I wrote this answer on December 29th, 2023 in response to a person's question about how to stop sinning. I think my answer is generic enough that it might help others as we seek to be transformed by the Lord.
Your question is a good one, and it gets to one of the most important questions any follower of Jesus can ask: how do I become more like Jesus? After all, that is God's purpose for us.
As a pastor of over 20 years, I’ll give a bit deeper answer than you might have been expecting, but I hope it will be helpful. This answer is somewhat generic because I’ve written it to address a variety of questions I hear often that circle around the idea of, “How can I stop doing something I don’t want to do”?
Again, that’s a great question and it should be the deep-down longing of all of God’s people. When we have been born-again, or born from above, we will hate sin. We’ll want to be free of it. We’ll see the damage it causes us and our relationship with God, and we’ll cry out to Him for deliverance. That is an expression of spiritual life; and I praise God that you are bearing testimony to God’s work in your life.
As I mentioned at the outset, God wants us to be transformed. I like to tell my congregation that God loves us just the way we are, but He loves us too much to leave us that way. In other words, God knows the damage that we’re causing ourselves and our world with our sin. He wants to deliver us from this damage and the way that He does this is through making us more like Jesus. Listen to this famous verse from Romans 8:28–29 which says, "And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. 29 For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son…” Thus, God’s purpose for us is to be like Jesus, and this gets to the heart of the matter because, naturally, we are NOT like Jesus and that’s the problem.
The Bible uses very clear words to describe our spiritual condition; yet they sound almost like a foreign language in our day and age, today. Let me try to explain our spiritual condition using somewhat modern language that I believe encapsulates the Bible’s message.
The Bible explains that we are all born into this world, with a physical and spiritual DNA that goes all the way back to our first ancestors, Adam and Eve. That’s the problem. Adam and Eve sinned against God and suffered the consequences for it. God had warned them that if they sinned, they would “die” (Genesis 2:17). In that verse (Genesis 2:17) the specific sin they were to avoid was eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Now, what does that mean?
Well, when God created the world, everything was “good”. You can see this if you read the first two chapters of Genesis. Everything was “good” and “very good” which is an old-fashioned way of saying that everything worked just the way it was supposed to; and it was wonderful!
So, God placed Adam and Eve into a wonderful world. We can only imagine the beauty and glory of those days. And in that world, Adam and Eve thrived. They only had “good” and knew nothing else. Everything worked right. Everyone obeyed God. All was “good”.
So, when Satan tempted Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, the temptation was to bring something that was “less than good” into the world: Evil. What was so bad with a little bit of evil? Everything was so great, why not just reduce its “greatness” just a little bit, so that it’s less than great? What would happen then?
So, Adam and Eve deliberately chose to add “evil” into our world. (Now, we can get into the debate for why evil exists, but I’m actually trying to answer the question of how to deal with sin). With the introduction of evil came the introduction of all of the pain and suffering we have today. If you read in the records of Genesis 4 to 11, you’ll see all kinds of pain and suffering in this world as people continue to pursue “man’s way” and not God’s way. For instance, in Genesis 4, Cain kills his brother Abel. God then brings judgment upon him, but Cain goes off and continues to rebel against the Lord and establish an entire society that ignored God’s commands. This is called “the way of Cain” in Jude 11. In fact, our entire world is built upon “the way of Cain” in the sense that our world ignores God’s way, and God’s designs and wants to do their own thing. You and I have been born into this world and we suffer the consequences for it.
Now, people often say, “I’m suffering so much, why doesn’t God do something!?!” The answer is, He has.
God’s solution began in Genesis 12 when He called a man named Abram to start a new nation of people devoted to God. This nation would eventually be called “Israel” and they uniquely were in covenant with God to follow His “law”. Jews often call the laws that God gave them the “Torah” which means “way” or “instruction”. Thus, Israel was chartered by God to follow His ways and His instruction in this world.
Okay, bear with me for a bit longer. I know that this might seem like I’m off in the weeds, but your difficult question requires a full answer.
So, going on, Israel had mixed success in fulfilling their charter to walk in God’s ways. Yet, God had a purpose in all of it. Later in Israel’s history, God told the people in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36 that He would establish a New Covenant with them (and the world) where they would be His people, and He would be their God, and (most importantly) He would put His Spirit within them and enable them to obey His law.
