Breaking The Sin Habit

As soon as a baby is born we immediately begin studying the child to see if we can discern similarities in appearance to the parents of the child. We look at the color of the hair, the nose, ears, mouth, fingers and toes. We dig through our baby pictures and compare them with the new baby. It is as if we desperately want to see our imprint on this new life that has come into the world.

As the child gets older, in addition to the physical similarities our children now evidence similarities of idiosyncrasies, speech patterns, attitude and behaviors that resemble that of a parent. Sometimes we find ourselves wishing that this imprint was not quite so prominent. Not all children are equally similar in personality and appearance but it is unusual if there is not something in the child that reflects the influence of parents.

In our text this morning, 1 John 3:4-10, John is sending us a simple message: the true believer should resemble Jesus. A real deal Christian should resemble Jesus in the way they live their lives. Jesus was without sin, and those who are a part of His family should be moving toward that state also.

Immediately the text raises a problem doesn’t it? Verse nine says, “No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.” Our first reaction to the verse is one of despair and frustration. If a true believer no longer sins, then we are in deep trouble. I would hope that no one here would claim that they no longer sin. Hopefully we no longer sin AS MUCH as we used to sin, but I would hazard a guess that sin continues to dog every step of our lives. So, is John saying none of us are true believers? I think the answer is “No”.

In addressing any issue we must compare Scripture with Scripture. The Bible is always consistent in what it says. If it appears inconsistent, it means we must look at the issue more carefully. In the first chapter of this letter John said,

8If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.

Based on this text alone we would think that John did not mean a true Christian never sins at any time. He has already told us that we should admit the reality of sin in our lives and confess it before the Lord. Paul also confessed that he struggled with sin in Romans 7. In 1 Timothy 1:15 Paul even called himself the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). Christians still sin.

So what is John saying? There are several different ways of trying to understand the text. There really is no unanimous consensus on which is correct. Some people believe John was talking to specific areas of Gnostic teaching. Others think he was talking about different kinds of sin. Still others point out that the key words of the text in Greek are in the active and present tense which denotes a continuing action (The NIV tries to capture this by saying, “keeps on sinning” and “continues in sin”) which they believe mean John is saying that we must not continue in habitual sin.

I don’t know what the correct interpretation is but I think it is clear that John is telling us that a person who keeps on living a sinful lifestyle is one that cannot be a child of God. The true believer confesses their sin and is working to overcome sinful habits. The non-believer continues on as they always have done. I think John’s point is this: the person who is unchanged in the way they live their life, shows that they have not truly met Christ. The true believer is being transformed by God’s Spirit. They are becoming a new creature on the inside and out. If our faith is not affecting the way we live, it is not a genuine faith.

Let me try to illustrate. A husband (or wife) can cry and plead for forgiveness for their marital infidelity but unless the adultery stops, the wife is right to conclude that the repentance is insincere.

Let’s look at it another way. Suppose you have surgery on a messed up knee. The damage is repaired through surgery and when you wake up after the procedure you are told that the knee is repaired. However, you are still in pain. Your knee is sore because muscles and tendons were moved or torn and they need to heal also. The knee is better, but you still need physical therapy to get it back to the point where it is pain free.

It’s the sort of the same way with sin. When we come to Christ, God, if you will, does surgery on our soul. He delivers us from sin and from sin’s penalty. However, our habits and our mind have to be retrained. Until the training is finished, sin will continue to cause pain in our lives. As we progress, there will be less and less pain. Unfortunately, for almost all of us, the spiritual therapy program takes a lifetime.

So let’s work hard at our therapy program today and draw some principles from this text.

Sin is indicative of a Bigger Problem 

John writes,

Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. (v.4)

John wants us to understand that every time we sin, there is a great deal more going on than simply us “making a mistake”. It is important that we get this: Sin is less something we do, than it is something we ARE. Our acts of sin are like an iceberg. In an iceberg you often see only 10% of the actual berg above that water. The majority of the danger lies hidden beneath the surface. A ship that comes too close to the iceberg (like the Titanic) can sink even if they think they are a safe distance from the iceberg.

Likewise, our sin is only 10% about what is seen in our actions. It has 90% to do with our character and our heart.   The sinful “act” points to a rebellious heart.

