Sin is something that everyone has to deal with in their lifetime, and the Bible tells us that it’s unavoidable (Romans 3:23). That said, how does it work, and how big of a deal is it? After all, if everyone sins, it can’t be too big of an issue because we can’t avoid it. Depending on who you talk to will depend on what sort of answers you get to those questions. Most churches will avoid the issue of sin entirely because it makes people uncomfortable and guilty at best, or angry at worst. It seems that the idea is to only preach the “easy” things of Christianity because that makes for a happy congregation and a flourishing ministry…or so it would seem. J.I. Packer says that “a half-truth masquerading as a whole truth becomes a complete untruth,” and I think that is the heart of the issue. If we completely ignore the sin in our own lives and the sin of our possible congregants, we are making a grave error.
A good book to read in this area is The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis because it takes a penetrating angle on how these things work. When people stop caring about what sin is, the question then becomes “how far can I push things before it becomes wrong?” As if there is some sort of imaginary line that is so crystal clear that people will be able to walk right up to it and then absolutely stop before they cross it. Everyone has this idea in their minds, whether they are willing to admit it or not. It might take different forms and use different words but it’s there and that’s because we all think of ourselves as pretty good people. We know the difference between right and wrong and we have the absolute will power to stop before it is “too late.” Unfortunately, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. There are some areas that we just don’t struggle with, and so the above idea justifies itself with these ideas. In our minds we play this sort of comparison came where we say “well, I would never do___” and that is our arbitrary black line. A good one to place in that blank would be murder because most of us are absolutely against taking another human life, abortion notwithstanding. Therefore, we assume that because we have that concrete line in place, then we can handle other things with the exact same certainty. The more of these areas we have, the better equipped we think we are to handle sin in all its various forms. Another helpful mind game here is the comparison game, where we are able to look at someone who is far worse than we are and then be able to completely justify ourselves when we are compared with them, after all, as a last resort there’s always Hitler. The Bible has something to say about this game, and it should serve as a warning for when we are tempted to play it (Luke 18: 9-14).
So how does sin usually work? If we have certain concrete barriers in place, how does it get around them? I would suggest that the answer to that is usually right through the front door. Sin is the ultimate Trojan Horse in how it usually operates. There are various areas in all people’s lives where they have very weak defenses, if any, in place for certain attacks and in these areas is where all the battles/problems take place. For example, if someone doesn’t have a desire to drink alcohol and, more than that, detests it in all forms then the odds they will be tempted to sin in that area are very low. A full frontal attack against a concrete wall just isn’t a smart idea and the enemy knows this. Let us suppose that John has a problem with drinking, and he is in a battle against falling back into his drunken habits. Even if he is weak in this area, the temptation probably won’t come in a flashing sign, guns blazing type style because that would be far too easy to see and avoid. First, there has to be a reason for John to go to a bar, perhaps a friend is having a birthday party and they all decide to go out. John has no intention of drinking, but he doesn’t want to be rude and he does want to be a good friend, so he goes out with them. At this point, John still thinks he’s safe because he isn’t drinking, and he has resolved himself that he won’t drink anymore. John orders water while the rest of his friends order beer, and for awhile things are ok because the attention is focused elsewhere. Pretty soon John starts thinking that maybe he will only have one drink, besides all of his friends are doing it and he does like a few certain drinks quite a bit. I’m sure it’s fairly obvious where this is going, but the point is that the temptation started small, and before John knew what was happening, he was ordering himself a drink. The intentions were pure, and the willpower was there to start with, but the temptation snuck up on him, and this is how things usually work.
There are a few weapons that are especially dangerous when they are employed against us and those are boredom and a weak/tired mind. These are usually combined with one another because that opens the door wider for things to take place. If someone is wide awake, completely resolved to either do or not do something, as well as preoccupied with a certain task, their chances of being tempted are quite lower than someone who has nothing to do and is letting their mind wander. Psychologists will tell you plenty about gateway drugs or gateway habits, and I think our thought lives are exactly where that sort of thing takes place. The reason why I say that is because our minds are extremely powerful and things happen in split-seconds which have enormous ripple effects.
