When I first heard somebody say that it was possible for a Christian to live without sin, I had a similar reaction to yours. But since then I have had a lot of time and opportunity to consider my reaction, and to see and feel with increasing clarity where it came from, and why I initially felt that way.
Usually, when somebody is presented with the idea of freedom from sin, their first reaction is an immediate, “That’s impossible!”, and this is often followed by a, “Who do you think you are?” But I have since been made to see that the first of these responses amounts to a total denial of both Christ’s words and His mission, and the second is nothing more than a defensive accusation, or a quick attack that is unknowingly aimed at protecting or justifying our current way of living.
The simple truth is that to affirm that it is impossible to live without sin in this world, is the same thing as to say that Christ either CANNOT free man from evil, or that He does NOT WANT TO. There really is no third option. And there is absolutely no biblical ground to stand upon to make this argument, except for a couple statements of Paul and John taken out of context and selectively quoted without referencing what comes immediately afterwards in the same letters. But I’ll say more about that shortly.
On the contrary, to affirm that it IS possible for Christians to live without sin, is simply asserting and defending the reason for which we are told the Son of God was made manifest, which was “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8), or to “redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works” (Tit. 2:14). If you ask, “who are you to make this bold claim?” I answer: I am nobody. I am a sinner, who believes in the promises of God and the power of His Spirit. I don’t claim to have any ability of my own to achieve this goal, and I believe myself to be far from having attained it. But I do claim these two things: 1) that purity of heart, or victory over sin, is the express purpose and desire of God for all men, and 2) that I have tasted a power which, if continually submitted to and allowed to reign in me, would have no difficulty defeating the strong man, and eventually slaying every uncircumcised enemy in the land of my heart.
I’d like to ask you to stop for a minute and consider why it sounds so strange to you that God can overcome His enemies in man, and establish His kingdom of righteousness in the heart? I mean, what is the ground of your argument? Is it only that you haven’t yet experienced it in yourself? Is this a good reason not to believe in the possibility? Or is it because, as far as you know, you have never met a perfect person? But again I ask, is this any kind of proof, or a valid reason to doubt either the will or the power of God? And how do you know that you would recognize a sinless person if you met one? From what you said, it seems likely that you might charge him with “pride and heresy,” merely for suggesting that sin can be overcome by the power of Jesus Christ. Is your theology based on Scripture, and on the reign of grace (Rom. 5:21) in your heart? Or is it based on your own experience—or rather, your lack of experience of Christ’s overcoming life?
I am not at all wanting to offend you, but I am wanting to expose in you the same thing that I have seen in myself, namely, an ugly desire for sinlessness to be impossible, so that the bar can stay low, and that I can justify and comfort myself in my present condition.
I hope that no Christian would dare assert that God is UNABLE to overcome sin in man; or affirm that He is only able to help us in some ways, or perhaps remove some sins, but that He is incapable of putting all of His enemies in man under His feet. This would be a very strange claim for somebody who believes in an omnipotent God who sent His Son into the world with the express purpose of “saving His people FROM their sins,” (Mat 1:21) and not IN them.
And to suggest that God does not WANT to free man from sin seems not only to contradict an abundance of plain declarations in the New Testament, but also every Old Testament picture that manifests God’s desire to perfectly cleanse His temple, or to remove all uncircumcised flesh from His land, or to “fill the earth with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14)
To borrow Isaiah’s words, “Come now, and let us reason together.” Isn’t nearly every sentence in the Sermon on the Mount an open declaration of God’s desire that heavenly righteousness, innocence, and purity should reign in the heart of man? Didn’t Jesus say that we are to “be perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect.”? In saying this, did He exhort us to a needless or an impossible thing? Didn’t He teach us to pray, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”? What did He mean when He said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin... Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.” Did He mean only partially free, and yet mostly still under the government of sin, self, and Satan?
