Girolamo Zanchi on Sin in the Life of the Believer

Zanchi’s comments on the violent uprisings of fallen desire should be a great help to Christians who find themselves perplexed over how easily they can stumble into sin. How many believers have been completely overcome with guilt after giving in to sin, and upon becoming overwhelmed by their sin and the shame that follows, that they question how they could be believers to begin with if they could commit sin so easily? While he makes clear that no one is excused for their sin when these violent desires overwhelm us, the true believer is immediately led to repentance and turning away from sin, and this is a blessing of faith.

Sin is greatly confusing for believers. The apostle captures this in Romans 7 when he says “the things that I will not, these I do.” How could the apostle seem to speak in such a defeated manner with regard to sin in a believer who has been given the Spirit and the grace of repentance? And if such a double-minded “believer” could be conceived of in this life, is assurance of salvation possible?

To answer these questions, some have tried to explain Romans 7 as speaking of a man before conversion since a “defeatist” view of sin in the believer seems entirely out of accord with the New Testament teaching on regeneration and holiness. This answer would seem to take away any notion that a believer might so willingly enter into sin as a new creation.

Answers to this dilemma, however, have not always been helpful for Christians in their struggle against sin. There have been some who suggest that when the believer sins, God turns in anger against him and the impression is given that without the requisite degree of sanctification, salvation may absent or at worst, lost.

When John Owen wrote his famous treatise on The Mortification of Sin of the Life of Believers, he was pastorally concerned to help Christians with this dilemma. He began with a case of conscience:

Suppose a man to be a true believer, and yet finds in himself a powerful indwelling sin, leading him captive to the law of it, consuming his heart with trouble, perplexing his thoughts, weakening his soul as to the duties of communion with God, disquieting him as to peace, and perhaps defiling his conscience, and exposing him to hardening through the deceitfulness of sin—what shall he do?

Owen provides many helpful and practical ways for the believer to mortify sin in his life. But of first importance is to ask how the Scriptures help the believer to understand what is happening in his whole man with regard to his struggle against sin.

What believers need most in this struggle is to appreciate the way in which the Scriptures distinguish their struggle from that of unbelievers. When this is appreciated, a certain release is provided that untangles the believer from a servile fear of God toward a filial fear that actually promotes true assurance of faith and lasting mortification of sin.

Help From Girolamo Zanchi

In his great work Speculum Christianum or The Christian Survey of Conscience, Girolamo Zanchi addressed at length the Reformed view of Romans 7 as the regenerate man’s struggle against sin, a view he assures was held by all the learned divines. He makes a crucial distinction that in the regenerate is a double-man. The Christian, he says, has a fundamental quality that is different from that of the unbeliever. When a regenerate man sins, “he sins only in the flesh and not with the whole will and the whole heart.”

Zanchi claims to have been attacked by Roman writers and even some Protestant divines for this distinction, but he engages heavily with Bucer and many others to make his case. The believer does not sin “according to the spirit but according to the flesh and therefore not with full and plenary consent of will.” He makes a distinction between the outward and inward man.

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