What the Doctrine of Man Means for Your Accountability Group
When I was in high school, nearly every year I would ask a friend to be my accountability partner. We’d always start out strong. The difficulty was, while we were committed to help each other, we didn’t really know how. We’d end up confessing and then commiserating over how hard it is to fight sin. Then our meetings would trail off. No surprise. Who wants to sit around feeling defeated?
Accountability partners or accountability groups or small groups or community groups or life groups or whatever you’d like to call them (I’m trying to address all those kinds of relationships) are valuable gifts from the Lord. Whether those relationships are formally assigned church groups or organically initiated intentional friendships, they can provide great opportunities for deeper fellowship and more targeted discipleship. But the usefulness of such relationships or groups depends on whether or not you allow the Bible’s instruction about people to inform how you think about such groups. Here are six brief applications of a scriptural doctrine of man—two on human nature, and four on sin.
1. People are limited.
While it may feel painfully obvious, we regularly forget that we are not God. God is all-powerful. We are not. God is everywhere. We are not. God knows all things. We know very little. Our limitedness isn’t the result of sin, but reflective of the reality that we are creatures, not the Creator. Even with resurrected glorified bodies in heaven, we will still be limited. For instance, we’ll only be able to exist in one place at a time.
That informs what our role is in holding one another accountable. When we learn that a Christian friend is struggling with a pattern of sin, we might wrestle with what we should have done, what we should have asked, and feel guilty over not knowing. But we need to remember that our role in helping others fight sin is a human role. We correct and reprove, but we’re not responsible to convict their hearts of everything. That’s the Holy Spirit’s job.
Moreover, the fact we’re limited should help us appreciate the value of the wisdom of other Christians. One of the most useful phrases we can learn to say regularly is, “I don’t know. Have you talked to an elder about that?”
2. People die.
The penalty of sin is death (Gen. 3:19, Rom. 5:12). That means, unless Jesus returns first, everyone in your accountability group will die. As durable as humans are, our lives are a vapor (Jas. 4:14).
As morbid as this thought may be, it’s an inescapable reality. The practical implication for your accountability relationships is even more prevalent in an age where many people live transient lives. It’s easy for people to pass on—if not onto glory, on to Cleveland. Prepare for that reality by investing in relationships that might not be great sources of accountability and encouragement now but could become that. Encourage your friends and those you mentor to do the same.
3. Sin is pervasive.
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 1 John 1:8
Therefore, let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. 1 Corinthians 10:12–13
No one in this life has reached perfection. We all struggle with sin because it’s everywhere. And the kinds of temptation that lead you into your sin are common to man, no matter how unique your particular sins may appear.
Sometimes people take great offense at the notion that you think they could possibly fall into that kind of sin. But apart from the Spirit’s help, we are all vulnerable to all kinds of temptation. Putting into place preemptive steps of accountability are useful in light of that. Be proactive in guarding each other from situations that have predictably led to sin before. In the appropriate setting, ask your accountability partner about issues around sexual purity before they confess a porn problem. Ask them how they’ve spoken to their coworkers before they confess using vulgar language. And receive those guards as care, not hostility.
Regular reflection on the pervasiveness of sin will also guard you from self-righteousness, which will sabotage any sort of accountability relationship.
4. Sin messes with your head.
Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse, and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury.
Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you.
Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in wisdom. Proverbs 9:7–9
There are all kinds of ways in which sin affects your thinking—what we call the noetic effects of the Fall. Proverbs 9 highlights the one that protects all the others: proud scoffing. Sin in your heart will work to convince your head that you are above correction. Or above correction from that person. Or that acknowledging someone’s correction is to make yourself weak.
Sin is very good at justifying itself and denouncing those who expose it. Make it a habit to seek out counsel as well as correction, so you can foster the sort of humility that allows you to spot hidden sin in your heart.
5. Sin grows and kills.
Desire when it is conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. James 1:15
John Owen warned, “Do not say, ‘Thus far it shall go and no farther.’ If it have allowance for one step, it will take another.” 
Small sins grow into great sins. That should sober us, but there’s also encouragement in it. The best way to confront great sins is to kill them before they’re grown. Utilize your accountability relationships to fight against not only the big sins you can see, but those that feel small to you. Oppose pride and selfishness and petty grudges and impatience in your own heart with the same resolve with which you would oppose drunkenness or sexual licentiousness.
6. Sin is trash.
Therefore since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith. Hebrews 12:1–2
The opposition of sin is not an end in itself. The same reason we need to understand our sin is the same reason why we should hate it: it keeps us from Jesus. When you’re running and you trip on trash in the street, you only want to study the trash on the ground enough to disentangle your feet. It’s not worth any more attention than necessary. Your focus should always be getting to the prize. Fix your eyes on Jesus, not the things getting in the way.
After years of struggle, we can begin to think of a particular sin as an equal and worthy adversary to the Holy Spirit in our hearts. But as overwhelming as your indwelling sin may be to you, it doesn’t stand a chance against Jesus Christ. He is stronger. He is better. He is more lovely and he is more impressive. There is no escape from death outside of Jesus Christ, but no sin can escape Jesus’s abounding mercy. That truth has enabled in my own heart a ruthless indifference toward sin. It’s just not that great, compared to my Savior.
Reflect on sin seriously. Labor to guard yourself and others. Be quick to confess and quick to forgive. But don’t let sin distract you from Jesus, even in the work of fighting against it. The best framework with which to order your accountability group so that it helps you fight sin best, is to spur each other on in love of Christ. Keep your eyes on the prize.
 John Owen, “Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers” in Overcoming Sin & Temptation: Three Classic Works by John Owen, eds. Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor (Crossway: Wheaton, IL, 2006), 109–110.