This article was originally written for Rooted Ministries.
It’s pretty clear there’s a problem. Every day, every hour we’re given palpable evidence of mankind’s rampant sin and wickedness. There’s definitely something wrong with the world around us. All over the globe we see widespread death, starvation, and disease. We see reports of unbridled, unchecked injustice, genocide, terrorism, and racism. We hear of “wars and rumors of wars” (Mt 24:26), all of which point to man’s utter depravity and futile search for peace. We know there’s a problem, and that problem is sin (whether admitted or not). But there’s a lot of confusion surrounding and what exactly “sin” is — not what it looks like (we recognize that on a daily basis), but what sin is in its essence, at its core.
It’s crucial to define sin properly because our definition of sin has huge consequences on how we approach our Christian life. I think the Reformers got it right when they defined sin as incurvatus in se: man turned or curved in on himself. Sin is perpetually me-focused, man striving only after his own needs. The problem is further compounded when we turn to ourselves to erase the problem. It’s foolish to turn to a broken resource to try to fix what’s broken. But a lot of Christians have determined that the solution to sin lies in themselves, in what they do or don’t do.
Christians are often seasoned “do-it-yourselfers,” experienced self-salvation and self-justification architects who think it’s easier to make grand “to-do” and “not-to-do” lists than to just trust in what Jesus has done. I am the worst offender.
This flawed notion is pervasive in much of youth ministry culture. It’s natural for us to see bad actions and determine to fix those actions by replacing them with good ones. But the problem of sin is so great that we need divine intervention, not more detention. The idea that you can fix yourself by turning to yourself avoids the truest reality of sin: that the darkest sin, transgression, and iniquity is already present inside you!
There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him . . . What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person. (Mk 7:15, 20–23)
You see, external pressures can’t make you sin, they merely expose the sin that’s already there. You’re not a sinner because you sin; you’re a sinner, so you sin. There’s nothing within yourself that can truly be defined as “good.” (Ps 14:3; Is 53:6; Ecc 7:20) This is why thinking about how you approach issues with your youth as “to-do’s” and “not-to-do’s” won’t address the root of the problem: the heart. As many have said, the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart. We’re dragged into sin by an internal push and impulse, not an external pull.
Trying to fix the problem of sin by “doing” stuff is like painting a dead man’s tomb. (Mt 23:27–28) It’s like telling a drowning man to swim harder. The Pharisees were experts at this. (Mk 7:1–9; cf. Mt 23) Shouting at a drowning man for him to swim harder won’t fix his problem. In fact, it only makes the problem worse. You can’t discipline your heart out of the problem; you can’t “do” your way out of sin. This is because sin “is more than wrong actions, unkind words, and even evil thoughts we never express. Sin is a perverted principle or moral force in our hearts, our inner beings.”1 The root of all sins, in essence, is a conscious decision to distrust God’s goodness, believing that his grace and salvation is not enough, that he’s not enough, and instead, trusting more in false-promises. We opt to hunt for security from money, the right friends, sex, alcohol, success in our career and in our ministries, etc. But the truth is, sin always over-promises and under-delivers. Regardless of what you think you’ll get out of it, sin will never, ever follow through — it always leaves you wanting more. At the core of our problems and hardships and brokenness lies an unbelieving heart.
This temptation to distrust or disbelieve God goes all the way back to Adam and Eve’s fall in the Garden. (Gn 3) They both distrusted that what God gave them was enough; they doubted God’s Word and promise. And Satan’s game is still the same today. His goal is to cause you to doubt and discredit what God has done and given you in his Son, Jesus Christ. The “fruits” of sin, therefore, are battled by attacking the root of sin: your heart. (Mk 7:21–22; 1 Cor 6:9–11; Gal 5:19–21; Col 3:5–9) This battle is not won by working and doing, but by believing and remembering that all we have and everything we need is already ours in Jesus. True rescue, for the drowning man and the sinning man (all of us), only comes when we stop swimming, thrashing, and fighting and we simply relax, we rest, knowing that the Rescuer has far greater ability to save.
The office of faith is not to work, but to cease working; not to do anything, but to own that all is done; not to bring near the righteousness, but to rejoice in it as already near.2
“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence.” (2 Pt 1:3) If we really want to cultivate a culture of grace for our youth, we must never forget that discipleship happens in spite of us, not because of us. True Christian living is all about greater and greater dependence on Jesus’s work for us on the cross. It’s believing, remembering, and re-learning the gospel daily, continually, hourly! “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (Jn 6:29)
The more you recall what Jesus has done, the less you’ll doubt it. And the less you doubt, the more you’ll realize that the recurring sins in your life have already been conquered — “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God.” (2 Cor 3:5) “For the Lord will be your confidence and will keep your foot from being caught.” (Prv 3:26) Here is the message for ourselves and our youth: on your own, fixing the problem of sin is impossible — but fortunately, we serve a God of implausible miracles.
Jerry Bridges, The Transforming Power of the Gospel (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2012), 34.
Horatius Bonar, God’s Way of Peace: A Book for the Anxious (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1864), 85.