Are Christians Supposed to Be Sinless?

Should we aim for perfection, or resign ourselves to a life of sin?

For many of us, the Christian life feels like a series of disastrous hang glider rides. Stepping out, we rest in the love of Jesus and are carried along by His grace—only to crash roughly to earth whenever we encounter texts like “Be perfect” (Matthew 5:48), “Without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14) and especially “No one who lives in Him keeps on sinning; no one who continues to sin has either seen Him or known Him” (1 John 3:6).

We rise with a hope that is tempted to become complacent and sink under conviction that borders on despair.

Christians have long struggled with issues of purity. In the early church, it was widely thought that there were limits to repentance. Some believers were so afraid that sins committed after baptism would not be forgiven that they waited to be baptized, even until they were on their deathbeds.

Should we even aim for perfection, or resign ourselves to an identity as “poor, miserable sinners”?

In 1766, John Wesley called the Church to a high standard of Christian perfection, which he defined as “pure love filling the heart and governing all the words and actions.” Two years later, he noted in his journal “heaviness of spirit among all who are not going on to perfection.”

Must we go through endless highs and lows? Should we even aim for perfection, or resign ourselves to an identity as “poor, miserable sinners”? The Bible presents a coherent and rather surprising answer.

Righteous in Christ

Paul contrasts “having a righteousness of my own that comes from the Law” (also known as “confidence in the flesh”) with righteousness “through faith in Christ” (Philippians 3:3-9). The latter comes about not because of our “human effort,” but because we hear and believe the Gospel (Galatians 3:3-5).

This is the Great Exchange: Jesus bore and even became our sin so we might share and even become His righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21). We are not condemned to ceaseless striving to be “good enough.” Instead, through the cross, we die to all that and do good out of gratitude to “the Son of God, who loved us and gave Himself for us” (Galatians 2:20).

The key to this new life is that we can now live “in Christ.” This is, first of all, a perspective, the way in which God the Judge now views us. But it is also a spiritual reality. “In Christ” we are new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17), joined to others (Galatians 3:28), equipped and released to walk in good deeds (Ephesians 2:10). And “in Him,” only, we may become perfect (Colossians 1:28).

Two Yardsticks

Another way of putting this is to say there are two standards. If we want to claim “a righteousness of our own,” we’ll view ourselves “in the flesh.” The yardstick then is the Old Testament Law of God. Or we can take our stand “in Christ.” In that case, we have died to the flesh, and are no longer under the Law. The yardstick is Christ Himself, standing in our place.

These threads come together in Philippians 3. Before his conversion, Paul had confidence “in the flesh.” Measured by the Law, he was without grievous fault. But the presence of Jesus (more righteous than the Law, as we see in the Sermon on the Mount) showed him to be a violent sinner (1 Timothy 1:13-15; 1 Corinthians 15:9). And later, a Spirit-quickened conscience revealed his covetousness (Romans 7).

From that point on, Paul exchanged one standard for another, dying to fleshly striving in order to be found “in Christ.” See the Amplified rendering of Philippians 3:11: he now seeks a spiritual and moral resurrection out of sin, even in this life.

Paul is quick to say he hasn’t attained perfection (Philippians 3:12), but he is able to present himself as a positive example (1 Corinthians 11:1; Philippians 4:9). In 2 Corinthians (2:14; 4:10-11) he uses a marvelous word: Because he is “in Christ,” he is able to “manifest” Christ to others.

We will never be able to stand apart from Christ and say we are perfect.

What all this means, I think, is that we will never be able to stand apart from Christ and say we are perfect. Throughout this life, if we (in our flesh) claim to have no sin, we are deceived (1 John 1:8). But so long as we are “in Christ,” filled with and led by His Spirit, there is no sin that must have dominion over us. As He strengthens our will, we are able to break with sinful habits and even overcome deeply rooted patterns of thinking.

