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?


Why Did Jesus Say, “But I Tell You”?

A photo of the Sea of Galilee from the Mount of Beatitudes. Photo by Itamar Grinberg for the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.
Why did Jesus refer to the Old Testament and then say, “But I tell you”? Was He giving us new laws to obey, or was He making an entirely different point? The Sea of Galilee from the Mount of Beatitudes. Photo by Itamar Grinberg for the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.

In Matthew 5:21-48, Jesus cites six laws and precepts from the Old Testament. After each, Jesus says, “But I tell you.” He then teaches an even stricter moral principle. Is Jesus contradicting the Old Testament? Is He correcting the Pharisees’ interpretation? Is He giving a higher law for Christians?

There are many opinions, but I want to show you from the Bible the plain and simple answer to why Jesus said, “But I tell you.”


If We Are Not under the Law, How Do We Avoid Sin?–Part 1

The painting, Moses with the Tablets of the Law by Rembrandt.
“For the law was given through Moses. Grace and truth were realised through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). But don’t we need the law to avoid sin? (Moses with the Tablets of the Law by Rembrandt.)

“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!” (Romans 6:14-15). Many people read this, and then they tag on this assumption: Paul is saying that just because you are under grace doesn’t mean that you should not strive to keep the law to avoid sin. But nothing could be further from the truth! If Paul were saying this, he would be contradicting himself. He would be saying, you are not under the law, but you must keep the law to avoid sin. This would be putting us back under the law. It would give us freedom from the law with one hand while taking it away with the other. It would be saying, you are not under the law, but you are under the law. This would be nonsense.


What is Antinomianism?

The title page from a book by the English Puritan, Anthony Burgess, intended to vindicate the moral law from the “errours” of “especially” the Antinomians.

Antinomianism comes from the Greek anti, “against,” and nomos, “law.” Literally, it means “against law.” It is used to refer to a doctrine that centers on the belief that grace frees a Christian from the law. Detailed definitions differ. Yet, when a theologian labels someone an antinomian, he or she almost always intends it negatively or pejoratively. Antinomian is a dirty word in theological circles. But do those who fit some of the most common definitions of antinomian really deserve such scorn? Is what these definitions describe truly unbiblical? In this article, I want to discuss the most common definitions of antinomianism and compare them with the Bible. I also want to reveal their origin. Could it be that many of us sovereign grace, New Covenant believers fit the definitions of antinomian and don’t even realize it? Would that be a bad thing?


Dead to the Law

[This article was revised in January 2019: Further information.]

The distinction between law and grace is a Bible teaching that, if misunderstood, can put you in real danger of spiritual bondage. The apostle Paul gives us a very solemn warning that we should take very seriously: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1).


Q. What is the lawful use of the law as stated in 1 Timothy 1:8?

A. This verse states, “But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully.” Certainly, this is a difficult Scripture that would seem to contradict other New Testament Scriptures about the law. We know from these other Scriptures that Jesus fulfilled the law (Matthew 5:17), that we are dead to the law (Romans 7:4), that we are not under the law but under grace (Romans 6:14). We also know that we can find no place where Christ’s servants preached the law. But we know that the Bible does not contradict itself. There is a danger when facing such a Scripture, however, to try to force our opinion on it, to read into it what we think it should say rather than accept what it does say. Keeping this in mind, let’s see if we can find out what God is telling us in this Scripture.


What Is Legalism?

To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns.
Charlotte Brontë, Preface to the Second Edition of Jane Eyre

All one has to do is read posts on some Christian forums to know that the labels legalism, legalist, antinomianism, and antinomian are being shot back and forth like spitballs in an out-of-control classroom. But do those using these terms really know what they mean? From what I have read on these forums, it seems many do not.


Law Is Not For the Righteous

The following is excerpted largely from my response to a reader who took me to task for my saying that the fourth commandment is not for Christians. A bit of it is also from an email to a brother who asked about 1 Timothy 1:8. The difficulty with the first reader goes beyond Sabbath keeping. It is the error of believing that we must keep the law to obtain or maintain justification. It is a leaven that has spread throughout Christianity (Galatians 5:9). These people ignore the Bible's plain words, such as these penned by Paul: "Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace" (Galatians 5:4).

Dear Mr. Sabbathkeeper,

You have written to me asking me whether, since I say that Christians are not obligated to keep the fourth commandment (“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy”), do I then believe that it is okay to murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, and covet, prohibitions against these also being found in the Ten Commandments.


Q. If, as you say, the law was given only to Israel, why does Romans 3:19 imply that all the world is under the law and judged guilty by it?

A. The first Christians in Rome appear to have been Jewish. It is quite possible that they were among the Jews from various parts of the empire who heard Peter speak on the day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2. When they returned to Rome, they brought Christianity with them and spread it to other Jews there. Thus, the Christian community in Rome had a distinctly Jewish character. Apparently some Gentiles also became Christians in Rome, but they were a minority. As we know from Acts and Paul’s epistles, some Jewish Christians not only kept many Jewish traditions but they also had a difficult time understanding the fulfilling and ending of the law. Sometime around A.D. 49, the Roman emperor, Claudius, issued an edict expelling Jews from the city of Rome. The edict would have included even those Jews who had converted to Christianity. But it did not include the Gentile Christians, who stayed behind in Rome. This expulsion of the Jews is mentioned in Acts 18:2. Some years later, the edict was either withdrawn or allowed to lapse with the death of Claudius in A.D. 54.


The Cure for Discouragement

We’ve probably all experienced the discouragement that comes with self-recrimination. We do something wrong and then stew in feelings of guilt. “I’m so nasty,” “I’m always doing the wrong thing,” “How can God love me?” We respond by either thinking we’re a hopeless cause or by setting our will to do better next time. Either way, the entire scenario is carnal rather than spiritual, but it’s understandable.