“Hello. My name is Timothy Arena, and I’m a sinaholic. I’m addicted to sin. I was born that way, and I will be that way until I die or Jesus comes.”
This may sound strange and even heretical to some—but I hope that you will see from what follows here that it is not. When I refer to my sin addiction (or anyone else’s), I’m not referring to the overt addictive actions we so often think of: lying, adultery, smoking, drinking, sexual sins, gambling, overeating, stealing, drug use, etc. I’m referring to the reality which lies behind all sin of which Paul wrote:
“For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” (Gal 5:17).
“For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.” (Rom 7:14-18).
“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” (1 Ti 1:15).
What is most significant is the admission—“sin dwells within me.”
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1Jn 1:8-10).
“Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (Eccl 7:20).
“For we all stumble in many ways” (Jas 3:2).
All of us are addicted to sin—regardless of the various flavors of it that we are attracted to, indulge in, or have even overcome. As Paul indicates, there is always a war between our sinful desires and our Spirit-led desires to remain connected with God (Gal 5:16-17).
Passing the Blame
Our culture—including both Christian and worldly, conservative or liberal—does not seem to encourage an adequate recognition of the depth of the sin problem. It always seems to be someone else’s problem rather than one’s own. In perhaps no other cases can this be seen as vividly on display as in the recurrent internet and media cycles of barraging condemnation, vitriolic name-calling, and public shaming. This is where there is a period of seemingly endless self-righteous delight in heaping scorn and revenge upon anyone (especially a famous person) who says something deemed inappropriate or offensive, or who has a sexual or moral fall. Social media, blogs, and news outlets go on for weeks and months in a deluge of epithets, insults, and rejoicing over others’ failures and misfortunes. This is not to deny that we should seek justice for those who have committed crimes that require retribution. The issue is rather the way in which we seem to forget that we also are sinners who deserve death, even if our sins are not of the public or spectacular variety.
In the realm of politics, this phenomenon of self-righteousness often means a castigation of those others who perpetrate the evils of the world. The evils are always said to be in someone else—
- “They are the problem. We are the ones trying to stop the evil.”
- “If only those other people would follow our line of thinking, we could solve the world’s problems.”
- “Those evil people should be fired, shamed, and black-listed for all time for what they said or did.”
But the divine word says to all:
“Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” (Rom 2:1)
“None is righteous, no, not one . . . . Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.” (Rom 3:10, 19)
This should not be taken to mean that there is no place for the fact that we should be people who “sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed” in the world (Eze 9:4); or that we should not cry out for justice and righteousness (Am 5:24). But we should recognize that we also have evil within us and should say with Isaiah, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Is 6:5)
Recognizing the Problem
Ellen White’s words summarize the main point:
None of the apostles and prophets ever claimed to be without sin. Men who have lived the nearest to God, men who would sacrifice life itself rather than knowingly commit a wrong act, men whom God has honored with divine light and power, have confessed the sinfulness of their nature. (AA 561)
“No deep-seated love for Jesus can dwell in the heart that does not realize its own sinfulness.” (SC 65)
The first step is admitting the problem. I’m addicted to selfishness because it is part of my nature from birth.
“The intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” (Gn 8:21)
“Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Ps 51:5)
“Selfishness is inwrought in our very being. It has come to us as an inheritance.” (HS 138)
“The inheritance of children is that of sin. Sin has separated them from God. . . . As related to the first Adam, men receive from him nothing but guilt and the sentence of death.” (CG 475)
This stark admission above that we are “sinaholics” (which is often proverbially cited as a statement encouraged to be made by people in Alcoholics Anonymous) is one which I suggest should be recited by all Christians every day as a reminder of who and what we are, regardless of how much God has and will continue to change our lives through His power (more on this below).
In the Israelite sanctuary system, the people were reminded every day, at least twice a day, of their sinful condition. There was a morning and evening sacrifice, and the fire on the altar was to be burning continually (Nm 28:1-4; Lv 6:13). Even unintentional acts were considered to be sin that required atonement (Lv 4-6). There is no biblical support for the idea that only conscious, concrete acts constitute the sum total of human sinfulness. No Israelite could say to themselves, “Well, I didn’t sin today, so I do not need these sacrifices.”
