Excerpt from Spiritual Classics

Sins of Infirmity

There is no con­dem­na­tion for sins of infir­mi­ty,” as they are some­times called, result­ing from invol­un­tary defects of our human fini­tude. Per­haps it is bet­ter instead to call them sim­ply infir­mi­ties,” or human frail­ties,” in order that we may not seem to lend legit­i­ma­cy to sin, or to excuse it in any way by cou­pling it

too direct­ly with human fini­tude. Although sin of infir­mi­ty” remains an ambigu­ous and some­what dan­ger­ous expres­sion, by it I mean pri­mar­i­ly in vol­un­tary fail­ings. One exam­ple would be say­ing some­thing we believe to be true, though in fact it lat­er proves to be false. Anoth­er exam­ple: hurt­ing our neigh­bor with­out know­ing or intend­ing it, or even when we intend­ed to do good. Although these are devi­a­tions from the holy, accept­able, and per­fect will of God, ye they should not prop­er­ly be called sins because they lack the ele­ment of being willed. Thus they do not add any guilt to the con­science of those who are in Christ Jesus.” They cause no alien­ation or breach between God and the faith­ful. They do not cloud the light of God’s shin­ing. They are in no way incon­sis­tent with the gen­er­al char­ac­ter of one who walks not after the low­er nature, but after the Spirit.”

Unpre­ventable Sins

There is no con­dem­na­tion to believ­ers for any­thing con­ceiv­able that is beyond their pow­er to pre­vent. This refers both to inward atti­tudes and out­ward actions, both to doing some­thing and to leav­ing some­thing undone. For exam­ple, sup pose the Lord’s Sup­per is cel­e­brat­ed but you do not par­take of it because of sick ness-an omis­sion indeed, but one you can­not help. There is here no con­dem­na­tion and no guilt, because there is no choice. Paul writes: Pro­vid­ed there is an eager desire to give, God accepts what a man has; he does not ask for what he has not” (2 Cor. 8:12).…

Sins of Surprise

Then there are so-called sins of sur­prise; for exam­ple, when one who is usu­al­ly patient speaks or acts in a way that vio­lates the com­mand to love the neigh­bor due to some sud­den or vio­lent temp­ta­tion. These cas­es are far more dif­fi­cult to ana­lyze. It is not easy to fix a gen­er­al rule con­cern­ing mis­deeds of this sort. We can­not flat­ly say either that per­sons are or are not con­demned for these types of high­ly unchar­ac­ter­is­tic behav­ior. When­ev­er a believ­er is over­tak­en in a fault by sur­prise, how­ev­er, there must be some degree of guilt pro­por­tion­al to the degree of con­cur­rence of the will. In pro­por­tion as a sin­ful desire, word, or action is more or less vol­un­tary, so we may sup­pose that God is more or less dis­pleased; and there is more or less of a bur­den of guilt to bear.

If so, then there may be some sins of sur­prise” that right­ly elic­it a sense of guilt and con­dem­na­tion. Admit­ted­ly, in some instances our being sur­prised is due to some wil­ful and cul­pa­ble neglect. Per­haps we could have been atten­tive to some thing that could have been pre­vent­ed or shak­en off before the temp­ta­tion came. We might have been ade­quate­ly fore­warned that tri­als and dan­gers were at hand and yet have said in our hearts: A lit­tle more slum­ber, a lit­tle more fold­ing of the hands in rest.” Sup­pose one lat­er falls unaware into a trap that might eas­i­ly have been avoid­ed. Inat­ten­tive­ness is hard­ly an excuse, for one might have fore­seen and avert­ed the dan­ger. Falling, even by sur­prise, in such an instance as this is, in effect, a wil­ful sin and, as such, must expose the sin­ner to con­dem­na­tion, both from God and from one’s own conscience.

Sins of Disobedience

On the oth­er hand, there may be sud­den assaults, either from the world or the god of this world, and fre­quent­ly from our own dis­tort­ed imag­in­ings, which we did not, and hard­ly could have, fore­seen. Believ­ers who are weak in faith may be over­come by these assaults; they may become inor­di­nate­ly angry or think bad­ly of oth­ers with only a very slight con­cur­rence of the will. In such a case, God-who jeal­ous­ly cares for their souls-would undoubt­ed­ly show them that they have act­ed fool­ish­ly, in order to con­vince them that they had swerved away from the per­fect law, from the mind which was in Christ. Con­se­quent­ly, they would feel griev­ed with a god­ly sor­row and lov­ing­ly ashamed before God. But they do not need to feel con­demned. God does not charge them with fol­ly, but has com­pas­sion, even as a father has com­pas­sion on his chil­dren” (Ps. 103:12). This is why their hearts do not con­demn them. For even in the midst of that sor­row and shame they can still say:

God is indeed my deliv­er­er.
I am con­fi­dent and unafraid;
for the LORD is my refuge and defense
and has shown him­self my deliv­er­er.
And so you shall draw water with joy
from the springs of deliv­er­ance (Isa. 12:2).

