When it comes to owning sin, humans can be fiercely stubborn. We come up with all sorts of excuses to downplay sin and avoid true repentance.

It’s easy to mouth the words of an apology, to others or God, while feeling out possible loopholes that leave room for future indulgence. We’re spiritual Houdinis, contorting and twisting our way out of true repentance. We’re actors who specialize in scenes of contrition, whose apologetic masquerades are little more than roles we play to get off the hook.

The Puritan Richard Sibbes, in The Bruised Reed, summarizes our resistance well: “It is a very hard thing to bring a dull and evasive heart to cry with feeling for mercy. Our hearts, like criminals, until they be beaten from all evasions, never cry for the mercy of the judge.”

For some of us, our cry for God’s mercy is long overdue, but our evasions keep us from real repentance. Here are five common loopholes we use to excuse sin.

1. Momentary Mourning

When it comes to repentance, the ups and downs of emotions fail us. Now, emotions are God-ordained and can be a genuine symptom of deep, lasting repentance. As we come to the cross in confession and find grace there, tears are often inescapable.

But emotions don’t always tell the truth. They can become another loophole, a way of looking sorry on the surface while we internally avoid the painful purging of idols God desires. As Jeremiah wrote, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).

The craftiness of the human heart creates a dangerous concoction of half-hearted remorse, using external repentance to mask inward apathy. It’s a strategy of self-deception: If we convince ourselves we’re repentant, the guilt we feel loses its sting.

It’s not that we’re totally without remorse—our hearts may be heavy in the moment. But when the sun of temptation rises again, our sorrow quickly evaporates in the blaze of indulgence.

Are our tears a vain attempt to mediate our own atonement, or do we embrace the cross of Christ in all its sin-crushing, affection-stirring wonder? May our tears flow from God’s endless fountain of grace, not from the streams of our fickle emotion and fleeting repentance.

2. The Percentage Plea

Sometimes we pit our righteous deeds against our sinful deeds. We draw up a spiritual pie chart to prove how our obedience far outweighs the tiny sliver of sin in our lives. We crunch the numbers, convinced they’re in our favor. If we get most things right, God will surely excuse the few things we get wrong.

The deception is twofold.

First, it overestimates human righteousness, anchoring it in what we do rather than in what Christ has done. In Romans 3:9–20, Paul makes clear the impossibility of building any case of innocence based on our works. Elsewhere he says our salvation is not something to earn but to receive (Eph. 2:8–9).

Second, it underestimates the corrosive nature of sin. It’s hazardous to assume the sliver of darkness in our lives can exist cozily alongside the light (in reality it’s probably more than a sliver anyway).

In Scripture, sin is never portrayed in neutral terms, as if it can be fenced in. Instead it’s pictured as yeast that grows steadily through dough (Gal. 5:9; 1 Cor. 5:6–7). Its appetite is insatiable. When we downplay its presence, sin’s growth is guaranteed.

Sin’s appetite is insatiable. When we downplay its presence, sin’s growth is guaranteed.

3. Institutional Cynicism

Ours is an age of institutional suspicion. No one wants to be told how to live. Autonomy is king and authority is foe. Any mandate to holiness is dismissed as yet another instance of the institutional church’s legalism.

The hypocrisy of “holier than thou” religious authorities—who are often exposed in the same sins they decry—thus becomes an excuse for individuals to treat their own sin lightly, allowing the church’s flaws to become a loophole for excusing their own.

Does our disdain for evangelical “holiness” jargon cripple our commitment to growing in Christlikeness? Is our eye-rolling at self-righteous believers a self-justifying strategy for holding on to sin?

As always, Jesus shows the way. He verbally skewered the legalists of his day (Matt. 23)—while taking holiness seriously. He refused to be manipulated by the judgmental and superficial Pharisaicalism of his day—while also proclaiming: “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). He rescued the law from the abusive hands wielding it—while calling his disciples to follow its intent according to his Father’s heart (Matt. 5:17–20).

We must do the same.

4. Hiding in the Herd

Human community can be both a gift for our growth and an inhibition to it. Like Adam and Eve as they ate from the tree, there’s a herd mentality in all of us—a tendency to be influenced, led, and shaped by each other in destructive ways.

Community can be insular and bias-confirming, when we defend everything in our camp and judge those in other camps. Whatever is common becomes comfortable, normalized, justifiable. Evangelicals are not immune to this problem. We can easily fall into categories of “us versus them,” or Christians vs. the culture, blinded to how we’ve simply Christianized the same secular practices we claim to detest.

As we benefit from the beauty and life of Christian community, let’s also check the motives, habits, and presuppositions of our tribe. This is hard and courageous work, but in the end the status quo of evangelicalism is not always the way of Jesus.

Is community our crutch, a way to excuse sin because we’re “not the only ones”? Are we afraid to stand out and content to blend in, even when we sense we’re being disobedient?

As we benefit from the beauty and life of Christian community, let’s also check the motives, habits, and presuppositions of our tribe.

5. The Giftedness Game

A mentor once shared that his greatest moments of temptation come on the heels of success. As a gifted pastor and communicator, he recognizes in the aftermath of a great sermon, with the affirmation of his people ringing in his ears, he sometimes feels entitled to reward himself in sinful ways.

My mentor’s honesty is instructive for us all. Are we quietly convinced God cares more about giftedness than character? Do we imagine our “indispensability” in God’s kingdom affords us special privileges to dabble in rebellion?

Our friends and colleagues may applaud our gifts. The world may admire our success. But God’s eyes are fixed on our hearts. What does he see?

We must not let our accomplishments outpace our character. Our résumés do not excuse our rebellion. By God’s grace, may our public obedience accurately reflect our private habits.  

We must not let our accomplishments outpace our character. Our résumés do not excuse our rebellion.

Look Back as You Move Forward

How do we stop the evasive maneuvers? What can we do to stop the cycle of seeking loopholes that excuse sin rather than truly owning it and turning from it?

We must daily rehearse the gospel to ourselves. We must saturate in the simple, profound truth of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. And we must not limit the gospel to something Jesus did in the past, but as something Jesus is also doing in our present. It’s not just Christ alone for salvation, but also Christ alone for transformation.

In his book Center Church, Tim Keller writes:

The gospel is not just the ABCs but the A to Z of the Christian life. It is inaccurate to think the gospel is what saves non-Christians, and then Christians mature by trying hard to live according to biblical principles. It is more accurate to say that we are saved by believing the gospel, and then we are transformed in every part of our minds, hearts, and lives by believing the gospel more and more deeply as life goes on.

The more we absorb the gospel, the less necessary each loophole becomes. In Christ, we don’t have to manufacture remorse for sin. Instead, Jesus’s sacrifice floods our hearts with affection for him. As we gaze at Calvary, it becomes impossible to trivialize our sin. Our good works are exposed as insufficient. Our cynicism is melted away. We’re freed from conformity to others. We come to see success not as license to sin, but as grace to undeserving rebels.

Our rebellion is indeed stubborn, but the love of Christ is more stubborn still. As we yield to the excavating work of the Spirit, saturated in the truth of the gospel, our loopholes will fall away.