John Newton on the Christian’s Indwelling Sin

There are few bigger questions the Christian has than “Why doesn’t God take us to heaven when we get saved?” and “Why do I as a Christian still struggle with sin?”

In Romans 6.6-7 Paul says, “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.”

If the Christian is set free from sin, why do is there still sin? Why do we still desire to disobey God? Reading through Newton’s thoughts helps us to answer our personal questions, especially when struggling with sin (which is most of the time). We can be thankful, not that we have sin, but that God uses our sin to bring glorify to himself and his work in Christ.

Six Reasons Why Christians Have Remaining Sin

In his book Newton on the Christian Life: To Live is Christ, Tony Reinke gives the reader six reasons why Christians still have sin remaining in their mortal bodies.

For Newton, a profound mystery exists in the work of sovereign grace. God could completely remove all the roots of indwelling sin from our hearts in a moment, and yet he chooses not to. Sin remains in the Christian because Christ is overruling it, not because sin is stronger than grace. But if the cross of Christ has broken the power of sin, if Christ is stronger than the remaining evil in my heart, how do we explain remaining sin in the Christian life?

  1. “Indwelling sin remains to make us wonder how such a weak sinner’s faith has been sustained.”
    w

    • The fact that faith survives in our sin-filled bodies is a sure sign of God’s sovereign grace. We would have messed up our salvation by Day 1, yet we can wake up each morning knowing that “[this] faith-sustaining grace proves the power, wisdom, faithfulness, and love of God toward us. How can it not? Faith survives in the most unlikely of places: within us!”
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  2. “Indwelling sin magnifies the extent of redemption.”
    w

    • As “the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 2.14), Christians “have received… the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (1 Cor 2.12). We don’t understand how wicked sin is until we are saved by God’s grace, and it is then that we see the battle between the Holy Spirit and sin. And that battleground is in us.
      w
    • “Indwelling sin affords us the firsthand experience of sin’s potency, thereby magnifying the work of Christ’s power in its defeat. Only a powerful Savior could defeat evil this stubborn and strong.”
      w
  3. “Indwelling sin humbles us in our awareness of its presence.”
    w

    • Just as Paul can thank God for his immeasurable comfort in 2 Corinthians 1.3-11 (also seen in his trials in 2 Cor 11.24-33), Newton knew that the trials of sin in the life of the believer, plus the successes brought by God, would give the believer sufficient reason to praise her Savior.
      w
    • If God must save us and preserve us to the end, the final work is all due to him. He gets the glory. If a sailor escapes with his life in a storm on the open sea, he will be grateful but soon forget his deliverance, Newton writes (no doubt looking back to the storm that nearly took his life). But even more permanently thankful will be the sailor who escapes storm after storm, swell after swell, near-death experience after near-death experience, and then after such an odyssey finally finds his way to safe harbor. The Christian is the second sailor, and the waves and the billows are the swells of indwelling sin that rock our lives and conscript us to daily battle. The Christian is safe on the journey home, but not arrogantly safe—properly humbled, we can say.

  4. “Indwelling sin magnifies Christ’s sovereignty.”
    w

    • The righteous are said to be scarcely saved (1 Pet. 4:18)… in respect of their own apprehensions, and the great difficulties they are brought through. But when, after a long experience of their own deceitful hearts, after repeated proofs of their weakness, willfulness, ingratitude, and insensibility, they find that none of these things can separate them from the love of God in Christ, Jesus becomes more and more precious to their souls.w

    • And so, if the righteous are ‘scarcely saved,’ their salvation is owing to Christ’s magnificent power, not to the sufficiency of the Christian. ‘In a word, some of the clearest proofs they have had of his excellence, have been occasioned by the mortifying proofs they have had of their own vileness. They would not have known so much of him, if they had not known so much of themselves.’

  5. “Indwelling sin humbles all our attempts at charity.”
    w

    • Newton was convinced Romans 7 was a realistic and normative picture of the struggles in the Christian life. When we seek to do good, evil lies close at hand to thwart our attempts (Rom. 7:21). No act of love or obedience is free from the sludge of self and sin. And therefore Christ is honored by our broken and contrite hearts (Ps. 51:17).

    • Though I disagree with Newton’s position of Romans 7 (another view taken by deSilva can be seen here), the application is spot on. We are sinners, and all of our best efforts are sinful. No Christian is a “good” Christian. We are righteous only because of the only one who was perfect, the same one who became a curse for us. One day we too will be perfect, but that day is not today.
      w
  6. “Indwelling sin sets our hopes off this world.”
    w

    • Why is sin still in the mortal bodies of believers? Because one day we will be delivered from this body and from this evil and twisted generation. We will be resurrected into new bodies, and this world will be made new.
      w
    • God would never allow sin to remain inside his children if he did not purpose to ultimately defeat its presence. Which is to say, our indwelling sin causes us to cherish the forthcoming day when it will be removed forever. The sense of our indwelling sin now entices our anticipation for the day we see Jesus, the day when every evil and every imperfection and every hindrance to full joy in Christ—every desire we have for sin—will be exterminated from our hearts…. But for now, indwelling sin is what sets our hope on this future day, prevents us from storing up treasures on earth, readies us for death, and keeps us in eager anticipation of our ‘glorious liberty’ to come (emphasis mine).

Thus

Reinke adds,

these so-called ‘benefits’ of indwelling sin are never an excuse for sinning. Sin is our mortal enemy, sin killed our Savior, and mortifying indwelling sin is the daily work of the Spirit in our lives now. God ever ‘abhors pride and self-importance,’ and he has committed in mercy to ‘pound them as in a mortar, to beat it out of them, or to prevent its growth.’ And yet even within the battle to purge his children from all evil, evil plays a role. For now we in our flesh harbor sin—an enemy, a viper of lingering enmity against God that eludes our mortifying efforts….

“When Paul said that all things work together for our good, he meant it, all the way down to the core of our indwelling sin (Rom. 8:28).

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