Don’t His apostles tell us that, because of His promises and by His power, we can “cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God”? (2 Cor 7:1) And that the God of peace desires to “sanctify us completely,” so that “our whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ”? (1 Thes 5:23) Wasn’t the stated goal of the ministry in the early church “the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ. Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ”? (Eph 4:12-13). Didn’t Paul and the other apostles “preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus.” (Col 1:28). Paul says that his co-worker Epaphras “labored fervently in prayer that you may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God.” (Col 4:12). And isn’t the entire book of Hebrews more or less a comparison between the covenant that “made nothing perfect” (Heb 7:19) and the new and living covenant that “cleanses your conscience” and “makes you perfect in every good work to do His will, working in you that which is well-pleasing in His sight through Jesus Christ”? (Heb 13:21) “For God did not call us to uncleanness, but in holiness. Therefore he who rejects this does not reject man, but God, who has also given us His Holy Spirit” (1 Thes. 4:3)
Have you ever considered how silly it is for Christians to argue for the necessity of sin, in opposition to a God who has no delight in iniquity and abhors transgression? We are clearly told that “our iniquities have separated us from our God, and our sins have hidden His face from us,” (Isa 59:2) and that “His wrath is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Rom 1:18) Did this holy God sacrifice His holy Son and send His Holy Spirit so that man could cease from doing only the worst sorts of sins, and yet remain under a necessity of inwardly serving Satan and sinning against his Redeemer for the entire time in the body? Is this the freedom that Jesus spoke of?
Now, concerning the verses that you mentioned. It is very true that in Romans 7 Paul describes the enmity that exists between the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus (experienced in “the inward man”) and the law of sin and death that he found working “in his members.” He says, “For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (vs. 22-23) And as long as Paul continued to live in the flesh, and walk in the flesh, trying to serve God in the flesh, he found himself doing the very things he hated, and not doing the things that he wanted to do. But to suggest that Paul always remained in this condition, or that this is the lot of every man as long as he lives in the body, would perfectly negate the very reason why Paul mentioned this hopeless situation. Paul did not describe the impossibility of doing good and pleasing God in the flesh so that his readers would lose all expectation of righteousness, and settle down in a state of continual slavery to sin. I’ve heard people say, “If this was Paul’s struggle, I’m sure it will always be mine.” But this idea couldn’t be further from the conclusion that Paul comes to in the final verse of chapter 7 and the entirety of chapter 8. The reason that Paul describes the law of sin and death in the flesh, and the hopelessness of attaining righteousness that way, is so that his readers will understand the absolute necessity of learning to live and walk in the Spirit. The entire 8th chapter is his solution to the problem described in chapter 7.
Was Paul hopelessly bound to the law of sin and death that worked in his members? No! He says plainly, “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2), because “the righteous requirement of the law is fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Rom. 8:4). The nature or law that is found in the flesh is indeed death. It is “enmity against God”, (vs. 7) so that, “those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (vs. 8) BUT NOW, because of Christ’s work and the gift of His Spirit, Paul says “we are debtors—not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (vs. 12-13). The whole purpose for saying in chapter 7, “I know that in me (that is in my flesh) nothing good dwells,” was to lead his readers to the solution that he presents in chapter 8; a solution that he often repeats in his other letters to the churches, namely, “I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh” (Gal 5:16).
You also mentioned 1 John 1:8, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” John is entirely correct in saying this. We not only all HAVE sin, but we ARE sin apart from the righteous life and power of the Spirit. But this verse is far from suggesting that man must remain in sin. In fact, the very next verse tells us that God is able not only to “forgive us our sins”, but also to “cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (vs. 9). And if we continue reading this same letter, we soon bump into statements like, “My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin” (vs. 2:1), and “Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, ‘I know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (2:3-4). And in the third chapter, we find what may be the strongest declaration of the possibility of freedom from sin in the entire Bible: “Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him,” (vs. 6) and “Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God” (vs. 9).
This is not a sinlessness that comes from human effort, or from human nature. This is a freedom from sin that comes from learning to abide and walk in the One who knows no sin, for “in Him there is no sin” (3:5). John’s words here are in perfect agreement with what Paul says in Romans 7 and elsewhere. In ourselves, there is nothing but sin. But the very center and substance of Christianity is a NEW BIRTH from above, a new life, a new creation, with a new heart, a new will, new desires and thoughts and works, all springing from a new source. If we continue to live in the old man, in the flesh or first birth, there (like the woman in Romans 7:1-4) we will find ourselves hopelessly bound or “married” to the law of sin and death. But if, through the cross, our soul becomes dead to this law, and married to another—to Him who was raised from the dead—then we most certainly can cease bearing bad fruit and bear good fruit to God.