Besetting sins are such a struggle. Besetting sins are those sins that are particularly enticing for us, particularly persistent. They are often quite unsettling because we can’t seem to shake them. It seems we make little to no progress at all. Of course, we struggle against all kinds of sins every day, but some sins seem to be particularly troubling. Pride. Selfishness. Lust. Anger. The fear of man. Doubt. What are some of your besetting sins? Do you feel beaten down? Are you discouraged?
I have found that my besetting sins undermine my sense of security in Christ. I can begin to think, “I keep losing. Maybe I’m not saved. Maybe I’ve never really received God’s grace in Christ. If I’m truly a Christian, where is the power of the Holy Spirit in this besetting sin? Why am I not beyond this?” Additionally, it becomes tiring fighting against what seems so strong and dominant in our lives. I have a sneaking suspicion that behind many Christian deconstruction stories is exasperation from trying to overcome besetting sins by the power of self and not the power of Christ or simply weariness from all the restrictions, particularly sexual restrictions. Sometimes a thought flashes through my mind, “If I gave up on this, if I indulged my flesh, at least I wouldn’t have to fight anymore.” But this is thoroughly confused theology at work. These are dark moments of thought. Giving up means perishing in my sins, and that I do not. I want Christ! I want to experience the power of his grace in a real way. I want him to change my inmost desires, grant me new desires, and help me progress in sanctification.
We know our sins and misery from the law of God (HC 3). Through our Christian life, God’s law continues to expose sin in our hearts, especially as we understand the Ten Commandments more deeply. We know that God’s law teaches us to love God and our neighbor, but honestly, we don’t feel like loving every day. Sometimes we just want to serve ourselves. So, for a moment, we live to satisfy our carnal desires. Then we feel ashamed, pitiful, and regretful.
At this point, we need to understand our sinful nature against which we continue to struggle in this life. Referring to God’s law and the divine demand to love, Heidelberg Catechism 5 asks, “Can you keep all this perfectly?” Can we keep the law perfectly? This is an important question. In this life, should perfect morality be our expectation? And Heidelberg 5 gives an honest, but sobering truth. Can we keep all the law perfectly? “No. I am inclined by nature to hate God and my neighbor.” Please understand, this is referring to our sinful human nature, the evil which continues to cling to us in this life. Yes, we have been delivered from all our sins and misery in Christ, but we are also still being delivered from all our sins and misery. Conversion is still happening. So yes, it is right to say, “I am inclined by nature to hate God and my neighbor.” Although we are new creations in Christ, we are also still struggling against our sinful nature and besetting sins. Heidelberg 56 says that all our lives we struggle against our sinful nature. Struggle. The Christian life is a struggle until the consummation of Christ’s kingdom on the last day.
What then is our confidence and hope in our struggle against besetting sins? Is it our progress? Well, I think that’s part of it because progress, even a little progress, is evidence of God’s grace in us. But progress in sanctification is the basis of our confidence and hope. The basis of our confidence and hope as we struggle with besetting sins is our Savior, Jesus Christ.
In the Apostles’ Creed, Christians confess together “I believe in . . . the forgiveness of sins,” which means, as Heidelberg 56 says:
that God, because of Christ’s satisfaction, will no more remember [our] sins nor [our] sinful nature against which [we] have to struggle all [our] lives, but He will graciously grant [us] the righteousness of Christ that [we] may never come into condemnation.
So when you hear the line, “No. I am inclined by nature to hate God and my neighbor,” do not despair. Some may hear that line and say, “No. No! I am not prone to ever hate God or other people!” Well, that’s naïve. That’s having a rosy picture of our sinful nature and propensities. Some may also think that hearing that line throws Christians into unnecessary fear, anxiety, depression, and defeatism. This isn’t so because of the gospel. Though we continue to struggle against besetting sins, in the struggle with have Christ. Because of Christ, God does not impute our sins to us. They have already been imputed to Christ! God no longer counts our sinful nature against us. As we struggle, he considers us righteous in Christ. As we struggle, we are never detached from His perfect love, provision, and protection.
Strive for perfection, strive for holiness, strive for righteousness, but do not expect perfection in this life. Our perfection will come at the return of Christ. Expect to struggle, but in the struggle, look to Christ’s righteousness which belongs to you through true faith. You will never come into condemnation, so strive by the Spirit to live in thankful and joyful obedience to the God who rescued you.
Think of your besetting sins like this. They are opportunities for you to cry out to God for grace once more to be reminded of the gospel of God’s grace. Receive His grace over and over again, and delight in Christ. This will hearten you in the ongoing struggle against your flesh. His grace is sufficient for you.
Quotes from the Heidelberg Catechism are taken from Zacharias Ursinus & Jonathan Shirk, The Heidelberg Catechism (Manheim: Small Town Theologian, 2021).