Most people look at sin as a sort of linear graph where there are several areas or points along the line that are completely “ok” before they reach the line and cross it into “not ok,” and under this view it is very simple to plot out a course where you have certain things in mind which you will or won’t do. The problem with this idea is that it is completely false. Sin is in no way linear, but rather an exponential graph. It is a hill where every step you take towards the “not ok” line will make it exponentially hard to stop the rolling down the hill completely. Another thing that Psychologists say is using consequences as a means of discipline or training for or against a certain action. The idea is that if the consequences are bad enough, then the action will be avoided based on that. This holds particular sway over people who are anywhere up through their high school years. The fact of the matter is, whether the individual has great boundaries or terrible boundaries set in place in their lives, there is a larger set of rules and authorities in place that they are to some extent unable to avoid usually in the form of their parents. This makes certain sin much more dangerous or risky because there are more factors in place. Often things have to be done in secret or constantly under alert for the chance of someone else coming into the area. If sinful habits are cultured in this stage of life, they will run rampant in later stages. The reason for this is because people realize that the things they feared while they were living with their parents have vanished or that the consequences no longer apply. Now this realization will weigh on people who have struggled through things in high school and on people who didn’t struggle in high school as well, just differently. The removing of authority opens doors that were previously unavailable and people will either burst right throw the open doors or realize there are doors there in the first place. The interesting thing about consequences is that they never actually change, but only appear to. What I mean by that is that while you are in high school (and younger) the consequences may consist of grounding, a removal of certain privileges like driving a car or staying out later or being able to go to a movie or playing games etc. The idea behind this actually goes beyond simply taking away something that you like, it is to “think about what you’ve done,” to use the cliché phrase. The reason is because while you think about something that you have done wrong things start to happen. You actually feel bad about doing it. Usually, the mindset of anyone in high school or younger will be that this second effect has very little because the idea is that all they will have to do is wait out the punishment and then be more careful so that they won’t get caught next time. Even if someone is a Christian, this tendency is still present. It might have to do with age, but it is beyond my knowledge to speculate on that. Now when someone gets to college or they move out on their own, all of a sudden the face of their consequences changes dramatically, so much so that they believe the consequences themselves have disappeared and things that were previously taboo and off limits are simply options. In one sense, that is true because there are choices all the time. The issue is that this idea is an incomplete one. Just because things go from being “taboo” to being a “choice” doesn’t mean that there are now no consequences for certain actions. Notice the subtle shift of paradigm. This is important because it starts to blur the lines that once were concrete. With this idea you suddenly have the idea of the line graph back in your head. Suddenly you have a whole new set of choices you have to make; many of them are ethical decisions like “is doing this, really as bad as I thought it was?” or “what’s the worst that could happen?” Does this sound familiar? It should, because if you look back in Genesis 3:1, Satan used very similar logic to temp Adam and Eve when he said “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” Here someone is forced to make decisions based on ethics, and if they don’t particularly have any sort of ethical foundation when they get to this stage, how do they make the decision? Odds are they will go with the climate they are surrounded with, or a particularly convincing professor who is likely a postmodernist. This particular area has a different dimension to it if the person is a Christian and that is where I will direct most of my attention (and try and get back on topic). Another game that the mind plays is by throwing out arbitrary ultimatum-like circumstances. What I mean by that is something like “well, once I move out I won’t do that anymore” or “once I’m rooming with this person or dating that person, then I won’t have a problem with that anymore,” and this is extremely dangerous reasoning. To use an old army adage, we consistently underestimate our enemy. The idea is that the individual won’t have to change at all, and simply place outside circumstances on their lives and that will completely change their habit and remove any sort of sinful lifestyle or temptation. To the Christian, this is very much substantiated by the fact that God forgives sins. This adds a new dimension to the consequences idea of before because now, if there are consequences for sinning, it will be ok because God will forgive us of whatever we do. This has a couple different effects, the first one is that it seems to lessen any sort of effect that consequences may have on us, and also it shrinks our view of God dramatically.
When I say that it shrinks the effect of consequences, I mean that the things that were once so bad become…not so bad, especially while playing the comparison game mentioned earlier, and that allows someone to creep ever closer towards that “black line” never realizing that they are completely out of control. An interesting mental picture that might be useful here is that of the Matrix. For those familiar with the movie, the Matrix which people are plugged into is the line graph, here people only see what they want to see and believe what they want to believe, and they have their sin blinds on. From this perspective, their progress into sin is a very slow, often even deliberate one, because they are slowly testing the waters and seeing just how bad the thing they are tampering with is. In the real world, they have become completely encased in sin, and it is becoming their lifeline; plugged into the holes in their bodies that they have left open. The reality is, sin has the ability to so completely blind a person that it can transform from being something completely bad, to being something perhaps not so bad, to being a good thing, and then disappearing entirely. It is at that final point that sin has complete control over a person. They don’t see anything wrong with it, and they refuse to believe it when others try and tell them they have a problem.