The Laodicea Syndrome
As Seventh-day Adventists we have often held simplistic views of sin. We have tended to view it as an outward, concrete act or a specific choice, and something that “Evangelicals,” Catholics, smokers, drinkers, prostitutes, and, well, just about everyone else has a problem with other than ourselves. At times, we condescendingly pray for others as if they are great sinners, while we neglect to pray for our own evil hearts. After all, some think, “Don’t we keep the commandments of God? Are we not the Remnant Church of Revelation 12:17? Don’t we follow the health message?” Certainly there is sin in concrete, overt activities, but the problem is this: As soon as a person starts congratulating themselves upon their moral achievement for not doing certain activities, he or she has fallen into the very core of sin—selfish pride. This is why we specifically have been warned that we as a church are like Laodicea—we think that we are rich and increased in goods when in fact we are poor, blind, miserable, and naked (Rv 3:14-22). Jesus told a parable to those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Lk 18:9)—the Pharisee and the tax collector (Lk 18:9-14)—about this very problem—a problem that is especially prevalent in our ranks. We have often failed to really understand what the depths of the Ten Commandments entail:
The law requires us to present to God a holy character. It demands of men today just what it demanded of Adam in Eden,—perfect obedience, perfect harmony with all its precepts in all relations of life, under all circumstances and conditions. No unholy thought can be tolerated, no unlovely action can be justified. As the law requires that which no man of himself can render, the human family are found guilty before the great moral standard, and it is not in the province of law to pardon the transgressor of law. The standard of the law cannot be lowered to meet man in his fallen condition. No compromise can be made with the sinner to take less than the full requirement of the law. The law cannot acquit the guilty, it cannot cleanse the sinner, or give power to the transgressor to raise himself into a purer, holier atmosphere. Standing before a holy, good, and just law, and finding ourselves condemned because of transgression, we may well cry out, What shall we do to be saved? ST May 30, 1895.
This was the burden of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7). The demands of the Law extend into every thought and impulse. They reveal the troubling depth of our condition. Without this knowledge, people are likely to castigate those who are involved in open, obvious sin such as homosexual lifestyles, smoking, drinking, profligacy, etc. without recognizing their own sinfulness.
“Not Having a Righteousness of my Own, that Comes from the Law”—
Christ’s Imputed Righteousness is Needed
The problem with some Adventists is that they defend obedience and the law without having a sufficient terror (FW 96) of what this really entails. They have perhaps not sufficiently felt the anguish that Luther, Wesley, and Ellen White herself did from the realization that standing before an infinitely holy God and His law without Christ drives one to despair. All three of them were led (by God’s servants, their friends) to eventually understand the Gospel—that God has provided a Substitute who obeyed the law perfectly for us, so that our imperfect keeping of it would be rendered acceptable to God through the mediation of Christ (Ex 28:38-40; Heb 7:25; 1Jn 2:2). “Man’s obedience can be made perfect only by the incense of Christ’s righteousness, which fills with divine fragrance every act of obedience” (AA 531). For many, the Law seems to be seen as something eminently achievable and surmountable. It is not seen as something literally crushing in its force, and indeed impossible (at least in one sense) to obey perfectly.
“Jesus loves His children, even if they err. . . . He keeps His eye upon them, and when they do their best, calling upon God for His help, be assured the service will be accepted, although imperfect. Jesus is perfect. Christ’s righteousness is imputed unto them” (3SM 195-196).
Certainly we as a people are called to “repair the breach” in the law of the Sabbath, and call all nations, tongues and peoples back to the creation memorial of the Sabbath (Rev 14:6ff.), and the law of God remains as a guide for the Christian life; (Rom 14:9-14; 1 Jn 2:3-4; Eccl 12:13-14; etc.) but we should also recognize our limitations and sinfulness. “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do” (Rom 8:3). The rich young ruler thought that he had been obeying God’s law perfectly, but Jesus showed him his spiritual poverty despite his riches and claims of obedience (Mk 10:17-22).
