Over the years, I have held many different views on sin and forgiveness. At one point, I thought of sin only in terms of sins (i.e., individual acts of unrighteousness), and I thought of forgiveness as being passed out piecemeal as I confessed each sin individually. I don’t remember how long I held these views, but I do remember on many occasions having doubts and fears over whether or not I had confessed all my sins. I also remember frequently reviewing my memory banks in order to recall any sins from my past that I had failed to mention to God in prayer.
Eventually, the time requirements of this strategy and its burden on my psyche led me to ask God to forgive all my sins without listing them all individually. This new strategy was more comprehensive and easier to manage than the other was, and I grew to like it more and more as time progressed.
But asking for blanket forgiveness did not change my views on the timing of forgiveness. I still thought sin must occur first in time, and afterward I could ask for forgiveness; then and only then would God forgive my sins. I did not think forgiveness could occur before I sinned or before I asked for forgiveness. This seemed to be in line with 1 Jn. 1:9 – “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”.
But my views caused me to be concerned about what would happen to me if I died after committing a sin but before I asked for forgiveness. Would God forgive those sins too? I concluded that unconfessed sins should not keep me out of heaven because God had granted me eternal life (John 10:28). But I was not sure how unconfessed sins would be disposed of. Therefore, since I did not have a solid foundation, I opened my mind to the possibility that God might forgive my sins before I committed them. As a result, I began to add the generic sins of my future to my blanket requests for forgiveness.
At some point in time, I became self-conscious about the fact that “sin” included more than just my physical acts of disobedience. It also included the sins that existed only in my thought-life. Jesus’ admonition that adultery and murder occurred in the heart (Matt. 5:21–30) bothered me. But His statement to the Pharisees that out of an evil heart proceeds evil deeds (Matt. 12:34–35) bothered me even more. This scared me because I believed in my own personal responsibility for sin, and I believed it was my duty to refrain from sinning, but I did not want to believe that I had an evil heart.
I began to reason that if sin proceeds out of an evil heart, then I must have an evil heart. But I was confused; because our hearts are changed when we are saved, aren’t they? I did not want to admit I had an evil heart because I considered myself to be saved already. But I had a nagging suspicion that my heart was evil, and that it was the source of all my sins. So I began to wonder whether I was really saved. And if I were not saved, I wondered, how could I be saved if what I thought saved me the first time did not work?
I thought I found the answer in the distinction between sin and temptation. It is definitely not a sin to be tempted because Jesus was tempted, and He never sinned. So maybe what I was experiencing was temptation rather than an evil heart. The lifecycle of sin which James explained (James 1:12–15) seemed to help me draw that distinction.
Temptation, he said, was when a person was “drawn away by his own desires and enticed” (James 1:14). Then, he said, “When desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death” (James 1:15). I took this to mean that having “desires” was not in itself sinful, but that gratifying the desires of the flesh is what produces the sin. This helped me build a wall of insulation between me and what I did not want to admit were the evil desires of my heart.
But I had a nagging feeling that my heart’s evil was still my responsibility. And that was confirmed when I accepted the truth of 1 Corinthians 10:13. It says, “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.”
What I found in this verse was the corollary of its direct message. If God gives us a way of escape with every temptation, then it follows that every time we succumb to temptation, it is because we choose sin instead of God’s way out. This understanding made me realize that even if I could insulate myself from and take no responsibility for my evil heart, I would still be guilty of gratifying its desires because every time I sin, I do it on purpose. With every temptation, God provides me a way out, and with every sin, I choose to disregard His provision.
As an aside, I do make room in my thinking for the possibility that I do not always sin on purpose. Sometimes I might sin without knowing it. But I can specifically identify enough instances where I have sinned on purpose, that the possibility that I may commit some sins unwittingly does not comfort me.
Coming to these conclusions, I could no longer rationally draw a distinction between the evil desires of the flesh and my choices to gratify them—because my many choices to fulfill the desires of the flesh are in perfect harmony with the evil desires themselves. I choose to gratify the fleshly desires of my heart because the lusts of my heart are my lusts.
Then I took a second look at the lifecycle of sin. I realized that James was saying that sin proceeds out of our evil hearts when the tempter takes advantage of our evil desires and lures us away by enticement. The devil’s efforts did not work on Jesus in part because He did not have an evil heart with evil desires upon which temptation could work. They work on us because we have lustful hearts that are easily enticed.
With these revelations, all my individual sins of commission and omission seemed trivial because I realized that my problem with sin (singular) was not my sins (plural). They were only a symptom of my problem. The root cause of my problem was an evil heart, a dark place in my soul that causes me to choose sin over the goodness of God.
I realized, perhaps for the first time, that the Scriptures depicting man as having an evil heart applied to me. Of particular poignance was Romans 7:14, which says, “I am carnal, sold under sin.” Strong’s first metaphorical definition for “sold under sin” is, “entirely under the control of the love of sinning.” My Greek-English lexicon describes this verse in terms of us being sold as slaves with sin being our master.
When I was able to face the fact that my heart is evil, I finally came to grips with the fact that being saved did not divest me of my sinful nature. I am carnal, entirely under the control of the love of sinning. Then I understood why it is imprudent to have confidence in the flesh (Phil. 3:3). And then I understood for the first time why my former strategy of enumerating my sins was futile. We are so deeply corrupted by sin in the flesh that it is impossible to identify every one of our sins individually. As the prophet Jeremiah wrote:
The heart is deceitful above all things,
And desperately wicked;
Who can know it? (Jer. 17:9)
This is acutely evident in Romans 7 and 8. Paul explains that sin lives in the flesh, vexing the inner man of those who are in Christ, causing an internal war between good and evil, and bringing a sense of wretchedness because sometimes sin wins (Rom. 7:14-24).
But he goes on to say that Christ Jesus delivered us from this sense of wretchedness (Rom. 7:24-25) by releasing us from the condemnation that our sin deserves (Romans 8:1). The fact that we have life in Christ Jesus by His Spirit living in us means that sin no longer condemns us to eternal death (Rom. 8:2). The first covenant couldn’t do it because our flesh was weak, so God sent His Son to destroy sin and to give us new hearts that are rightly aligned with Him (Rom. 8:3-5).
And because of these things, I understood for the first time that when God forgave me, He released me from all the judgment and from all the condemnation due me for being a sinner. That does not just mean that He forgives me for all my sins. It also means He forgives me for being a sinner. And when I realized that even my sin-nature is forgiven, it became easy to believe that all my individual sins are forgiven also.
Now, I know for sure that it does not matter whether my sins are in my past or in my future, whether they are known or unknown to me, or whether or not I have the courage to examine them all. God forgives me for having an evil heart and for every sin my evil heart produces. As He promised would be the case under the new covenant, He forgave my iniquity (singular) and He remembers my sin (singular) no more (Jer. 31:34).
This gives me a strong sense of security. I am confident that God is for me. Who can prevail against me (Rom. 8:31)? He holds all the power to condemn (Rom. 8:34). He’s the one who sends people to hell (Luke 12:5). And though He has declared me guilty of sin, He has chosen to withhold judgment against me. Instead, He decided to pay for my sins and to give me eternal life (Rom. 8:34).
Since God is for me, who or what can detach me from His love? “Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (Rom. 8:35)? No:
For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:38–39)
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Strong, J. (1996). The exhaustive concordance of the Bible : Showing every word of the text of the common English version of the canonical books, and every occurrence of each word in regular order. (electronic ed.). Ontario: Woodside Bible Fellowship. ↑
Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Vol. 1: Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: Based on semantic domains (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition.) (578). New York: United Bible Societies. ↑