Friday, October 12, 2012

Sin is Not a Choice

Sometimes it seems that in the process of discussion about God and faithfulness, even those of us with solid theological footing get confused about the basics. One basic that gets missed by many people is the nature of sin. We fall into thinking that behaviors that are innate to a person; part of their personality; simply reflections of who they are... that these innate behaviors must be good and not sinful because they are part of having been created in the image of God.  We speak as though an action is only sinful if it is a choice that does not arise out of a person's natural inclinations.  If actions arise out of natural inclinations we can be tempted to treat such actions as part of the diversity of what it might mean to be created in God's image.

However, sin is not described in this way in scripture.  Rather sin is part of who we are.  We don't get to chose whether or not we have sinful inclinations--we do.  We all do.

Sometimes personality surveys give us such knowledge of who we are that we embrace our natural inclinations as though all natural inclinations must be okay.  So the bully says, its just who I am...  I speak my mind, I care about being right--you can't fault me for that.  The passive-aggressive person says, I know... I don't like conflict, but I still desire to get my way, so while I may not engage in conflict in the open, I will work behind the scenes to develop the scenario I need without being openly conflictual... its just who I am.

The truth is, both are sin.  To the bully, the scriptures say, "love your neighbor, turn the other cheek, etc."  To the passive-aggressive, the scriptures say, "let your yes be yes and your no be no."

And they might respond...  "But wait!  I don't have a choice--its just who I am!"  Of course it is.  You don't have a choice.  You are inclined toward sinful behavior.  I am inclined toward sinful behavior.  As Christians, this is fundamental truth--we have inherited a fallen nature, a brokenness.  At our core we desire sin.  Paul said, "What I want to do I do not do, and yet I find myself doing the very things I hate!"  That's the way it is.

Of course we do not end there...  That is not the final act of the play.  Jesus told Nicodemus who came by night that the one who wants to inherit something else--the one who wants to inherit God's righteousness... God's Kingdom, "must be born from above."  In Christ we experience rebirth so that our understanding of who we are can change.  We are no longer defined by our natural inclinations which may include sinful desires. Rather we are defined by the power of the Holy Spirit that has been given to us to choose righteousness and life over sin and death.

It is no longer faithful to declare yourself powerless over the inclination to sin, because the old has passed away and the new has come.  Therefore let those of us who call ourselves Christians not confuse natural inclinations with holiness.  Rather let us bear witness to the power of Christ that regenerates so that we have the power to overcome the fall...  power to choose the right... power to resist temptation/inclinations... power to know that we can choose to receive the grace that empowers us to live differently.

The nature of sin is not choice.  Sin is a prison--there is no choice... its just the way things are.  When we say in despair, "I have no choice" examine the situation and realize that often what we are saying is, "I can't beat the nature of sin... I have no choice but to sin."

The nature of grace is the power to choose.  Grace creates options where before there were not options.  Grace takes what was once inevitable and invites us to decide on a different path.


  1. Nicely stated, although I have to say it sounds awfully Calvinist for at Methodist pastor :)

    1. Of course Calvin wasn't wrong about everything! However, I would argue that this is very Wesleyan--to put Wesleyan vocabulary to it:

      Prevenient Grace: God's grace is present and available, but having yet to choose to receive that grace, the sinner remains incapable of choosing anything but remaining in sin--What Augustine described as concupiscence.

      But the presence of prevenient grace makes the choice to turn out of concupiscence towards God possible, and if such a choice (by the sinners free will) is made, they experience the justifying nature of grace.

      As the justified sinner stands in grace, they become capable of choosing to participate in the means of grace and growing on the spiritual journey of sanctification. Each decision to operate within the means of grace further strengthens the now transformed sinner to make increasingly righteous decisions that lead to an increasingly righteous soul, which leads to opportunities to make more righteous decisions.

      It is a path which is open to all... Should one choose grace, they immediately begin the transformation of the naturally sinful self. The free will/opportunity to make that first choice towards grace is itself a grace available to all, but refused by some who continue living in the despair of no choice rather than embrace the gracious gift of choice towards grace.

      Our own experience tells us that there are times when we refuse to acknowledge choices available to us--deeming ourselves to have no choice, when in fact there is always a choice--even if the choice does not seem logical/viable at the time. Jesus could have deemed that he and his disciples had no choice but to fight the Romans or else be killed... however, there was a choice--and he chose the grace-filled way, despite the apparent foolishness of the decision. But as Paul taught--that foolish decision--that choice that was made when it would seem there was no choice-- was grace... the wisdom of God and stronger than the foolishness of the world.

  2. Excellent summary of this truth! Thanks for putting it together like this.

    Debbie Berkley
    Member, 1st Presbyterian Church of Bellevue (WA)

    1. Gladly! Thank you for your comment, I'm glad it was meaningful for you.