Augustus Toplady’s hymn speaks of the “double cure”—that is, cleansing from both sin’s guilt and power. In the previous chapter, we saw that God does indeed cleanse us from sin’s guilt through the death of His Son. God does not forgive because He wants to be lenient with us. He forgives because His justice has been satisfied. The absolute forgiveness of our sins is just as rock solid as the historic reality of Christ’s death. It is important that we grasp this wonderful truth of the gospel because we can face our “respectable” sins only when we know they are forgiven.
However, Toplady’s hymn speaks not only of cleansing from sin’s guilt but also from its power. Sometimes when we are struggling with some particular expression of our sin, we wonder if the gospel does address the power of sin in our lives. We wonder if we will ever see progress in putting to death some persistent sin pattern that we struggle with. Can we honestly say with Toplady that Christ, the “Rock of Ages,” does indeed cleanse us from sin’s power as well as its guilt?
To answer that question, we need to see the cleansing from sin’s power in two stages. The first is deliverance from the dominion or reigning power of sin that is decisive and complete for all believers. The second is freedom from the remaining presence and activity of sin that is progressive and continues throughout our lives on earth. Paul helps us see this twofold deliverance in Romans 6.
In Romans 6:2, Paul writes that we “died to sin,” and in verse 8, he says, “We have died with Christ.” That is, through our union with Christ in His death, we have died, not only to sin’s guilt but also to its reigning power in our lives. This is true of every believer and is accomplished at the time of our salvation when God delivers us from the domain of darkness and transfers us to the kingdom of His Son (see Colossians 1:13).
Paul’s statement that “we died to sin” is a declarative statement. It is something God has done for us at the moment of our salvation. Nothing we do subsequent to that decisive transaction can add to or subtract from the fact that we died to both sin’s guilt and dominion.
At the same time, however, Paul urges us to “let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions” (Romans 6:12). How can sin possibly reign if we have died to it? Here Paul is referring to the continued presence and ceaseless activity of sin that, though it is “dethroned” as the reigning power over our lives, still seeks to exert a controlling influence in our daily walk. It, so to speak, continues to wage a spiritual guerrilla warfare in our hearts. This warfare is described by Paul in Galatians 5:17:
The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.
We experience this struggle between the desires of the flesh and the desires of the Spirit daily. This tension causes us to sometimes wonder if the gospel really does address this aspect of sin’s power—that is, its ability to pull us toward its desires. This seems especially true in the more respectable sins in our lives. Some of these subtle sins seem tenacious, and we must battle them daily. With others, we sometimes think we’ve turned the corner on one, only to discover a few days later that we’ve only gone around the block and are dealing with it again.
At this point in our struggle, we are prone to think, It’s fine to be told sin no longer has dominion over me, but what about my daily experience of the remaining presence and activity of sin? Does the gospel cleanse me from that? Can I hope to see progress in putting to death the subtle sins of my life?
Paul’s answer to that pressing question is found in Galatians 5:16: “I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” To walk by the Spirit is to live under the controlling influence of the Spirit and in dependence upon Him. Paul says that as we do this, we will not gratify the desires of the flesh.
Practically speaking, we live under the controlling influence of the Spirit as we continually expose our minds to and seek to obey the Spirit’s moral will for us as revealed in Scripture. We live in dependence on Him through prayer as we continually cry out to Him for His power to enable us to obey His will.
There is a fundamental principle of the Christian life that I call the principle of dependent responsibility; that is, we are responsible before God to obey His Word, to put to death the sins in our lives, both the so-called acceptable sins and the obviously not acceptable ones. At the same time, we do not have the ability within ourselves to carry out this responsibility. We are in fact totally dependent upon the enabling power of the Holy Spirit. In this sense, we are both responsible and dependent.
Jerry Bridges, Respectable Sins: Confronting the Sins We Tolerate (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2007), 17–19.
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