Ellen White had a seemingly paradoxical balance about the capacity to keep the law. She was clear that the law of God is eternal and is for us to keep: “He would have man obey the commandments of God because it is for the health and life of all human beings” (2 MCP 786). On the other hand, she also says that we cannot keep the law with the 100% flawlessness that it actually entails—we thus need Christ’s imputed righteousness to cover our imperfections (not rebellion—see COL 316):
“This is the reason that Christ came to this world, that he might bring his righteousness to man, that man might lay hold of his strength, and make peace with God. God accepts the efforts of man to keep the law, because Christ imputes his righteousness to him. We could not keep the law in our own strength.” (ST September 23, 1889)
“It was possible for Adam, before the fall, to form a righteous character by obedience to God’s law. But he failed to do this, and because of his sin our natures are fallen and we cannot make ourselves righteous. Since we are sinful, unholy, we cannot perfectly obey the holy law. We have no righteousness of our own with which to meet the claims of the law of God” (SC 62).
We can keep the principles of the law through God’s gracious leading by the Holy Spirit, but without the merits of Jesus to cleanse our tainted, “polluted-garment,” obedience we would all be lost (Phil 3:8-15; Is 64:6). The only remedy is this:
“Christ has made a way of escape for us. He lived on earth amid trials and temptations such as we have to meet. He lived a sinless life. He died for us, and now He offers to take our sins and give us His righteousness. If you give yourself to Him, and accept Him as your Saviour, then, sinful as your life may have been, for His sake you are accounted righteous. Christ’s character stands in place of your character, and you are accepted before God just as if you had not sinned. . . . Christ [also] changes the heart. He abides in your heart by faith. You are to maintain this connection with Christ by faith and the continual surrender of your will to Him; and so long as you do this, He will work in you to will and to do according to His good pleasure” (SC 62).
Sinful Human Nature: Immune to Utopian Chimeras
The problem for many other Adventists is that they have abandoned or minimized the idea of sin as an internal selfishness that needs an atoning Savior and Substitute who was punished and took upon Himself the wrath of God against sin in our place (Is 53; Rom 3:20-31; Gal 3:13; 1Pt 3:18; etc.), and instead they have viewed sin as primarily a social problem to be solved by various programs, care for the poor and disadvantaged, advocating for various political causes for the victims of societal abuse, etc. Certainly these are laudable, indeed essential aspects of the Christian life (Mt 25:31-46). But they do not solve the problem of sin at the core. A person who does all of these things is still a sinner. And the solutions offered will never eradicate the problems fully because of the fact that all human societies are filled—and always will be so till Jesus returns—with sinners.
In both cases the (unintentional) result is that human beings lower the standard of God’s law to be something that can be achieved by maintaining a veneer of virtue to cover inward vice. In the end what has happened on all sides is that power and control become the favored means of achieving the pipe dream of a utopian society: it is as if a large amount of people on all sides of various debates really believe that it is possible to eliminate sin by secular, coercive legislation and censorship. People want society to look and sound as they think it should—regardless of the evil that remains in human hearts. This is not to argue that we can and should influence our society in various helpful ways that draw upon insights from all (or most) sides of the spectrum, but rather that such endeavors will not solve the ultimate and least recognized problem—human sinful nature. All human attempts at utopias have failed due to this fact. The solutions to our ultimate problems should be sought through the Gospel of Christ much more than through political policies.
Root and Fruit
The solution to the problem in all cases is the same: a humble recognition of the need for a Savior. The answer to the poignant question Ellen White posed above “What shall we do to be saved?” has the same answer from both Scripture—“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31) and her own continuation in that passage,
“There is but one way of escape for the sinner. There is but one agency whereby he may be cleansed from sin. He must accept the propitiation that has been made by the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world” (ST May 30, 1895).
