May 11, 2024

Yet Not I, But Through Christ in Me

On becoming free from sin

Esther Louw

What immediately comes to your mind when you think of holiness? The images of holiness that exist within contemporary culture tend to reflect soul-body dualism. Within this paradigm, heaven is often thought of as white and sterile—like a hospital ward that has been perfectly sanitized. Immaterial souls float on immaterial clouds. Meanwhile, those who have not yet died but aspire to be holy are expected to deprive themselves of physical things. Hindu? Catholic? Muslim? Each of these traditions emphasizes varying degrees of separation from the physical world as a means to achieve freedom from evil. Whether or not we come from these religious backgrounds, it’s easy to absorb their underlying message: sin comes from the world around us rather than from within.

Escaping Sin by Escaping the World?

The result of compartmentalizing life in this way is the assumption that we can escape sin by escaping the world.

Of course, Christianity did not always teach this. Soul-body dualism only gradually came into the early church through the influence of Greek philosophy. By the fourth century A.D., however, the idea that we can become holy by fleeing the world and neglecting the body had given birth to asceticism. Christian ascetics began to take vows of celibacy. Some extreme ascetics tortured themselves with self-imposed solitary confinement and strange punishments.1 For example, Simeon the Stylite famously lived on top of a 50-foot pillar for 37 years without any shelter from the elements.2 Eventually asceticism evolved into the monasticism that we are familiar with today, and in many ways, it still shapes our thinking about sin and holiness.

Soul-body dualism ensures that becoming free from sin through personal effort is relatively achievable. One only needs to try to do good deeds until death finally releases the immortal soul from the corrupt body. Adventists aren’t ascetics, however. We believe that our physical bodies matter a great deal and that we will be embodied in heaven. When we mistakenly assume that sin is caused by the external physical world, we end up with a problem that other religions don’t encounter. How can we become free from sin if our body and soul are inseparable? Some offshoot groups have attempted to solve this problem by teaching that we need to cease almost all forms of association with the world. It really doesn’t matter how far we remove ourselves from the world, though, if sin is not removed from us. When Martin Luther entered monastic life, he discovered that he was “still envious, impatient, passionate!” “O wretched man,” he told himself, “to have entered this sacred order.”3

Becoming free from sin entails much more than separating the body from the world. Even if cultivated sins were perfectly overcome, we would still find ourselves subject to emotions and impulses that testify to a much deeper problem. Jesus outlined this problem by explaining, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. . . . Evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:20-23).4

James echoed this teaching when he said, “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:14). While it is true that everything God created in the beginning was good, and that Adam and Eve’s natural desires were also good, Adam and Eve fell. Satan was able to tempt Adam and Eve by perverting their good desires, just as he would later try to tempt Jesus. These temptations were resistible because Adam and Eve, as well as Christ, did not love sin and had no evil desires that could be stirred up. If Satan had directly approached Eve and asked her to disobey God without trickery, she would have fled in horror. Similarly, although Jesus was tempted like us, “as the sinless One, His nature recoiled from evil.”5

Set Free by Christ

We, however, are now thousands of years downstream from the Fall. Sometimes we are tempted through the perversion of good desires too. But perhaps more often we are tempted by evil desires that neither Adam nor Eve had before the Fall nor Jesus ever felt. We don’t even need Satan to bring these evil desires to mind. They are natural to us and, as Paul suggests, part of our physical “flesh.” Although Satan certainly does tempt us, we are also able to tempt ourselves, because our hearts are “deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9). Trapped as we are by our own inherent sinfulness, “we have no enemy without that we need to fear. Our great conflict is with unconsecrated self. . . . Conquer self, and the world is conquered.”6

This leaves one burning question. Since we are the source of our own sins and we cannot escape ourselves, how can we conquer self and become free from sin?

First, it is important for us to recognize that God does intend to set us free from sin in this life. In Galatians 5 Paul exclaimed, “For freedom Christ has set us free” (verse 1). Speaking to those who have had a conversion experience, Paul uses the past tense to describe this freedom. This isn’t something that waits for us in heaven, but for which God has already made provision. This isn’t a once-saved-always-saved kind of freedom, either. Instead, Galatians 5 is clear that the Christians Paul was writing to who had been set free were still struggling with “the desires of the flesh” (verse 16). Paul provides a long list. “Sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (verses 19-21). In other words, the desires of the flesh that Paul is talking about are the same things that Jesus said come “out of a person” and “defiles him.” The Galatian Christians, like many Christians today, were evidently stuck in a twilight zone. They had been set free from sin, but they were not currently experiencing that freedom.

