I’ve been watching ‘Am I normal?’ – a TV programme about addiction. It asks whether there is such a thing as addiction. What about gambling addiction? Shopping? Sex? Food? Computer gaming? Are these addictions? Are they illnesses? Are you born with them? Do you ‘catch’ them? ‘Suffer’ them? Are you helpless before them?
One doctor, author of the book ‘Addiction is a choice’ was, predictably enough, against such an idea. He said things like ‘It’s simply a weak or bad person making a bad choice…. There’s no such thing as an involuntary behaviour. All behaviour is goal seeking behaviours… Our therapeutic culture, instead of making moral judgments is making pseudo-medical judgements.’
He reminded me of reading Jay Adams – the pioneer of nouthetic (admonition) counseling. Adams taught pastoral counselling at Westminster Theological Seminary for many years. He says things like this in ‘Competent to Counsel’
‘The idea of sickness as the cause of personal problems vitiates all notions of human responsibility.’ (p5)
He doesn’t like this. He sees it as a straight choice between sickness and sin:
‘Is the fundamental problem of persons who come for personal counselling sickness or sin?’ (p17)
Adams therefore goes for ‘sin’.
There are advantages to this. If we are merely victims – sufferers of an illness called ‘addiction’ then the problem and also the solution is out of our hands. If the problem is ours – if we are sinners – then the solution is also within our grasp. Sin is the problem. Repentance is the solution.
What I find strange about Adams, and those who tend to follow him, is that he, and they, are staunch Calvinists. They believe in the bondage of the will (as do I). They believe, I’m sure, people like John Owen when he says:
“To suppose that whatever God requireth of us that we have power of ourselves to do, is to make the cross and grace of Jesus Christ of none effect.”
This is such a touchstone of Calvinist thought it’s even the strapline of the website ‘Monergism.’ It’s a wonderful quote. And it should be heeded in all sorts of theological debates.
But it’s not heeded when conservative Christians try to put our ability to be moral at the heart of things. Something dangerous occurs when Christians try to make ‘moral responsibility’ the centre of gravity in these kind of discussions. To do so is to push the Saviour to the periphery. Owen saw this. The doctrine of the bondage of the will, at its best, guards against this. But conservative Christians tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to the notion that sinful behaviours ever be classified as addictions or illnesses. They are bad behaviours, bad choices.
Let’s think very briefly about three Scriptures.
In Ephesians 2:1-3, Paul brilliantly portrays our freedom and our bondage:
“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts.”
What’s fascinating about these verses is that here we see our freedom to do what we want is described as the very way in which we followed the devil. Our so called freedom to gratify our lusts was precisely the bondage in which we found ourselves.
The second passage is John 8.
Everyone who sins is a slave to sin… if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
Far from saying ‘talk of addiction vitiates talk of sin’ isn’t Jesus here saying that sin is addiction? Aren’t we enslaved to sin? Isn’t it a power over us? Do we not find ourselves under its domination? And isn’t the solution not for ourselves to gain mastery but for Christ make us His slaves?
Sin is a power over us. The gospel of grace depends on this fact. Sin is a power over us that is disarmed and replaced by Christ. We are beasts ridden by the devil or Christ – this is where Ephesians 2 and John 8 have brought us. Why would we want to put – why especially would Calvinists want to put – human responsibility at the centre of the discussion??
Finally, think of Luke 5:27-32 where Jesus meets and changes Levi. Jesus says:
"It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."
Jesus says our problem is BOTH. It’s not either sin or sickness – it’s BOTH. Jesus calls sinners sinner. He calls Levi to repent and follow Him. But in that diagnosis Jesus also reveals that He is the true Doctor of the sick. Our therapeutic culture is not wrong to see us as victims of sin (John 8:34). We mustn’t react against these trends and bellow out ‘we are responsible moral agents, we can choose etc etc’ If we do that, so quickly man comes right to the centre and the Gospel exits stage-left. We become our own saviours from sin. But no, only Christ saves us from sin. And He saves helpless, sick sinners.
We are victims of a sickness called sin. That is absolutely biblical and true. We are also culpable choosing agents – Ephesians 2 told us that the gratification of our lusts was the essence of our bondage! They are both true together. Jesus and Paul could handle bringing both sides of this truth to bear. Liberals and conservatives fall off one side or other. Christians must maintain: “I am a sick, wretched, poor, helpless sinner. And I must repent. That is, I must confess my complete inability to gain mastery over alcohol/drugs/food/pornography/gambling/whatever. I mourn that I ever gave myself to such wicked masters in the first place and I turn to Christ in faith as the only Master greater than these powers.”