The Christian life is a war, and one of your most lethal enemies hangs its helmet inside your heart.
This infernal, internal enemy is sin, which even after new birth, continues to reside in every believer. As followers of Jesus, we’ve been given a simple mission regarding sin: search and destroy. Put it to death.
The most famous faces of sin are the Seven Deadly Sins. They are: pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust. The list is centuries old, found as frequently in literature and pop culture as in manuals of theology and devotion. Dante surveyed these sins in his tours through hell and purgatory in The Divine Comedy,Chaucer moralized about them in “The Parson’s Tale,” and Brad Pitt investigated a series of grisly murders based on the list in Se7en.
They are the leading undercover operatives for the world, the flesh, and the devil, that evil complex of powers arrayed against our souls. And while we may recognize these sins by their names, we are often misled by the subtlety of their methods and ways. Like the super spies in Mission Impossible, these sins are masters of disguise, adept at masking their true nature in charades of harmlessness, acceptability, and fun.
The first person to give us a list was a monk in the Eastern tradition named Evagrius of Pontus. In his treatise On the Eight Thoughts, Evagrius listed eight evil thoughts or “demons” that hound and harass the desert hermit. Evagrius’s work is basically a catalog of problems and temptations faced by the monk, each followed by a lengthy list of biblical passages to use in resistance.
In the following generation, one of Evagrius’s students, named John Cassian, wrote more extensively on the eight sins, organizing them into categories of natural and unnatural (by which he meant those which “cannot be consummated without bodily action, such as gluttony and fornication,” and others that “can be completed without any bodily action whatsoever, such as pride and vainglory”), and showing how one sin feeds into another. But it was Gregory the Great, hailed by Calvin as the “last bishop of Rome” (he was also the first pope!), who condensed the list to seven, in his late sixth century treatise Morals on the Book of Job.
The various names and models for understanding the list of seven sins lend insight into its value. The most common designation, of course, is the one I’ve already used: seven deadly sins. They have also been designated the capital sins. Capital comes from the Latin word for head, caput, meaning source, like the head of a river. These sins were considered capital sins not because they were the worst, but because they were the principle sins, the gateway sins, what Dorothy Sayers called, “well-heads from which all sinful behavior ultimately springs . . .the Seven Roots of Sinfulness”
Keep in mind that these sins do not condemn you to hell or are unforgivable. The only unforgivable sin is saying "No" to accepting Jesus Christ as your Savior.
But the Christian tradition suggests yet another way for thinking about these sins that is even more helpful, namely as disordered loves. Sin, from this perspective, is the confused attempt to secure happiness apart from God. Augustine wrote about “the sham, shadowy beauty with which even vice allures us” since even “in vice there lurks a counterfeit beauty.” Augustine included numerous examples of how, in all our vices, we either imitate or aim for goods that can only be found God alone.
Our sins, in other words, are all instances of misdirected, disordered loves. This perspective was developed by later thinkers like Aquinas and Dante, but it’s also a window into the biblical category of idolatry, for idols in Scripture aren’t merely or mainly images of wood and stone, but substitutes for God himself, paramours we pursue with adulterous hearts when we’ve forsaken our Divine Lover. That’s why the prophet Jeremiah links idolatry with adultery and rebukes the people of God for seeking satisfaction in lesser gods (Jer. 2:12-13).
A growing understanding of sin as the foolish and fatal attempt to find satisfaction apart from God should provoke both sorrow and hope in our hearts. Sorrow, when we realize our sins aren’t mere peccadilloes, but grievous offenses against the Lover of our souls. But hope, when we see that the thirst we sought to quench in broken cisterns, is actually a yearning that God alone can satisfy.
C. S. Lewis, in one of his letters, likens our sins to dog on a leash with its owner, who tries to go on the wrong side of a post and gets his leash wrapped around the pole. His master sees that he cannot get round and pulls him back, in order to take him forward. The dog really wants the same thing as his owner: to walk forward. But he’s trying to get it in a way that simply won’t work.
So is it with us. The desire “which is at the root of all my evil,” says Lewis, “is the desire for complete and ecstatic happiness.” And this is exactly what God has made me for. “But he knows, and I do not, how it can be really and permanently attained. He knows that most of my personal attempts to reach it are actually putting it further and further out of my reach.” We can therefore
be quite rid of the old haunting suspicion – which raises its head in every temptation – that there is something else than God . . . some kind of delight [which] he ‘doesn’t appreciate’ or just chooses to forbid, but which [would] be real delight if only we were allowed to get it. The thing just isn’t there. Whatever we desire is either what God is trying to give us as quickly as he can, or else a false picture of what he is trying to give us – a false picture [which] would not attract us for a moment if we saw the real thing . . . he knows what we want, even in our vilest acts: he is longing to give it to us . . . Only because he has laid up real goods for us to desire are we able to go wrong by snatching at them in greedy, misdirected ways. The truth is that evil is not a real thing at all, like God. It is simply good spoiled. That is why I say there can be good without evil, but no evil without good. You know what the biologists mean by a parasite – an animal that lives on another animal. Evil is a parasite. It is there only because good is there for it to spoil and confuse (The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume II).
How then, do we deal with these disordered desires, these misguided attempts to secure happiness through sin instead of God? In keeping with the tradition of the Reformers, the Puritans, and their heirs, it’s my conviction that the only way to dismantle vices and mortify sin is with a strong dose of justification by faith alone and the heart-transforming ministry of the Holy Spirit. Daily repentance and seeking God's power and strength when you are faced with the temptation to sin is the answer to overcoming the death trap of sin.
John Owen, whose trilogy of books on mortification, temptation, and indwelling sin so deeply informed my book Licensed to Kill, said, “Mortification from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, unto the end of a self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world.” Unfortunately, that’s just the kind of moral advice given by many counselors both living and dead: a prescription of cognitive therapy, behavior modification, or religious practices that may result in superficial change, but essentially leave us to ourselves, with hearts untouched by the love of Christ and the grace of his Spirit.
But Scripture prescribes a better way.
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you… (Col. 3:1-5a)
Killing sin isn’t simply a matter of exercising greater will power. It’s not less than that, of course, but it is far more. For the only effective way to mortify sin is to draw on the resources that are already ours through union with Christ in his death and resurrection. Then, with the confident security of God’s grace beneath us, the solid hope of glory before us, and the power of his Spirit within us, we can enter the fray. No, we won’t achieve perfection. But we don’t have to, for Christ’s obedience is already ours. The war is already won. “It is finished” (John 19:30).
And this means we can fight with confidence, knowing that we’re already accepted in Christ and that someday we will be fully conformed to his glorious image once and for all. And that means real change is possible now, even as the battle continues. Therefore, my friend,
Set faith at work on Christ for the killing of your sin. His blood is the great sovereign remedy for sin-sick souls. Live in this, and you will die a conqueror; yea, you will, through the good providence of God, live to see your lust dead at your feet (John Owen, Overcoming Sin and Temptation).
Brian G. Hedges is the lead pastor for Fulkerson Park Baptist Church in Niles Michigan, and the author of several books including Active Spirituality: Grace and Effort in the Christian Life and Hit List: Taking Aim at the Seven Deadly Sins. Brian and his wife Holly have four children and live in South Bend, Indiana. Brian also blogs at www.brianghedges.com and you can follow him on Twitter @brianghedges.
Publication date: February 29, 2016