In other words, the Old Testament “laws” showed them WHAT God’s standards were, but they lacked the spiritual ability to truly carry them out. They could muster up a small amount of willpower to sometimes obey God, but they lacked the true, internal, spiritual transformation that would enable them to truly live changed lives in conformity with God’s standards. Thus, they needed a new power to obey God. God promised this new power in the “New Covenant” (by the way, the terms “Old Testament” and “New Testament” are speaking of these covenants. The word “Testament” is just a Latin way of saying “covenant”.) So, Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36 (and other passages too) explained that the New Covenant would bring a new power by the Holy Spirit to obey God’s laws.
Indeed, when Jesus was with the disciples in the Upper Room for the Last Supper, when He passed the Cup of Wine, He said in Luke 22:20, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.” In other words, Jesus established the New Covenant and He invites us into covenant with Him, where we’ll obey His laws by the power of His Spirit within us. Here's something that’s lost in many churches in our day: If we are a “Christian” that’s supposed to mean that we’re members of this “New Covenant” community of people who have entered into this New Covenant with Christ to be His people and obey His ways by the power of His Holy Spirit.
So, the need for the New Covenant was shown in Israel’s inability to follow God’s law. The prophecy of the New Covenant was given in passages like Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36. It was initiated at the Last Supper. It was established by Christ’s shedding of His own blood on the cross. It was announced in Acts 2 with the coming of the Holy Spirit and the introduction of the New Covenant community, that we call (today) “the church”. And it’s ratified in our hearts as we embrace this covenant with God.
Now, this starts to tie into all of the New Testament’s exhortations to live holy lives. Many, many Christians fail to understand that the promise of the New Covenant was the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit who would transform them from the inside out. Yet many people don’t know this, and sadly they try to live a “good life” in the same kind of will-power-strength as the Old Covenant believers. With the same measure of success. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail, and it’s because they’re seeking to live out a “New Covenant Life” by their own strength; when in fact, the New Covenant was never meant to be lived in our own strength.
The problem is, that many New Testament passages assume we’re already on the same page. For instance, Hebrews 8 quotes Jeremiah 31 extensively and just “drops the mic.” The author gives very little explanation of what it meant, except to say, “It’s here!” The author just assumes we know what was prophesied and would respond appropriately.
Thus, the original readers of the Bible were keenly aware of the New Covenant promises and they were fully expecting the Holy Spirit to bring spiritual transformation to their lives. Thus, often the authors would cite this transformation as proof that they were part of the New Covenant. Their transformation did not PRODUCE their new life in Christ, it REFLECTED it. But if we don’t read these passages carefully, we can mistakenly think that they’re saying, “Work harder, work more, give more effort, be better” when they’re really saying, “This is what the Holy Spirit’s work and power looks like in your life, and if He’s not done this, you should be concerned.”
The problem is; if many Christians are honest, they haven’t seen that kind of transforming power in their lives. Many people might attribute their growth and development to their own willpower. Thus, I find that this message of true transformation gets downplayed in Christianity because the implications are very difficult to hear. The implications are that if a person has not seen the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in their life, they may not be saved after all. Yet, as tough as this message is, it is the message of scripture. Indeed, Jesus warned in Matthew 7 that on the day of judgment, many people will say, “Lord! Lord!” and He’ll say, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness (Matthew 7:23).”
So, we are supposed to be able to see God’s transforming work in our lives; and many of the people have posted answers to your question testifying “God changed me when I was born-again.” Those people are bearing witness to this reality. Indeed, I can agree with them…the Lord has changed me too; and it was by His power and grace; not by my own work.
But I want to pause here for a moment and be sensitive to the fact that from the sentiment of your post you might be saying, “but He hasn't changed me…so that must mean that I’m not saved.” As a pastor who cares about your soul, I have a couple thoughts about that.
