What does it mean to practice a particular sin? And will that keep you from going to heaven? In other words if you sin too much is that an indication that you were never really saved?
For example, how many murders do you have to commit in order to be a practicing murderer? How many acts of adultery before you are considered a practicing adulterer? And remember that Jesus said that if you look with lust in your heart you have already committed adultery? Does that count toward the practice? What about selfish ambitions? …Envy? …Hatred? …Jealousies? …Outbursts of wrath? …Dissensions? …Heresies? What does practicing these look like? How many times a day or week or month or year does it take before I am practicing one of these? How often can one commit any of these actions and still be saved?
The problem with defining practice is that it is undefinable except for the most extreme cases. If you do something every day that certainly would be a practice – but what about once a week, once a month, or once a year? Wouldn’t we consider someone who murders once a year as a practicing murderer? How about one who had an outburst of wrath each year? Is that a practice? Many of us might be in trouble if that is the case. And what about one who struggles with envy? How do you gauge the practice of envy and what constitutes a practice of being envious? Will none of these go to heaven even if they have trusted Christ? Or does the practice of sin indicate that a person was never saved? So how do we understand this passage?
The context of any passage must fit the overall context of the entire Scripture. Salvation is received the moment one believes (trusts) on the person and work of Jesus Christ plus nothing else. It’s not dependent on good behaviors before or after. If it were it would be an exchange (my promise of being good for salvation) and not a free gift. A free gift requires nothing of the recipient. Sanctification (being set apart for God; becoming more holy) does not come automatically after one is saved. Old habits die hard. Habitual thought patterns need to change and this does not often come easily when one comes to faith especially as an adult.
The apostle exhorts them to walk in the Spirit and you shall not fulfill the desires of the flesh. (5:16) Believers have two natures. The old nature which is prone to sin does not leave when one is born again. So now there is a conflict that ensues until the day we die. The one that we feed is the one that grows.
He states that because of this conflict, the flesh lust against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh. Paul had the same struggle. Almost twenty-five years after being saved, he presented his struggle in the present tense, “For the good that I will to do, I do not do, but the evil I will not to do that I practice. …O wretched man that I am! (Romans 7:19, 24) How could the great apostle practice sin?
Paul’s sin problem was covetousness. That’s what he practiced according to his own testimony. (Romans 7:10) Yet he writes to the Ephesians, “For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.” (Eph. 5:5)
So did Paul go to hell for practicing covetousness?
Well of course not. Paul is in heaven. (Phil 1:21, 23; 3:20; Col. 3:4; II Tim. 4:6-8) He like every person is not kept out of heaven because of sin, but because of rejection (unbelief) of Jesus Christ as Savior.
He warned the Ephesians not to be partakers with the sons of disobedience. (Eph. 5:7) Why, because they might end up being partakers with them if they do not guard their hearts. He warned them not to have fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness. (5:11) Why warn them of this, if it was not possible for them to participate in works of darkness?
To the Corinthians he wrote that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God. (I Cor. 6:9) Who are the unrighteous? Is there anyone righteous enough to enter the kingdom apart from Christ? Absolutely not! “There is none righteous, no, not one.” (Romans 3:10)
The unrighteous are the unsaved. In verse one of chapter six in Corinthians he warned them not to “go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints.” Here he clearly distinguishes between believers (saints) and unbelievers (unrighteous).
In position all believers are righteous and completely sanctified (holy). To the Corinthians he wrote, “But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.” (I Cor. 6:11) Yet as they lived life they experienced failure, “For I fear lest, when I come, I shall not find you as I wish… lest there be contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions… I shall mourn for many who have sinned before and have not repented of the uncleanness, fornication, and the lewdness which they have practiced.” (II Cor. 12:20-21) The practice of sins will cause significant negative consequences in this life, will prevent one from being fruitful, and will affect rewards at the judgment seat of Christ, but it will never change one’s eternal destination who has believed on the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior.
If a believer does not heed the warnings of Scripture and develop godly thinking, he is capable of acting and appearing like unbelievers who commit such acts of sin. (I Cor. 3:3) It is because the sin nature still exists in every believer and we are very susceptible to responding to the situations of life in the flesh rather than in the Spirit.
Therefore the apostle exhorts the Galatian believers to walk in the Spirit and they will not fulfill the desires of the flesh. (Gal. 5:16) To the Ephesian believers he exhorts to walk as children of light. (5:8) As a believer is learning to walk in the Spirit, he will be less likely to fulfill the lusts of the flesh and practice the things that unbelievers practice. In other words why do you act like the unbelieving world when you have the Spirit of God in you who will help you have the power over sin? “If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:25) Walking in the Spirit is not automatic. It must be an intentional decision by each individual as one cooperates with the Spirit of God through the word of God to transform him moment by moment.
Galatians 5:21 is an exhortation to Christians to live in a manner worthy of their position in Christ. It is not telling believers that if they practiced certain sins they were not really saved nor is it saying that good behavior is a sign of a true believer. As believers we are… ‘called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” (Galatians 5:16) That is Spirit led living!