You of lit­tle faith

It is fit­ting that we try to draw some prac­ti­cal infer­ences from all this.

Why are you afraid of your past? For there is now no con­dem­na­tion of past sins for those who are unit­ed with Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:I ), when the law of the Spir­it has set you free ” (Rom. 8:I ). O you of lit­tle faith! Even though your sins were once more in num­ber than the sand, so what? You are now in Christ Jesus! Who will be the accuser of God’s cho­sen ones? It is God who pro­nounces acquit­tal; then who can con­demn?” (Rom. 8:33).

All the sins you have com­mit­ted from your child­hood right up to the moment when you were accept­ed as his sons through Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:5) are dri­ven away as chaff. They are gone. They are lost. They are swal­lowed up. They are remem­bered no more. You are now born” from spir­it (John 3:6). Why are you afraid? Wh y be trou­bled even about what hap­pened before you were born? Throw away your fears! ” For the spir­it that God gave us is no craven spir­it, but one to inspire strength, love, and self-dis­ci­pline” (2 Tim. 1:7). Know your call­ing! Rejoice in God your Sav­ior and give thanks to God your Father through Him.

How Christ Frees Us

Some will say, But I have once again done seri­ous wrongs, even after receiv­ing this redemp­tion. I seem like a lost cause. I still feel deep remorse.” It is fit­ting that you feel a pro­por­tion­al remorse after doing wrong. For it is God who has awak­ened this very feel­ing in you. But you are now invit­ed to tran­scend it in trust. Has­n’t the Spir­it also enabled you to say, ” But in my heart I know that my vin­di­ca­tor lives, and that he will rise last to speak in court” (Job 19:25); and the life I now live is not my life, but the life which Christ lives in me; and my present bod­i­ly life is lived by faith in the Son of God” (Gal. 2:20). It is that faith that can­cels all that is past, and in it there is no con­dem­na­tion. At what­ev­er time you tru­ly believe in the name of the Son of God, all your sins pri­or to that time van­ish like the morn­ing dew. Christ set us free, to be free men. Stand firm, then, and refuse to be tied to the yoke of slav­ery again” (Gal. 5:1). Christ has once again made you free from the pow­er of sin, as well as from its guilt and pun­ish­ment. So do not become entan­gled again in the yoke of bondage — its twist­ed desires, dis­tort­ed emo­tions, its vile words and works, the most des­per­ate bondage this side of hell. Refuse to be caught again in bondage to slav­ish, tor­ment­ing fear or self-con­demn­ing guilt.…

Look inward, honestly

There is no con­dem­na­tion for any inward sin still remain­ing in those who walk by the Spir­it.” Even though sin may seem to cling tena­cious­ly to every­thing we do, we are not guilty as long as we do not give way to it. So do not be dis­turbed because some ungod­ly imag­i­na­tions remain in your heart. Do not feel dejec­tion because you still come short of the glo­ri­ous image of God; or because pride, self will or unbe­lief cling to all your words and works. Do not be afraid to face can­did­ly all these dis­tor­tions of your heart. Know your­self as you are known. Desire fer­vent­ly of God that you may not think more high­ly of your­self than you ought to think. Let your con­tin­u­ous prayer be:

Show me, as my soul can bear,
The depth of inbred sin;
All the unbe­lief declare,
The pride that lurks within.

As God hears your prayer, he will let you see your heart. Then he will show you in entire­ty the spir­it to which you belong. Then take care that your faith does not fail you, or that your pro­tec­tion is not torn from you. Now you are free to see your­self quite open­ly even at your low­est, to be hum­bled in the dust, to see your­self as noth­ing, less than noth­ing, and emp­ty. At that very moment you may still set your trou­bled hearts at rest, and ban­ish your fears” (John 14:27). Remem­ber that you, even you, have an Advo­cate with the Father, Jesus Christ, and he is just” (1 John 2:1). Hold fast to the rec­ol­lec­tion that as the heav­en stands high above the earth” (Ps. 103:11), so is God’s love high­er even than my sins.

God is Merciful

God is mer­ci­ful to you, a sin­ner! Pre­cise­ly the sin­ner you are! God is love, and Christ has died! That means: the Father him­self loves you! You are his child! God will not with­hold from you any­thing that is for your good. Is it not good that the whole body of sin, which is now cru­ci­fied in you, should be destroyed? It shall be done! You shall be cleansed from all that can defile flesh or spir­it” (2 Cor. 7:1). ls it not good that noth­ing should remain in your heart but the pure love of God alone? Take joy in all of this. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength”; and love your neigh­bor as your­self’ (Mark 12:30, 31). Stand firm in the con­vic­tion of his pow­er to do what he had promised” (Rom. 4:21). It is your part patient­ly to con­tin­ue in the work of faith and the labor of love, in cheer­ful peace, hum­ble con­fi­dence and with calm and accept­ing, but fer­vent, expec­ta­tion, to wait until the zeal of Lord of hosts shall per­form this work in you.

