Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Redefining Classes of Sin

If you have been in ministry any length of time (or human for any length of time for that matter), you will inevitably run into someone who will admit their sin to you, be genuinely grieved and repentant concerning it and yet will commit that same sin again and again. For a while most of my counseling sessions with guys struggling with porn consisted of several step programs involving reading and bible memorization. In essence, I felt that what they needed was simply to take the necessary steps forward and then the Holy Spirit would do the rest.
If we were to state my philosophy of sin theologically, I would have said that there were largely two classes of sin: sins of omission (failing to do what I ought) and sins of commission (doing what I ought not do). Both sins of omission and commission have the same premise—they flow from a root of pride (my thinking on this matter was influenced by Francis Schaffer). If a man struggled with porn, ultimately that is a sin rooted in pride. So if we are to attack porn we must attack pride. Some pastors I know would say that your sin of pride/porn is ultimately a problem rooted in your failure to understand the gospel of Jesus Christ.
But the problem is, the broader we try to define the root of sin, the more unhelpful we become when dealing with sin. Is repeatedly looking at porn a failure to comprehend the gospel? What if you teach clearly the gospel and the guy still looks at porn (though he claims to be a Christian)? Now do we say that they are unregenerate because of their persistent sin? Is looking at porn really rooted in pride? What if the man is truly hating the porn and yet cannot seem to break away? What if the man’s esteem and image is absolutely destroyed? Can we still say he is prideful? Also, while sins of omission and commission might be helpful in a broad way, how do they really help us when prescribing a remedy? Do we simply tell the man to start doing the right thing? That seems, at the very least, like the philosophy of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.
I think my realization that we might have all the theological training in the world but no clue how to apply it came when I asked my professor of New Testament how the Holy Spirit helped men who were addicted. What role do we play and what role does the Spirit play? His response? He didn’t really give one.

Recently, my thinking concerning sin has changed a bit from a book I am about to finish called Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice by Kent J. Dunnington. This forthcoming book by Baker Academics is a profound book in the sense that  Dunnington advocates the area of “habit” when discussing sin. In other words, our sinful choices lead us into sinful habits that affect our imagination, memory and cogitative estimation. Our sinful habits impact our imagination/thinking (or the way we see the world) can become habitually good or sinful. Likewise, cogitative estimation is a sort of “tacit knowledge” that impacts our decision making. This is formed by watching others, learning and perceiving the world. Finally, memory impacts the other two for it is through memory that we are able to perform acts that we have previously learned. In essence, sinful habits can impact each sphere.

This shows us clearly how a man can hate his sin, be hating it while doing it, and yet still do it—in essence, the above is the dichotomy of an addict. When a man is passionately pursuing sex what he is doing is something habitual to him. Maybe certain stimuli trigger the habitual response in him—a feeling of loneliness, being alone in a room with a computer, a sexy image of a woman—whatever (cogitative estimation/memory). At this same time, the man might justify or think his way into continually looking at the porn (or maybe his mind is screaming at him “you need this!”). Also at the same time, because his memory is trained, he instantly feels overwhelmed by all of the senses kicking in at once. Perhaps he is feeling quite at home at this point…”I’ve done this before.”

As Dunnington points out, repetition doesn’t produce habits alone—it also requires intensity of intent and focus (Dunnington, 77). We can become conditioned but not habituated (77-78). As Aquinas states, “So, too, repeated acts cause a habit to grow. If, however, the act falls short of the intensity of the habit, such an act does not dispose to an increase of that habit, but rather, to a lessening thereof” (Dunnington, 78 quoting Aquinas 1-2.52.3).  There are external and internal factors going on at all times.

This should, if anything, make us aware of the fact that simply commanding someone not to do something isn’t going to work and neither is giving them a guilt trip. Lordship salvation is helpful in reminding us that persistent, unrepentant sin is a key sign in unbelievers. However, it can be misleading in the fact that it tends to treat too severely those who struggle with addictions and strongly formed habits. Sin is not something you kick with enough mental power. Often those struggling mighty with addiction and habits are Christians who are being told they are unbelievers! I can think of no clearer example of this than Mark Driscoll’s own book Death by Love. While I am perhaps the biggest fan of this book, I have also come to realize that telling a guy who is constantly struggling with a sin that he is an unbeliever might not be the right answer. Sin is complex and far reaching.

The longer I work with students the more I realize that there are earnest students who love Jesus and yet who constantly make bad choices. I have found the clearest answer to students like this is that they are influenced mightily by sinful habits. It is a great word—you are still held responsible for your actions and yet at the same time it accounts for the fact that, yes, we fighting a major war.

Some might ask, “Isn’t what we call the sinful nature the same thing?” Not really—the sinful nature explains why we make sinful habits. In essence, sinful nature is a broad category that is incredibly helpful in describing our disposition but is less useful when describing individual sins. “Well of course I do what I don’t want to do—now how do I fix a sinful nature?” The answer is, you deal with a by-product of sinful natures—sinful habits. Your sinful nature never will go away this side of Heaven but the Spirit does deal with our sinful habits, replacing them with righteous habits or “fruits” if you will.
While at this point we could sketch out an idea of how the Holy Spirit works (a theology of “weeds and seeds” as I like to call it—the Spirit pulls out our weeds and plants new seeds), my main point was to simply point out that we need to clarify our thinking when it comes to sin. Often we provide shallow answers to complex questions and the result is frustration. I say this as a youth pastor who has often underwent much pain when counseling sincere men of God struggling with deeply ingrained sinful habits.


