Post-Conversion Sin

  • Question 116, from JG, United Kingdom

    This answer is sponsored by Adam Harbinson, author of Savage Shepherds.

    I recently read Hebrews where it says if we sin willfully after salvation there is no forgiveness but only judgement to look forward to. Jesus said, “if you love me keep my commandments”. Why do Christians sin after salvation, and will this sin cause us to lose our salvation?

    This particular question has been an issue within Christianity since New Testament times. Sin, it seems, was still a problem post-conversion in the earliest church. The apostle Paul famously struggled with his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians chapter 12, verses 7-8) and asked, “why do I do the things I don’t want to do?” (Romans chapter 7, verses 18ff). The New Testament letters to churches are full of admonitions against ‘sinful’ behaviour, and encouragement towards living righteously.

    One of the big issues within Christianity as it developed was whether sins committed after baptism could be forgiven. In particular, apostasy under persecution was considered an unforgivable sin, and the debate whether apostates should be allowed back into the church was a root cause of the Donatist schism in North Africa. If, it was argued, baptism literally washed away sin, and a believer could only be baptised once, then any sin after baptism would count against a person.

    This is why, in medieval times, most people were baptised on their death beds – so there was no chance of sin after baptism. It also gave rise to the complicated system of confession and penance, and the distinction between venial and mortal sins (i.e. sins that could be cancelled out through confession and those that couldn’t). Another result was concept of purgatory, a kind of hellish non-hell where sins were accounted for until a person was righteous enough to go to heaven.

    During the reformation, the emphasis within protestant Christianity shifted from baptism as a sacramental, almost magical, act, to the moment of conversion. Because faith, not participating in the sacraments, was regarded as important to salvation, ‘conversion’ became recognised as an important point. But in effect, all this did was shift the issue from ‘post-baptismal’ sin to ‘post-conversion’ sin.

    Imputed righteousness
    An important element within Reformation theology is the idea of ‘imputed righteousness’, which basically means that a person is not righteous in and of themselves, but is regarded as righteous by God because Jesus Christ has ‘imputed’ (given) them righteousness. To paraphrase the doctrine: God looks at a person, sees the sinless-ness of Christ instead of their own sin, and accordingly regards them as sinless.

    Imputed righteousness therefore means post-conversion sins are not counted against a believer. However, this is not a license to commit sins. Even in Calvinism, with its very strong emphasis on predestination, it is possible for a person who has been predestined to receive imputed righteousness to act in such a way that they surrender their status among the chosen saved. Calvin was adamant that the mark of being chosen (elected) was a righteous life, and this has generally been the view of Christians within the protestant traditions.

    A journey towards salvation
    Recent developments in theology have accentuated an additional aspect to this, drawing on an idea found in John Bunyan’s salvation-novel The Pilgrim’s Progress. Instead of seeing salvation as a one-off event at either baptism, or conversion, it is instead seen as a starting point on a journey that will eventually lead to perfection, after death.

    This is a similar concept to the idea of deification, which is common in the writings of the ‘Greek Fathers’ (theologians from the Middle East in the third and fourth centuries) and is still found in some Orthodox theology. Deification, simply put, sees salvation as a process whereby human beings attain a status of deity, as they grow more righteous in life, and then are transformed after death.

    Recognising that human beings are not perfect, and conversion only marks the beginning of a process which will end after death in a sinless and perfect state, does help remove some of the guilt associated with post-conversion sin. Salvation is no longer a ‘one off’ event, but something to be ‘worked out’ in life. This view of salvation allows a greater concept of God’s mercy, with God receiving the penitent believer and redeeming them as a continual action.

    Practical aspects
    While this theological background is interesting, it does not address the root cause of the problem. The correspondent who asked this question also detailed some aspects of the sin they personally struggled with. To some extent, the practical aspect of this question, i.e. dealing with sin in one’s own life, can only be addressed with pastoral help.

    It should also be noted that sometimes Christians can be sensitive towards what constitutes sinful behaviour. Certainly the concentration of many churches on sexual sin can possibly cause psychological problems regarding sex, and excessive guilt in the area of physical intimacy.

    In terms of long-standing, habitual activities, including sexual activities, it is worth noting the vast strides made in psychology and the study of addictions. Certainly one of the reasons that ‘sin’ is not eradicated is because it is not treated seriously, or if it is treated seriously, it is addressed in a ‘spiritual’ way, i.e. through prayer, exorcism etc.

    However, if an action is feeding a particular need, or results from a traumatic experience, then simply praying about it is probably not going to solve the problem. What is needed is an understanding that, as Paul says, “it is no longer I that do it, but the sin living in me” (Romans chapter 7, verse 17), and the inner psychological compulsion needs to be addressed and dealt with. Regardless of whether the guilt-inducing activity is actually sinful or not, it is probably the case that without a resolution, the individual will always be conflicted and find happiness elusive.

    This answer is sponsored by Adam Harbinson, author of Savage Shepherds and the forthcoming book, The Jesus I Know, which includes a contribution from Jon the freelance theologian. Discover more about Adam on his personal website. Adam attends May Street Church

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