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Sin is addiction [Thawed out Thursday]

Here is a slightly revised post from two years ago.

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!  Our slavery actually is our continual self-gratification.  Enslaved not against but by our desires.  The slavery and the desires 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 have no hope in myself - not in any inner goodness nor in any inner capacity to will the good.  My repentance is my confess of complete inability to gain mastery over alcohol/drugs/food/pornography/gambling/whatever.  I look only to Christ to see the Lover I have spurned, the blood that He has shed, the ransom that He paid even while I delighted in evil.  As the Spirit grants, I mourn that I ever gave myself to such wicked masters and I fill my vision with the Mighty Redeemer who strides out of the slave-market carrying me, His latest purchace - with the Heavenly Husband who sings over His unfaithful bride."

Walking by the Spirit (i.e. the Christian life) is being conformed to the truth of Jesus as it inundates me through the bible and meditation and preaching and communion and community.  As He confronts me, I fall for a new Love, get addicted to a new Joy.  My new Master and Husband is constantly calling me away from the world, the flesh and the devil to enjoy Himself.

I hope you can feel how odd the categories of duty ethics and moral responsibility appear when you view pastoral problems in this light.  When behaviouralists keep banging on about putting the will back at the centre of counselling it's a bit like CS Lewis's example of a wife saying "Kiss me" and the husband responding, "Do I have to?"  Duty has a place.  But let's keep it far from the centre.


0 thoughts on “Sin is addiction [Thawed out Thursday]

  1. Chris E

    Is the fundamental problem of persons who come for personal counselling sickness or sin ?

    I think the answer to this question isn't necessarily meant to put the emphasis back on moral effort, but to highlight the element of human agency and counteract a victim mentality.

    I don't think David Powlison and others deny that the answer has to come from outside ourselves.

  2. Heather

    THIS is a main reason I continually haunt your site, Glen!

    When I first became acquainted with Calvinism and the "doctrines of grace", I was thrilled. It seemed so biblically accurate and reassuring.
    But the joy quickly got swept away as I read more and more stuff by Calvinists that focused on morality and personal victory over sin instead of God's merciful grace toward helpless worms and His desire to actively transform us into Christ's image by His power alone.

    Human will has a place, for sure. The degree to which we obey the Lord reveals the level of affection we have for Him. But, unless we have been first freed from the bondage of sin, we are not free to love Him at all.

  3. Glen

    Hi Chris,

    Yeah - there's loads of "I'm a victim, whaddaya gonna do." nonsense out there.

    I take a shot at that here

    But behaviourism is not the answer to this.

    And Powlison himself wants to distance himself from Adams in this regard. I'd say for good reason.

    Tim Chester has posted reviews of Powlison's PhD-turned-book that are worth a read:


  4. Chris E

    But the joy quickly got swept away as I read more and more stuff by Calvinists that focused on morality and personal victory over sin

    That's more a comment on a particular way of obsessively looking inside oneself in order to find evidences of santification - and it's not restricted to Calvinists looking for assurance.

  5. Chris E

    But behaviourism is not the answer to this.

    I have no argument with that - I was just pointing out that he was probably using 'sickness' in a slightly different sense to the one where it includes addiction.

    And yes - I wouldn't go along with all Jay Adams said either :)

  6. Glen

    Heather - glad to have you!

    And if the article came across as me *against* Calvinism, my intention is completely the opposite. Calvin and Owen (not to mention Edwards) are very much our friends here as we seek to do justice to a biblical affective theology.

    Thanks for the nuance Chris - my point is to that it's un-Reformed to put my moral responsibility at the centre. We need to be more Calvinistic here not less.

  7. Heather


    I'm thankful to not be a burden. You did not appear to be anti-Calvinist to me. What I meant was that I had become discouraged by the teaching of some Calvinist teachers.

    There is a lop-sided approach to teaching that often does focus squarely on the believers duty to perform. After a bit of exposure to that I wasn't any better off than if I had adopted an Arminian view that dumps everything in the believer's lap. Instead of being returned to the feet of Jesus for cleansing and forgiveness, I was being pushed to work harder at "being good" and becoming increasingly more agitated at the realization of my own failure.

    The effect was that I was looking at me and my own efforts as "proof" of being a new creature in Christ and it was literally killing me from the inside.

    I appreciate that you offer a more balanced perspective.

  8. Heather

    Chris E,

    I'm probably not going to express myself well, but I wanted to thank you for sharing that lovely piece.

    I know firsthand what the "sad", defeated ex-Christians have felt.

    A major difference between my experience and the described hopeless condition of those being driven away from church is that I felt I had no choice but to keep pushing forward in order to once again find Jesus' hand. Perhaps that's the Calvinist in me--being driven to persevere ;)

    I know He is always there even when my emotions have been ripped apart by repeated battering of the "killing force" of the Law that has already appropriately done it's work. Having that assurance doesn't necessarily erase the pain, though, and I tend to be easily angered when I see the souls of others being abused in this way.

    Interestingly, the theme of the article you linked is related to some Biblical parallels I noted on my morning blog post. And that, in turn, is connected to a recently revealed heartbreak of a woman whose marriage has been battered and husband has walked away from seeking Christ partly due to some heavy-handed legalistic teaching in their church. I guess I'd better pay close attention as this sort of "coincidence" usually means there's a lesson involved.

    Sadly, many Christians are completely unaware of the element of God's merciful offer of forgiveness to which the Law ultimately points us.

    Um. I guess this is off-topic. I could probably write a book on my experience with addiction, but will refrain as I'm also trying to dry up a bad case of logorrhea.

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