Written By James Bunyan
James Bunyan is a bit of a fidget, to be honest. His inability to sit still tends to spill over into all sorts of areas of his life; he loves travelling, good writing, all sports (except frisbee), the sense of purpose that the gospel gives him, exotic teas and the satisfaction of peeling off a sticker all in one go. He lives in Teddington (London), where he is training to be a vicar in the Church of England. For James and his wife Lois, lockdown in London was improved by the arrival of their daughter, Galilee, who just learned to clap.
I’ve just joined a squash club and I’m starting to think it was a mistake.
For one, the membership, courts, new shoes, racquet, and balls are expensive. Secondly, every game reduces me to a sweaty mess—surely it must be unhealthy to sweat that much in one 40-minute window. Thirdly, I don’t think I’m very good. A few weeks ago, I lost a match in 10 minutes flat to a lady who has grandchildren my age. While I put so much effort into it that I was off work for two days with a bad back, she didn’t even break enough sweat to justify taking off her hoodie.
I’m starting to wonder whether squash is for me.
The big problem is not that I don’t understand the theory of how to play—I just can’t do it in practice. Often, I’ve planned exactly what shot to play, but when I step into it, my arm does the complete opposite to what I want it to do. I know exactly where on the court I should be in theory, but in practice I’m usually facing the wrong direction.
I get the theory. But I just can’t do it.
Ever felt that your faith was like that? Like you know the theory, but you just can’t do it? You know that living as a Christian involves killing your sin but sometimes you do the things you know aren’t right and enjoy them, and every time you do, you feel like you’ve let God down again. You just can’t help yourself.
How on earth do you change this?
Well, this isn’t a new problem; Paul the apostle describes going through pretty much the same thing in Romans 7:18–19.
“For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”
What’s his answer? Given what he’s said so far in Romans, it’s no surprise:
“Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25)
That seems a little obvious; in the Bible, the answer is often “Jesus”. The question is, however, how exactly does Jesus help us stop sinning?
Well, the first part of the answer is that, throughout Romans, Paul applies to Christians what Jesus has done in dying on the cross and rising from the dead, explaining to them that this totally changes everything about their identity. This is because Jesus did a mighty swap on the cross, taking their sinful and messed-up identities on Himself, destroying them as He died, and giving to all who believe in Him His perfect identity instead, leaving them spotless.
It’s almost as if He’s swapped His spotless white shirt for their disgustingly filthy, stained shirts, then destroyed the stained ones on Himself before rising. Paul explains over and over that Jesus now owns Christians and has made them totally sinless and pure. And because that’s something Jesus has achieved by Himself, whatever Christians feel about themselves doesn’t change the reality.
If you’re a Christian, you may not feel much different from before. You may seem to go on sinning. You may feel unable to do right. But because Jesus has died and risen for you, your identity is fundamentally changed; it is sinless now.
That’s why Paul starts the next bit of Romans 8:1–2 like this:
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.”
And don’t forget that Jesus’ death and resurrection achieved so much because He’s no ordinary man: He is the infinite Lord of the universe, so when He says you are now without sin, you are.
Doesn’t that make you thank God for Jesus?
Why does God teach us this over and over again in His Bible? It’s because we have ridiculously short memories—it’s in teaching ourselves over and over again what the Lord has achieved for us in His death and resurrection, that we will begin to understand that sin has no hold on us anymore.
Plus, knowing this can change what we will want to do, because compared to the magnificence of knowing who Jesus is, those sinful habits of ours just seem shoddy, unexciting, and pathetic. And the more we understand Jesus’ magnificence, the more we’ll know this is true. We will slowly begin to change what we want to do.
So, if you find yourself understanding the theory but unable to stop sinning, don’t despair. The answer isn’t a frenzied guilt trip or to somehow try to punish yourself. The answer is to have a bigger view of what Jesus has done for you. The more you understand that, the more you’ll realize that “being a sinner” is just not you anymore.
There’s one more thing to add. And that is to say that following Jesus involves sweat.
I probably will carry on with squash. To be fair, I’ve been playing it only a few months and, with all the effort I am putting into training, I am getting a little bit better; the last time I played the same grandma, it took 15 minutes before I lost. If I want to get better at it, I should expect to have to sweat at it.
Why do we assume that learning to live this new identity as a Christian is any different?
The Bible describes becoming a Christian in several different ways: being born again, being brought from death to life, becoming a new creation, leaving the kingdom of darkness for the Kingdom of God. One of the things they all have in common is that they all sound difficult.Struggling against sin is exactly that—a struggle. Did you really expect to nail it straight away?
Keep fighting. Keep sweating. And all the way through, know that Jesus has already changed you from the inside out.
“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Romans 8:37)