A complex question came over the electronic transom this morning. It has at least two parts: (1) Is persistent sin (e.g., sexual sin or desire) our identity, who we are; (2) Does the Lord want us to offer this sin to him? The question arises out of the recent Revoice conference and other sources, where it has apparently become fashionable (1) to identify one’s self by one’s persistent sins; (2) to offer that identity to the Lord as a sacrifice as though one is giving up something truly valuable in order to follow Christ.
First, Christians do struggle with persistent sins and a disordered, misdirected sexual desire (e.g., a same-sex desire or a sinful heterosexual desire) is among those sins with which Christians struggle. The traditional Reformed understanding of Romans 7 tells us that, in verses 14 and 15, the Apostle Paul was speaking about his Christian experience:
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate (Rom 7:14–15; ESV).
It is in light of these verses and others like them that the Reformed churches confess, in Heidelberg Catechism 60, “I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and am still prone always to all evil…”. There is much speculation about Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7) but given his use of “flesh” as a figure for our sinful nature, we might just as well think of it as a sin. Nothing humiliates the Christian quite like sin.
The first thing must do, however, is to identify sin as sin and not as something else, e.g., as a virtue nor as our identity. When one is born into a Christian home he is ordinarily baptized. This is the Christian’s outwardidentification with Christ. Just as we, under the types and shadows, were commanded in Genesis 17:7–10 to apply the sign of the covenant to believers and to their children, so Christians have always done with baptism. Like circumcision, however, baptism does not itself confer salvation or righteousness or new life. It is the sign and seal of those realities, which are received only by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone. Baptism, however, does recognize our external (Rom 2:28–29) relation to the covenant of grace.
In 1 Corinthians 1:13 Paul says, “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” He is trying to persuade the Corinthian congregation to give up their factions and to find their identity in Christ. Sadly and remarkably he did not succeed. We know from 2 Corinthians that there were those in the congregation who called themselves “super apostles,” who denigrated Paul’s apostolic ministry. We know from one of the earliest post-apostolic documents, 1 Clement, dated from the very late years of the 1st century to the early years of the 2nd century (I favor the latter), that factionalism continued in the Corinthian congregation for more than fifty years after Paul’s ministry among and to them. Sin is a tenacious and vicious plague.
Notice, however, that Paul associates baptism with names. The point of appealing to our baptism is to sort out our identity. Our baptism tells us our identity. Thus, traditionally, at baptism, the child was named. His first name is his Christian name (the last name or surname is his family’s name). His identity to the world, then, was conferred upon him at baptism. He is, outwardly at least, a Christian. When the Lord grants him new life and true faith (see John 3) and he embraces by faith all that was signified and offered in his baptism, then he is longer merely a nominal Christian (i.e., in name only) but in truth. That is true identity. His name really is “Christian.” For obvious practical reasons we cannot all, however, go about using the same baptismal name but that is who we are. It transcends all other identities, our ethnicity, our nationality, our sports affiliations, and our sexual desires.
The world, however, tells us a different story. By world I mean I mean the biblical sense of that entity which is opposed to Christ and his kingdom (e.g., John 3:16). It wants, were it possible, to re-baptize us. It wants to change our identity. It tells us and wants us to think that our disordered and sinful desires are our identity. Of course that is a lie. However much a believer may struggle with sinful desires they do not become his identity. Twice, in 1 Corinthians 6:20 and 7:23, Paul says, “you were bought with a price.” Indeed. The one who buys a slave (which is what the Christian is) names him. Our identity is “purchased by the righteous, suffering obedience of Christ.” The shorthand way of saying that is “Christian.”
Romans 7 is brutally realistic about the ongoing effects (and affects) of the fall. They are real but our sins do not define us. They mark us, they scar us, but those who are united to Christ through faith, by the Holy Spirit, who are adopted sons, by grace alone, through faith alone, are defined by those realities and truths not by their sins. Our culture wants to change that. Worse, our culture tells us that our sins are not only our identity but seeks to turn the world upside down by making vices into virtues. This is not a Christian approach to sin.
The biblical approach to sin is to name it for what it is, to repent of it, and to die to it. That is, we must recognize what the truth is. Paul puts it this way: “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:11; ESV). That is our identity. This is how we must reckon ourselves. This does not mean that Christians do not struggle with sin or that “entire perfection” is a possibility in this life. It is not. It does mean, however, that our relation to sin has been fundamentally altered. We are no longer under its dominion (Rom 6:14). We are under God’s favor (Rom 6:15). We struggle with sin but we are not controlled by it. That truly is not who we are. We are able to die to sin because it has been put to death and we have been made alive in Christ.
Above we considered whether it is biblical for Christians to speak of a persisting sin as though it is their identity. A Christian with a history of substance abuse (e.g., alcoholism or drug addiction) may continue to struggle with those habits and sins but do those sins define their identity? Is that fundamentally who they are? Scripture says no. A believer, i.e., one who has been given new life and true faith by the Holy Spirit, who has been united to the risen Christ by the Spirit, through true faith, is fundamentally a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17) because he has “died to sin” (Rom 6:2, 10). This does not mean that Christians will not continue to struggle with sin. When Paul says that “sin shall no longer have dominion over you” (Rom 6:14) he was not teaching that there is a so-called “second blessing” nor was he teaching that Christians reach what some traditions call “entire perfection” in this life. Rather, he was explaining that, by virtue of Christ’s death and our union with him in that death, there has been a fundamental break with sin in the life of the Christian. When we were outside of Christ and under the law for our standing with God, we were under the dominion of sin. Now, however, we who are in Christ, i.e., united to him by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), are no longer under the law for our standing with God. We are under grace. Because that is so, sin no longer controls us. We struggle with it. We continue to sin but we also now resist in a way that we did not before. About sexual sin (e.g., same-sex attraction and/or behavior), Paul writes: “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body” (1 Cor 6:18; ESV). In Christ we are able to flee. We are able to mortify sin, i.e., to put it to death. The Spirit is at work in us putting them to death and making us alive in Christ (vivification). We are being conformed to the image of Christ. The work of Christ for us, i.e., his active, suffering obedience for us, even to the cross (Phil 2:8) leads to the gracious, gradual sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in us.
