Can You Sin If You Have Real Faith?

“If I had real faith, I wouldn’t sin.”

I’ve heard some people say this. In the midst of frustrations with struggles with sins or fears that they are not real Christians, some people will see their sins as evidence that they are not Christian.

For people who misunderstand the relationship between faith and works, and so believe that their works are necessary for their salvation, the mere fact that they have sinned is evidence that they are not real Christians.

But many Christians understand that they are not justified in God’s sight by perfect or even near perfect obedience. They are justified by their faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior. So they do not simply think that they have sinned and therefore they are not Christians.

Instead, rather than feeling that their sins prove that they are not saved, they reason otherwise. Their sins show that they really don’t have faith, and then proves that they are not Christians.

I find that it is easy to think this way, especially when you are struggling with a sin that always seems to defeat you. That sin that overcomes me seems to prove that my faith in God is not strong enough. After all, if I really believed in God, wouldn’t I despise the sin? Wouldn’t God give me victory over that sin?

Dreary Landscape
Dreary Day, PA by due_mele, on Flickr

Behind these worries is the premise that if someone had real faith (or enough faith), then they would not sin. This premise makes sense to many Christians. If one trusted enough in God, then that trust would overcome every temptation and obstacle that comes into our paths.

But I think we need to be cautious when reasoning this way. We need to slow down and ask ourselves what “real faith” is? And what does it mean to have “enough faith”? Enough not to sin?

As Christians, we have to let our idea of real faith or “enough faith” to be defined by the Bible. It cannot be simply defined by our whims or thoughts on the subject.

In Galatians 3, Romans 4, and Hebrews 11, the Old Testament patriarch Abraham is singled out as an example of faith. In fact, Paul uses Abraham as the paradigmatic case of faith in God leading to one being counted as righteous. So we need to see that Abraham’s faith in the promises of God is the right kind of faith in Paul’s mind. And the writer of Hebrews uses Abraham as an example of those who have had faith.

Was Abraham’s faith “real faith”? The New Testament answers that question with a resounding “Yes.” Was Abraham’s faith “enough faith”? Again: we are forced to say “Yes” because of the evidence that the Bible provides us. It would be odd––wouldn’t it?––if Paul uses Abraham as the paradigmatic instance of someone trusting in God’s promises if Abraham’s faith was lacking or he didn’t have enough faith. We are led to conclude that Abraham’s faith was enough.

So when we look at the life of Abraham, what do we learn about the type of faith that he had? Could you say of Abraham that if he had real faith, then he wouldn’t sin?

Any cursory reading of the Genesis accounts of Abraham’s life can see that Abraham was not sinless. In fact, he very next chapter in the Abraham narrative is one of an egregious sin. In Genesis 15, Abraham’s faith in God’s promise to him that Abraham would have a multitude of offspring is counted as righteousness. It is this moment of faith that Paul holds up to us as an example of real faith.

Yet, in Genesis 16, the next chapter, we don’t see that the idea that “if I only had real faith, I wouldn’t sin” was not real in the case of Abraham. Instead, we see that faithful Abraham was convinced by his wife to sleep with Hagar because they were convinced that Sarah would be unable to conceive.

Or later, in Genesis 20, Abraham deceptively says that Sarah was his sister, not his wife, and King Abimelech took Sarah as his wife.

Do we see a man whose faith kept him from sinning? Are we seeing a man whose faith drove him to live a perfect life?

No. Abraham’s faith was a faith that God accepted and counted it as righteousness (Genesis 15:6). It is a faith honored by Paul and the writer of Hebrews and offered as an example for Christians.

This faith is the faith that we are expected to have. It’s real faith. It’s “enough” faith (whatever it means to have “enough” faith).

We are tempted to see our faith as uglier than it is, like a self-conscious person looking before a mirror and not liking anything he sees in the mirror; we are susceptible to the lies of the evil one. One can have the laudable faith of a patriarch and still sin. Failures and faith are not incompatible, not as long as we await the redemption of our bodies.

We should never devalue our faith. What matters isn’t the strength of our faith, but the strength of the One we have placed our faith in.

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