On Sin

A knight prepares to do battle with the seven deadly sins in the “Treatise on the Vices” by William Peraldus, circa 13th century

In order to understand the world, it is essential to understand sin. Without a proper appreciation of sin, all anthropology is destined to fail.

Let me start out by establishing two very important truths. First, sin is not a theological buzzword. It is not something that exists merely in the realm of theory – an abstract concept latched onto by those seeking to comprehend the world around them. It is not just some word that religious fundamentalists use to describe people unlike themselves, things that scare them, and actions they find distasteful. This is not the true meaning of sin, however much some individuals might attempt to co-opt the concept. Sin is the deadly enemy of the human race. It is killing us every day – claiming us for its own.

Second, sin is not just a single action or series of actions. From a human perspective, it can certainly seem so, and that is how we usually address the topic. You tell a lie, you sin. You steal something, you sin. You punch someone in the face, you sin. All of this is true, but if that is the only way we think about sin, then we are missing the point. We are underestimating the problem in a way that is bound to lead us into all kinds of difficulties. It is more useful to think about sin as a state of being, a worldview, or a modus operandi. Sin is not just what a person does: it is part of their essence. The Bible calls this the sinful nature.

I recently heard a very interesting idea: the most effective prison is one where the prisoner actually wants to stay. How could such a situation occur? When the prisoner comes to believe that black is white and night is day – that is, rather than being the source of their torment, the prison is in fact their source of protection and even liberation. Through a series of lies, they become convinced that leaving the prison is too risky and what they need is in the hands of those who hold them captive. It’s not so much that they lose the desire to be free, but rather that they are mistaken as to where true freedom can be found. Sin is completely this way.

“Cain Slaying Abel” by Peter Paul Rubens, circa 1608-9

In the story of Cain and Abel, the Lord notices the older brother’s displeasure that Abel’s sacrifice was deemed more fitting. Within Cain’s soul, jealousy is aroused and quickly turns to hatred of his brother. The Lord senses this and warns him in no uncertain terms: “Sin is crouching at the door, and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Genesis 4:7) Sadly, Cain does not possess the will to master sin. Instead, he reverts to his sinful nature and becomes a murderer, bringing about the final fulfillment of his hatred. Cain may have created a victim that day, but sin itself claimed another. It was not the first time, nor would it be the last.

Our attachment to sin as human beings is linked to our need for comfort. This word “comfort” can be defined as much more than a lack of physical pain. Happiness, pleasure, protection, and ease – both of body and soul – are included in the broader sense of the term. When Cain chose to give in to sin, he did so in large part because it felt comfortable. Its desire was for him, and his desire was for it. Sin offered him the chance to satisfy the longing of his soul and put to death that which had caused him shame.

The first question in the Heidelberg Catechism is rather famous: “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” The appropriate Christian answer is listed as follows. “That I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and in death – to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ…” The text goes on to talk about the assurance that comes from this divine belonging. I bring this up to make the point that for the sinner, this answer provides no comfort at all. In fact, it is abhorrent.

Whereas the Christian finds the phrase “I am not my own” to be reassuring, the sinner sees it as a threat and denial of rights. They do not want to belong to God: they want to belong to themselves. Why should this be? Because the sinner does not see God in the same way that a redeemed person does. For the Christian, God is their savior. For the sinner, He is their judge. When they think of belonging to Him, they cannot do so without thinking of what they will be denied. Their greatest comfort in life and in death is knowing that “I am my own”, for they know instinctively that to belong to God is to come under the Law, and for them the Law is death.

Instead, they turn to the supposed comforts of sin. Apart from the Law, they believe themselves to be free, but they are only as free as the prisoner who chooses to stay in prison. They cannot understand that sin is crouching at the door, and its desire is for them. This desire is not one that comes from love. It does not seek to build them up, but to destroy them. As the Apostle Peter warned, “Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8)

This inability to discern what is real freedom and comfort is one of many distortions that can occur thanks to the sinful nature. It is these distortions that prevent a person from being able to see the truth and step out in faith. One of the most important of these distortions lies at the intersection of guilt and trust. The evil one is able to pervert both of these things to the point where a person develops a view that is the exact opposite of the truth.