First, that may be the case. Maybe you’re not saved; but that can change today. Perhaps you have been trying to live the Christian life in your own strength and the lord has brought you to this place of failure and discouragement so that you finally look to Him and call out to Him to be your Savior. I'm amazed at how many people claim to be “Christian” but have never asked Jesus to “save” them! That should be a fundamental prayer of all of God’s people. So I encourage, don’t be a church-goer who has never asked Jesus to save them. Ask Jesus to save you. Tell Him you need to be saved from your sins. Tell Him you need to be saved from the guilt of your sins. Tell Him that you need to be saved from their power. He will hear that prayer and He will save you.
But second, and perhaps more likely, the fact that you hate your sin may be evidence that you HAVE BEEN born again. Another way of saying “born again” is “born from above” (John 3:3, 3:6). The person who is “born from above” has been born of God. He has given them new life. And this new life wants to pursue holiness.
The person who is “dead in their trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1) doesn’t really care about their sins. It is true, that they may not like their sins. They may not like the shame of their sins. They may not like the consequences of them. But overall, they’re “okay” with their sins and like our first father Adam, they’d prefer to have a little bit of “evil” in their lives, rather than being wholly good and pure.
But the spiritually alive person hates their sins. The “evil” in their lives stings their soul. It suffocates them. They’re like a person with a plastic bag over their heads where they’ll do anything they can to rip it off.
That’s what you’re doing here; posting your heart-felt question; asking the world for help. It looks to me like your sin is suffocating you and you’re asking for help to get that “suffocating bag” off of you so that you can breathe pure air once again.
Which then ties into some “help” that I can give. The New Testament gives several aspects of how to live out a transformed life. Although the work is by the Holy Spirit, He does call us to submit to this process. So, here are some thoughts.
First, transformation and victory must come from the Holy Spirit’s work in your life. You walk with Him by walking in faith. Without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:1) and Romans 14:23 says that whatever is not of faith is sin. Thus, your specific sin that you’re struggling with today is not really core issue. The issue is taking any step without faith. So, like Proverbs 4:23 says, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flows the springs of life.” Thus, be mindful of every step in your walk of life. When you step without faith, confess that as sin, seek God’s grace and transformation; and return to a walk of faith.
A key way that we walk by faith is to walk in submission to God. The Bible calls us to be “filled with the Spirit” (Eph 5:18) which means to be fully surrendered to Him. Thus, I encourage you to take 30-60 minutes every day (or more) and read God’s Word and surrendering your life to Him. When you see a principle that you’re not following, ask God for grace to obey Him in that area. Take time each day and specifically use the words, “Lord, I surrender this to you.” Of course, mean them too. That kind of submission and surrender is a key way we walk with the Lord by faith.
Along those lines, sin is an indication of a broken walk with God. It doesn’t really make sense to sin; afterall, it robs of us God’s blessings and sends us down a path of pain and futility. Why would anyone ever choose to sin? Well, because in the moment we get caught up in pride and thinking we know better than God. We doubt God’s goodness. We doubt it really matters. We doubt that God cares.
Thus, another key element of living a transformed life is to live in a “healing”, whole relationship with God. When we are in communion with God, His Spirit heals our soul. We won’t want what that sin offers. It won’t have power over us. We’ll no longer be enslaved to it (Romans 6:14 and surrounding verses). We’ll want more of His holiness in our life, and less of the sins of this world.
This ties into another key aspect of dealing with sin. Often, the Bible links sin with “idolatry”. The ancient view of idol worship was a lot like our view of sin today. They believed that certain “idols” would give them things that they wanted. Things like power, wealth, safety, etc. Today, when we sin, we are treating that “thing” as an “idol”. We want what that “thing” can give us. This is a serious problem because the Lord calls us to have no idols in our life (Exodus 20:4, and all the rest). So, we need to not pursue idols.
When you’re struggling with a sin, figure out “what” that sin gives you. What did you want when you chose to sin? A person who yells at their kids might want “a little bit of peace and quiet at home” (that’s their idol). A person who feels tons of insecurity might want other people to like them (that’s their idol). Sins that we call addictions (alcohol, drugs, pornography, gambling, etc) typically have a whole host of “idols” that we are looking for (peace, joy, excitement, etc).
All of those things we want (which are really idols) need to be surrendered to the Lord where we ask Him to crucify them. Indeed, He will. In fact, in Romans 8:13 is says that we crucify the flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Holy Spirit crucifies that idol in our hearts so that we are no longer enslaved to that idol. Then, we have the ability to walk in the freedom and newness of life.
