Is it possible for a believer to remain sinless?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

Question: Can 1 Corinthians 10:13 be used to say that we can achieve perfection while we are still on earth? Perfection here is defined as the sinless life that Jesus has lived. I personally don't believe that we can achieve perfection while we are still on earth, and would like to hear your perspective. Thank you! 

Answer: Greetings friend.  I find it interesting that you chose 1 Corinthians 10:13 as a verse that (ostensibly) supports the aberrant doctrine that a Christian could live a sinless life. More typically, people cite 1 John 3:9-10 and 5:16-18 for this argument — but we won't go there. Let us look instead at the verse in question to see if it can be legitimately interpreted according to your question. First, we'll look at your verse's context, and then we'll let some other passages weigh in.

1 Corinthians 10:1- 22 is about idolatry. It is not about sin in general, although idolatry seems to manifest itself in the full range of sins. Verses 1 through 11 reviews Israel's past failures, but with a purpose: They set up verse 12's mini-conclusion (via the word, Therefore) before verse 14's ultimate conclusion (via the next word Therefore.)

“Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.” (1 Corinthians 10:12–14, ESV)  

The mini-conclusion of 1 Corinthians 10:1- 22 is that the people-of-faith who have come before us certainly did sin — and we will, too. In fact, it is verse 12's Therefore that warns us not to think that we will not sin, and this is quite the opposite of telling us that we will not or cannot sin. Paul has something else in view. He placed verse 13 between our history and our future, a perfect place for both words of comfort and words of warning. But these are not words of instruction. Let me explain.

By way of comfort, Paul tells us that we are not alone in our sin. He reminds us that God is faithful. He has put limits on our temptations and has provided us with a way of escape — all of which will help us to endure our trials. Since these are words of comfort, and not of instruction, we should not interpret them as behavioral objectives, ones that, if we applied their methodology, we would be guaranteed to live a sinless life. But there is another reason to argue against the sinlessness doctrine. Verse 13 also contains a warning. It emphasizes what I call God's "no excuses policy."

You may be familiar with another "no excuses" reference in Romans 1:18-20 where God argues that he put enough information about himself in his created works so that people who do not find him are without excuse. In like manner, 1 Corinthians 10:13 tells us that he has provided the resources for us to escape temptation. The assumption, then, is that when we fall into sin, it is a weakness of the flesh, and we cannot lay those failures upon God. That is the purpose of this passage. It does not say that if we live carefully we may remain sinless.

Finally, in verse 14 Paul gives us a simple objective. "Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry." So I ask you now, do you see fleeing as a victorious activity? Or do you see it as an activity of defeat? Fleeing is an activity of defeat. Now, I am not saying that it is unwise to flee. It is indeed wise. But fleeing in no way signals a victory for us. Fleeing is a way to survive in a sinful world until we are glorified in heaven. Furthermore, there is nothing about fleeing that speaks to victory over our daily sins. Fortunately, God has provided for our on-going sins.

“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” (1 John 2:1, ESV).

The Bible is clear that God does not want us to sin, but he knows that we will. This is why Jesus Christ himself advocates for us with the Father. We need an intercessor because of our sin, and this would be a wasted enterprise if even one person could achieve practical sinlessness on his own.

As you can see, 1 Corinthians 10:13 is ambiguous (at best) about the possibilities of sinlessness, whereas 1 John 2:1 makes it very clear that Christians sin. As a general principle of biblical interpretation, the obscure never trumps the clear — and it is very clear that Christians sin.

See also the following verses: Psalm 38:4-7, Matthew 18:21-22, Luke 17:3-4, Romans 7:14-25, Galatians 5:17, 1 Timothy 5:19-20, James 3:2, 1 Peter 4:8, 1 John 1:8-9.

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