Recently I received an email from a gentleman who asked me, among other things, “…do you believe a person can be a Christian and have besetting sins in their lives?” Below is the response I offered him. (To protect his privacy I have not included his name.)
Dear Mr. _______,
Greetings. My apologies for not responding to your question sooner.
Regarding your question about “besetting” sins: Yes, I do believe truly regenerate Christians can and often do struggle with besetting sins, but I also believe we have to be careful to clearly define what is meant by such sins.
The Scriptures indicates in places like Romans 7:7-25 that in this present life the true believer will experience a life-long conflict between the remnants of the old Adam (the “flesh”/sin nature) and the new man in Christ. But here’s the difference between the true believer who deals with “besetting” sins and the false professor: The true believer, having the seed of the Spirit within him and being in principle a new creation in Christ, actually “struggles” with and fights against his sin, whereas the unregenerate and false professor freely gives himself over to sin without repentance or a serious effort at change.
So, on the one hand, we want to recognize that true believers will continue to struggle with sin (and, in some cases, even with so-called “besetting” sins) in this present life; but, on the other hand, the true believer has in principle been freed from the dominion of reigning sin, so the ongoing battle between the flesh and the Spirit can never be used as an excuse for antinomianism, which uses God’s grace as an excuse for continuing in sin that God’s grace may abound (Romans 6). Besetting sin in the life of a professing believer cannot destroy his salvation if he is truly regenerate, but it can seriously damage his personal sense of assurance of salvation – especially if he persists impenitent in such a besetting sin (i.e., “backslides”) for a significant period of time. Those who persist impenitently in willful, conscious sin have no biblical right to think they are in a state of salvation until such time as they, like the prodigal son, return to the Lord in sincere contrition and trust.
For the believer who struggles with “besetting” sins (say, for example, addictive behavior such as addiction to substances, pornography, gambling, etc.) I would counsel such a believer not to struggle alone, but to seek accountability with his session (pastor & elders), to take decisive steps to avoid those occasions which trigger the besetting sin (avoiding the persons, places and settings where such sins are likely to be a strong pull), to continue in the diligent use of the public and private means of grace, and, most important of all, to immerse himself/herself in the promises and privileges of the gospel as revealed in the Word of God, lest he/she fall into despair. I would also urge that fighting besetting sin by focusing exclusively on the Law’s demands will, at best, only produce a legal, pharisaic obedience and thus will minister to the sinner’s innate pride, and at its worst will lead to despair. But fighting besetting sin by focusing on gospel realities such as one’s identity in and union with Christ produces a gospel holiness grounded in gratitude for God’s saving grace in Christ, empowered by the Spirit, and thus ministers to humility and contrition, producing joy and peace of conscience, and ultimately leading to victory over the besetting sin.
I hope this helps. And remember this promise: “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” (Galatians 5:16, ESV)
Your servant in Jesus Christ,
Pastor Geoff Willour
Lake Orthodox Presbyterian Church