This leads us to the second part of the question: is it proper for Christians to speak of offering their former, sinful identity (e.g., their substance abuse or their homosexuality) to God as a sort of offering? This is one of those things that well-intentioned Christians say in order to encourage other believers to love and good works but it is quite misguided and ill-founded. Scripture never speaks of believers offering their sins or even their old-man or their former lives as an offering. To be sure, under the Old Testament, offerings did sometimes involve death and bloodshed but when we distinguish offerings from sins the picture becomes much clearer. Biblically, we mortify (put to death) sins and we offer those things of which God has approved. To confuse those two categories will only lead to grief.
The first thing to know about offerings, in Scripture, is that we may offer to God only what he has commanded. We do not get to decide what God wants or with what he is pleased. In a world where we have been told, perhaps by parents and teachers, that we are “God’s gift” or the like, where our every effort has been praised as wonderful, this might be a difficult truth to accept but accept it we must. With the holy God of Scripture there are no participation trophies. Consider the very first offering about which we read in Scripture:
In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell (Gen 4:3-5; ESV).
Cain brought an offering with which he thought God must be pleased but God was not. Cain reacted with fury. “How dare Elohim not receive my offering?” He became enraged with jealousy when the Lord received his brother’s offering favorably and so much so that he murdered his brother. This is a fixed principle in God’s worship. Under Moses, he explicitly forbade “unauthorized” offerings (Ex 30:9). In Leviticus 10 we read that when Nadab and Abihu made an “unauthorized” offering to the Lord they paid for it with their lives. Nothing, in that regard, has changed in the New Testament. God is still displeased with unauthorized worship. Paul explicitly warned the Colossians congregation about this very thing: “These things have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting will-worship and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col 2:23). Under the New Testament God put Ananias and Sapphira to death for lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5).
The Colossian Christians were being tempted to make up their own religion, to decide what they thought God must want, to make up their own religion, to invent their own offerings to God. In their case, they were sure that God must approve of a mash-up of a bunch of different religious practices and philosophies that were popular in the area. They thought that God must be pleased with harsh treatment of the body and bringing back some of the Jewish religious laws about washings and foods, which had been fulfilled by Christ and had expired. They were wrong. The word that I have translated “will-worship” (ἐθελοθρησκίᾳ) the ESV translates equally well with “self-made religion.” They were quite literally making up things according to their imagination and offering them to God. He is not pleased with such worship. He has not commanded it. He does not accept it. What we like, or what we value, or what we think is beautiful does not determine what God will accept. He determines what he will accept and he nowhere commands us to offer our old man, which Paul calls “the flesh” (Rom 7:5, 14) i.e., our sinful nature, our former way of life. In biblical worship, if it is not commanded it is forbidden.
Indeed, according to Scripture, only that which God has deemed holy is acceptable to him. The entire book of Leviticus is nothing if not an illustration of this truth. It begins with detailed prescriptions about what may be offered to the Lord and how and only those things authorized by the Lord for his worship, for offerings, are said to be “a pleasing aroma to the Lord” (Lev 1:9). Of course, the Levitical offerings were meant to point them (and us) to the perfect Lamb of God, Jesus. They also illustrated what God really wants from us in response to Jesus’ perfect sin offering:
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise (Ps 51:17; ESV).
Our offerings, our worship, our Christian life are always and only our response to Christ’s offering of himself to God for us. Paul writes that we should “…walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2). He wrote to the Philippians that he was “being poured out as a drink offering upon
the sacrificial offering of your faith” (Phil 2:17). Of course these are figures of speech but we must not miss how dependent they are upon the Old Testament images.
There is only one God (Deut 6:4). There are not two gods, a wrathful Old Testament God and a benevolent New Testament God, who is pleased to accept whatever we will offer him (even our sins). This way of speaking about God is one of the oldest heresies (the Marcionite heresy) to afflict Christianity but it is widely held by American evangelicals of various sorts. This heretical way of thinking lies just under the surface of the teaching that we should sacrifice our old way of lives to God as a sort of (figurative) offering. It ignores his holiness, his justice, his explicit commands and the implicit teaching of Scripture about how we should think about our sins, about our old lives, and about what pleases God. It is a form of idolatry, i.e., making up things about God or making a god in our own image. Paul did not describe his former way of life (e.g., persecuting and murdering Christians) as an “offering” but as feces (σκύβαλα; Phil 3:8)
Christ obeyed and died in place of his people to set them free from idolatry not to reinforce it. The Apostle John summarizes the Christian response to idolatry with admirable brevity: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). The good news is that Christ has come. All who believe are freely clothed in his righteousness. We have been saved by his unconditional favor alone, through faith alone. We are being freely sanctified by his Spirit and that sanctification consists of two things: the dying of the old man and the making alive of the new (Heidelberg Catechism 88). Our old, dying self, is nothing to offer to God. It is something to crucify, to mortify (Rom 8:13; Col 3:5). In Christ we are now being renewed in the image of Christ, in Calvin’s words, we offer ourselves, “promptly and sincerely” to Christ.