Without the power of the Holy Spirit, we are powerless to conquer sin in a way that honors God. Our ability to fight sin and do good works is a gift, for, as Augustine loved to quote, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). Every temptation resisted, every thought captured, every sin killed is accomplished by the grace of the Holy Spirit’s power at work in us.
The Christian life has this baffling paradox at its heart: we are simultaneously sinners and saints. We are both able to sin and able not to sin.
As saints, we’ve experienced the power of new birth (2 Corinthians 5:17) and tasted “the firstfruits of the Spirit” (Romans 8:23). Yet despite these miraculous realities, we keep on sinning, to our great dismay and shame. And if we think we don’t sin, John tells us we’re deceiving ourselves (1 John 1:8). As much as we wish it were not so, saints still sin.
Sinning as a saint can cause two opposite (and equally) wrong reactions. On the one hand, we can respond with prideful presumption in our power to overcome sin. On the other hand, we can react with helpless despair in the face of our persistent sin. What should we do? One early church pastor, Augustine of Hippo (354–430), has given us categories for understanding our relationship to sin, as well as hope for saints in the fight with sin.
Sin and (In)Ability
The arc of salvation history — creation, fall, redemption, consummation — frames Augustine’s categories for man’s relationship to sin (see, for example, On Correction & Grace XXXIII; The Enchiridion CXVIII). In the garden before the fall, Adam was able to sin (Latin posse peccare). And sadly, he did (Genesis 3:6).
After the fall, Adam’s original sin corrupted all mankind such that all men were not able to not sin (non posse non peccare). Fallen man’s inability to live righteously is so complete that Scripture calls us dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1–2). Only by Christ’s death and resurrection are we made alive and by the Spirit newly able not to sin (posse non pecarre). The power of sin over us has been broken (Romans 6:6–7).
Yet the presence of sin has not disappeared (Romans 6:12). This is the present experience of saints who still sin. We are still able to sin and now able not to sin. Because of the frustrating reality of ongoing sin, we groan with anticipation (Romans 8:23) for the day when we will be gloriously not able to sin (non posse pecarre). We hope in the day when we will see Christ face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12) and when all things will be made new (Revelation 21:1–8).