Before we can consider how a person can be free from sin, we need to understand the state into which everyone is born. David says in Psalm 51:7 that he was “brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” In other words, even before he breathed his first breath, he was in a state of sin. And because he was in a state of sin, he sinned. Therefore, we sin because that is our nature.
We can’t free ourselves
This is consistent with what scripture teaches elsewhere: in John 8:34 Jesus says that “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin,” and Paul says in Ephesians 2:1 “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins.” Therefore, fundamentally we can do nothing to be freed from sin: a slave can’t free himself, a dead person can’t revive himself.
We need a Savior
We need a Savior, someone to come and rescue us. This is exactly who Jesus is, and what He achieved by dying on the cross. At the cross, Jesus took our sin upon himself and bore God’s punishment that we deserved (1 Peter 2:24). But He didn’t just take away our sin, He also gave us his perfection, his righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21). Therefore, when God now looks upon Christians, He sees Christ’s perfection and obedience. This is fundamentally how we can be free from sin – not by anything we do, but by what Christ has done for those who trust and believe in him.
However, at this point, you might be thinking: “but that’s not my experience, I still struggle daily with sin, and often yield to it.” To answer this we need to understand a little more about the nature of the present time (or age) in which we live.
The “new age”
When Christ died, was resurrected and ascended into heaven, He started what I’ll call the “new age,” by which I simply mean that there is a sense in which God’s kingdom has started already. For example, Paul says in Ephesians 2:7 that God has “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” In other words, Christians are already with Christ in heaven! However, we’re also clearly still living life here and now on this earth – we’re still members of this “present age” (Titus 2:12). Therefore, there is an “overlap” between these two ages. As a result, we experience a tension between what we were (and to an extent still are), and what we will be (and to an extent already are).
This is the reality of the Christian life: we’re not what we once were, but we’re not yet fully what we will be. Therefore, on the one hand we’re free from sin – righteous – but on the other hand we still sin and battle with it. As Martin Luther put it, “at the same time righteous and a sinner.” This is exactly what Paul’s says 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.” In other words, the Christian is at war: the war between the desires of the flesh (the old us) and the Spirit (who now dwells in Christians). Therefore, if you are battling sin, be encouraged: it’s a sign of true spiritual life!
Fight against sin
So how is a Christian to fight sin? Paul’s consistent appeal is that Christians live out who they now are in Christ (e.g. Colossians 3). Paul explains this further in Romans 6: that we died to sin (Romans 6:2), that our old self was crucified with Christ (Romans 6:6). Therefore, Christians are to “consider [them]selves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11). As a result, Christians are to live out who they are by “not letting sin reign in your mortal body,” and by “not present[ing] your members to sin … but present[ing] yourselves to God” (Romans 6:12-14).