Sin and Sins

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Despite the triumph of the therapeutic in American Protestantism, many evangelicals still strenuously object to the "victim" philosophy and encourage a more robust notion of human responsibility. If a person in such circles struggles with sexual immorality, he or she is likely to be told that the matter is entirely in his or her hands. It is as if the person is neutral and is only engaging in particular sins by an absolutely free choice-that is, a choice that is in no way affected by the person's predispositions, environment, or other external factors. Homosexuals just get out of bed one morning and decide to be gay, the logic goes.

If "science" is blind to human responsibility, evangelicals tend to ignore the complexity of the Christian doctrine of sin and its mysterious power over our lives. One significant factor in this appears to be the reduction of "sin" to acts. When we talk about sin, it is usually in terms of actual things that people such as ourselves do. The majority of evangelical Christians would probably have no problem accepting the notion of sin as long as it relates to actions, rather than to who we are. In other words, do we view sin primarily as a condition or in terms of isolated acts? Do we believe that we sin because we're sinners or that we are sinners because we sin? This makes all the difference in the world.

"Addictions" may indeed be involved in one's choice to become gay or to be a promiscuous heterosexual. Genes may even be involved for all we know. This is only a threat to a weak view of sin as act, and as acts in relation to which we are basically neutral. But it presents no difficulty to a biblical doctrine of sin. The doctrine of original sin reminds us that we are sinful from birth, which entails both our moral depravity and our moral guilt. We are sinners from conception, and it is out of this corruption that we plot and execute moral rebellion.

But total depravity has never suggested that everyone is as sinful as he or she could be, nor that everyone sins in exactly the same manner. Rather, it means that there is no part of the self or of human existence that is not in some manner corrupted by sin. We are not born into this world neutral, but hostile to the things of God (Ps. 51:5; John 6:44; Rom. 3:10-18; 1 Cor. 2:14; Eph. 2:1-9, etc.). Although we are not all trapped under the same fallen timber, we are all trapped in one way or another. We may not all have the same predispositions, tendencies, affections, or habits, but whatever ours are, they are just as sinful as anyone else's.

Whatever role nature (even genes) might have in our sinful decisions, however, our environment cannot account for sinful behavior. The Reformed scholastics made a helpful distinction between natural and moral ability, insisting that human beings are naturally capable of obedience, since Adam was created upright. In other words, there are no "parts" missing. The fall did not destroy our freedom, but corrupted it. We are still free moral agents who decide for ourselves what we will do or refrain from doing. And yet, we are morally enslaved. We are free to do whatever we want, but our sinful condition causes us to want the very things that make us unfree. Furthermore, our environment undoubtedly plays a significant role in our moral formation. Think of the emphasis that Scripture places on the contrast between "the house of the wicked" and "the house of the righteous," the two covenantal environments that shape children. People mature in God's house by taking on habits of the covenant people, learning the ways of God from and with the people of God. Intermarriage was a perpetual threat to the covenant. Examples abound in Scripture of environmental factors figuring in to Israel's obedience and disobedience.

Conservatives have been fairly good at recognizing that we are sinners and that we are not passive, helpless victims of nature and nurture. However, in their laudable attempt to uphold human responsibility they have not always given sufficient attention to the deep magic of the sinful condition that renders us not only sinners but sinned-against. We are victims after all-but victims and victimizers. Even while we may legitimately accept that we are victims of, say, an abusive parent, we are ourselves contributing to the mistreatment of someone else, although perhaps in a different way. No one is off the hook, and yet there are different hooks. We cannot dismiss the notion of victimization in our defense of human responsibility. Our doctrine of sin is deep enough and wide enough to account for both sinful predispositions and sinful environments as factors in the shaping of human behavior. However, it is far richer and less reductionistic than the materialist account.

Behavioral psychology-naturalistic "science"-has been incredibly reductionistic in understanding its subject matter, collapsing natural and moral categories. So, for instance, there is no spiritual or moral dimension to human action, but only physiological, chemical, neurological, and environmental factors. But then, a practical Pelagianism in conservative Christian circles also lurks, seeking to reduce sin to actions and behaviors. Both approaches apply their own reductions and fail to recognize the seriousness of sin.

A robust biblical account, then, is capable of including the truth in the observations of naturalistic psychology (viz., the role of nature and nurture) and conservative morality (viz., the role of personal responsibility). One may be predisposed to alcoholism or anger from birth and through the environment of one's childhood. And yet, that person is still a real moral agent who is responsible for his or her decisions as to whether to indulge those tendencies. The same is true for homosexuals, promiscuous heterosexuals, or anyone else struggling with sexual sin.

