Why Do I Still Struggle with My Pre-Conversion Sins?
From an interview with John Piper
Why do my pre-conversion sins still haunt me? That’s the question. Here’s the email. “Hello, Pastor John! My name is Rico, and I have a question about past sins resurfacing. Before I was saved, a little over a year and a half ago, I was pretty badly addicted to drugs. I met the Lord Jesus, and literally all the desires to pursue drugs went away — until about April of this year. I’ve fallen a few times, but God has been very gracious and merciful to me in carrying me through these rough times when I’ve fallen. So I guess what I’m asking is, How does this come about? I thought I was done with that part of my life — for good! Why are my pre-conversion sin patterns coming back now?”
Rico, let me give a short description of what the Bible teaches about what has already happened to you as a born-again believer in Jesus, and what has not yet happened to you. And this will give you some biblical ways of thinking about what you are actually experiencing. Let’s put this description of the already of your life and the not-yet of your life into the larger biblical description of what Christ has already done in the world, and what he has not yet done in the world.
Thy Kingdom Came
When Christ came into the world (you know this), he preached the kingdom of God. And in that preaching, he said two things:
“You are in heaven with Christ; now fight the sins of earth.”
1. The kingdom is here. It’s here right now: “Behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:21). “I am the King. My rule has arrived. In my miracles, in my teaching, in my perfections, in my love, in my death for sinners, in my resurrection, I am showing that my kingdom, my rule, my saving reign is here. The long-hoped-for, waited-for kingdom has come.” That’s the first crucial thing — essential thing — for Christianity to say.
2. “My kingdom is coming and is not yet here.” Luke 22:18: “I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” What? I thought you said it had come. Why are you saying it’s coming? It’s coming, but not yet. So, in the big picture of history, the kingdom of God has already come in the person and work of Jesus. And yet, it has not yet fully come, completely come — not yet come with the fullest consummation.
I remember reading George Ladd one time, one of my New Testament professors years ago. He said, “The mystery of the kingdom is fulfillment without consummation.” Fulfillment without consummation — that captures the tension. Yes, the kingdom has come. The time is fulfilled. It is here. Repent. The King has come. But the consummation — there are so many things left that are not yet done that the kingdom promised to do. And that tension, Rico, affects virtually every part of the Christian life, including your struggle with past sins, including drugs.
New and Old in Five Pictures
So, how does this work itself out in the life of individual Christians? Here are just a few biblical descriptions of the already–not yet reality in the Christian life.
1. Colossians 1:13–14: “[God] has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Wow, that’s already done — already transferred out of darkness into the kingdom of the Son. Glorious. That’s awesome. And then Colossians 3:3 says, “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” It’s over. You’ve already passed beyond death. You are secure and hidden with Christ in God.
But now comes Colossians 3:5, with this imperative that suggests something is very much not complete. It says, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” And we could add drugs. That needs to be done, Rico. It needs to be done. You are in heaven with Christ; now fight the sins of earth. You have died; therefore, put to death the old habits. And notice the therefore. The battle with sins that are not yet destroyed is because of the already being dead with Christ and being seated at his right hand.
2. Here’s another picture of it in Romans 6:6: “We know that our old self was crucified with [Christ].” We’re done. It’s over. We’ve died. Romans 6:11: “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Because something is not yet complete. You’ve got something to do with this. So again, the command to complete this, finish this, to bring your life into accord with your deadness, is based on the fact that you’re already dead.
3. Romans 6:12 says, “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body.” That’s the not-yet. And now the already of Romans 6:14, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” Don’t let sin reign because it won’t reign. There’s the Christian way of life.
“Your new self has been created. It’s the work of God. You’re not forging a new self in Christ.”
4. First Corinthians 5:7 talks about getting sexual sin out of the church and out of our lives. It says, “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump.” So it’s picturing the church and the Christian life as a lump of dough, and leaven as sin penetrating the lump. It says, “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened.” So again, the command about getting out the leaven is based on the fact that there’s not any leaven. There’s the glorious already–not yet mystery as it applies to the Christian life. We are becoming what we are.
5. Ephesians 4:24: “Put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” So put on what already has been created. Your new self has been created. It’s the work of God. You’re not forging a new self in Christ. You’re not. You’re not forging a new self in Christ. God made that. He created that. It’s already created, but you must put it on. Own it. Wear it. Become in practice what you are in Christ.
Become Who You Are
So, Rico, your ongoing struggle with sin is nothing new.
You already are new in Christ, and you are not yet perfected.
You are dead, and must put sin to death.
You are raised with Christ, and you must seek the things that are above.
You are a new self, and you must put on the new self.
You are unleavened, and you must cleanse out the old leaven.
Sin will not be king in your life, and you must not let sin have dominion.
And so here’s the key: every imperative, every command, every exhortation, every admonition given to a Christian should be passionately pursued and obeyed on the basis of what’s already true about us in Christ. We are commanded to become what we are in Christ.
So, what you are experiencing is the reality of what Paul calls in Romans 7:20 indwelling sin — the not-yet of sanctification. And you are now to put that sin to death because you have already died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. So, Rico, may God take this biblical picture of salvation deep into your life, and give you a great freedom.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Why I Love the Apostle Paul: 30 Reasons.