Leap and Walk

If those who are in Christ” and walk in the Spir­it” are not con­demned for sins of infir­mi­ty or for invol­un­tary fail­ings or for any­thing they are unable to pre­vent, then take care, all you who have new­ly born faith in God’s mer­cy, that you do not just at this point give the dev­il a huge advan­tage. You are still unformed and weak, lack­ing in clear insight and deep knowl­edge. You are more vul­ner­a­ble than words can express, more prone to error than you can imag­ine. For you do not yet under stand faith as ful­ly as you intend. So do not let this weak­ness and untest­ed judg­ment, or any of its fruits which you are not yet able to avoid, shake your basic faith, your fil­ial trust in God, or dis­turb your peace or joy in the Lord. The very idea that sin must be willed can itself be dan­ger­ous­ly mis­ap­plied, so it is wis­er and safer if it is applied only to the case of weak­ness and infirmities.

If you have stum­bled, O seek­er of God, do not just lie there fret­ting and bemoan­ing your weak­ness! Patient­ly pray: Lord, I acknowl­edge that every moment l would be stum­bling if you were not uphold­ing me.” And then get up! Leap! Walk! Go on your way!” Run with res­o­lu­tion the race in which you are entered (Heb. 12:1 ).

Just Love God

My last point: Even if you find your­self for a moment to your amaze­ment doing exact­ly what your soul oth­er­wise detests, this is still not rea­son to feel over­bur­den­ing guilt. Let us hope that your being sur­prised is not due to your own care­less ness or wil­ful neglect. If, while you believe, you are sud­den­ly over­tak­en in a fault, then let the Lord imme­di­ate­ly hear your cry of grief. It will then be felt by you as a heal­ing oint­ment. Pour out your heart before God. Declare your trou­ble. Pray with all your might to God who is ful­ly able to sym­pa­thize with our weak­ness­es” (Heb. 4:15). God wants to estab­lish, strength­en, and set­tle your soul and not allow you to fall again; but, mean­while, God is not harsh­ly dis­ap­prov­ing of you. So why should you be afraid? You have no rea­son to fall into the grip of the fear that brings with it the pains of judg­ment” (I John 4:18).

Just love God who loves you. That is suf­fi­cient. The more deeply you love, the stronger you will feel. And as soon as you have learned to love God with all your heart, if you give for­ti­tude full play you will go on to com­plete a bal­anced char­ac­ter that will fall short in noth­ing” (James l :4). Wait in peace for that hour when God him­self, the God of peace,” will make you holy in every part, and keep you sound in spir­it, soul, and body, with­out fault when Our Lord Jesus Christ comes” (1 Thess. 5:23)!

Con­sid­er doing the fol­low­ing in pri­vate, at a white board or black­board. Write a brief descrip­tion of the wor­ri­some sin or sins, and then erase the board vig­or­ous­ly. Thank God for sins for­giv­en, and make a fresh start.


Reflec­tions from Richard J. Foster

It is so refresh­ing to read some­one who takes sin seri­ous­ly as a sub­ject about which we can actu­al­ly have knowl­edge. Most today, even among reli­gious lead­ers, avoid the sub­ject like the plague. And those who do talk about it usu­al­ly do so only to rail against it. Here we have some­one who deals with sin as a body of knowl­edge and who fur­ther believes that guid­ance can be giv­en on how to deal with both the sin nature and the habits of sin.

The dis­tinc­tion Wes­ley is mak­ing between sins of infir­mi­ty,” sins of sur­prise,” sins of dis­obe­di­ence,” and so forth has to do with gra­da­tions of inten­tion, human will, and vol­un­tary choice. This is an ancient dis­tinc­tion but one that is lit­tle under stood today. It is not under­stood for two rea­sons: first, we today lack a prop­er ontol­ogy of the human per­son, hence we do not know how the will fits into the over­all make­up of per­son­al­i­ty, and, sec­ond, we den y voli­tion on all sides. The last thing we want today is to be respon­si­ble for our intents and actions, and so we mere­ly den y the func­tion of the will and our abil­i­ty to take up a freely cho­sen course of action for our lives. I think Wes­ley’s option holds out more promise for suc­cess­ful living.

Did you notice the great pas­toral care Wes­ley gives through­out this selec­tion? He helps peo­ple under­stand the fail­ures and short­com­ings that should not be con­sid­ered sin prop­er and relieves peo­ple of exces­sive guilt over those mat­ters. And even in areas where sin is rec­og­nized for what it is and dealt with, he is so very pas­toral: God wants to estab­lish, strength­en, and set­tle your soul and not allow you to fall again; but, mean­while, God is not harsh­ly dis­ap­prov­ing of you. So why should you be afraid? You have no rea­son to fall into the grip of the fear that brings with it the pains of judg­ment’ (1 John 4:18).”

Excerpt­ed from Spir­i­tu­al Clas­sics: Select­ed Read­ings on the Twelve Spir­i­tu­al Dis­ci­plines, edit­ed by Richard Fos­ter and Emi­lie Grif­fin (New York: Harper­One, 2000), pp. 337 – 344.

Originally published January 2000

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