Sin is greatly confusing for believers. The apostle captures this in Romans 7 when he says “the things that I will not, these I do.” How could the apostle seem to speak in such a defeated manner with regard to sin in a believer who has been given the Spirit and the grace of repentance? And if such a double-minded “believer” could be conceived of in this life, is assurance of salvation possible?
To answer these questions, some have tried to explain Romans 7 as speaking of a man before conversion since a “defeatist” view of sin in the believer seems entirely out of accord with the New Testament teaching on regeneration and holiness. This answer would seem to take away any notion that a believer might so willingly enter into sin as a new creation.
Answers to this dilemma, however, have not always been helpful for Christians in their struggle against sin. There have been some who suggest that when the believer sins, God turns in anger against him and the impression is given that without the requisite degree of sanctification, salvation may absent or at worst, lost.
When John Owen wrote his famous treatise on The Mortification of Sin of the Life of Believers, he was pastorally concerned to help Christians with this dilemma. He began with a case of conscience:
Suppose a man to be a true believer, and yet finds in himself a powerful indwelling sin, leading him captive to the law of it, consuming his heart with trouble, perplexing his thoughts, weakening his soul as to the duties of communion with God, disquieting him as to peace, and perhaps defiling his conscience, and exposing him to hardening through the deceitfulness of sin—what shall he do?
Owen provides many helpful and practical ways for the believer to mortify sin in his life. But of first importance is to ask how the Scriptures help the believer to understand what is happening in his whole man with regard to his struggle against sin.
What believers need most in this struggle is to appreciate the way in which the Scriptures distinguish their struggle from that of unbelievers. When this is appreciated, a certain release is provided that untangles the believer from a servile fear of God toward a filial fear that actually promotes true assurance of faith and lasting mortification of sin.
Help From Girolamo Zanchi
In his great work Speculum Christianum or The Christian Survey of Conscience, Girolamo Zanchi addressed at length the Reformed view of Romans 7 as the regenerate man’s struggle against sin, a view he assures was held by all the learned divines. He makes a crucial distinction that in the regenerate is a double-man. The Christian, he says, has a fundamental quality that is different from that of the unbeliever. When a regenerate man sins, “he sins only in the flesh and not with the whole will and the whole heart.”
Zanchi claims to have been attacked by Roman writers and even some Protestant divines for this distinction, but he engages heavily with Bucer and many others to make his case. The believer does not sin “according to the spirit but according to the flesh and therefore not with full and plenary consent of will.” He makes a distinction between the outward and inward man. When the believer sins willingly, “they do not sin according to the inward man, that is, in that part wherein they are regenerate, but only in that part wherein they are not regenerate or to sin not according to the spirit but according to the flesh.”
He emphasizes that the believer’s sin is not total sin “with the whole mind.” To sin with the whole heart “would be to wholly love sin.” But this would be impossible since “the saints always do hate sin and do not do it with the whole heart.” Engaging Romans 7, he observes that when the apostle says “For what I do I will not,” the believer in sinning does not commend it or live in the sin, but actually finds himself hating what he does.
For Zanchi this is crucial evidence that someone is regenerate; in the inward man he hates sin and does not do it with the whole heart. When the apostle says he finds himself doing what he does not desire, Zanchi speaks of one sinning with the violence of concupiscence contrary to what the mind loves. This is fundamentally different from the wicked who “obey with the whole will, full consent, and whole heart, and with all their might and offend of purposed malice and forethought, or with study from the heart.” There is an intense struggle within the believer because there remains in his inward, regenerate man a deep love for the law of God and righteousness.
The unbeliever, with a whole heart, sins against conscience knowing that what he does is contrary to the law of God and with contempt as he obeys sin with a willing mind, living in sin and remaining in perpetual obedience to sin. Zanchi designates this as “reigning sin” in those who sin with malice. Even though the believer does not love God with all their heart and all their mind as he now desires, in his inward man, he does not love sin nor does he sin with a whole heart. The rage of concupiscence or fallen desire is despised by God’s true children and they do not live after the flesh voluntarily and with a willing and whole mind to obey lust with a full will.
While Zanchi proves this point with the sins of David and Peter, probably his most helpful comments come with regard to the rage of fallen desire. He touches on the most common experience of true believers that often brings the greatest confusion in their struggle against sin. “When,” he says, “the violent turbulences of the flesh arise within us, and we are hauled away by these desires, we are drawn away from consent to God’s law and a right will into the evil applauding of concupiscence.” In this moment, when violent desires have overcome us, we, for a time, judge nothing good, but are driven only by that which the concupiscence of the flesh has affected.”
Before we were bewitched by the violence of our desires, “we disavowed, hated, and refused the evil,” all until we are overtaken with evil desire. “But when we become our own man again and the heat of the flesh is abated, which surprises our minds,” he says, “shortly after we again detest and disapprove of the evil that we do.”
Zanchi’s comments on the violent uprisings of fallen desire should be a great help to Christians who find themselves perplexed over how easily they can stumble into sin. How many believers have been completely overcome with guilt after giving in to sin, and upon becoming overwhelmed by their sin and the shame that follows, that they question how they could be believers to begin with if they could commit sin so easily? While he makes clear that no one is excused for their sin when these violent desires overwhelm us, the true believer is immediately led to repentance and turning away from sin, and this is a blessing of faith.
The point to be observed is that Zanchi sees this inward struggle as evidence that one is truly regenerate, for in the inward man sin was not committed with the whole heart. Even when great stumbling happens to the degree of sins recorded of David and Peter, repentance and turning away from sin always follows. The believer will not persevere in sin. A true believer will not go on in obstinacy or in “perfecting” the desires of the flesh since those who obey the flesh do not belong to Christ and are hypocrites.
Zanchi, citing Luther, assures the tender conscience that it is impossible that that those who are truly Christ’s saints will persevere in their sins; although they may fall for a time, they are given true faith as a gift of God who will not allow them to persevere in sin.
Zanchi’s distinction that a believer does not sin with the whole heart should be a great encouragement of the Spirit’s regenerating work in his heart.