There is the story of the little girl who got into the car with her father. Dad told her she needed to sit down and put on her seatbelt. She ignored his instruction. He told her a second time. Again she acted as if she didn’t hear. The third time he said, “If you don’t sit down right now, I am going to pull the car over and spank you.” The little girl sat down (she wasn’t deaf after all). The dad thanked her for sitting down in her car seat. She responded, “I’m sitting on the outside but standing up on the inside”.

This is the way we often are. We conform on the outside but are still rebellious on the inside. We focus on the “act” of sin (which is of course important) but we don’t address the attitude of sin. Sin reveals a lack of faith. Sinful attitudes and sinful deeds are an expression of our idolatry. When we sin, John tells us we are following the Devil instead of the Lord. Pastor Alexander MacLaren wrote,

‘As a man thinketh in his heart so is he,’ and the way to set actions right is to set the heart right. Some of us are trying to purify the stream by putting in disinfectants half- way down, instead of going up to the source and dealing with the fountain. And the weakness of all the ordinary, commonplace morality of the world is that it puts its stress upon the deeds, and leaves comparatively uncared for the condition of the person, the inward self, from whom the deeds come. And so it is all superficial, and of small account.[1]

If we are going to truly follow Christ we need to strive to be holy not just in our actions but also in our heart.

The True Believer Should be Fighting Sin Rather than Justifying It 

If our goal is to be free from sin then we have to be ready for battle. We have to be willing to do what is necessary and change harmful habits. There are several things we have to do.

First, we have to admit our sin and then take steps to overcome it instead of making excuses. How quick we are to blame everyone else.

  • We aren’t happy because our spouse is unresponsive
  • We aren’t fulfilled in our job because our boss is a jerk
  • We get angry because someone “makes” us angry or “pushes our button”
  • We worry because bad things have happened to us in the past
  • We are dysfunctional because our parents were too (fill in the appropriate word: busy, strict, lenient, overprotective, indifferent)
  • We spend too much money because we just want to have what everyone else has.

Come on! We will never be what God created us to be until we stop making excuses and take responsibility for our own lives. We choose the way we respond to the circumstances of life. We choose to respond in sinful ways or in godly ways. We choose whether to trust or fret. We choose how we respond to the people who “push our buttons”. If we are going to truly follow Christ, we must stop making excuses.

Second, we need to look beyond ourselves to the effect our sin is having on others. One person says,

“Yes, I get angry on occasion. But I blow up and then it is over and done with. At least I’m not holding it all inside. It’s no big deal”

If you talk to that person’s spouse, children, co-workers, or friends and they will tell you,

“He is vicious when he gets angry. I’ll never forget the things he has said. He says, he didn’t mean it but I don’t think he would have said it if he didn’t mean it on some level. I carry all kinds of scars. Besides that, I am afraid to tell him the truth or talk to him about problems because I am afraid he is going to attack me.”

We often don’t consider how our sarcasm, indifference or hurtful words wound another person. We don’t see how our materialism creates insecurity and resentment in the lives of those around us. We don’t see how our anxiety puts everyone else on edge. We don’t understand how vulnerable our suggestive comments make a person feel. As believers, we have a responsibility to love those around us. One of the best ways to show love is to clean up the sinful and hurtful parts of our lives.

Third, we need to see that obedience is not some rule we have to follow . . . it is the way of wisdom. John tells us that Jesus appeared so that he might take away our sin. He tells us that the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the Devil’s work. Jesus came to repair the damage the Devil had done to our lives. The Lord knows that the best thing for us is to follow the instructions he gives us. He has given us the Holy Spirit (a therapist, if you will) to help us get free from the painful clutches of the Devil.

Too often I find myself doing things because “I don’t want to disappoint the Lord” or because “I don’t want to let down the people of the church”. It dawned on me that God already knows how I am going to act and what I am going to do. You and I will never disappoint God because we will never act differently than He expects us to act. However, God IS grieved by our actions. He is grieved not because we hurt Him but because He knows what we could have had and experienced if we had followed Him rather than the Devil. He grieves for the joy, strength, fulfillment and direction we would have known if we had followed His way. We honor God in our obedience but we don’t obey for God’s benefit . . . we are the ones who benefit from obedience. God’s way of life is the best way of life for us.