‘Every soul may say: “By His perfect obedience He has satisfied the claims of the law, and my only hope is found in looking to Him as my substitute and surety, who obeyed the law perfectly for me. By faith in His merits I am free from the condemnation of the law. He clothes me with His righteousness, which answers all the demands of the law. I am complete in Him who brings in everlasting righteousness. He presents me to God in the spotless garment of which no thread was woven by any human agent. All is of Christ, and all the glory, honor, and majesty are to be given to the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world”’ 1SM 396.
Probably you might be wondering at this point where all the admonitions about obedience come in. It is at just this point in the discussion. Yes, we can make right choices through the Holy Spirit (Dt 30:19; Rom 6:11-12; 8:11-12). Yes, we can resist temptation by the power of God (1 Cor 10:13). But, as noted above, all of our obedience is tainted by our innate sinfulness. Our righteousness is like “a polluted garment” (Is 64:6), and we are “unworthy servants” (Lk 17:10). Obedience must be viewed as the fruit of salvation, not the cause of it. “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:22-23). “We do not earn salvation by our obedience; for salvation is the free gift of God, to be received by faith. But obedience is the fruit of faith” (SC 61). In writing of Wesley, Ellen White wrote, “He continued his strict and self-denying life, not now as the ground, but the result of faith; not the root, but the fruit of holiness. The grace of God in Christ is the foundation of the Christian’s hope, and that grace will be manifested in obedience” (GC 256, author’s original italics). It is the gradual transformation that ensues from a life of gratitude in the light of the cross.
Order of Operations
Paul had an important and purposeful pattern in a number of his letters—he moved from the history of salvation in the beginning of his letters to exhortations toward obedience at the end of them (see Romans, Ephesians, and Colossians for the most salient examples). Being set free from sin is first and foremost being justified by grace through faith alone through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. It was the same with Israel. God told the people, “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Exo 19:4). “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exo 20:2). Only then did He ask them to respond in loving obedience, as well as participation in the sacrificial system to embrace the atonement for their sin. And (contrary to some claims), God has always been interested in the human heart, not only outward actions. He told Israel, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart” (Dt 6:5-6). As a concomitant result of accepting God’s salvation, we will be transformed gradually into Christ’s image. Rather than seeking to establish our own righteousness (Rom 10:1-4), we humbly move forward in faith while Christ covers us with His righteousness. Only a humble, sin-recognizing person can be a loving person (1 Jn 4). We can only love others because of our reflection of the love of God as displayed in the propitiation. Now I can ask God to help me deal with the idols in my heart (Ez 14:3). Now I can ask Him to help me strive against my innate selfishness. Now I can solicit the Holy Spirit to help me avoid watching things and going places where the angels will not follow. Now I can seek victory over bad habits through divine aid. Now I can seek to be a better husband, friend, and colleague—because now these are all in the right context. Now I can delight in the law as the psalmist did (Ps 19)—both because it drove me to Christ (Gal 3:24) and because it reveals the character of God and His way of life. I recognize that these results are not the means of being saved, but rather the fruits of salvation.
Some people think that an emphasis upon our sinful condition leads to discouragement and inaction. It is actually just the opposite. Zeroing in on the sin problem is what makes Christ and His cross shine all the brighter.
“Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 5:20-21).
It is this also that spurs us on toward serving God and others in the world.
“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (Eph 4:32-5:2).
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5:1-5).
