Weakness versus Wilfulness (And the Remedy for Both)

‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’ (1 Jn 1:8-9)

Christians sin. It will always be so in this life. Only in the life to come will we finally know what it is to be completely free from sinning. Yet, Christians are also often alarmed by their own sins, and as we look within and see our own sinfulness, at times even our assurance of salvation can be shaken by what we see. (Of course, true assurance isn’t found from looking within ourselves, but by looking out to Christ who died and rose for us, and is now interceding for us at the right hand of the Father.)

The Cambridge Puritan, Richard Sibbes, wrote of such discouragement that comes from seeing our own sinfulness, but he wrote of it to remind us that ‘the end of Christ’s coming was to free us from all such groundless fears’ (The Bruised Reed, p.58).

One of the ways Sibbes encourages Christians who are discouraged by their sins is to contrast sins of weakness and sins of wilfulness. Weakness sends us into the arms of our strong Saviour, whereas wilfulness sends us running away from Christ and His comfort.

Sibbes points out four things that distinguish weakness from wilfulness (The Bruised Reed, pp.59-60):

1. ‘Wherever sins of infirmity are in a person, there must be the life of grace begun. There can be no weakness where there is no life.’ In other words, only those who have true faith in Christ – those who have been born again – can struggle with sins of weakness.

2. ‘There must be a sincere and general bent to the best things.’ Although Christians sin in various ways at various times, because the Spirit of Christ is in them, their ‘aims are right in the main’ and, when they sin, they will eventually recover in repentance and faith (whether by themselves, or because of the counsel and encouragement of others).

3. ‘There must be a right judgment, allowing of the best ways, or else the heart is rotten.’ Those who sin in weakness will come to recognise sin as sin, and God’s judgment on sin as just. Those who sin wilfully ‘justify looseness and condemn God’s ways as too much strictness.’

4. ‘There must be a conjugal love of Christ, so that there are no terms on which they will change their Lord and husband, and yield themselves absolutely over to be ruled by their own lusts, or the lusts of others.’ Christians who sin in weakness do not want to abandon Christ! And so, though we are weak, if the life of Christ is in us, we would desperately love to shake off our sins, ‘as a sick man his fever.’

Christ is a strong Saviour for weak sinners, and He is our only comfort when we are discouraged by our weaknesses. However, ‘to the extent that we give way to our will in sinning, to that extent we set ourselves at a distance from comfort’ (The Bruised Reed, p.60).

Our sins of wilfulness rob us of peace and hinder our sense of justification, because by them we set ourselves at a distance from Christ. So what can be done when we see that we have sinned wilfully? Sibbes points us to the answer:

What course shall they take to recover their peace? They must condemn themselves sharply, and yet cast themselves upon God’s mercy in Christ, as at their first conversion. And now they must embrace Christ the more firmly, as they see more need in themselves; and let them remember the mildness of Christ here, that he will not quench the smoking flax. Often we see that, after a deep humiliation, Christ speaks more peace than before, to witness the truth of this reconciliation … We are only poor for this reason, that we do not know our riches in Christ. In time of temptation, believe Christ rather than the devil. Believe truth from truth itself. (The Bruised Reed, p.61)

Whether we sin in weakness or wilfulness, Jesus is the forgiver of sins through His own blood shed for us on the cross. Not even the worst of our wilful sins is more powerful than the blood of Jesus. Forgiveness, compassion, mercy and cleansing are always to be found in Him. So, when you find yourself in sin, no matter how wilful it has been, turn from it to Jesus and you’ll find His mercy and peace.