Consider the role of guilt in our lives. It can be a very good thing, convicting us of sin and calling us to repentance. Indeed, without a proper appreciation of one’s guilt, it is not possible to look to Jesus Christ as one’s savior. Yet guilt can also work to our detriment when it moves in one of two wrong directions. First, we can rationalize our sin to the point where we are able to explain away our guilt. Second, we can despair of our guilt to such an extent that we do not believe that God will forgive us under any circumstances. Whether we slip into denial or defeatism, we end up in the same situation: we do not seek out God for the relief of our guilt.

In addition to the issue of guilt, there is also the matter of trust. Here is the source of much of the fear we hold toward God the judge. In the beginning, humans trusted God implicitly. They knew Him to be the perfect Creator forever concerned with their highest good. Then something happened that changed this dynamic forever.

Michelangelo’s depiction of Adam and Eve’s sin and banishment from Eden, Sistine Chapel, circa 1509

When the serpent came to Eve in the Garden of Eden and sought to pull her into sin, his strategy was to cause a breakdown in that trust. For the first time, Eve was introduced to the possibility that God might not be completely good or truthful. When the woman informed the serpent that they were not to eat the fruit of one particular tree, for doing so would ensure death, her tempter seized the opportunity. “The serpent said to the woman, ‘You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” (Genesis 3:4-5)

That seed of doubt was all the serpent needed to lure both Eve and Adam into sin. Once they committed the act, they were immediately overwhelmed by two feelings: 1) guilt over what they had done, and 2) fear of what God would do to them. When the Lord came for his usual walk in the garden, they hid from Him and covered themselves with leaves. Their trust in the Creator had completely collapsed. They felt more comfort and control being alone than they did being with Him.

It is one of the real tragedies of sin that people do not trust the one remedy that can cure what ails them. It reminds me of the nation of Pakistan, where polio still affects many people. Since the advent of the polio vaccine, this disease has been eradicated in the so-called developed world, but many children in Pakistan do not receive the vaccine, which is believed by some to be part of a Western conspiracy. They do not trust the medicine that could save them from a lifetime plagued by paralysis and even death. It is easy to dismiss these people as ignorant and reactionary, but they are no different than the rest of us when we refuse to place our trust in God.

Several years ago, I was riding on a bus in London and saw an advertisement featuring a very familiar Bible verse. “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding.” (Proverbs 3:5) You might think that some Christian group had paid for a chance to evangelize commuters, but it was actually produced by an atheist organization. They included a couple lines of commentary explaining that the message of the Bible was that people should not think for themselves. The thing you should really trust, they suggested, was your own rational mind.

“Trust your heart.” “Trust your first instinct.” “Trust in yourself.” The modern world is full of such platitudes. This brings me to a suspicion I have long held: that people don’t so much become convinced that God doesn’t exist as they become convinced that He is not good, and thus they wish Him into non-existence. Why else would atheists spend so much time trying to convince us that God is bad, when His relative goodness or badness has nothing to do with His existence? “You shouldn’t want this God to exist, and you shouldn’t accept Him as an authority figure,” seems to be their key point.

But sin doesn’t just make us lose our trust in God. As we wade deeper and deeper into guilt, we also lose our trust in other people, afraid that not only divine justice, but also the justice of man will catch up with us. If you look at the biographies of some of the truly evil figures in history, you will discover that they were typically quite paranoid. The world’s worst dictators have a habit of seeing disloyalty behind every corner and destroying even those who are their strongest supporters. They lose all ability to trust, and this results in some very irrational behavior.

For the redeemed, the arms of the Lord are wings of protection in which they feel utterly at peace. For the sinner, there is only the arm of judgment spoken of by the prophets. They are not children wrapped in a familial embrace but “sinners in the hands of an angry God”, to quote Jonathan Edwards. The overwhelming guilt, the absence of trust: this is why the prisoner of the sinful nature takes no comfort in the phrase, “I am not my own”.

