Did Paul Teach That Believers Still Sin?

Peter Ditzel

Painting of Paul sitting and writing at a desk. Saint Paul Writing His Epistles (c. 1618-20). Attributed to Valentin de Boulogne  (1591–1632). Did Paul teach that believers still sin?
One view of Paul’s teaching holds that Paul taught Christians can still sin, must struggle against it, confess it to be forgiven, and must not use grace as a cloak for sin. Another view says Paul taught that believers, who are not under law but under grace, cannot sin. Which is right?
Saint Paul Writing His Epistles (c. 1618-20). Attributed to Valentin de Boulogne (1591–1632)

When was the last time you referred to yourself as a sinner, thought of something you did as a sin, or confessed a sin? Chances are, it wasn’t too long ago. That’s because it’s commonplace for believers to think of themselves as both saints and sinners. But is this biblical? Are believers sinners? It’s a question that relates to the heart of the very Gospel itself. Let’s try to answer the question from the letters of Paul. Did Paul teach that believers still sin?

Paul Said We’re Not Under the Law

Let’s get some background to the question in Romans 6. In verses 14-15, Paul says this: “For sin will not have dominion over you. For you are not under law, but under grace. What then? Shall we sin, because we are not under law, but under grace? May it never be!” First, Paul unmistakably teaches here that we believers are not under the law but under grace. Further, he says that sin will not have dominion or lordship over (kurieuō) us. As we’ll see in verses 16-18, Paul is speaking of a transfer of authority and obedience from the partnership of law and sin to the partnership of grace and righteousness. This would seem to be very clear, yet a couple of questions do arise.

The first question comes from the fact that the Greek word translated “dominion over” is in the future tense. This might seem to be saying that a process has started by which, after this life, sin will not have dominion over us. It could appear Paul is saying that, although we are justified in God’s sight, our experience is that we still have a great struggle with sin. The Geneva Bible, for example, comments, “He grants that sin is not yet so dead in us that it is utterly extinct: but he promises victory to those that contend bravely, because we have the grace of God given to us which works so that the law is not now in us the power and instrument of sin.”

But the context proves this opinion wrong. How? In verse 12, Paul tells his Roman readers (and this also applies to us) that sin is not to reign in their mortal body: “Therefore don’t let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts.” In the future, we will have immortal bodies (1 Corinthians 15:53). But Paul is saying that sin is not to reign in our mortal bodies, the bodies we have right now.

Sin is not to reign in our mortal bodies. It is powerless in our lives, because we are not under the law, but under grace. Then, in Romans 6:15, Paul SEEMS to turn right around and warn us that we must not use grace as a cloak for sin, and that we must still strive to not sin. Many people interpret these verses this way, but such an interpretation makes Paul contradict himself.

Paul is not teaching a contradiction. Look at Romans 6:16-18: “Don’t you know that to whom you present yourselves as servants to obedience, his servants you are whom you obey; whether of sin to death, or of obedience to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that, whereas you were bondservants of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching whereunto you were delivered. Being made free from sin, you became bondservants of righteousness.”

Paul isn’t saying that the way we must avoid sin when we are under grace is to strive against it. He’s not saying that, if we aren’t careful, there’s a danger that while we are under grace, we can become sinners. He’s not saying that we can become so reliant on grace that we become libertines. That would mean that there is such a thing as having too much grace. What an insane idea!

Paul is addressing the argument that people sometimes have against grace alone that, if we don’t hold ourselves in check with the law, we will sin. In verse 15, he’s simply stating the question that others challenge him with: If we’re under grace and not under the law, won’t we sin? And his answer is, No. If we are under the law, we serve sin. If we are under grace, we serve righteousness. This is because, being freed from sin, we become bondservants of righteousness and serve from the heart. This is not theoretical or something only for the future. Freedom from sin is a present reality for the believer. We are not sinners because we are not under the law, and, “Sin is not charged when there is no law” (Romans 5:13b).

Paul Taught God Nailed the Law That Was against Us to Jesus’ Cross

Paul teaches in Colossians 2:12-15,

Having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. You were dead through your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh. He made you alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, wiping out the handwriting in ordinances which was against us; and he has taken it out of the way, nailing it to the cross; having stripped the principalities and the powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it.

God’s saints were dead in sin, buried with Christ, raised to new life with Christ, forgiven their sins, and had the law that was against them lifted away and nailed to the Cross.

I won’t quote the entire passage, but in perfect harmony with this, Paul in Romans 7:1-6, explains “that the law has dominion over a man for as long as he lives” and that we were “made dead to the law through the body of Christ, that [we] would be joined to another, to him who was raised from the dead, that we might bring forth fruit to God. For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were through the law, worked in our members to bring forth fruit to death. But now we have been discharged from the law, having died to that in which we were held; so that we serve in newness of the spirit, and not in oldness of the letter.”

Further Reading:
Who Is the Man in Romans 7?

Paul Taught That Those in Christ Have No Condemnation

And, writing plainly as can be, Paul again insists,

There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who don’t walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus made me free from the law of sin and of death. For what the law couldn’t do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God did, sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh; that the ordinance of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.

Romans 8:1-5

Paul Taught That Believers Don’t Still Sin

Paul explains that “through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20b). And, as we’ve seen, he also taught that we are not under the law, but under grace; that we are dead to the law and alive to God with Christ; that we no longer live according to the flesh but to the Spirit; and that we who are in Christ have no condemnation. Did Paul teach that believers still sin? It should be evident that Paul taught that believers don’t still sin.

Brethren, it may sound very pious to speak of yourself as a sinner. Confessing your “sins” to God may seem humble and respectful of God’s perfect righteousness. In fact, these things are neither pious nor humble and respectful. They’re contrary to sound doctrine.

If you have put your trust in Jesus Christ as your Savior, but you think that you’re struggling with sin, you are only struggling with a phantom. Your sin is gone, and God is counting nothing you do as sin. You may have fleshly habits you’d like to get rid of. But don’t deny the work of Christ by calling these habits sins or thinking of yourself as a sinner. Set your eyes on Christ and look forward to an eternity with Him!

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