Want. Take. Have.
—Faith, “Bad Girls,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1999)
Come, thou long expected Jesus / Born to set Thy people free.
— Charles Wesley, “Hymns for the Nativity of Our Lord (1744)
But what’s the real problem no one is willing to discuss . . .
Sin is a foreign word to our postmodern world. We know all about crime and injustice, neurosis and psychosis, exploitation and abuse, but our world struggles to understand the concept of sin. The very word seems to belong to older caricatures of hell-fire evangelists and Pilgrims wearing black. It’s a word nobody uses … old-fashioned, silly and awkward.
Even the Church has little to say about sin. Pietism identifies sin with a list of denominational taboos and focuses on purity of heart, often straining at gnats and swallowing very large camels. Liberation Theology equates sin with capital wealth and remakes the Gospel into Marxist “liberation”—legalized theft in the name of Jesus.
Most of the evangelical church seems to skip over sin in its zeal to bring souls to Christ. Jesus will solve your problems, get your stuff done for you and of course be the friend you can call when everyone is busy. He will fix your marriage and heal your sore knee … just trust in Him now. Sin becomes a topic for later discussion. A lot later.
Scripture, however, takes sin very seriously. And if we are to understand the real liberation and true freedom that the Gospel promises, we’ve got to get to the bottom of sin and its true nature.
The Root of Slavery
OK, first… Sin is simply the transgression of the law of God (1 Jn. 3:4). But it’s also more than an outward act. Most sins, in fact, begin in the heart. We all seem to want to play God (Gen. 3:5). We want to worship and serve our own appetites and desires. So “every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed” (Jas. 1:14-15).
Lust, then, is the fountain and soul of sin (2 Pet. 1:4). Lust for pleasure. Lust for power and control. Lust for recognition, fame and applause. John speaks of “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life” (1 Jn. 2:16). This lust is driving and pervasive, like an addiction. It begs to be satisfied. And, only as it is balanced by other lusts, other cravings or fears, will it suffer itself to be reined in. An adulterer may abandon his mistress for fear of losing his family and fortune. A thief may refrain from stealing because he sees the cop on the beat. A gossip may hold her tongue for fear of losing face or influence.
Or maybe not. Lust, once it is in control, progressively darkens the intellect, corrupts the emotions, and we are told actually “binds” the will. The adulterer may brazen his way through the affair, believing he is above suspicion. The thief may assure himself that he’s too good at his craft to ever be caught. The gossip may convince him or herself that slander is a benefit to the community and that the intentions are really good.
Lust … sin … is very deceitful, and it’s also powerfully enslaving. This is true whether the sin is great or small by the world’s standards. The proud man can’t abandon his pride. The bigot can’t repent of his bigotry. The sluggard can’t will himself to work. But in every case the sinner will have a host of excuses to justify his sin, to make it look like wisdom, prudence and even righteousness.
He puts forward logical arguments or statistical data. He may offer sociological precedents or a psychological defense. He may fall back on emotional appeals or push forward in the name of humanity. But the last thing in the world he will do is abandon his sin.
Of course, sometimes sinners get hapless and make lame excuses so poor a three year old could see through them. He may wrap himself in lies and fantasies beyond belief. He may sear his conscience as with a hot iron (1 Tim. 4:2). Yet he will still cling to his sin. His lust, firmly in charge, demands satisfaction.
The Bigger Picture
Even worse, the situation doesn’t improve much when a group of sinners gets a little power, whether it be in church, state or business. Power corrupts as they say … absolutely. Give a thief great power, and he will shoot for bigger prizes. Give a liar great power, and he will lie to millions if given the chance. Yep, we always hope ambition will check ambition and that greed will push back against greed … but the bullies will always end up dividing up the playground and tyranny seems to always rage unchecked.
In plain words, social injustice rises out of lustful hearts. Hatred, violence and abuse spring from hateful souls. And no amount of government money, no government programs, no amount of education and no 12-step classes can reach into someone’s heart and pluck out the sin. Lust and self-interest will steam roll over everyone and everything, never changing in goal and intent, only morphing sometimes in appearance for the sake of public approval. Different network, different party, different slogans, but always the same drive for power and control. The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life seem to be the drivers of power today.
The Gospel of Liberation
Jesus said, “Whoever commits sin is the slave of sin” (John 8:34). But He also said, “Therefore, if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed (v. 36). Jesus Christ is the true liberator because He saves men from their sins, from their lust (Matt. 1:21). He died on the cross, bearing the wrath of God in the place of sinners, and came back to life in resurrection power to change men’s hearts and lives. He offers us freedom from the penalty of sin and the power of sin. … He offers true freedom.
Consider these words from an Advent hymn written by Charles Wesley:
Come, Thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.
The Gospel offers deliverance and freedom. This means, of course, both justification — a right standing before God — and sanctification … the gift of the Holy Spirit to transform the heart and character. The condition is faith in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. We receive Christ into our hearts by faith alone. And then, working from the inside outward, He begins to transform and liberate our world.
Christianity insists that the only effective solution to oppression and slavery is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel brings liberty — first, liberty from sin and lust. And second, substantial liberty in social, economic, and political relationships as men and women live out their faith in Christ. This order can’t be reversed. Only when we are free from the controlling grip of personal sin will we abandon our lusts for power on Capitol Hill, in Hollywood, or on Wall Street. Social liberation must grow out of personal liberation.
To the person fully caught up in lust, this all seems like crazy talk, filled with superstition and fantasy. Sinners at this level would like to pretend that the choice is between personal happiness and a slavish subjugation to the oppressive demands of a mythical God. But Scripture says that service to God … is both freedom and joy. And that rebellion against God is slavery to corruption. It brings madness and death. And as Bob Dylan sang… “You gotta serve somebody.”
For Further Reading:
Thomas Boston, Human Nature in Its Fourfold State of Primitive Integrity, Entire Depravity, Begun Recovery, and Consummate Happiness or Misery (London: The Banner of Truth Trust,  1964).