‘Scripture says, “Man is not to live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”‘ (REV)
It should be our aim in Bible study to so saturate and permeate our minds with the thoughts of God that, whenever we are challenged to sin in thought or deed, we instantly have an answer from the Bible to combat the temptation. Hence, the Bible is described as the sword of the spirit or spiritual nature God is developing in us. It is our first weapon in battle (Eph. 6:17).
2. Pray always
Paul tells us Romans 12:12 to:
Romans 12:12 ... steadfastly maintain the habit of prayer ... (Phillips)
Christians are repeatedly admonished to go to God in prayer about everything (Eph. 6:18; Phil. 4:6; Rom. 12:12; Col. 4:2; 1Pet. 4:7, etc.). The spirit of God comes from the Father (Jn. 14:16,26; 15:26). It is only by spending time with God our Father in prayer that we receive more of His spirit and this feeds the spiritual nature He has placed within us.
David was inspired to record:
Psalms 119:97-99 Oh, how I love thy law! It is my meditation all the day. Thy commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers, for thy testimonies are my meditation. (RSV).
We are in a battle. Through meditation which is the active assimilation and digesting of the Bible, we can become wiser than the sinful nature within us and its instigator, Satan. We will come to understand his battle strategy. We will come to see how to head him off at various points. We will have the knowledge of how to deal with him when he launches an all-out attack.
Not only this, the more our minds are thinking on, mulling over, dwelling upon the things of God’s word, the less opportunity there will be for Satan to enter, and less room for sinful desires to occupy in our minds.
4. Drink in sermons and Bible studies
Of course, there is nothing new in these points we have been covering. They are basic, but they are foundational. A better battle strategy has yet to be devised. Regular attendance at Sabbath services, where possible, and listening to and absorbing the messages given are vital to winning the spiritual battle. Elders are charged with a sobering responsibility of feeding the flock in their care.
Acts 20:28 Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his Son’s own blood. (KJV)
1Peter 5:2 Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; (KJV)
Elders are your servants and the helpers of your joy (2Cor. 1:24).
5. Fellowship with the people of God
Fellowship with others of like mind is essential if we are to win the battles against sin that we face. Paul wrote:
Hebrews 3:13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. (NIV)
Hebrews 10:25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another - and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (NIV)
As we understand these passages in context, it appears that Paul or the writer of Hebrews was alluding to some who were becoming negligent in attending Sabbath meetings. Of course, the Sabbath is a day of commanded assembly where possible.
Leviticus 23:3 There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a Sabbath to the LORD. (NIV)
The fact is that we need one another. God does not call Christians in isolation. We are called to be members of the body of Christ, each member fulfilling his or her part and working with the other members to build the whole body up in love. Satan’s game plan would be to isolate us and then hit us when we are most vulnerable.
6. Growing in God’s spirit
Contrary to the opinions of some who think you either have God’s spirit or you don’t, and that it is not meaningful to ask how much of God’s spirit you have, the Bible clearly shows that God’s spirit is something that we grow in. The bottom line is that, as the extension of the power and essence of God into our minds and lives, it is what will give us the victory in overcoming sin and Satan.
God’s spirit is an essence of power, love and self-discipline (2Tim. 1:7). It must be stirred up (or fanned as a flame is fanned) within us (v. 6). In every prayer we should ask God to give us a renewed supply of His spirit, that we might be filled with it.
Ephesians 5:18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the spirit. (NIV)
However, it is not sufficient to simply feed our spiritual nature given to us by God. We must also work at starving the sinful nature within us and, thus, deprive Satan of any power over our lives.
1. Control your natural desires
God wants us to enjoy life. That is why He gave us our physical senses and our capacity to plan, reason, and experience the thrill of achievements, and so forth. However, if we do not control our desires, but instead allow our physical senses or emotions to run unchecked, then we are in danger of giving into the sinful nature when our guard is down. We are to enjoy life but also live in a moderate and balanced fashion.
2 Peter 1:6 And [add to] knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, (RSV).
2. Flee from temptation
A second vital area to starve the sinful nature is through fleeing from temptation when it arises. Paul gave the specific instruction with regards to fornication in 1Corinthians 6:18 but, of course, the principle extends to every area of life. In Colossians 3:5, Paul makes clear we ought to put to death what arises from our sinful nature.
