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How Do You Counsel a Christian Caught Up in Habitual Sin?

By Ed Underwood

"I placed my trust in Jesus Christ and Him alone to save me when I was sixteen. He is my only hope of eternal life. My wife and I have been pretty steady members of a good church for five years now. I read my Bible some, pray occasionally, but spend most of my time at work. I'm on the road a lot. That's where I blow it. I can't seem to stop watching raunchy movies or reading smut. I feel so guilty. What should I do?"

As a pastor, what kind of advice do I give to this young executive, whom we'll call "David?" David's pain and guilt over his sin has driven him to seek spiritual counsel. He has come to me hurting and open. This is a God-given opportunity to bring change into his life. What I tell him will be dictated by my view of salvation and assurance.

If, as many are teaching today, salvation requires repentance defined as a turning from one's sinful ways and a full commitment to the Lordship of Christ, then I must conclude that David is almost certainly not saved yet. His profession of faith is surely not genuine. His addiction to pornography proves that he never truly repented. His lack of full commitment to pray, read the Word, and become active in the church reveals that he has not yet given Jesus Christ complete control of every area of his life. My task would thus be to really lead him to Christ. He must make a total commitment to the Lordship of Christ. He must turn away from his sinful lifestyle. Only then will he become a new creature in Christ.

If, on the other hand, salvation is a free gift requiring repentance defined as a change of mind about oneself and Jesus Christ and faith in Him, a total reliance upon Jesus Christ as one's only hope of heaven, then I must conclude that David is almost certainly saved (unless, of course, he is lying to me). Because of belief in Jesus Christ he is truly saved, but his growth as a believer has been stunted by neglect and sin on his part. My warning will be straightforward:

"Brother, you and I both know that you are living a life that is displeasing to the Lord Jesus Christ and that He is disciplining you. This discipline will continue and will actually get worse until you change your ways. Please don't misunderstand, David. It is not that Jesus has stopped loving you. It is because of His great love for you that He is disciplining you. His desire is that you will trust and obey Him in every area of your life. You need to make some significant changes in your life and I'm not just talking about the pornography. Yes, that is wrong. However, that is but a symptom of the underlying problem. You are hurting inside and you are throwing yourself into your work and into pornography to take your mind off the pain. You need to realize that you are a new creature in Christ with the Holy Spirit living within you and that you can handle that pain without being a workaholic or a sexual addict. As you cultivate your relationship with the Lord by Bible study, prayer, and active fellowship in a good church He will transform every area of your life bit by bit. It is a lifelong process with exciting possibilities. Are you ready now to commit yourself fully to Him?"

These two approaches to counseling are radically different. The question is, which one is biblically correct?

The testimony of Scripture is overwhelming. The sole condition for eternal salvation is faith in Christ (Gen. 15:6; John 3:16-18; 6:47; Acts 15:7-11; 16:30-31; Rom. 4:5; Gal. 3:6-14; Eph. 2:8-9). Assurance of salvation is based firmly on God's promise that everyone who trusts in Jesus Christ alone possesses, and can never lose, eternal life (John 5:24; Rom. 4:5 and 8:38-39; 1 John 5:9-13).

David is a sinner, yes. However, he is a saved sinner-a sinner saved by grace through faith. His failure to obey God wholeheartedly in every area of his life-the believer's essential responsibility (Luke 14:25-33; Col. 1:27-29; Rom. 6:12-13)-has nothing to do with his faith in Christ as His Savior. His behavior is his problem.

What would Lordship Gospel counseling do to a struggling Christian like David? It would lead him to doubt his salvation and to wonder whether he could ever be saved if he is not saved now. He would be led to despair as he considers his works. "Can I ever be good enough, committed enough?" he would wonder. The pain of thinking about spending eternity in hell with no certain way of knowing that he can escape it is even greater than the inner pain that led him to workaholism and pornography. Many struggling believers like David when confronted with this sort of counsel would be driven even more into the behaviors they use to mask their pain. David could get more absorbed in his work and his pornography. He might even fall into even worse types of sinful addictions.

The Scriptures speak candidly about the failures of saved people like Moses, David, Solomon, Peter, John Mark, and Demas. The Bible never asserts that saved people will necessarily behave righteously. The passion of Scripture is "If you believe you should behave," rather than "If you believe you will behave." That's why Lordship is a discipleship issue, not a requirement for salvation. That's why believers must be continually urged "in view of God's mercy to offer [their] bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God" (Rom. 12:1).

The only requirement for salvation is believing in Jesus Christ alone. The lifelong requirement for discipleship is yielding to Jesus' Lordship over every area of life. No magic formula for belief can guarantee success in discipleship. That is both comforting and challenging. It is comforting because that means that when I see failure in my life I need not doubt my faith and salvation. It is challenging because that means that I must determine moment by moment to obey God in the power of His Spirit.

David left my office that day secure in the knowledge that he was a child of God and that God still loved Him. He also went away a changed man. He committed himself wholeheartedly to Jesus' Lordship over every area of his life.

Did David permanently overcome his addictions to work and pornography? Only time will tell. However, I am confident that he will as long as he continues to seek out and apply affirming yet biblically confrontational counsel and fellowship.

Ed Underwood is the pastor of North Umpqua Bible Fellowship in Glide, Oregon, and is the chairman of the GES Board.

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