  1. I'm glad to hear your ideas about and perception of sin is deepening. Omission and commission are simply categories of sin or types of sin and are helpful to bring conviction but not helpful for deliverance. Glad to hear you abandoning those simplistic explanations (pride and just don't understand the gospel). But sin is not simply a habit and the fruit of the Spirit is most definitely not merely a habit. There is too much to say to try and write it - we need to meet to discuss this, say June 25th for a late lunch?

    peri de how the Holy Spirit helps - power. Power to convict, power to bring even the addicted sinner to an end of himself, and the power of deliverance: rescuing the sinner, not from some habit, but from the power and grip and snare of sin and setting him free to serve and obey Jesus. And then life - the fruit of the Spirit is not merely new habits but the life of Jesus manifested in the believer. This life is in more than the fruit, "Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body. For we which live are alway delivered unto death for Jesus' sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh." 2 Corinthians 4:10-11 Trials and temptations have the same goal: death and life. We learn to die with Jesus to the flesh and our own strength and way and understanding so the very life of Jesus can be manifested in our mortal flesh. How does the Holy Spirit help? power, deliverance, and life.

  2. an addendum: remember the exodus: It took God one day to get Israel out of Egypt - OK, however long the 10 plagues lasted :-) but it took him 40 years to get Egypt out of Israel

  3. Jeff,

    Thanks for the input. I didn't mean to imply that the totality of sin is accounted for by habit...mainly this is in relation to persistent sin.

    Also, I am wondering if you are not completely sure of what I meant by habit (since you keep saying 'just a habit'). Often we think of habits as something on the order of "biting my finger nails" or something like that. However, habits, as I mentioned in the post, are formed through repeatedly sinning and through other internal factors as well. It is all sin and to say that a habitual sin is just "a habit" misses the severity of what I am saying. The category of habit does not diminish the weight of sin. Rather, it provides a rationale for persistent binding sin--habitual sin affects heart, mind, and ultimately actions, while still accounting for the fact that we have control of our actions.

    In this way, we move beyond the categories of "your sin is a disease" or "just pull yourself up by your bootstraps". Not all sin is habitual, however. Mainly, however, I am thinking of those sins people have battled for years.

    And yes, of course, the Spirit convicts and provides power and leads us to the cross of Christ. That is an outstanding truth! But now we have to ask another question--what will that actually look like? Let's move past the words we like to throw around and ask how that actually happens. The Spirit produces fruit...fruit that is against the works of the flesh. Also Hebrews 5:14 reminds us that we can have our powers of discernment trained by constant practice. So also the Spirit works in us to train us in Godliness. He is literally uprooting our weeds and planting seeds. He is changing our desires and the focus and intentionality of our actions (either by making affections for sin weaker or making our affections for godliness greater--sometimes both at the same time). However, this doesn't happen over night.

    And so when we ask "why doesn't this happen overnight" the answer, I believe, has to be chalked up to the complicated dimensions of habit.

  4. Oh and a late lunch works...just make it before 2 ;-) I get married @ 5 P.M. so I have time to kill.

  5. About 2 - that might be a problem as I will no doubt still be asleep :-)
    Now concerning the things of which you wrote:
    "And yes, of course, the Spirit convicts and provides power and leads us to the cross of Christ. That is an outstanding truth! But now we have to ask another question--what will that actually look like? Let's move past the words we like to throw around and ask how that actually happens. "
    Gladly will I move beyond the words. I was trying to concisely and succinctly answer the question posed to your professor that he seemed unable to answer. Now you have asked another question, What will this look like?
    It will look different in different people, but it will still be death followed by manifestation of the life of Jesus.
    -the children of Israel were so deeply stained with Egypt that it was necessary for them to wander in the wilderness for a generation. A generation! It would appear that God is not rushed.
    -Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa in the beginning was ministering to a lot of hippies and many of them were addicted to heroin. Before almost every worship service many would gather for prayer and a simple prayer would result in complete deliverance from heroin, followed by faith in Jesus, prayer for the baptism with the Spirit, which when received would be accompanied by speaking in tongues. This was so common it was written up in a secular magazine Life or Look and they called it the 30 second cure for heroin addiction!
    -others have testified to addiction to cigarettes and following prayer being instantly delivered. I believe wholeheartedly in deliverance - it should be more frequent among us and its lack of frequency is our shame - Is God's hand shortened that he cannot save?
    That being said, not everyone is instantly delivered. How will their rescue work or be effected? There first has to be a death, death to the love of the thing, death to the secretly cherished thought that "I can stop anytime I want" AND the thing in the person that is the ground for this sin has to be fully exposed and rooted out. THAT is what will look different for each person. When that point is reached and their prayer becomes a sincere "Deliver me, O Lord" he will work deliverance and will continue to cleanse and purify that soul by infusing the life of Jesus. That may take time and that is where church discipline comes in - "As long as you cherish this thing we will love and pray for you but we cannot have fellowship with you." That is part of the process.
    So you can see this is not mere words being "thrown around", I was describing the actual process. Second, it is not simply "conviction" it is actual deliverance via death and manifestation of the life of Jesus in our mortal flesh. The entirety of the Christian life is about receiving the life of Jesus. So, to tell someone, "You need to die and receive the life of Jesus for this" is not mere words, it is the doorway to the power of the kingdom! And of course in the background is constant prayer being lifted up for the afflicted and ensnared sinner that God would give them life.