The Believer’s Paradoxical Experience of Sin

Saints and Sins

Christian experience contains many tensions. It is important to maintain a balanced perspective on saints and their sins so that we grow neither discouraged nor overconfident.

Forgiveness of Guilt, but with Appropriate Shame

God grants believers forgiveness for “all trespasses,” having satisfied the debt of their sins and cancelled their liability to punishment at the cross (Col. 2:13–14). He is not stingy with mercy, but grants them “the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace” (Eph. 1:7). They are free from all condemnation (Rom. 8:1). However, at the same time, they remember their past sins, sense their remaining corruption, and see their continuing acts of sin. This grieves them and makes them feel ashamed, precisely because they now serve God from their hearts.

The Lord promised Israel, “I will establish my covenant with thee; and thou shalt know that I am the Lord: that thou mayest remember, and be confounded, and never open thy mouth any more because of thy shame, when I am pacified toward thee for all that thou hast done, saith the Lord God” (Ezek. 16:62–63). On the one hand, God promised to reconcile them to himself in a covenant relationship. He would be “pacified” (kaphar), which meant that his anger would be removed by the atonement of their guilt. On the other hand, they would still feel shame and disgrace for their previous unfaithfulness, and rightly so. As William Greenhill (1598–1671) commented, God’s forgiveness teaches sinners to say, “Ah, what have we done! How have we sinned against a God of love, against mercy, against grace! We will do it no more.”1

This then is not a shame that includes a fear of rejection, but a shame mingled with the freedom of security a believer experiences because his sins are forgiven. We see both shame and freedom in Paul’s words: “What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 6:21–23). Believers are on a new path, the road of holiness leading to eternal life by the free grace of God, but still they “are ashamed of their past life,” as John Murray said.2

Deliverance from Sin’s Dominion, but with Remaining Corruption

By their vital union with Christ, believers share in his death and resurrection so that they are “dead to sin” and “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:2, 4). They are no longer under sin but “under grace,” so that sin cannot rule them as their master any more (v. 14). God’s law could never have set them free, but only provoked sin (7:5). However, they are now “married” to the risen Christ by the bond of the Holy Spirit so that they bear fruit for God (vv. 4, 6). They experience this new reality in the holy motions of their hearts toward God in faith and love. Their mindset toward the Lord is no longer one of sheer enmity, but they desire to please him, and they are able to do so by the life-giving Spirit of Christ within them (8:6–10).

Yet in their hearts they also experience great conflict and disappointment with themselves. They “delight in the law of God after the inward man” (Rom. 7:22), and “with the mind . . . serve the law of God” (v. 25). However, they find “evil is present” in them (v. 21), a principle of sin that wars against their holy desires, hinders them from obeying God as they desire, and stirs them to do the very things that they hate (vv. 19, 23).3 Brakel wrote, “Indwelling corruption greatly torments and grieves believers.”4

Reformed Systematic Theology, Volume 2

Joel R. Beeke, Paul M. Smalley

The second installment in the Reformed Systematic Theology series draws on historical theology of the Reformed tradition, exploring the doctrines of man and Christ with an accessible, comprehensive, and experiential approach.

This conflict can cause great searchings of heart among the children of God. Brakel said, “The converted detect much of the old Adam within themselves. They observe how they frequently fall—indeed, even continue in sin, being captured and captivated by sin. By this their faith easily falters, fearing that sin still has dominion over them.”5 However, Brakel sought to assure true believers that “sin has no dominion when there is a union with Christ by faith,” and “this union results in lively, spiritual exercises” in love and good works. Such union with Christ “brings forth internal opposition and hatred towards all that is sin,” resulting in “strife against sin” and “a delight, a love for, and a desire to do whatever pleases the Lord.”6

Christians live in the painful paradox of salvation begun but not completed. They love God and his righteous law, for he has set them free from the reign of sin, but they still find sin and evil in themselves as they wait for their full redemption and glorification. Indwelling sin would not hurt them so much if they did not truly love God. This can be a comfort to them, for the inward battle between holy love and sin evidences a true conversion. Yet believers cannot be satisfied until they love the Lord with all their hearts, all their souls, and all their strength.

Assurance of Salvation, but with Fear of the Lord

When God’s children walk with him, they ordinarily (though not necessarily) experience assurance of their salvation and acceptance with God. The Spirit who leads them is “the Spirit of adoption,” who “beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God” (Rom. 8:14–16). God has given them precious promises that he will dwell with them as their covenant God and their loving Father (2 Cor. 6:16–18). However, these very promises of God’s presence with them motivate them to purify themselves and pursue holiness “in the fear of God” (7:1). True assurance does not make careless, casual Christians, but fosters reverence for the Father.

Assurance and fear appear to be opposites, but Peter gives three reasons why they go together. First, assurance brings sobering fear because of the holiness of our Father. Peter says, “But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy. And if ye call on the Father, who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man’s work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear” (1 Pet. 1:15–17). The more we stand assured that the holy God is our Father, the more our hearts will fear him with childlike reverence mingled with love for his holy majesty. Brakel said, “Reverence for God engenders in God’s children a careful guarding against displeasing God by disobedience and the commission of sins, and a being active to please Him in all things.”7

Believers cannot be satisfied until they love the Lord with all their hearts, all their souls, and all their strength.

Second, assurance brings grateful fear because of the price of our redemption. Peter continues, “Ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation [conduct] received by tradition from your fathers; but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Pet. 1:18–19). As the Spirit increases our confidence that Christ redeemed us and we are his, he will likewise increase a weighty sense of awe over the terrible cost Christ paid to save us.

Third, assurance brings a careful fear because of the condition of our assurance. Peter exhorts those saved by faith in God’s promises to increase their faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, patience, godliness, brotherly affection, and love in order “to make your calling and election sure,” for the one who is lacking in such virtues grows nearsighted and can no longer see his cleansing from sin (2 Pet. 1:5–10). We cannot lose our salvation, but we can lose our assurance. While we are saved only by faith in Christ (v. 1), we enjoy assurance of salvation by walking in growing holiness. Anthony Burgess said, “Assurance makes a man walk with much tenderness against sin, for such evil would put him out of the heaven of experiencing how sweet the Lord is.”8 He does not want to lose the heaven on earth of God’s manifest favor.

Such considerations mean little to the self-satisfied, but to those who, like the Galilean fisherman, have confessed, “I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8), the very truths that uphold assurance also ignite the flame of godly fear. Alexander wrote, “The brighter his discoveries of the divine glory, and the stronger his love, the deeper are his views of the turpitude of sin. The more he is elevated in affection and assured hope, the deeper is he depressed in humility and self-abasement. . . . When his tears flow in copious showers, he would be at a loss to tell whether he was weeping for joy or for sorrow. He might say, for both.”9


  1. William Greenhill, An Exposition of the Prophet Ezekiel, ed. James Sherman (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1864), 411.
  2. John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968), 1:236.
  3. On Romans 7 and the identity of the wretched man as a regenerate believer walking with God, see the chapters on Sanctification in RST, vol. 3 (forthcoming).
  4. Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, ed. Joel R. Beeke, trans. Bartel Elshout, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 1992–1995), 4:251.
  5. Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 1:398.
  6. Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 1:398-99.
  7. Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 3:295.
  8. Anthony Burgess, Faith Seeking Assurance, ed. Joel R. Beeke, Puritan Treasures for Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015), 70.
  9. Archibald Alexander, Thoughts on Religious Experience (1844; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1967), 77.

This article is adapted from Reformed Systematic Theology: Volume 2: Man and Christ by Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley.

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