For many, many years I've tossed back and forth this little quote. I've asked myself, and countless others, "Can we really go and sin no more?" With very few exceptions, the answer has always been a discouraged, "No, not this side of heaven." Unfortunately, this answer has never satisfied me.
For starters, there's the assumption that there's something magical about death and entering "Heaven" -- something which we can not attain while living our lives on Earth. Another reason the answer doesn't sit well is that Jesus' command seems a very cruel irony, a command which is required of its recipients while at the same time impossible to fulfill. But wasn't it the Pharisees who cast unbearable burdens on those who sought righteousness? Wasn't it Jesus himself who said that His yoke was easy and His burden was light? So how could He tell us to stop sinning while knowing that we can't do it?
Well, let's spend a bit of time peering into some of the answers I've received. Many, if not most, who say we cannot stop sinning, say so because they know very well the implications of admitting its possiblity. Namely, that they must stop sinning. But that is unacceptable because they know their deeds are evil but don't want to leave them behind. They know that they are living selfishly and are not willing to give up such a lifestyle. Along with this way of thinking comes another line: "When I die, though, then I'll be perfect and live selflessly." Why, though? Probably because we have in our minds a Heaven where all of our wildest desires will be given to us. We picture Heaven as no sickness, no worry, no fear, no death. And rightfully so, I must say. But I think Heaven is such because the Curse has been lifted and because it is filled with people who live selflessly.
Why do we suppose that we can hang onto our bitterness and unforgiveness and hatred and worry until the day we die, but upon "entering eternity", it will instantly disappear? We hang onto these things now because we want to. Either death will rip these things from our white-knuckled hands while we kick and scream, or we will be allowed to hold them and not find access to the Kingdom. Neither of these scenarios sounds like a very enjoyable outcome, but there is no other choice! We are far better letting go of those things here and now lest we find ourselves in a very awkward situation later.
But this means that we must at some point abandon our selfishness and give up our petty desires. We've been impressed with this poor way of thinking: If we give up our life on this earth (that is, the things we enjoy in our life) then we'll have to suffer a great deal and forfeit a great deal of satisfaction and pleasure, but if we enjoy life here on earth and wait to be "instantly perfected" when we die, then the process will be painless and we'll enter into Glory all ready to be selfless and sinless and perfect.
Flaw #1: Sin is not enjoyable! This world has beaten into our heads that sin is pleasure and godliness is torture. We've been cursed, and because of that, our mindset is all wrong. It is sin which has destroyed us -- destroyed all of Creation, in fact. It is sin which we must avoid at all costs if we wish to enter the Kingdom because the Kingdom absolutely will not have room for those who wish to bring sin upon its members.
Flaw #2: With this "selfishness now, selflessness then" mindset, we trample the grace of God. We acknowledge with our lips that Christ came to save us from sin and its curse, but we continue on after our own goals, after our own kingdoms. We take the freedom, granted to us by the blood of Christ, and we use it to say, "I can sin today and enjoy it, and tonight Jesus will forgive me and I'll be all set!" Now, if you ask a typical Christian if that's how he thinks, of course he'll deny it. But that's how he lives! I know this because I have spent many, many years in exactly that mode. And what's worse is that the longer we stay on this train, the more deceived we become. We go on thinking that we are "saved" (whatever that means), but we refuse to leave our comforts and kingdoms behind. In the backs of our minds we secretly think that we'll sneak past God on account of His Son, and then we'll be able to have everything we want in His Kingdom... as if God's only purpose for saving us from sin is to become a magical genie who will forever feed our selfish, sin-driven desires.
But that was not God's intention at all. His intention was to fix our desires. He wants us to desire the righteousness He demands -- Love God; and the better well-being of our neighbor -- love your neighbor. Sin always destroys! It destroyed God's Son, it destroyed us, it destroyed Creation. God's desire is to heal His image-bearers. Completely heal us, to the point where there isn't an ounce of selfishness left in us. He doesn't desire this because He wants us to give up enjoyment, but because He knows that we can only enjoy life if we love Him and we love one another!
Suddenly we begin to understand what Jesus meant when He said that "unless your righteousness surpasses that even of the Pharisees you will not see the Kingdom of God." It means not only that we can stop sinning, but that we must! There is certainly no room for sin in the Kingdom. We begin also to understand why He told us that we must leave behind everything, that we must die every day to ourselves and follow Him. It is because we must be recreated and retrained. We must be discipled and trained in righteousness.
Our focus today is all wrong, and that is why we struggle so much. We're caught up in what we should do and what we shouldn't do, and it is about these things that God cares very little. God cares about what we are! We get frustrated because as we are, we are unable to go on without sinning. We are sinful creatures. The answer is not to make sinful creatures act righteously. The answer is for God to put to death the sinful creature and replace it with a new creature, a holy creature, a creature that no longer sins. That creature does the will of God not because the rules tell him to and he is a righteous-acting-sinner, but because his desires are no longer sinful, but pure, and because he is now a righteous-acting-being! The old sinner is passed away and the new has come. And the new operates by walking with the Spirit.
The only stumbling block for me in understanding these things is another answer that I've received when asking why we can't stop sinning. The answer is, "Because we're still stuck with this flesh... We still have our skin and bones and blood which is tainted with sin." But today I realized something very important. If the flesh and blood in our bodies is what continues to make the Christian sinful, then Christ too was sinful, made such by His very own flesh and blood.
We (the Church) very quickly admit that Jesus was not sinful and therefore, neither is the flesh which He put on. So we must be made sinful by something else. I'm certain that it is our will. Our wills rebel against God, seeking to establish a kingdom of our own at the expense of God's Kingdom (ultimately) and also others' kingdoms. It is our will that must be put to death and recreated as a new will. And when this new will is born, it is a will that desires the things of God, not because it obeys rules and regulations, but because it is a will born of God and cannot seek after sin anymore than the will of Jesus could have chased after sin.
Much of the church, particularly in the United States, is terribly deceived. There is a fake gospel circulating, which says that praying a prayer is sufficient for "salvation". And in this gospel, "salvation" simply refers to Heaven after death. But Jesus was not so much concerned with what happens to us after we die as He was concerned with whether or not we surrender our wills over to be slaughtered and reborn.
Jesus was our model. He gave up His will entirely, surrendering even to death on a terrible cross. We, if we hope to rise with Him, must follow His example. We must give up our wills and follow after Him. We must yield our possessions, give up our dreams and desires, and humbly serve His Spirit. But in so doing we will discover an amazing truth... "Whoever finds his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."
To make the Gospel more appealing to the masses, we have compromised it. We tell people "All you have to do is say this prayer and you'll be guaranteed a place in Heaven!" A person hears this message, agrees for one reason or another, says his prayer, and goes on with life as usual, thinking himself safe. But the problem is that he has not yielded his will to the Lord; he has not given his life up, and he continues in rebellion against God.
Only he who forfeits his life for the sake of Christ will be born again as a new creation. And it is precisely this man who will "Go and sin no more!" He will forget that he "must not sin" because he will be so caught up in the work of his Father. He will find Jesus' yoke to be incredibly simple, no matter how strong a temptation this world throws at him. He will find service to his King fulfilling, enjoyable, delightful, beneficial, perfect. And this is life.