Colossians 3:5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed, which is idolatry. (NIV).
Jesus gave a similar powerful and urgent warning in his instruction to pluck out our eye or cut off our hand – metaphorically speaking – if they lead us to sin (Matt. 5:29-30).
We need to ask ourselves, do we take a second or third look at some situation we know is wrong? If so, we are feeding our sinful nature and playing into the hands of the enemy. Rather, we should grab ourselves by the collar and drag ourselves away from such a situation.
3. Bring every thought into captivity
Paul urges us to:
2Corinthians 10:5 ... take every thought captive to obey Christ, (RSV)
This will require a high degree of discipline on our part. But we need to guard the door of our minds and only let in what is good and upright in God’s sight (Phil. 4:8). Satan will be looking for every opportunity to slip in rationalisations and diversions to take our minds away from the task of starving the sinful nature.
4. Control your temper
Though all of us are prone to anger, there are certain personality types, which have a hard time controlling their anger. Such people become angry easily and often find it very hard to let go of their anger once it has flared up. Understanding the dynamics of anger and how to deal with it in a godly fashion is a big subject (see the paper Anger (No. 61). However, for now we should note that the Bible tells us:
James 1:19-20 Know this, my beloved brethren. Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God. (RSV).
Colossians 3:8 But now put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth. (RSV).
Ephesians 4:31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, with all malice, (RSV).
Galatians 5:20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, (RSV).
The Bible is clear that anger is, in most cases, a work of the sinful nature. (There is such a thing as righteous anger such as Christ displayed when he threw the money changers out of the Temple, but most anger people experience is not of that kind.) Anger occurs because we have been inconvenienced, or put out, or offended, etc. – not because the name of God has been slandered. Furthermore, is it clear that if left unchecked, such anger will open a door for Satan into our minds.
Ephesians 4:26-27 If you are angry, be sure that it is not a sinful anger. Never go to bed angry - don’t give the devil that sort of foothold. (Phillips)
Aside from any hurt and pain anger introduces into our relationships with others, anger also leaves the door wide open to Satan to get in and attack us. We must develop a cool head and steady disposition together with an attitude of compassion and forgiveness.
5. Love not the world
This world is Satan’s playground. It is a world specifically designed to draw us away from God – a world of distractions and clever deceptions. Yet the Bible tells us not to love this world.
1John 2:15-16 You must not be in love with the world, and the things of the world. No one can be in love with the world and in love with God at the one and the same time. Everything that is characteristic of the world, the desires of the passions, the way in which the sight of what we have not got kindles our desires for it, the tawdry glamour of this world’s life, has its source, not in the Father, but in the world.( Barclay)
Rather, we need to be transformed.
Romans 12:1-2 So then brothers, I urge you by the mercies of God to offer your bodies to God as a living, consecrated sacrifice, which will delight God’s heart, for that is only worship which a rational being can offer to God. Stop always trying to adjust your life to the world’s ways. You must get a new attitude to life; your whole mental outlook must be radically altered, so that you will be able to decide what God’s will is, and to know what is good and pleasing to him, and perfect. (Barclay)
If we love the world, we are not starving the sinful nature and will ultimately lose the battle between the two natures at war within us.
The battle lines are clearly drawn. Sin is more sinister and pervasive than just the occasional act of disobedience against the law of God. Sin is an active power or force at work in our minds and bodies, receiving its life and energy from the author of sin and arch-deceiver, Satan the Devil.
Overcoming is a process of nourishing God’s nature within ourselves and starving the sinful carnal nature. It requires self-discipline and constant effort.
However, we must never lose heart. Jesus has gone before us. He did overcome the world and he will give us all the help, power and encouragement we need to do the same. His sacrifice is forever sure and will cover all sins we will ever commit. We are in his Father’s hands and in his hands and together they will never let us go or allow us to be lost. If we look to God, and look to the example Jesus gave us, if we call upon God for His spirit, and support and encourage one another, we will win the battle.
Victory is assured!