You're probably familiar with the concept of searing your conscience, that is, holding it under the flame of unrepentant sin until it's well past medium rare. This is a weighty, awful thing. Probably the worst judgment you can receive from God on this side of the wedding supper of the Lamb is being given over to your own sin-enslaved will. No more grace. No more pleading; just, "Thy will be done" to a conscience seared to well done.
Into this awful reality, let me inject some good news: Grace can unsear a sin-blackened conscience. I'm sure of it. Cook your steak to well done? It's ruined. Irreparably. Throw it away (and never buy a steak again until you learn to treat it with respect). But that conscience of yours? God can soften it, unsear it, de-desensitize it, and recalibrate it.
Say you, like many of us, stumbled unaware into some pornographic thicket at the age of 11. Say your brain hooked onto those images like a fistful of Oxycontin washed down with two fingers of cheap scotch—you were enslaved. Say you spend the next 15 years chained to the pornography demon. The first 3 years, there was shame. The next 7, a lingering disquiet. The last 5, however, you felt no quiver of conscience when you sat down before the glowing screen of the illicit Google buffet.
Your conscience, in other words, was charred, well done, seared.
But say grace knocks on your front door. Say the Son strides into the dark corridors of your heart and mind and binds the strong man (or scantily clad woman, as it were), sweeps the rooms clean, and opens some windows for the cleansing light to stream in. He blows in on the Ezekieline wind of the Spirit and delivers you from that particular captivity.
You'll find that—even after years away from the websites—the images of your digital harem are still readily available in the 3-pound hard drive between your ears. A new fight ensues, this one more subtle. The sin has now evolved into something you can't be caught at by your wife. What you're dealing with now is the harsh and despairing reality of life under the sun: You will never be able to scrub the synapses clean of the images with your own two hands, nor are they likely to take up residence elsewhere before you are made fully like the Splendid One. But what if I told you that the mere images are not the point?
See, sin doesn't inhere in a cosmos of physical stuff; sin inheres in souls. To apply this to our current example, the sin of lust is not in the naked body you point your eyes, or your mind's eye, at. It's not. Lust no more resides in naked bodies than gluttony in a good steak or jealousy in your neighbor's nicer lawn. This is both bad news and good news.
It's bad news because it means sin is much more complicated than you probably think it is. This mean that you can't get rid of sin by getting rid of stuff—whether that stuff be your internet connection or your neighbor's nicer lawn. Sin isn't like that. This is why all of the fussing the Jews vomited at Jesus over food was worse than useless (Matthew 15:16–18). They didn't get that sin wasn't a matter of digestion. No, dealing with sin will always require dealing with its source, which means dealing with unregenerate hearts that love evil (John 3:1–21).
But there is also good news to be seen here. Because sin isn't in the stuff, the stuff can't enslave you by its mere presence. Think back to the earlier example; a man is rescued from the wretched captivity of pornography, only to find filthy images still stuck in his synapses. Pictures, images, and scenes still slither unasked-for into his mental theatre. This is where the truth about sin and grace becomes really, exceptionally good news.
The good news is that grace is stronger than sin. The grace of Christ will put roots down just as deep (and deeper!) as sin's roots went. Here's what happens: Where those erotic meditations used to find a welcome basket, they instead discover a landscape made hostile by grace. Grace has done some extensive renovation to the halls of the human heart, and sin that once was delightful is now disgusting. As grace does its work, the images encounter a sword instead of a friend.
Grace can do that because grace isn't a stuff-rearranger but a soul-renovator. Grace isn't a law enforcement officer, looking for infractions. No, grace makes from-the-soul law-fulfillers (Ezekiel 36:26–27; Jeremiah 31:31). Grace makes men with the chests—who stand before sin and say, "I do not love you" with self-skeptical, holy fire.
I know it can because it did for me. Do the images ever leave? Not yet, in my experience. But they do lose their luster (which is four parts lust anyway). I don't love them anymore; they've been replaced with new loves, better loves, loves that love me and don't destroy me. So take heart, gossip. Take heart, pornographer. Take heart, glutton. Take heart, sluggard. Take heart, glory thief. Take heart, all you sainting sinners—he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.