The first step in dealing with sin is turning to Christ: we need to live according to our new and transformed selves. But of course, for anyone who has been a Christian for more than a few days—or even a few minutes!—it very quickly becomes obvious that turning to Jesus and becoming a Christian is not enough to deal with all the ongoing patterns of sin in your life. Sin continues to beset us. We continue to struggle. Turning to Christ is a start, but it’s only the start. Christ gives us this new pattern to follow, however, it takes time and effort to re-shape our behaviour according to this new pattern.
Now, by “pattern”, I mean “the way things go in a regular way”. My wife loves to crochet, and she’ll take a pattern and a ball of yarn, and then turn that yarn into a dinosaur. It’s not immediate—it’s not something you can do with just a click of your fingers; it takes time and effort to reshape the material into the form of a toy. Similarly, as we come to Christ, we begin unformed in terms of the way we live our lives. Our salvation is complete, and yet our behaviour is not yet what we want it to be. We’re being reshaped into Christ’s image to live like him. But it’s not immediate; it’s going to take time and effort. And so, I want to now turn my attention to what we do—our effort, from a human perspective—to live a life like Christ.
1. The power of the Word
If we want to be reshaped into Christ’s image, the first thing we need to do is listen to his word. But sometimes the idea that we just need to listen to the Bible a bit more can feel so dry and passive. Sometimes we long for something more powerful—more vibrant. We want a spiritual experience.
But if we understand who the Holy Spirit is and who Jesus is, we’ll also understand that the Word and the Spirit will always go together. Do we need the Holy Spirit to work in us in order to change our patterns of behaviour? Yes, of course we do! Do we need God’s word to change our patterns of behaviour—the ways in which we live? Yes, of course we do! But the Word incarnate, Jesus Christ, was the second person of the Trinity; the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity; and the thing about the Trinity is that there is only one God. You can’t have God’s word working effectively in your life without the Spirit, and you can’t have the Spirit working effectively in your life without hearing God’s word. You need them together. So if you have turned to Jesus, you’ve become a Christian. You’re trusting in Jesus as your Lord and Saviour, and God has given you his Holy Spirit. But the way that his Spirit works is as we listen to God’s word—as we read our Bibles. And as the Word and the Spirit work together, they will act powerfully and they will change us.
In my first article, I argued that we become who we are through relationships. The first critical relationship for making us into the image of Christ is our relationship with the triune God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That’s step #1: we need to be in relationship with God. Step #2 is very similar: we need to continue that relationship. The way we do that is by listening to the Word and by responding to it in prayer.
In a really important sense, that’s all you need. The Word being read by a person filled by the Holy Spirit is powerful, and it will work to change your thoughts and desires. The process will be slow and gradual, and it will, at times, be painful. But it will be powerful: it will change who you are.
2. The power of other people
Now, when I say, “All you need is to become a Christian and read the Bible”, we could take that as the conclusion and think, “Well, now I can take my Bible, go home and read it on my own, and be a Christian completely by myself”. But I don’t think that’s quite where we should be landing.
First of all, as we read God’s word, it commands us to meet with other Christians:
let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Heb 10:24)
I think that’s a pretty good reason to not just read the Bible on your own and be a Christian by yourself.
But secondly, as I’ve said earlier, we become who we are through relationships, and part of becoming a new self (someone who’s living according to the pattern of Christ) is that we do it through human relationships. We might begin with our relationship with God, but God is generous and he gives us more: he brings us into relationship with other new selves—other people who are seeking to live out the pattern of Christ. In short, as we become Christians, God calls us into his church. He calls us into relationship with other Christians. He calls us, in the ordinary course of life, to go to church and meet with other people—to sit under his word with them—to meet with them and share our lives with them.
Can you be a Christian and deal with sin without Christian community? Is that possible? I would say, “Sort of”. Let me ask a different question: can you survive on nothing but bread and water? Well, sort of: bread and water will keep you going for quite a while. But why would you want to? Why would you want to live a life without the flavours of things like good cheese and olives, chocolate, kebabs, or German sausages with mustard? Why would you choose to have none of that and just eat bread? In addition, even if you did choose to stick to bread and water, it’s not the healthiest choice, long-term. There are so many nutrients you’re going without if all you eat is bread. It’s not the best way to care for your body.
It’s the same thing with Christian community and your spiritual health. If, for whatever reason, you can’t be part of a Christian community, God is good and generous: you are in relationship with him, and he can and will care for you. So for the Christian in a communist country who has been thrown in prison, God can and will care for you. Or for the Christian in poor health who just can’t get to church because their body is just too weak, God can and will care for you. If you can’t meet with other Christians, God can and will care for you. But it’s not the ideal. It’s not what we should be aiming for.
It’s much healthier if you can meet regularly with other Christians and be part of a Christian community, because as you meet with God’s people, you will read God’s word together. You will teach one another. You will encourage one another. You will correct and rebuke one another. You will actually be stronger together than you were on your own, and you will reshape one another into this new pattern of life that follows Christ.
I argued earlier that sin spreads to all people because of the relationships we’re in. Similarly, righteousness also spreads through relationships. The more we can involve ourselves in relationships with other Christian people—other people who are trying to live this new life in Christ—the better off we’ll be. It will help us deal with our sin.
Now, I just want to clarify one point: I’m not saying that you need to read the Bible and go to church as the two great activities of the Christian life. That’s a potential misunderstanding seen throughout church history. What I’m saying is that we need the Word in church—the Word in our Christian community. God’s word alone is authoritative, but the best way to live under it is together, as part of the community God has called us into.