Walking by the Spirit

The solution? “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (verse 16).

Sometimes we talk about this passage almost as if we think Paul was making a case for body-soul dualism after all. If we subdue our bodies, some of us think, and listen to the Holy Spirit speaking to our “soul,” then all we need to do is obey that still small voice, and we will be able to override the desires of our body. The problem with this view is it vastly overestimates the value of our good intentions. We are children of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We possess both good intentions and evil thoughts, but our good intentions have no power to fully overcome our evil thoughts. Ours is not a problem of not knowing or wanting what is right. It is a problem of wanting what is evil. What we need is a power outside of ourselves that is able to transform us and bring our desires into alignment with God’s will.7 This is what Paul is talking about when he tells us to walk by the Spirit. He means that we should surrender the power of control over ourselves to the Holy Spirit. “For the desires of the flesh” that exist in our bodies “are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh . . . to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (verse 17). Our morally corrupt bodies and minds are constantly waging war against the Holy Spirit. As long as we retain moral control over ourselves, we can never live out the life of Christ. We may very well want to do good and want to obey God, but our natural hearts also want to do evil and will let us down every time. That’s why someone relying on their natural heart who doesn’t want to view porn ever again inexplicably finds themselves doing just that. It’s why an exhausted parent yells at their kids even though they love them. It’s why an otherwise spiritual person who intends to spend time in prayer realizes a half hour later that they’re actually watching YouTube videos. The good that we want and the evil that we also want cannot coexist peacefully.

To “walk by the Spirit” (verse 25), then, requires that we “have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (verse 24). This doesn’t mean that we just ignore our passions and desires and pretend that they don’t exist. Instead, it means that we choose to lay them down at Jesus’ feet—to die “to that which held us captive” so that we can be enabled to “serve . . . in the new life of the Spirit” (Rom. 7:6). It means claiming Christ’s death on the cross as our own by faith and inviting His indwelling presence. It means a new way of thinking. Because “those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit” (Rom. 8:5). The new birth that Jesus spoke about to Nicodemus is the new life that we live when we die with Him on the cross by faith and are spiritually resurrected with Him. This is not an experience in which we receive unfallen natures. That is a gift reserved for glorification. But it is an experience in which we are given the opportunity for Christ to live vicariously through us. In Him we “become partakers of the divine nature” and escape “the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire” (2 Peter 1:4). The good news of the gospel is that we can become free from sin—not in and of ourselves, but through the life of Christ given to us by the Holy Spirit.

Life in the Spirit

Paul concludes his arguments in Galatians 5 by explaining that when the Holy Spirit has control over our lives, we will automatically produce “fruit” that equates to a change of life. Through the power of God working in us, our lives will demonstrate “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22, 23). In other words, life in the Spirit is not a burdensome, ascetic experience in which we neglect our bodies or physical needs. We are not required to torture ourselves, perform penance, or remove ourselves from meaningful interactions with the world around us. Sin is an intimate problem that dwells in us. It requires an intimate solution that is also able to dwell in us. The moment we invite Christ into our hearts and lives, we begin to experience freedom from sin and discover, day by day, that our evil desires are being supplanted by love. “Whom does Christ call His? Those who have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. Have you done it? Oh, God grant that you may, if you have not. If you are living or abiding in the true Vine, you will walk in the Spirit. Wherever you go you will manifest that Spirit. And by beholding, you will become like Him.”8



3 J. H. Merle D’Aubigne, The Life and Times of Martin Luther, trans. H. White (Chicago: Moody Press, 1953), p. 33.

4 Unless otherwise noted, all biblical quotations are from the English Standard Version.

5 Ellen G. White, in Signs of the Times, June 18, 1902.

6 Ellen G. White letter 13, 1900, in Letters and Manuscripts, vol. 15, p. 14.

7 Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1956), p. 18.

8 Ellen G. White manuscript 20, 1888, in Letters and Manuscripts, vol. 5, p. 240.