Instead, they pursue sin time and again, looking to the very thing that kills them for salvation. They are only free to the degree that a heroin addict is free, and sin is only as caring to them as a drug dealer is to their customer. And just as a heroin addict can only escape their situation by turning their life over to something other than drugs, enduring the painful sacrifice that comes from leaving that life behind, so a sinner is only saved by forsaking their sin and seeking the help of Jesus Christ.

Once a person comes to appreciate the reality of their situation and the greatness of God’s gift, trusting in Him is completely rational. In fact, it is the only rational way to escape the power of sin. The best person to trust is someone who is completely truthful and completely good. No human being can live up to that standard, but God can. Therefore, the inability to trust him comes from either doubting that He possesses those qualities or being unwilling to submit to His authority. Yet so many people will never even reach the point where they can make that choice rationally.

“Macbeth, Banquo and the witches on the heath” by Henry Fuseli

We must realize that a proper appreciation of one’s guilt before God is a gift. It is a gift that leads us to the truth, but without it we are lost. Those who do not look to God, but instead attempt to escape judgment, are likely to end up like Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Having killed his king to take the throne, he finds himself moving further and further into evil in order to maintain his place, murdering ever more people in his bid for power. In Act 3, Scene 4, he laments to his wife, “I am in blood stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.” That is, he has tread so far into evil that it would be more difficult to pull himself out of it than it would be to simply continue down that wrong road.

Macbeth at least understood that he was guilty. Remember, many of us are able to convince ourselves that our iniquity is not so great. Macbeth is closer to the other extreme of accepting damnation as a fait accompli. Christ is able to turn back that tide of guilt, even for someone steeped in blood, for He has poured out His own blood on our behalf. Oh, how I wish that blood could cover every person on this earth! But the nature of sin is such that it will take down more than it loses, and those who do not have the Spirit of God working in their lives are doomed to dwell in that dark place forever, both in life and in death.

Therefore, we must every one of us forsake the supposed comforts of sin and cling to the true comfort that is only found in God. We must be crucified with Christ that we might live, and put to death the sins of the flesh that our souls might be revived. None of us have stepped in so far that the Spirit of God cannot pull us back. To repent is not only a command – it is the gift of God to men. In his mercy, he frees us from the prison of sin, and for the first time in our lives, we have the chance to live for righteousness. For as surely as sin is our deadly enemy, the Lord is our never ending friend, who took on flesh that He might die in the flesh, and thus make an end of the lusts of the flesh.

But here is another sad thing: that having been freed from sin initially and granted the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the believer nevertheless must live with a sinful nature. While salvation in the next life is certain, flourishing in this life is less so. Having begun under the power of the Spirit, too many believers attempt to proceed under their own power, perhaps misunderstanding the phrase, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” and failing to read the next line, “For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12b-13) Our working depends upon His working. Having experienced what John Donne called the “grace to begin”,[1] why should we neglect that grace when we hope to continue?

Scripture commands believers to put to death the desires of the flesh – the sinful nature that continues to hang on for dear life. Very well, we say: I must change my behavior. I will be kinder. I will be better. No, no, you will not be better! The gospel must transform our very hearts and souls. It must lead us where our own strength is too weak to take us.

As John Owen wrote, “Mortification from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, unto the end of a self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world.”[2] Therefore, we confirm what has been preached by so many great Christians; namely, that the greatest virtue a Christian can possess is self-forgetfulness, for the more we are focused on self, the less we are focused on God, and the more we attempt to fix ourselves, the less we can be fixed by our Creator.

Sin is still an enemy to the redeemed. Its threat is no longer fatal to our eternal destiny, but it is fatal to our Christian walk here on earth. Having failed in his main attempt, do not doubt that the devil will settle for second best: a life that bears little fruit, is brought down by sin, and leaves no lasting mark on the world. May the Lord put to death in us all that is not pleasing to Him and free us from these last hours of bondage. May we always walk in the light of His holiness. May sin meet its assured end.

[1] “Oh my black soul! Now thou art summoned”

[2] Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, italics added

All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *