What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?
As a teenager and young adult, I used to wonder why ministers would preach on gross sins. After all, I thought, Christians don't commit those sins. We obey God and live holy lives. We don't live according to the flesh. We don't slander, sleep around or do drugs. We walk according to the Spirit and produce spiritual fruits.
It has been quite some time since I thought this way. All I can say now of my former self is wow, what an idiot.
Christians do, in fact, commit those sins. Upstanding, Bible-believing, moral and God-fearing Christian churches deal with such grievous sins as infidelity, homosexuality, fornication, drug and alcohol addiction, gambling, abuse and a host of others. In fact, the individuals caught in these sins are sometimes individuals who are otherwise upstanding, Bible-believing, moral and God-fearing Christians. For all intents and purposes, their lives are the perfect example of what a Christian walk should be.
It's just that they tried something one time...
Or they were having this problem and...
Or they met somebody and one thing led to another and before you know it...
When such gross sins are discovered, as they inevitably are, the damage can be quite profound. Christian families find themselves desperately clinging to the promises of God for the salvation of a loved one, lest they perish. The errant individual is faced with two choices: they can either turn, repent and attempt to heal the wounds they have caused or they can attempt to hold onto their sin. Such attempts invariably tend to exacerbate an already bad situation.
Only recently, I accidentally happened upon an unfortunate "Christian" movement growing in the US. The Free Grace Movement teaches that repentance is not necessary for salvation. Indeed, as is outlined in this excellent critique, the Free Grace Movement attempts to teach that it is not necessary for Christians to obey God at all. Spiritual fruits are not required and neither is an open confession of faith. Belief in Christ only requires an intellectual assent to His existence and the fact that He can save you from the ultimate consequences of sin, that is hell. It does not require an understanding of the cross, neither does it require an acknowledgment of His Lordship.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
As Christians, we are not permitted to walk in continual, deliberate disobedience to God and His Will. When we fall, and all of us do, we must repent. Repentance does not mean to intellectually acknowledge some abstract imperfection in our spiritual person. Repentance, that is metanoia, literally means to change our minds, to change our thinking. As Paul explains in Romans, it is "being transformed, by the renewing of [the] mind." Repentance is work. It is an active process, not a passive one. The desire for it is wrought in us by God through His Holy Spirit. Without His help, our attempts at repentance can never reach beyond a sad grappling at air. This is why in the Psalms, David implores the Lord to "create in [him] a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within [him]."
In practical terms, the repentant individual will not only ask forgiveness of God and those whom they have sinned against, but they will also takes steps to avoid re-offending. Unfortunately, the larger the sin, the more complicated the repentance process can be. It is true that all sin is equally heinous before God. However, it is not true that all sin can be dealt with in the same way here on earth. Whereas an argument can be resolved with an apology and a hug, a drug or sexual addiction cannot. Rehabilitation and long-term counseling is usually required. Accountability partners may or may not be required depending on the situation.
Sometimes, forgiveness is also work. It also requires some level of metanoia, the changing of one's mind. Forgiveness may not be as simple as merely saying the words "I forgive you." To be sure, that is part of it. However, if the sin committed was particularly destructive, the wronged individual will likely find that they have to struggle in order to truly forgive. Counseling or some other form of assistance may be needed in order to effectively deal with fearful, bitter or distrustful thoughts, not to mention the memories of the sin itself. These thoughts often appear at the most inopportune times, and thus the trials faced by the forgiver are at least as difficult as those faced by the one who committed the sin.
Should an errant individual desire forgiveness, no Christian would argue that it ever be withheld. The parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18 is the most well-known illustration of this fact. No matter how great the sin committed against us, all of us have wronged God far more. When forgiveness is sought, it must joyfully be given. In some individuals however, true repentance appears suspect. The one who has been asked to forgive may feel as though the desire for forgiveness is not genuine. This is especially true when the sin has involved some degree of dishonesty. Trust has been broken. How can we be sure that the errant individual is now genuine? In point of fact, the only way to be sure of someone's repentance is to watch for spiritual fruits. However, it is critical to note that we may not wait for fruits to appear before we grant forgiveness. There is no bar we can set, no standard we may hold for another in order to grant them our forgiveness. The Bible gives us no such leeway: we are admonished to forgive. Anything less puts us in the position of the unforgiving servant. If the individual falls again then, as Jesus instructed Peter, we must forgive seventy times seven. Again, this will be particularly difficult if the sin involves some level of deceit or honesty. Without the help of God, it is an impossible task.
There will always be consequences to sin. Even the most perfect repentance and forgiveness cannot bring back the victim of a murder. It cannot undo the pain of infidelity. It cannot retract the damage of a gross slander. Any sin that is addictive in nature is one that will have to be fought every day of the repentant individual's life. The battle is not an easy one, as a large dose of guilt will often plague us. We all find ourselves agreeing with Paul when he writes "Who will save me from this body of death?" (Romans 7:24)
But, Paul does continue that thought. "Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Romans 7:25)