How to Conquer Your Besetting Sin

Read: Romans 6:11-14

Have you been struggling for a long time against a particularly stubborn sin in your life? Well we have good news for you today, there is a way for you to get help.

I wonder if you are aware today of some besetting sin in your life. “What’s that about?” someone asks. The word besetting can mean “persistent,” “constantly in evidence,” or “deeply rooted.” Your besetting sin is the one you wrestle with most often, the one that gives you the most trouble. It’s the bent in your life that keeps haunting you, threatening to control you, to hold you in bondage.

All of us are alike in having sinned. That is, we have committed various acts that violate God’s will and are harmful to people. All of us are sinful by nature in the sense that we are prone to go our own way, ignoring God’s authority and the interests of others. But each of us also is vulnerable to evil in ways that are distinctive, even unique. You may be strongest where I am most weak, or I may seldom be tempted by a desire that masters you. The ensnaring power of sin seems to be concentrated at particular points in each of us.

Of course, we can be fooled about what our worst failings are, just as we can wrongly diagnose our bodily ills. What I experience as a twinge of pain in one part of my body may actually indicate a serious disorder somewhere else. An ache in my arm, for example, may point to a malfunction of the heart. The twitching of my limbs may be a sign that some virus is attacking the brain. We sometimes need skilled help in diagnosing what is really wrong with us. Maybe people in your family or friends who know you well can spot your besetting sin more readily than you can.

Sometimes it’s a demanding desire, some craving that gets out of hand or is wrongly directed. Insatiable greed, lusting after another’s marriage partner, or addiction to drugs are among the more obvious examples. Others, equally destructive, are less likely to be identified as besetting evils. We may have a tendency to manipulate other persons for our own advantage. We may be constantly building webs of dishonesty and deceit. We may be accustomed to cherishing long-held grudges or feeding the fires of old hatreds. We may even be confirmed idolaters without realizing it, claiming to believe in the one true God but finding our real security and satisfaction in something else. But though we may hide these things quite skillfully from ourselves, every now and then we have flashes of insight and see all too clearly what we’d rather pretend isn’t there.

Maybe you’re saying to yourself right now that you have no such problems. You’re impatient with the idea of besetting sin. “Don’t give me that old stuff,” you say. “I’ve got my life under control. I know what I’m doing. No evil power has any grip on me.” You’re fairly religious perhaps, or you’re scrupulously moral. You’re somewhat put out that anyone would imply that you have a “besetting sin.”

That’s exactly how some people reacted when Jesus spoke of how he had come to set men and women free. His hearers were indignant. “We are Abraham’s descendants. We were never in bondage to anyone. What do you mean – you’re going to make us free?” (John 8:33). Jesus replied that whoever keeps on committing sin of any kind is a bondslave and needs to be liberated.

If you believe that today, you’ve already taken a large step toward freedom. Like a patient who admits to being ill, you are ready to seek help. At any rate, it’s to you that I especially speak today, to you who know you need a physician, a deliverer. How can you conquer your besetting sin?

Let me read you a brief passage from Paul’s great letter to the Romans, chapter 6, beginning at verse 11: “You also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”

The apostle here offers a wealth of insight and challenge about overcoming sin. He shows his readers that there is something, first, that they need to know. Secondly, there is a stance of faith that they need to adopt. Third, there is a struggle that they need to carry on. You might say that he ta1ks about the facts and the faith and the fight involved in conquering your besetting sin.

The Facts

What must we know? What are the key facts? They deal with what God has done in Jesus Christ and specifically in his death and resurrection. What is especially striking about this passage is the idea that in those great saving events we were personally involved. According to Paul, we were united with Jesus in his death and have come to share also in his resurrection life. Listen to these phrases, “We died to sin . . . we were baptized into his death . . . we were buried with him . . . we have been united with him in death like his . . . our old self was crucified with him.” Or in the most comprehensive way, “we have died with Christ.”

On the resurrection side, Paul writes that “we too might walk in newness of life . . . we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his . . . we shall also live with him.”

Here then is what we need to know if we are to overcome sin: that Jesus Christ died and rose again to forgive and free us and that somehow we died and rose again with him. The basis for all victory over sin is this union with Jesus Christ.

This began as a decision of God. He decided to give his Son for our salvation. He chose to make Jesus the bearer of the sins of the whole world. He decided to look upon us as having died in the death of Jesus and as having been raised in his resurrection. It is his loving purpose to see us and deal with us in Christ.

Our baptism is a sign and seal of that awesome decision on our behalf. It speaks of our being joined to Christ. As we believe in the Savior, his Holy Spirit truly enters our lives and makes us sharers of his risen life. What began with God’s decision becomes real to us in our present experience. By the power of God’s Spirit, we are in Christ.