This is why Paul drove home so strongly the sin indictment upon all of humanity in the first three chapters of Romans before announcing the glorious gospel of justification by faith (Rom 3:21-31). The saints/sinners Ellen White referred to above were described in this way:
[They have] put no confidence in the flesh, have claimed no righteousness of their own, but have trusted wholly in the righteousness of Christ. . . . At every advance step in our Christian experience our repentance will deepen. We shall know that our sufficiency is in Christ alone and shall make the apostle’s confession our own: “I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing.” “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” Romans 7:18; Galatians 6:14. (AA 561)
“The soul that is transformed by the grace of Christ will admire His divine character; but if we do not see our own moral deformity, it is unmistakable evidence that we have not had a view of the beauty and excellence of Christ.” (SC 65)
“The closer you come to Jesus, the more faulty you will appear in your own eyes; for your vision will be clearer, and your imperfections will be seen in broad and distinct contrast to His perfect nature.” (SC 64)
“A view of our sinfulness drives us to Him who can pardon; and when the soul, realizing its helplessness, reaches out after Christ, He will reveal Himself in power. The more our sense of need drives us to Him and to the word of God, the more exalted views we shall have of His character, and the more fully we shall reflect His image.” (SC 65)
The paradoxically amazing truth is that the more we realize how sinful we are innately, and how much we value Jesus’ for His rescuing of us from sin, the more it is that we become more like Him and cling to sin less and less. Our awareness of it actually deepens, even as the symptoms lessen. We are healing and recovering sinaholics who gradually learn to drink from the pure fountain of the water of life instead of the broken cisterns of the world (Jn 4:14; 7:37-38; Rv 22:17; Jer 1:13).
When I was without the gospel, I used to be one of two things—proud that I was not as sinful as others, or discouraged when I realized that in fact I was. Now I am at peace with God through knowing my justified status even as I continue to struggle against my own sinful, selfish nature (Rom 5:1). As Martin Luther put it, we are simul justus et peccator (simultaneously justified and sinful). We are saints/sinners—always leaning upon the grace of Christ in the cross, always learning to love more fully so as to reflect His character as revealed in the holy law—the law He died to affirm and keep for us perfectly in order to present us to God in His robe of justifying righteousness which leads to a thankful and transformed life. The reality is that we are sinners by definition after the Fall (Rom 5:12-21). The only solution to our plight is to be rescued by the God-Man Jesus through His atoning blood, cross, intercession, and transformative power through the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 3:17-18; 5:14-21).
Those who are really seeking to perfect Christian character will never indulge the thought that they are sinless. Their lives may be irreproachable, they may be living representatives of the truth which they have accepted; but the more they discipline their minds to dwell upon the character of Christ, and the nearer they approach to His divine image, the more clearly will they discern its spotless perfection, and the more deeply will they feel their own defects. When persons claim that they are sanctified, they give sufficient evidence that they are far from being holy. They fail to see their own weakness and destitution. They look upon themselves as reflecting the image of Christ, because they have no true knowledge of Him. The greater the distance between them and their Saviour, the more righteous they appear in their own eyes. While with penitence and humble trust we meditate upon Jesus, whom our sins have pierced and our sorrows have burdened, we may learn to walk in His footsteps. By beholding Him we become changed into His divine likeness. And when this work is wrought in us, we shall claim no righteousness of our own, but shall exalt Jesus Christ, while we hang our helpless souls upon His merits” SL 7-8.
 All Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version, (ESV), (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001), 2011 text edition.
 I am aware of the debate about who is being referred to in Romans 7: a converted or unconverted person. It will suffice to note for now that in at least one place, Ellen White applied it to a converted person (as will be shown below), and I think that is where the weight of evidence leads—an unconverted person would not desire to do good, love God’s law, and feel such a deep inner conflict between his/her sin and God’s standards. Nor would they cry out to Christ for deliverance, recognizing their wretchedness. Rather than chapters 7 and 8 of Romans being a description of before/after conversion, I would suggest that they describe two sides of the same coin—the struggle between the flesh and the Spirit, and the victory that the Spirit helps to provide—but the struggle never ends in this life (see Phil. 3:8-13, AA 561).
 See Phil. 3:8-15: “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.”
How it was that I (and many others) could have grown up in the SDA church and reached my mid-thirties before understanding the gospel is a tragedy that calls for an explanation. I don’t know all of the reasons, but some of them seem evident: my natural, sinful human heart, lack of the gospel in preaching and in (at least some of our) religious education—at least two and three decades ago.