Sanctification: Besetting Sins

One of my pet peeves as a pastor, is the use of Christian jargon.  We sometimes use words or phrases, but are unable to define the terms!  In other words:  We don’t understand what we are saying!  The phrase “besetting sin” is a good example.  The phrase is from the translation of the Greek word: euperistatos translated as “beset” in the King James version:

Hebrews 12:1 Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.

A cursory read of the King James would lead you think that “the sin” in view (the one that “besets” you), is somehow in a different category.  In two of the most accurate English translations (the ESV and the NAS) however, the word “beset” is not used in Hebrews 12:1!  In these versions, the only time “beset” is used is found in Hebrews 5:2, but it is a translation of a different Greek word.

In popular Christian usage, the term “besetting sin” seems to have come to mean the “chief” or “really big” or “exceptionally powerful” sin that a person struggles with and just can’t quite seem to overcome.  This particular sin is thought to be in a “different” category, it exerts dominion over you in a different way than “other sins”.  This is erroneous!  The Greek word:  euperistatos means: 

“cleverly placing itself around, to exert tight control; hence easily entangling”[i]

This word only occurs once in the New Testament – In Hebrews 12:1.  It is bad exegesis to develop theological understanding based on one verse.  Remember “scripture interprets scripture.”  There are plenty of place in the New Testament that speak of sin as a “principle” operating within us or as a specific violation of the law of God, but we cannot find any other support for the idea that there is a unique sin in each believers life that is somehow more powerful that other sins.  In the text of Hebrews 12:1, euperistatos is a participle that describes sin.  Sin (generically) controls us tightly or obstructs or entangles us.  All sin “besets “ us.  To personify, we might say that sin “surrounds us on all sides with hostile intent, seeking to obstruct our growth in Christ.”  You may have a particular sin that you, because of your personality or unique fleshly desire, struggle with continuously, but you don’t have a sin that is somehow “uniquely different” or more powerful than other sins.  Sin is Sin.  Sin is “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.[ii]

So, dear believer, be encouraged.  The sin that you struggle with more than other sins is “just another sin”.  Do take this as a minimization of sin!  All sin is grievous.  Sin is rebellion against your savior, the king of all creation!  The sin you struggle with more than other sins, is deadly serious.  It is not however, a struggle against a uniquely powerful sin that you need a special formula to conquer.  It is a sin like all your other sins.  As such it simply falls under the normal process of sanctification and therein you find hope for what you have been calling your “besetting sin”.  It is covered by the gospel.  Consider:

Your besetting sin is “paid” for, you are justified and the wrath of God against sin has been satisfied.

Romans 5:9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.

1 John 4:10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

Remember a “propitiation” is a sacrifice that pays the legal requirement for sin AND satisfies the wrath of a holy and just God.

Your besetting sin can be forgiven

1 John 1:8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness

Your besetting sin will be conquered

Jeremiah 32:17 'Ah, Lord GOD! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you.

As you struggle with sin, “hold fast your confession” (do not deny Christ), you have a high priest who is able to sympathize with you.  You can, with confidence, draw near to His throne, the throne of Grace.  It is from Christ that you will receive mercy.  It is from Christ that you will receive grace to help in your struggle with sin.[iii]  Your great shepherd will deal gently with you.[iv]  So, with the Psalmist, acknowledge your sin to God.  Do not try to hide it.  Confess your transgressions to the LORD and he will forgive the iniquity of your sin.[v]  Remember, if you come clothed in Christ, Christ is able to save to the uttermost, those who draw near to God.[vi]  In the words of the Apostle Paul:  “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.[vii]

Martin B. Blocki has served since 2003 as the Associate Pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North Hills in Pittsburgh, PA since 2002.  He is a counselor at the Biblical Counseling Institute in Pittsburgh.  Rev. Blocki graduated from Indiana University, Bloomington (BME), Arizona State University (MM), and the Reformed Presbyterian Theological  Seminary (MDiv).  Martin and his wife, Kathy, have two married sons, one daughter, and four grandchildren.


[i] Friberg Greek Lexicon found in Bibleworks 8.

[ii] Westministrer Shorter Catechism Questions #14.

[iii] Paraphrase of Hebrews 12:14-15

[iv] Heb 5:2

[v] Psalm 32:5

[vi] Hebrews 7:25

[vii] Philippians 1:6


Martin Blocki