Let’s stay in the medical realm. A Doctor talks to a patient and tells them that they need to change their lifestyle in order to be without pain and live longer. When the patient ignores the Doctor’s instruction the Doctor is sad. It’s not because the Doctor is hurt, it is because the Doctor hates to see a person miserable when they could be better. 

There are no Little Sins

The third thing we need to understand is that there is no such thing as a little sin. While we aim our guns at the “big sins” of our lives, these so-called little sins may be entering our lives in droves. Things like gossip, a spirit of bitterness, an unforgiving heart, a closed spirit, a negative attitude, and a selfish perspective are all like cancer. You don’t see them as a big problem at first, but they eat away at you and at the body of Christ until we become sick and incapacitated.

The Pharisees looked good on the outside. They were like a big house that is spotlessly landscaped. Yet Jesus condemned them because they were rotten on the inside. They were fervent and diligent in guarding against the big and blatant sins against God. Yet they were hollow on the inside because the termites of indifference, pride, a judgmental spirit, and self-righteousness had eaten away their soul. If we allow the termites in the house will be destroyed and we won’t see it coming.

This is what makes the fight against terrorism so difficult. We can be strong militarily and deflect airplanes carrying bombs or armies that seek to invade our land. But, a terrorist comes into the country “under the radar”. That’s the way “little sins” are. We tend to overlook them. But like the terrorists, if you overlook them they will bring havoc to your life.

When we are careless about the “little sins” we become vulnerable to major failure. In the Middle Ages they developed the list known as the Seven Deadly Sins. Do you know these deadly sins? If we were making a list we would include things like: murder, adultery, stealing, drunkenness, homosexuality, idolatry and perhaps some others. These are indeed serious problems. But the seven so-called deadly sins are:

  • Sloth (laziness)
  • Lust
  • Anger
  • Pride
  • Envy
  • Gluttony
  • Greed

These are the very sins we often excuse and overlook as things that “everybody does”. These are the termites that destroy our souls! If you think about it, these little things can undermine and destroy a life. If we are going to pursue the way of God, we can’t excuse ANY sin. We must diligently seek to root out all sin.


So what do we do? First, we must listen to the Word of God. We must pay attention to it not like an assignment we have to read but as a map to buried treasure. We must read the Bible not looking for facts to learn about God but to listen to God’s guidance on how to find life. If you had some medical ailment you would most likely try to do exactly what the Doctor told you to do. You would follow the Doctor’s prescription. Well the Bible is God’s prescription for the ailment we call sin. If we follow the directions we will find new life. We will know God, we will have better relationships, we will be more financially sound, we will be healthier, we will be prepared for any crisis, and we will enjoy life more fully.

Second, we need to be honest with God in prayer. We must be up front about our struggles. Do a rigorous personal inventory. Accept responsibility before Him for the things that you know are wrong. Be honest about your lust, your greed, your manipulation of others, your negative attitude, and all the other “little sins” that you have allowed into your life. Ask God to purify your heart. We need to pursue our relationship with God as if our life depended on it. . . .because it does.

Third, we need to seek the power of the Holy Spirit to do what is right. We need to ask God to give us strength when we face the times of fierce temptation. John tells us that Satan and his army are seeking to turn us from the truth. We need to recognize that we are no match for the Devil and his army in our own strength. We can gain victory only in God’s strength.

Fourth, we need to avoid tempting situations. There are a lot of problems we can avoid in our lives if we simply stay away from things that cause us to stumble. You may need to stay away from certain places, certain people and certain situations. We need to change our habits.

Fifth, we need to find people who will hold us accountable. We need to help each other. Share your struggle with someone else and ask them to help you root out the disease of sin in your life. Agree that you will ask each other honest and hard questions that are designed to keep us on track.

Finally, every morning take a good hard look at yourself in the mirror. Look not only at your physical features but look past those physical features and look at your habits and character. Then ask yourself a pointed question: “Am I beginning to see a resemblance to Jesus in my life?” That’s the goal. If we want to live abundantly and joyfully we must not settle for anything less.

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