"Why change if God has totally forgiven you?"

After nearly two decades of teaching the Bible, I have had many people ask me:

“If you know that God has already forgiven you, why change?”

“If I can be forgiven for everything I have ever done through Jesus and if it’s impossible to out-sin my way out of God’s forgiveness, then I can continue to live a sinful lifestyle without worrying about God’s punishment, right?”

I typically respond by saying, “Yes, you can receive God’s forgiveness and continue to live a sinful way of life, but I would argue that there are some pretty good reasons for gaining freedom from a sinful lifestyle.”

The Bible offers a variety of reasons for turning away from sin. For example, it’s incompatible with our new identity in Christ (Romans 6 and Ephesians 4), God calls on us to live a holy life because he’s holy (1 Peter 1:16), the law no longer instigates us to sin because we’re no longer under law (Roman 7), etc. But for simplicity, I usually offer three reasons from 1 Corinthians 6 to young believers. Although Paul was giving the Corinthian believers reasons for why they should turn away from sexual immorality in particular, we can apply these principles in general.

If ever there was an opportunity for Paul to introduce God’s punishment as motivation for change, this was it. Yet, Paul says, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. (1 Cor. 6:12).” Not only does removing the fear of punishment motivate us to lay aside our life of sin, it motivates us to live for God.

In the 1930’s, more than twenty people lost their lives during the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Toward the end of its construction, they hung a net below the bridge. From that time on, they never lost another person. But the interesting part was this: worker productivity increased by nearly thirty percent after suspending that net below the bridge. Why did productivity increase? They weren’t worried about dying, which freed them to focus on what they were supposed to be doing. In the same way, God motivates us to live for him by eliminating the fear of punishment.

Let’s take a look at the three reasons Paul gives for turning away from a lifestyle of sin.      

Sin is damaging (1 Corinthians 6:18)

God has forgiven us for the sin we commit, but that does not mean we’ve gotten away with it. Sin always has a destructive effect on our lives. For example, we leave permanent marks on our friendships when we lose our temper and make mean-spirited comments. If we secretly nourish bitterness in our hearts, it drains us emotionally and prevents us from drawing near to God.

But of all the various types of sin, sexual immorality seems to leave the most painful and damaging consequences. That’s why Paul warns his readers, “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body” (1 Corinthians 6:18).

I know lots of men who struggle with sexual dissatisfaction in their marriage due to their promiscuous past. They can’t help comparing their wife with past partners and often feel disappointed that their wife cannot fulfill their pornographic fantasies. Often, it takes years to heal the damage caused by sexual immorality. 

Sin is habit forming (1 Corinthians 6:12)

Paul tells his listeners, “Everything is permissible for me”—but I will not be mastered by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12). In John 8:32, Jesus declares that “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” Sin enslaves us because we often turn to it as an illegitimate pain reducer. We use drugs, alcohol, food, sexual experiences or spending sprees to give us temporary relief from negative emotions. We seek out sexual experiences when we feel lonely. We eat to relieve stress. We smoke weed to self-medicate our depression or anxiety. But over time, we need more just to arrive at the original high or feeling of release. Eventually, we find ourselves enslaved to the very thing that we turned to for relief.

That’s why God warns us not to overfeed our desires. He’s isn’t opposed to pleasure. God created our nerve endings. He hardwired our sexual desires. However, God knows what will happen when our urges go into overdrive. Our desire transforms into a mad tyrant that we can never satisfy.    

Sin damages community (1 Corinthians 6:15)

Secrecy often accompanies sin. If we choose to burrow underground with our sin, our mind fills with paranoia. We constantly suspect people are judging us or that they know what we’ve done. We may think, “If these people find out what I’m really like or what I’ve done, they would never look at me the same.” Often, we feel as if we’re living two separate lives.

In addition to creating alienation, sin defiles the Body of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul helps his audience to see that their sexually immoral behavior was impacting their spiritual community. “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never!” (1 Corinthians 6:15) In our highly individualistic culture, we often don’t see how our sin impacts others. And yet, the Bible teaches that sin and hypocrisy degrade the quality of spiritual community.

Sin alienates us from God

Although Paul doesn’t give this reason in 1 Corinthians 6, it’s important to the overall picture. Sin drives a wedge between us and God. Although sin doesn’t change the way God looks at us, it creates guilt and shame. Turning to God in prayer seems like the last thing we want to do after getting drunk, browsing some pornography or getting into sexual immorality. Even though God declares that he has forgiven us for all we’ve done (past, present and future) the shame can feel overwhelming. If we’re unable to break through and appropriate God’s grace, we will feel increasing guilt and alienation from him.