This past week, I came across this tweet from The Gospel Coalition blogger and Reformed Church in America pastor Kevin DeYoung:
Sin is voluntary bondage.
— Kevin DeYoung (@RevKevDeYoung) March 19, 2014
This simple, four-word sentence has eaten at me ever since I read it. It begs the question, “What is sin?” Is sin making a bad choice that you know is wrong? Can you ever sin unintentionally? Sacrificial law had many sacrifices that could be offered for unintentional sins. What about systemic sin? The captives in those systems are not the ones perpetuating the sinful systems.
Is sin an innate state all human beings are born into? Is it my bad choices? Is it systemic? Is it intentional? Can it be by accident? I believe the answer to all of these things is yes.
In the book of Romans, the Apostle Paul explores the concept of sin in detail. He writes that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). And he writes about his own struggle with “another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (Rom. 7:23). Though some specific sins may be choices we make, there is at work in our midst another law that is at war within us. Our sinful nature has so corrupted us that, apart from the Spirit of God, we can’t accomplish anything good.
The Bible is filled with godly people doing terrible things. From David shirking his kingly duty to killing the husband of a woman he took for his own, this man who was said to be after God’s own heart continued to sin. The disciples who had promised to be with Jesus even if it cost them their lives ended up abandoning him in his hour of need. Judas, who sat near Jesus and ate with him, betrayed him. It seems that no matter how close people get to Jesus, sin is always in the picture.
Sure, some of this is our own choice. But where does it come from? Once we’ve tasted newness of life, why do we continually choose death? When we have seen the glory of God, why do we chose the pitiful and fleeting glory of this world?
The Heidelberg Catechism (which is steeped in the words of Scripture) addresses it this way:
Q&A 4 –
Q. What does God’s law require of us?
A. Christ teaches us this in summary in Matthew 22:37-40:
“‘You shall love the Lord your God
with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
and with all your mind.’
This is the greatest and first commandment.
“And a second is like it:
‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
“On these two commandments hang
all the law and the prophets.”
Q. Can you live up to all this perfectly?
I have a natural tendency
to hate God and my neighbor.
The Belgic Confession says in Article 14:
But they subjected themselves willingly to sin
and consequently to death and the curse,
lending their ear to the word of the devil.
For they transgressed the commandment of life,
which they had received,
and by their sin they separated themselves from God,
who was their true life,
having corrupted their entire nature.
So they made themselves guilty
and subject to physical and spiritual death,
having become wicked,
and corrupt in all their ways.
They lost all their excellent gifts
which they had received from God,
and retained none of them
except for small traces
which are enough to make them
Moreover, all the light in us is turned to darkness,
as the Scripture teaches us:
“The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Here John calls the human race “darkness.”
Therefore we reject everything taught to the contrary
concerning human free will,
since humans are nothing but the slaves of sin
and cannot do a thing
unless it is given them from heaven.
For who can boast of being able
to do anything good by oneself,
since Christ says,
“No one can come to me
unless drawn by the Father who sent me”?
The original sin may have been a choice, but that does not mean all sin is voluntary. And, if we believe that sin is voluntary bondage, we are also asserting that we believe we are capable of living lives without sin.
Quite simply: If this was true, we would not be in need of a Savior.
Jesus does more than save us from original sin. Apart from the Holy Spirit’s work in our hearts and lives, we would be incapable of doing anything at all to please our God. And this is the crux of the Gospel.
Now, I acknowledge that this four-word quote comes from Twitter. It is devoid of conversation or context. Perhaps, Kevin DeYoung meant something quite different by his words than what I took them to mean. I’m willing to acknowledge that I could be misinterpreting what he said. And, taken alone, I would not have felt the need to respond.
But, then I came across Kevin DeYoung’s post “Jesus, Friend of Sinners: But How?” The basic claim DeYoung makes is that Jesus was willing to hang out with sinners if they were open to his teaching. He spent time with sinners who were sorry for their sins.
Or, in his own words: “Jesus was a friend of sinners in that he came to save sinners and was very pleased to welcome sinners who were open to the gospel, sorry for their sins, and on their way to putting their faith in Him.”
I don’t know if this strikes anyone the way it did me (well, besides Jonathan Merritt who wrote a brilliant response to it), but this quote can’t be ignored. What is at stake here is grace. Is grace a conditional reality made available only to the really elect who had the self-awareness to see their own sin and make a change? Is grace something that is extended only to people who have the ability to become the kind of people we’d like to hang out with on the weekends? Is grace something that isn’t really grace at all, but is instead some kind of gold star we receive in recognition for the good work we’ve already done on our own?
What’s at stake in a worldview where sin is voluntary and grace is conditional is our need for Jesus. Who are we saved by: Jesus, or ourselves? In the Reformed tradition in particular, and in Christianity as a whole, the answer to this has always been that apart from Jesus we can do nothing.
Every day, through the power of the Holy Spirit, I am growing and changing and becoming more like Jesus. But, I embody the darkness far more often than I’d like to admit.
Jesus, I need you. Save me from my sin. Thank you that you were willing to give up your life that I might live. I didn’t deserve it then, and I don’t deserve it now. Help me to extend the same grace and forgiveness to others that you have extended to me.