Do you see what that means? Picture the power of sin as the rule of a heartless slave-owner. You are his bondservant. He drives you unmercifully. One day, in the midst of that cruel bondage, you die. The power of that evil owner to oppress you has ended. He may shout at you, curse you, even subject you to the lash, but it will all be for nothing. You’ve died to his rule once and for all.

Now imagine that you are transferred to the care of a kind master and miraculously brought back to life. You belong to a new lord whom you can serve with joy.

Do you get the picture? What you need to know in order to overcome your besetting sin is that sin has already been conquered. You have died with Christ to its power and you are alive again to serve him.

The Faith

Now notice what the apostle urges us to do. “You must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” In other words, you must think of yourself in that way. You must see yourself in that light. You must keep on affirming that this is so. In other words, you must exercise faith.

It’s important to see that the “faith” is based on the “facts.” Faith is not primarily a feeling, a whim, a subjective experience. Faith doesn’t mean envisioning something I want and then pumping up my confidence that it will happen. Faith is confidence in the living God. It is especially trusting him to be true, to fulfill his promises. We can believe that God sees us in Christ as crucified and risen, and that we are truly in Christ by the power of the Spirit because God has revealed that. Faith means echoing God’s Word and affirming that what he says about us is the truth.

Each of us in growing up forms a self-image largely from how others see us and what they say about us. How do you know that you’re beautiful or plain, handsome or ugly? Someone told you. What makes you feel today that you are bright or dull intellectually? Some teacher or teachers have seen you that way and let you know about it. How do you gain your first impressions of what you’re like as a person? Because someone important in your life, some significant other, pronounced you to be a good boy or girl, or maybe said you were “good for nothing.” And whatever they may have said, you believe it. Now it’s very natural for you to see yourself, think about yourself, as others have labeled you.

It’s a good thing when we can see ourselves through the eyes of someone who loves us. It is supremely good when we can see ourselves as God our loving Father sees us. His Word tells us that we are his creatures, made in his image. It tells us also that we are fallen creatures who have rebelled against our Maker and declared our independence. But it tells us, best of all, that we are loved by him in spite of everything. And if we believe in Jesus, his Word tells us that we are in Christ. It is our calling to keep on insisting that his vision of us is the right one. “Consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11a).

The Fight

First the facts, then the faith, and finally the fight. Do you remember how it was with the Israelites when they were about to enter the land of Canaan? God told Joshua, their leader, that he was giving to them this land for their inheritance. That was his promise. They could count upon it. The land was theirs. But listen to what followed: “Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you.” It was theirs already in the promise of God, but they had to go in and take it. They had to plant their feet on their inheritance. And that would take quite a fight.

There’s more to faith, friends, than knowing what God has said and affirming it to be true. Faith is also commitment. It’s acting on what we know. Listen to Paul: “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies . . . Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of unrighteousness.” In other words, since you have died with Christ to sin’s power, act accordingly. Don’t obey it any more. Don’t yield yourself up to its service. Don’t obey its demands.

On the contrary, “yield yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness” (Romans 6:11). It’s the same idea. God says you are alive to him. You believe it. Therefore, make work of serving him! Turn over your whole life with all its gifts and potential, all its abilities and opportunities to your rightful Lord. Even as you say an emphatic “no” to your old master, you say a great “yes” to your new one.

To encourage us in our warfare, here’s a great promise: “Sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under the law but under grace” (Romans 6:14). Your struggle of faith won’t be in vain. You start from victory. Paul doesn’t mean that it’s impossible that sin should ever exercise power again over God’s people. He makes it plain in his letters that we have to struggle against the evil within us all our days. But this is an assurance that we will never again be left helpless under sin’s power. We’re free now, free to fight and able to prevail.

But always remember, friends, that the battle is the Lord’s. If we try to fight without the facts and the faith, we’ll surely go under. It’s when we know what God has done for us in Christ and take our stand upon it that we can face and conquer any besetting sin. The victory that overcomes the world is our faith in Jesus.

About the Author

Dr. William C. Brownson was the President Emeritus of Words of Hope. Dr. Brownson served Reformed churches in Lodi, New Jersey, and Chicago, Illinois. In 1964 he was appointed Professor of Preaching at Western Theological Seminary, a position he occupied for ten years before serving at Words of Hope. In addition to a widespread speaking ministry in churches, on university campuses and at conferences, Dr. Brownson wrote extensively for the Church Herald, other Christian periodicals, and authored many books. Dr. Brownson died April 1, 2022.

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