If humans have the ability to make decisions, is it possible not to sin?
This question is theologically challenging. It has to do with being born fallen but having some capability to make decisions about sin. As the classics put it, it’s not possible not to sin. Adam had the possibility of not sinning. When he surrendered that choice by sinning, there was a distorting and a breaking in human nature that we have inherited.
Even though we can say “no” to particular sins, it is not possible for us not to sin. Isn’t that a conundrum? How can it be the case that we can say “no” to individual sins like lying, for example? Even with the help of the Holy Spirit, we still sin. John makes this clear in 1st John, stating that if we do sin, we have an advocate in Christ Jesus. Paul, in Phil. 3 describes how he has not yet attained the resurrection, but he presses on to the upper calling of Jesus. There is a sense that we, as Christians, struggle all our lives with sin.
Even though there are times when we can say “no”, sinning is inevitable. Though we might be able to get better, we don’t stop sinning. How is it that we can say “no” to certain sins, but we can’t say “no” to all the sins?
We don’t realize how deeply embedded sin is. Sin entails not just some actions we do that we might, in isolated circumstances, muster up the self-control or draw on the power of the Holy Spirit to say “no.” Sin entails everything about us – the way we think and the things that motivate us against our will.
We’re not making decided actions all the time when we sin. Have you ever blown up at a loved one? All of a sudden – boom! – It’s there. You realize the anger of man does not fulfill the righteousness of God. You’re response wasn’t right under the circumstances, but it was over before you got the chance to think about it.
The corruption of man is coming from inside. This means, even though we can manage our actions to some degree, we are still victims to a fallen nature, even after we become regenerate. It’s a struggle, as described in Galatians 5. The spirit wars against the flesh, so you don’t do what you want to do. That struggle lasts until we die. Until we get our resurrected bodies, our bodies are going to be fighting us.
Just think of the two greatest commandments: Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. I don’t know about you, but there has not been a moment in 40 years of being a Christian where I have ever fulfilled those two basic commandments in which the entire law is summed up. Yes, we can get better with the help of the Holy Spirit. Even when we get better, if we had an accurate understanding of the profundity of our fallenness, we would realize we never get that good.
People say, “Well, I’m no Hitler,” but they’re not Jesus either. Jesus is the standard, not Hitler. We are a long way from Jesus. I hope this realization doesn’t discourage us from pressing on just as Paul talked about in Philippians, but it gives us a sober understanding of our fallenness and how we need to always be under the cross. We need to be dependent on either the power of the Holy Spirit to help us avoid sin or the power of the cross to cleanse sin when we engage in it.
We are engaging in sin virtually continuously throughout our life. That ought to be a wakeup call to us that we are never going to satisfy the demands of righteousness. We always have to put our trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, not in ourselves, but what He did for us. We need to throw ourselves into the arms of the Holy Spirit to help carry us through the struggle of this life against the flesh until that time when we will be like Him because we will see Him as He is.