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If We Have Died to Sin, Why Do We Still Sin?

I have read Jerry Bridges’ books all out of order, undoubtedly not the best way to read an author’s works. However, doing this has shown me something I find interesting: Throughout his writing career, he has remained on a single trajectory and has emphasized and re-emphasized only a few themes. In reading The Discipline of Grace I see the seeds of what would become his later books. What he writes about here in just a few words or a few pages, he would later develop into entire books.

But I digress. This morning I want to share just a couple of thoughts about chapter four of The Discipline of Grace, a chapter that deals with the tricky subject of how the Christian has died to sin.

Before we can talk about dying to sin, we must understand how we came to be sinners. Bridges offers a helpful illustration of the biblical concept of federal headship.

Federal headship or representative capacity is somewhat illustrated by the concept of power of attorney. A friend of mine wanted to refinance the mortgage on his house to take advantage of lower interest rates. When the date for the closing was finally set, he realized that he and his wife would be out of the country at that time. He asked if I would represent them at the closing, and I agreed, so he and his wife executed a power of attorney authorizing me to act on their behalf.

I went to the closing and, as my friends’ legal representative, signed all kinds of papers. When I signed those documents it was just as if they had signed them. When I signed the promissory note to pay a certain amount each month, that act was as legally binding on them as if they had signed the note, because I was acting as their legal representative. In like manner, Adam was our legal representative in the garden, and when he sinned, his action was as binding on us as if we had sinned personally.

We may object that we did not appoint Adam as our representative in the garden. To do so is futile, however, for in our objection we are actually complaining against God. It should be enough for us to know that God, the Sovereign Creator of the universe and the One in whom we live, and move, and have our being, appointed him.

Of course the ultimately good news about federal headship is that Adam is not the only federal representative; God has appointed that Jesus Christ would be the second one and that just as Adam’s sin would bring condemnation to his race, Christ’s atonement would bring reconciliation to all who would trust in him.

Here is Bridges’ explanation of what it means that the Christian has died to sin. This is a glorious doctrine, but one so many Christians do not understand. Read this until you absorb it!

To die to sin then means, first of all, to die to its legal or penal reign and, secondly, as a necessary result, to die to its dominion over us. … There is no such thing as salvation from sin’s penalty without an accompanying deliverance from sin’s dominion. This obviously does not mean we no longer sin, but that sin no longer reigns in our lives.

How did we die to sin? We have already noted that we died to sin through our union with Christ. Paul said in Romans 6:10 that Christ died to sin, and in verse 8 he said we died with Christ. That Christ died to sin is a rather startling but wonderful statement. Christ did not die to the dominion of sin, as He was never under it. However, when He was made sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21)—that is, when He was charged with our sin—He did come under its legal reign and was made subject to its penalty.

When Jesus died, He died to the legal reign of sin. Through our federal union with Him in His death, we, too, died to the legal reign of sin. But because the legal reign and the practical dominion of sin in our lives are inseparable, we died not only to its legal reign but also to its corrupting dominion over us. Hallelujah! What a Savior we have who was able to not only free us from sin’s penalty but also from its dominion.

The question arises, however, “If we died to sin’s dominion, why do we still struggle with sin in our daily lives?” When Paul wrote, “We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” he was referring, not to the activity of committing sins, but to continuing to live under the dominion of sin. The word live means to continue in or abide in. It connotes a settled course of life. To use Paul’s words from Romans 8:7, “The sinful mind [one under sin’s dominion] is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.” But the believer who has died to sin’s reign and dominion delights in God’s law. The believer approves of it as holy, righteous, and good (Romans 7:12), even though he or she may struggle to obey it.

We must distinguish between the activity of sin, which is true in all believers, and the dominion of sin, which is true of all unbelievers. Sinclair Ferguson has written, “Sin is not primarily an activity of man’s will so much as a captivity which man suffers, as an alien power grips his soul. It is an axiom for [John] Owen [whose teaching Ferguson is summarizing] that while the presence of sin can never be abolished in this life, nor the influence of sin altered (its tendency is always the same), its dominion can, indeed, must be destroyed if a man is to be a Christian.

Therefore a believer cannot continue in sin. We no longer live in the realm of sin, under its reign and practical dominion. We have, to use Paul’s words, died to sin. We indeed do sin and even our best deeds are stained with sin, but our attitude toward it is essentially different from that of an unbeliever. We succumb to temptations, either from our own evil desires (James 1:13), or from the world or the Devil (Ephesians 2:1-3), but this is different from a settled disposition. Further, to paraphrase from Ferguson on John Owen, our sin is a burden that afflicts us rather than a pleasure that delights us.

Next Week

For next Thursday please read chapter five (assuming that you are reading along with me).

Your Turn

The purpose of this program is to read these books together. If you have something to say, whether a comment or criticism or question, feel free to use the comment section for that purpose.Reading Classics Together