The apostle Paul wrote that we are to “put to death” the various expressions of sin in our lives (see Romans 8:13; Colossians 3:5). This includes not only obvious sins we want to avoid but also the more subtle ones we tend to ignore. It’s not enough to agree that we do tolerate at least some of them. Anyone except for the most self-righteous person will acknowledge that. “After all, no one is perfect” may be our attitude. But to honestly face those sins is another matter. For one thing, it is quite humbling. It also implies that we must do something about them. We can no longer continue to ignore them as we have in the past.
I want to give some directions for dealing with sins. While there may be particular helps for certain ones, there are general directions that apply to all our subtle sins.
The first direction is that we should always address our sin in the context of the gospel. Our tendency is that as soon as we begin to work on an area of sin in our lives, we forget the gospel. We forget that God has already forgiven us our sin because of the death of Christ. As Paul wrote in Colossians 2:13‑14, “[God has] forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”
Not only has God forgiven us our sins, He has also credited to us the perfect righteousness of Christ. In every area of life where we have been disobedient, Jesus was perfectly obedient. Are we prone to be anxious? Jesus always perfectly trusted His heavenly Father. Do we have trouble with selfishness? Jesus was always completely self-giving. Are we guilty of unkind words, gossip, or sarcasm? Jesus spoke only those words that would be appropriate for each occasion. He never once sinned with His tongue.
For some thirty-three years, Jesus lived a life of perfect obedience to the moral will of God, and then He culminated that obedience by being obedient to the Father’s specific will for Him—an obedience unto death, even death on the cross for our sins. In both His sinless life and His sin-bearing death, Jesus was perfectly obedient, perfectly righteous, and it is that righteousness that is credited to all who believe (see Romans 3:21‑22; Philippians 3:9). As we struggle to put to death our subtle sins, we must always keep in mind this twofold truth: Our sins are forgiven and we are accepted as righteous by God because of both the sinless life and sin-bearing death of our Lord Jesus Christ. There is no greater motivation for dealing with sin in our lives than the realization of these two glorious truths of the gospel.
The second direction is that we must learn to rely on the enabling power of the Holy Spirit. It is by the Spirit that we put to death the sins in our lives (see Romans 8:13). Again, as with the gospel, we tend to forget it and resort to our own willpower. It’s what I call one of our “default settings.” Regardless of how much we grow, however, we never get beyond our constant need of the enabling power of the Holy Spirit. Our spiritual life may be compared to the motor of an electric appliance. The motor does the actual work, but it is constantly dependent upon the external power source of the electricity to enable it to work. Therefore, we should cultivate an attitude of continual dependence on the Holy Spirit.
The third direction is that, while depending on the Holy Spirit, we must at the same time recognize our responsibility to diligently pursue all practical steps for dealing with our sins. I know that keeping both these truths—that is, our dependence and our responsibility—equally in mind is difficult. Our tendency is to emphasize one to the neglect of the other. Here the wisdom of some of the older writers will help us: “Work as if it all depends on you, and yet trust as if you did not work at all.”
The fourth direction is that we must identify specific areas of acceptable sins. As you recognize each sin, ask the Holy Spirit to help you see if there is a pattern of that sin in your life. This, of course, requires a humble attitude and a willingness to face that sin. As you identify a particular sin, give thought to what situations trigger it. Anticipating the circumstances or events that stimulate the sin can help in putting it to death.
The fifth direction is that we should bring to bear specific applicable Scriptures to each of our subtle sins. These Scriptures should be memorized, reflected on, and prayed over as we ask God to use them to enable us to deal with those sins. The psalmist wrote, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (119:11). To store up means to lay aside for future need.
In 1999, there was a tremendous wave of anxiety around the world as to what might happen when all the world’s computer clocks turned over to January 1, 2000. There were all kinds of dire predictions that the world’s commerce, which is now so heavily dependent on computers, would simply shut down. As a result, many people stored up extra food and emergency items. This event, known as Y2K, turned out to be a nonevent, as the computers did not shut down. Nevertheless, that occasion powerfully illustrates the meaning of the phrase stored up. People were storing up against a time of future need.
That is what we do when we commit Scripture texts to our hearts. We store them up against future needs: the times when we are tempted to indulge our subtle (or even our not-so-subtle) sins. Of course, memorizing specific Scripture verses is no magic bullet. They must be applied to our lives. But if we have memorized and prayed over Scriptures that address our subtle sins, the Holy Spirit will bring them to mind in particular situations to remind us of the will of God, to warn us, and to guide us in our response to the temptation.
The sixth direction is that we should cultivate the practice of prayer over our sins. This is assumed in the second direction about relying on the Holy Spirit and in the fifth direction regarding praying over the Scriptures we memorize. But it is important to single out prayer as one of our major directions for dealing with sin, for it is through prayer that we consciously acknowledge our need of the Holy Spirit, and it is through prayer that we continually acknowledge the presence of those persistent sin patterns in our lives.
Prayers regarding our subtle sins should be of two types. First, we should pray over them in a planned, consistent manner, probably in our daily private time with God. Second, we should pray short, spontaneous prayers for the help of the Holy Spirit each time we encounter situations that might trigger one of our sins.
The seventh direction is that we should involve one or more other believers with us in our struggles against our subtle sins. This, of course, should be a mutual relationship as we seek to exhort, encourage, and pray for one another. The Scripture tells us that “two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” (Ecclesiastes 4:9‑10). We need the mutual vulnerability with and accountability to one another, as well as the praying for one another and encouraging one another, if we want to make progress in dealing with sin.
Do all these directions seem overwhelming? If so, perhaps this summary will help:
- Apply the gospel.
- Depend on the Holy Spirit.
- Recognize your responsibility.
- Identify specific respectable sins.
- Memorize and apply appropriate Scriptures.
- Cultivate the practice of prayer.
- Involve one or a few other believers with you.
As you seek to apply these directions, remember that your heart is a battleground between the flesh and the Spirit (see Galatians 5:17). In this guerrilla warfare, the flesh will sometimes get the upper hand. And as you zero in on a particular sin to seek to put it to death, your situation may get worse before it gets better. Take heart: This is not unusual. The Holy Spirit will use these times of disobedience and defeat to help you see how deeply rooted your subtle sins are and how totally dependent you are on His power to help you.
Excerpt from Respectable Sins, Chapter 6; Directions For Dealing With Sins. Author Jerry Bridges.
Jerry Bridges was a well-known Christian writer and conference speaker. His best-known book, The Pursuit of Holiness, has sold well over a million copies. A prolific author, he has sold over 3.5 million copies of his various books, with several titles translated and published in a variety of foreign languages. He joined the staff of The Navigators in 1955, serving 60 years as a staff member in various capacities before transitioning to associate staff and serving within the collegiate ministry. Jerry passed away in the spring of 2016, leaving behind his wife, Jane, two married children and seven grandchildren.