I mentioned that the second problem with this whole idea is that it greatly lessons our view of God. We focus so strongly on God’s forgiveness that forgiveness becomes our god. Forgiveness is our ace in the hole. God has become basically a grandpa in the sky and will simply look the other way and allow us to do as we please because we can’t actually do anything wrong. Eventually, and this is usually a faster process than we will admit, what we do no longer becomes wrong and so we don’t even have to ask God for forgiveness because there’s nothing to forgive. Sin blinders fully in place. There are several paths this sort of thinking can lead to, and all of them a destructive as you can imagine. John MacArthur points out that there is more evil in the least sin than in the greatest calamity or in the greatest misery.
It is unfortunate that we live in a period of time where everything has to vie for our attention, and therefore has to be spectacular or shocking. I say unfortunate because the things I’m about to say will have little effect on most who read them. How serious is sin? What’s the worst that could happen? Is it really as bad as what I used to think? The bible is very clear on sin in many places. In Romans, we read that “the wages of sin is death” (6:23) and that sin “easily entangles” (Hebrews 12:1) and that it is “prevalent” (James 1:21). The writer of Hebrews talks about besetting sins (12), or sins that become your friend, so deeply engulfed in sin that you believe that the sin is a natural part of yourself (Romans 7:20). John MacArthur points out that sin has great power because your flesh is unredeemed. Your spirit is redeemed through Christ, but your flesh is not yet redeemed, and because of that, its nature is to sin. The flesh here, of course, doesn’t just mean your skin and body. Sin has great power in our will, our mind, our emotions, our affections, and our relationships because our flesh is unredeemed. Sin always finds a way to expose itself, no matter how hard we fight to keep it contained and secret. Sin will destroy relationships and projects, and it will deaden your conscious. Sin will steal your joy and your peace and replace them with endless guilt. Sin is what nailed Jesus Christ to the cross. Your sin. My sin. A little lie here, a little cheating there, a lustful thought or image, a bit of breaking the law only a little etc. These are the sins that crucified Christ on the cross. These are the sins that will bury you. These are the sins that would bring you hell were it not for Christ, and without Christ, we are powerless against it “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil” (Jeremiah 13:23).
Sin is powerful, present, and pervasive and yet we are called to fight against it (Ephesians 4:22). This isn’t a scare tactic or a doom and gloom approach to anything. I’m just trying to make you understand how serious sin is, and how easily it completely entangles us. The key to winning the war, and it is a war, is Scripture. Put the Word of God to work in your life. Learn it, memorize it, understand it, and apply it. Christ says in John that “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be given to you” (15:7) and that “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love” (15:10). John MacArthur lays out five principles to use when battling sin, and they are as follows: 1) Don’t underestimate the seriousness of your sin. 2) Strongly purpose not to sin and make God that promise. 3) Watch for sin’s subtle movement. In other words, be suspicious of your own supposed spirituality. 4) Repent immediately after you sin. 5) Continually pray for divine help.
All of these things are multipurpose. It will place God in His correct place, as ruler over all. We realize and understand that the only power against sin that we have is through the power of the Spirit. John Piper points out that you cannot wield someone else’s sword, and that you cannot even equip a sword unless you have placed the word of God in your memory, and thus your heart. Scripture memory is so important. Christ used it to counter Satan when He was tempted in the wilderness. The psalmist writes “I run the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free” (Psalm 119:32) and “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” (Psalm 119:11) “Do not let this Book of Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” (Joshua 1:8) I believe MacArthur’s 3rd point is especially poignant because of how sin operates. We need to always be suspicious and always on the lookout. The Bible is very clear about how strong and how serious sin is in our lives, but it also is very clear about how we are to handle it, and what happens when we live according to the Word of God. “I will set before my eyes no vile thing. The deeds of faithless men I hate; they will not cling to me. Men of perverse heart shall be far from me; I will have nothing to do with evil” (Psalm 101:3-5) “Turn my eyes away from worthless things; preserve my life according to your will” (Psalm 119:37) “For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under the law but under grace” (Romans 6:14) “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:22-23) “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2) “But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you. For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:11,13) “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (1 Corinthians 10:13) “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13) and the list goes on and on and on. The Scriptures are they key, through the power of Christ. By grace alone through faith alone we are saved and it is by that saving power of the resurrected savior Jesus Christ that we are rescued from the enslavement of our sins. Soli Deo Gloria.