Before exploring whether or not Christians sin, let’s define a couple of terms. Regardless of how tattered the word Christian has become throughout history, the biblical definition of a “Christian” is one who is a Christ-follower, a disciple of Jesus (Acts 11:26). A Christian is NOT someone who has ascribed to a particular set of religious beliefs or practices, joined a church, prayed a prayer, or participated in certain sacraments or rituals. A Christian is a person who has responded to the conviction of the Holy Spirit (John 6:44) by putting his or her whole faith in the finished work of Christ for salvation (Ephesians 2:8–9; John 3:15–18). Christians are those who have repented of their sin and have made Jesus Lord of their lives (Romans 10:9–10; Acts 2:38). They are born again by the power of the Holy Spirit (John 3:6–7).
“Sin” is any thought, word, or action that is contrary to the character or law of God. We all sin (Romans 3:23), and even what we consider good deeds are often tainted by selfish motives or pride (Isaiah 64:6). Left to ourselves, it is impossible to please God or to be completely free from sin (Romans 3:10; Ecclesiastes 7:10).
When we come to Christ by faith and trust Him to forgive and cleanse us of all our sin, we are in that moment born again (John 3:3). That new birth of the spirit results in a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). God gives the repentant sinner a new heart that is now turned toward obeying and pleasing Him rather than self (2 Corinthians 5:9; Romans 8:5–6). Whereas we were formerly slaves to sin, we are now “slaves to righteousness” (Romans 6:16). Sin’s control has been broken by the power of Jesus (Romans 6:6; Titus 2:14).
However, we still live in the flesh, and the flesh is prone to want what it wants. In Romans 7:21–23, Paul admits the battle between flesh and spirit in his own life: “So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.” Each battle with temptation is won or lost based upon how fully we are surrendered to the control of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:16–17).
The book of 1 John was written to Christians. The apostle says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8–9). It is clear from this passage that even those who have been born again and redeemed by the blood of Jesus will still sin. Through thought, attitude, or action, we will “grieve” (Ephesians 4:30) and “quench” (1 Thessalonians 5:19) the Holy Spirit at times. But this passage also reassures us that God offers continual, ongoing grace whenever we agree with Him about our sin and ask for His cleansing.
However, other passages clarify the boundaries of this ocean of grace. First John 3:6 says, “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.” Verse 9 says that those who have been “born of God” will not continue to live sinfully. The implication is that this is not a matter of trying harder. Rather, it is the equivalent of saying, “A fish cannot remain on land for long because its nature is to seek water.” A fish could flop onto the shore and survive for a short time. But it was not made for land and cannot continue there. When we are born again, our natures change, and we cannot continue in sin. Christ not only erases our past sin; He also transforms our hearts so that we no longer desire it (Colossians 2:13–14).
Paul asked, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:1–2). Although Christians will still sin after being saved, the heart change that the Holy Spirit brings will result in a new attitude toward sin. Sin cannot continue being a lifestyle choice if we have surrendered our lives to Jesus. That’s what it means to say that Jesus is Lord (Romans 10:9; Colossians 2:6). We have a new boss. We cannot be followers of Christ and followers of sin at the same time. They are going in opposite directions (Luke 9:23; 14:33). Romans 12:2 instructs, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Renewal can take some time, but it is a process that produces a change of behavior.
When a true child of God goes astray, our Father administers discipline to bring him back into obedience. Hebrews 12:7–8 says, “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.” If a professing Christian can choose a lifestyle of sin without experiencing enough discipline to bring him to repentance, then according to this Scripture, it is highly unlikely that that person is a child of God.
Do Christians sin? Yes. Do they willfully continue in sin? No. Scripture indicates that, while we will always “fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), we have the hope that the power of God is at work in us to “make us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image” (2 Corinthians 3:18, NLT).