There aren’t many books that walk you through the question: What should I do when I am planning to sin again? All Scripture, of course, is about this question because we all know we will sin again, but there are two patterns that are especially precarious.
1. Confess—then ignore. A couple indulges in premarital sex and feels guilty. They confess it to the Lord, and promise God and each other, never to do it again. But it happens again, and then again. By the third time they are not quite sure how to proceed. They still might feel a little horrible, but why bother confessing something that you know you will do again? They know that making guilty promises doesn’t work and, by this point, they admit that such promises are lies anyway. They expect to do it again. Better just to let this phase run its course, they conclude. Marriage might come soon, or maybe the sin will gradually die out. Then they can re-engage with God.
2. Confess—try—feel really bad—be hopeless—try to ignore. This is a slight variation on the first and takes a little longer to spiritually quarantine the recurring sin so that no one messes with it anymore. For example, someone might not be planning his next descent into porn, but he has done little to interrupt that descent such as share his internet activity with an accountability partner. He can confess his next nine falls (leaps?) into porn, but once it gets to double digits he starts to wonder, what’s the use? Then this sector of life gradually closes to divine activity, though those bad feelings never quite go away.
Either way, God is marginalized, sin wins by way of our denial and complacency.
Ask for Help
These patterns demand action. They kill our souls and our souls will not heal themselves over time. To the contrary, we need spiritual intervention. The most obvious intervention is to go public. Sin is like mushrooms and other things that flourish in the dark. So bring it to the light and confess it to another person. If we can confess something to the Lord but not to a mere human, our confession is suspect. Go public.
There are risks. Perhaps the person we tell will then tell others, or much worse, do nothing at all. But we must not talk ourselves out of a wise course of action because there may be unwanted consequences.
Two Approaches: Grace or Law
When we ask for help with these patterns, we will likely hear one of two approaches: grace or law. A trusted pastor told me to preach grace until a person took sin lightly, then preach the law.
Grace proclaims the kindness, forgiveness and forbearance of the Lord. It invites and accepts. It asks: “How can you continue to sin in light of God’s love now revealed in Jesus Christ? You must not know he loves you. How can you be either hopeless or committed to sin when the Holy Spirit has been given to you?”
The grace of God woos us. It is Christ’s love that compels us into godly action (2 Cor. 5:14). It is his grace that teaches us to say “no” to ungodliness (Titus 2:12).
The law takes the many pieces of the character of God and reassembles them in the form of commands: “Thou shalt . . .” and “thou shalt not . . .” Without them, we are clueless about how to imitate him. Without them, we forget that everyday life is lived before God and our instincts are treasonous.
The law has urgency—“today” (Heb. 3:15). It warns. It asks, “Is there no fear of the Lord? Is following Jesus reserved only for those times when there is a coincidental meeting between your desires and his?” It is the fear of the Lord that compels us to live righteously. We belong to him. He has all authority.
Which Way Do You Lean?
As we have opportunities to apply these two approaches to our own recalcitrance and offer them to others, how do we lean? Toward grace or law?
Words and meanings matter on this one. There are many different uses of the law: the law reveals the character of God, restrains sin, exposes sin—showing us our need for Jesus—and teaches how to live. None of these are opposed to grace but are expressions of it. Yet another use of the law is found in Romans and Galatians where the law is short-hand for a Spirit-less system that looks to our own actions for personal righteousness. This use of the law—called works-righteousness or legalism—is opposed to grace and the gospel.
With one use of the law, grace and law are companions. With the other, they are enemies. I am using the law as a companion of grace. Instead of opting for either grace or law, we could say that the law is embedded in the larger grace of God.
So what we are really asking is this: As a result of God’s manifold grace to us, do we woo or warn? The matter of intentional and planned sin does not force us to choose grace or law. Instead, both grace and law reveal the character of God, and we want access to the range of God’s character as we woo or warn. With all the persuasive love we can possibly offer, with pleading, we consider both the kindness and sternness of God (Rom. 11:22).
We will all sin again, of that we can be sure. When we do, we ask forgiveness of both the Lord and those who were wronged. Then some hand-to-hand combat against sin is probably in order along with some public planning to either stand firm or run when there is another assault. All of this is both preceded and followed by our rest in forgiveness of sin secured by Jesus. Rest is spiritual, complacency sinful.