Good News for Immoral Christians

After explaining how, "as through one man's offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man's righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life" (Rom. 5:18), Paul concluded his treatment of justification by saying, "But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more, so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (20-21). Paul was well aware of likely objections to what some of his readers (then and now) could only regard as the most blatant form of antinomian preaching. In the very next verse he anticipates the reaction:

What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized in Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we were buried with him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. (Rom. 6:1-4)
There are two approaches that the Apostle's logic here rules out. First, a Christian cannot actually be an antinomian-that is, someone who rejects the continuing validity of the law in the life of the believer and insists that genuine conversion can be present where there is no genuine repentance. "Shall we sin that grace may abound?" is the right question, but "No" is the right answer, Paul says. But it also means, second, that a Christian cannot be a legalist, since the basis for this freedom from sin's power is the same as the basis for freedom from sin's guilt: Christ's victory.

Paul does not say, as many of us have heard growing up in "victorious Christian life" circles, "You certainly don't have to live in defeat." No, Paul puts it all in the indicative: "How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?" This is not only indicative, it's past tense: this is something that has happened already. Christians are not, upon conversion, brought to a place where they can now choose to live "Spirit-filled" lives "in victory" or "carnal" lives of defeat. Paul is not pleading with us, as if to say, "How can you possibly live in sin after all that God has done for you?" He is saying something entirely different: "How is it possible for you to live in sin after all that God has done for you?" In other words, it is not possible. "Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized in Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?" This is not a victory to be achieved, but a victory to be received. Christ has already defeated sin and dethroned it as a reigning principle in our lives. He has done this! We do not "put Jesus on the throne" or "make Jesus Lord of our life." He is on the throne and he is Lord of our life. This is why he can say, as he introduces the Ten Commandments, "I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. [Therefore] you shall have no other gods beside me." It is because he is Lord that he is able to save to the uttermost.

This is an essential point, because many of us are quite willing to allow that justification is by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone. But then we come to the question of the Christian life and move to a different basis. Some choose the high road, others the low road. But Paul is telling us that there is only one road and it flows naturally out of the one gospel that is God's power unto salvation for everyone who believes. To be baptized into Christ is to be forever free of the guilt and tyranny of sin. This is why, in "Rock of Ages," the hymn writer Augustus Toplady wrote, "Be of sin the double-cure, free from sin's guilt and its power." Christ in the gospel does not do away with sin's guilt only to leave it up to us whether we will gain victory over its power. He has crushed the serpent's head, rendered the law's condemnation null and void because of our substitute, taken death's sting away, and subdued our wills so that for the first time we now love the things of God, despite our continuing struggle to obey (Rom. 7).

You may be a closet pervert. Nobody knows what you think, what you savor, what you allow yourself to dwell upon but you-and God. The problem, of course, is that the one who does know your heart even better than you do is also the holiest being in existence and is your judge. But the good news is that Jesus Christ, who was tempted in all points as you are but without sin, kept his mind, heart, and body pure so that his obedience could count as yours and so that, in this marvelous exchange, you would be clothed in his righteousness. But it doesn't stop there: the gospel is the double-cure. It is sufficient not only for the sexually immoral; it is sufficient to break the grip of sexual immorality in the lives of believers.

The complexity of its continuing power is not undervalued, as Paul goes on to point out in Romans 7. The normal Christian life is a struggle-neither a surrender to sin nor a freedom from sin, but a constant battle. Repentance is never complete in this life, any more than is faith. We turn from our sins and then find ourselves repeating them. But we get back up and keep carrying our cross, knowing that it is not our cross that saves us but Christ's. This life, therefore, may not look like sterling victory, but it is nonetheless the daily outworking of that victory that has already been accomplished. Paul's argument, then, is this: Christ has saved you to the uttermost, from both sin's guilt and dominion. Therefore, why do you continue to live as if this were not the case? You are not a defeated slave of sin, so why do you act like it so often? Today, we are already as believers baptized into Christ's death and raised in the newness of his life. One day, we will finally be free from the very presence of sin. Only then will there no longer be struggle.

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Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, The Christian Faith, and For Calvinism.

Issue: "Sex in the Christian Life" Nov./Dec. 2001 Vol. 10 No. 6 Page number(s): 34-37

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