3. The power of Christian community
So how do we bring the word of God to bear together—to deal with our sin in community, rather than just by ourselves? I think our Christian communities can be like nurseries or incubators. We begin as babies: when we become Christians, we don’t yet know how to live as Christians. We need to grow and mature, and the Christian community we’re a part of can teach us how to do that.
So here are three suggestions about how we can be doing that as a community: we need to talk, we need to watch and we need to model.
Firstly, we need to talk with one another about better ways of living in order to deal with our sin. This means listening to our preachers—specifically, in the way they apply the word of God in our community. If we have good preachers who don’t merely lecture on what the participle is doing in this verse, but they will apply the Word and show us how it changes our lives. That will impact us and help us to deal with our sin. So listen to your preachers.
If you are in ministry, be sure to preach the Word and apply it to your people. I don’t just mean in your sermons, but also in Bible study groups, youth groups, Sunday school—any context in which you’re teaching the Bible. Are you applying it to the way your people live? Because as you do, you’re helping them deal with their sin. You’re helping them see what God wants us to do and what God doesn’t want us to do. You’re helping them see practical ways of honouring their Lord and saviour.
Of course, there’s opportunities not just in those formal occasions of the Sunday sermon and the weekly Bible study. As we have conversations with people over morning tea or as we go out for coffee together, we can talk about the challenges we’re currently facing. I can talk with fellow Christian parents about how I lose my temper with my kids when they just won’t get out of the bath when I ask them to, and learn from them about how they approach their kids and tackle the challenges of parenting. We can talk about how we build habits of prayer into our lives—what we find helpful and what we don’t—so that we can help one another find better patterns of living. We can share the tools we use in evangelism to give each other confidence to praise God among those who don’t yet know him. There’s all sorts of ways in which we can just talk to each other to help one another live better Christian lives—lives in which we spend more of our time thinking and saying and doing the godly thing, and less time thinking and saying and doing the sinful thing.
As we meet with our Christian brothers and sisters, one type of speech that deserves special mention is confessing our sins. It’s actually very important to be asking one another for help—to say, “I’m struggling with this. What do you think? What could I do differently? Can you pray for me?” By confessing our sins in general terms in church each week, we remind ourselves and each other that the Christian life involves continual repentance. None of us have it sorted yet. We’re all still sinning each and every week. And by occasionally confessing particular sins to trusted older Christians, we can ask for particular help and encouragement in our particular struggles. Satan wants us to think that we’re alone in our sin so that we’ll give up the fight. But by confessing our sins together, we teach and remind one another that Satan is a liar, that we are all redeemed sinners, and that our sins are forgiven in Christ. We remind one another of the gospel.
Secondly, we don’t just need to talk with other Christians, we also need to watch one another so we can learn from one another and find better ways of living. It’s helpful for us to watch what other Christians are doing. I love spending time with other Christian families and watching the way the parents parent their kids: I discover so many good ideas I can use to help me as I try to manage my tribe. It also means I am able to see that they have the same struggles I do. As I witness their kids behaving in open defiance, I can sit back and think, “Oh, it’s not just me”. I can be encouraged that my struggle with sin is not particular to me alone, but it’s an issue I also share with my brothers and sisters, and therefore, we can walk together on this journey.
It’s not just in parenting that watching is helpful; it’s also helpful for marriage. As we watch other couples communicate, it might inspire us to think, “Yeah, actually, I need to do better in that area”. Or if you’ve been married for a while and you see a younger couple having troubles, perhaps it will be appropriate for you to get alongside them, remembering the struggles you faced during those early days with your spouse. As we watch one another, we can help one another.
But of course, in order to watch one another, we need to spend time together. We need more than just the 20 minutes we spend at morning tea after church on Sunday. We need to share lives with one another. We need to have meals together. We need to be part of each other’s lives in a more profound way than just showing up for an hour and a half on Sunday. Now, we can’t do that with every single person. But we need to intentionally build those relationships in our churches.
Finally, if I’m going to benefit from watching the way you live as a Christian, I also need to be modelling what it is to live as a Christian so you can watch me. We need to talk, we need to watch, but we also need to model, because as I show you what it looks like to live a Christian life, I help you to recognise sin in your life and deal with it. Furthermore, as you model to me, you help me to recognise the sin in my life and deal with it. There are a whole lot of different ways we can do it, but we need to be sharing our lives in order to both see and to be seen. Church, Bible study, prayer groups, meals in our homes, going out for coffee, taking the kids to the park with another family from church so that not only the kids have someone to play with, you have someone to talk to and to disciple—however it is you want to do it, we need to be spending that time together and participating in our Christian community in order to deal with our sin effectively.
The power of the Word and the power of Christian community helps us to live Christic lives and deal with our sin. So let me finish by asking, how are you going with all of this? How is your relationship with God and his word? How are your responding to him in prayer? How are you currently participating in Christian community? Are you going to church each week? Are you part of a small group? Are you having people over to your house? Are you meeting people at the park? How are you serving other Christians? How are you helping them to become Christlike? Are you talking to them about your walk with Christ? Are you watching others and learning from them as you see them living out their faith? Are you, in turn, modelling what it means to follow Jesus and turn aside from sin?
As people redeemed and transformed by Christ, we will continue to struggle with sin until Christ returns and raises his people from the dead. But we won’t face our struggle alone. We struggle against sin secure in the knowledge that we have new life in Christ, we have his Spirit dwelling within us, and we live these new lives in fellowship with our church families.
All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com. The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™