That being said, life is filled with temptations to want something less than total goodness and holiness. We will have our “flesh” and we still live in a “fallen world” that still follows the ways of Adam and still scorns the idea of total holiness and purity. If we’re not careful, we can get caught up in the thinking of this world. Thus, we need to always be alert and watchful for the ways of the world, the enemy, and our flesh, because there’s a constant battle for our heart; to tempt us that a little “evil” would be good.
Another key aspect of transformation…and this is why I went so deep with talking about Adam at the beginning of this post…We were all born in Adam but if we have called upon Christ to be our Lord and Savior, then we are new creations in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). In the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he spends a fair amount of time explaining that we need to put off the “old man” and put on the “new man” (Eph 4:22-25). His point is that there is a new “you” that has been created in Christ. This “new you” is exactly the way that Christ has designed you to be. It’s the “new you” that you’ll have for all eternity. This “new you” loves holiness and righteousness. It wants to walk in wisdom and godliness. It finds no joy in the rebellious ways of the world. Etcetera. Thus, part of your journey in life is learning to no longer live by the “old you” but instead live by this “new you” that has been created by God in Christ.
Thus, take time to look over your life and examine it for anything that is not of this “new you”. Bring those things to the cross and ask the Holy Spirit to crucify them in your life. Sometimes, the Holy Spirit will immediately deliver you from that enslavement. Other times, it may take a while because that “enslavement” was a tangled mess of many idols in your heart that all need to be surrendered to Him to crucify. But keep on confessing them to the Lord. Confess that you’re enslaved to them. Confess that they are idols. Confess that it’s part of the “old you” that you don’t want to follow anymore. You will find that as you seek the Lord in this way, He hears those prayers of total dependence.
The Bible gives a few other thoughts and principles (of transformation) that fit within this last one. For instance, Jesus said in Matthew 18:9 that if your eye causes you to stumble and sin, pluck it out and throw it away. That may sound gory, but it’s not meant to be a literal step. It’s a representation of the kind of “cutting off” a person makes with their old ways. A person addicted to alcohol would probably get rid of all the alcohol in their house and commit to not going to bars. A person addicted to porn might install “Covenant Eyes” software and give someone else the login info. Jesus is calling us to break from our old life.
Similarly, Paul tells us in Romans 13:14 to make no provision for the flesh. So, a person who struggles with envy or covetousness might stop perusing Facebook or endless scrolling on Amazon. They might uninstall those apps altogether. They’re intentionally looking for ways to not feed the “old man” but instead, walk in their new life in Christ.
One last principle comes from 1st Corinthians 10:13 where it says that God always provides a way of escape. This truth might cause us a measure of guilt when we ignore God’s ways and still pursue sin; but it should give you hope. You are not alone. God is with you. In that moment of temptation; He is there and He will give you a way to crucify that idol, amputate that sin, and not make provision for the flesh. Look for it and take that way out.
Finally, to touch upon the sense of despair that I hear in your words. Don’t despair. God knows you and loves you. You are not alone. Your unseen Father is with you. Your sin is not a surprise to Him. He’s not hauling off in some uncontrolled rage. He’s calling you to Himself. He’s telling you that He has so much better for you. He wants you to walk in the wisdom and joy of His ways. He wants you to experience the “life that is really life” (1 Tim 6:19) and your sin is keeping you from that.
So, yes…He is grieved by your sin. He will even judge your sin. But He has paid for your sins by the cross of Christ. He has forgiven your sins and cleansed the “new you that’s created in Christ” of them. He has given you a new life, without sin, and He calls you to clothe yourself in Christ so that you will not satisfy the desires of the flesh. And even when you do stumble and fall, His grace is right there to strengthen you to get up and press on in the new life He has for you.
Lastly, I have produced a podcast that goes through the Bible called Key Chapters of the Bible and I explain about 360 key chapters, one per day. I upload the same 15-minute episodes year after year. I have several episodes that address these principles of overcoming sin that are from 1st John. The 1st John episodes are published in late December, you can find them recently or in previous years.
Here are the links to the podcast:
Direct Audio: www.keychapters.org
Hope this helps, thanks and God Bless,