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I recall an account of a man who had been helping a troubled neighbor. At last, one day, he asked if she would like to know Jesus. “What’s He like?” she queried bluntly. In simplicity, and considering the course of their friendship, he answered, “Jesus is like me.” And she said, “Then I’ll have Him”—not because the man himself had attained sinless perfection, but because he brought near the pure love of Christ.

Moment by moment, both yardsticks are available to us as believers. We must consider ourselves dead to sin and Law and flesh, and choose to live “in Christ” (Romans 6:11). At times, it may even be instructive for us to follow Paul’s lead in Romans 7, and stand under the Law to examine our showing in the flesh—not in order to despair of our salvation, but so we may remember to despair of our flesh.

But teaching on Christian righteousness is perhaps best used as a challenge, not a cudgel. In 1872, a British evangelist named Henry Varley remarked to D.L. Moody, “The world has yet to see what God will do with a man [or woman] fully consecrated to Him.” Those words became Moody’s life goal. May they be ours as well.


Joseph Dear


Joseph Dear commented…

The main thrust of the article is absolutely on point; our righteousness is in Christ, our salvation is in Christ, everything is in Christ. No amount of effort apart from being in Christ will be sufficient to save anyone.

But there remains the practical questions: Should we actively try to resist sin all the time, no exceptions? If the offer to sin is put before us 100 times, how many times should we chose to say no? How many sins meets the threshhold to where we have to stop and aim to do less?

The answers, of course, are "yes" (keeping in mind that if a seemingly sinful act is justified, then by definition it isn't actually a sin), "100," and "1."

R Isaiah Cl


R Isaiah Cl replied to Joseph Dear's comment

You make an excellent point. How could a seemingly "sinful" act be justified? How do we define sin?

Jay Cheuvront


Jay Cheuvront commented…

My sin breaks my heart, as it should. There is no such animal as a "carnal Christian", meaning one who professes Christ but lives exactly as they did before they knew him. If they're able to do that, they've never been reborn and are as hellbound as the non-believer. Jesus warns of this in Matthew 7:21-23, telling us about those who say "Lord, Lord", whom he'll cast out because they were never His.

R Isaiah Cl


R Isaiah Cl replied to Jay Cheuvront's comment

There's more to this verse than just that. Why were they never His? He tells us in verse 23 - they practiced lawlessness. He never knew them because they did not obey God's commandments. 1 John 2:3-6

Jamin Bradley


Jamin Bradley commented…

I just preached on this topic this past Sunday. I essentially ended my message by stating that I have no problem with this being a divine paradox. I believe our perfection is absolutely attained through Jesus and that we are called to live holy lives at the same time. I don't understand why everyone always has to drastically choose one side or the other, especially on a subject like this.

You want to live solely by Jesus' perfection and not worry about your life? Then brace yourself for sloppier, more stagnant, hypocritical Christianity than we've already seen that doesn't impact the world whatsoever.

You want to live solely by your own pursuit of holiness? Then you'll be living a depressed and religious life, full of judgment and despair.

It seems to me that Jesus' perfection and our striving for holiness are supposed to live in harmony with each other.

I feel like this conversation has been growing like no other Christian debate has over the past year now. In order to say that holiness in the life of a Christian doesn't matter, we need to speak away so much of the Bible. I read a book over the past year that did this. It spent many chapters explaining away every passage (including the Sermon on the Mount) that implied we had to be holy.

While C.S. Lewis said the following quote in reference to the predestination debate, I think it makes total sense for this debate on perfection/holiness:

"I think we must take a leaf out of the scientists’ book. They are quite familiar with the fact that for example, light has to be regarded both as a wave and as a stream of particles. No one can make these two views consistent. Of course reality must be self-consistent: but ’till (if ever) we can see the consistency it is better to hold two inconsistent views than to ignore one side of the evidence."



Matt commented…

Hebrews 10:14 For by that one offering he forever made perfect those who are being made holy.

Chris Campbell


Chris Campbell commented…

"There's no such thing as a carnal Christian " Paul said he was carnal, and he told the Corinthians they were carnal. So, that is just not true.

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