Answering Tim Farron’s Questioners: What is Sin anyway? Part 3: Sin is Slavery

It is not just Tim Farron but, it seems, all politicians who now are being asked whether they think gay sex is a sin. That is of course a meaningless question unless we ask what ‘sin’ is. It’s a Christian word and a Christian concept; so the only meaningful answer to that is a Christian one. This is part 3 of my answer. In part 1, I showed that sin is doing things that are wrong, which as a concept can only exist in a Christian view of the world. In part 2 I discussed how sin is not just about actions but is more fundamentally about a rejection of God’s authority to define right and wrong. In this third part I want to show that sin as the Bible presents it, and as Christianity has always understood it, is also slavery.

Jesus is plain about this. ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.’ (John 8:34). He introduced his ministry in the words of Isaiah the prophet: ‘The Spirit of the Lord… has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives… to set at liberty those who are oppressed.’ Of course Jesus would have disapproved of literal captivity and oppression, but his real concern was another sort of captivity, one that oppresses the heart of every man, woman and child. A captivity so serious that Jesus calls it a living death, which he has come to save people from: ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.’ The slavemaster is not the occupying Romans, not is it material injustice in society or oppressive social norms. The slavemaster is our own desires. ‘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.’ (Mark 7:21-22)

In other words – and the centrality of this to Christianity cannot be overstated – men and women have a problem on the inside. Our problem is what we want. Our desires are not good things to be followed but desperately corrupt things that lead us to death. And we are their slaves.

Now the way this is presented at the beginning of the Bible is of great significance. The serpent presented the idea of eating the fruit to the first man and woman as incredibly attractive because it looked like freedom. Eat this and you will be like God, knowing good and evil; you will be free to govern yourselves from now on. Don’t submit to God’s definition of sin; from now on, define it yourself. Be masters of your own souls. And so they ate, but when they did they discovered that what they had found was not freedom but slavery. The desires they sought freedom to follow became warped and twisted and, with no higher authority to hold them in check, seized control of them. Their desire to justify themselves immediately tore their married love apart. That same desire for self-fulfilment leads their first son to murder their second. Within a few generations the capacity men and women to want to do evil unfolded in its full horror. The verdict just six chapters into the Bible is that ‘the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually’ (Genesis 6:5).

Because desire, severed from its proper purpose of worshipping and serving our creator, has become a monster that crushes us in its grip. And that pattern, of grasping freedom which leads to slavery, is one which is the endlessly repeated refrain of human misery. Why do we lie, hate, gossip, advance ourselves at the cost of others? Why do we abuse, oppress, rape, neglect? Why do we hurt those we love and despise those we should love? The awful answer of the Christian Bible is that it is because we want to. Our desires are our problem.

Here is how the Apostle Paul described it:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins … we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2:1-3 ESV)

We were dead, says Paul. But the form of this death is what is so striking: we were simply doing exactly what we wanted. Following our passions and carrying out our desires.

This is what Christianity understands sin to be. It is a fundamental dislocation and disorientation in our nature, in which we constantly desire to do things, love to do things, which in the end lead to the destruction of others and ourselves. It is this alone that makes sense of the world we live in. The humanist belief in the essential goodness of humanity is nothing more than a pious fiction. We are not decent creatures who are fundamentally nice to each other. Only the blindest dogmatism could possibly believe so.

So now, back to the original question. You asked us whether homosexuality is a sin. Before answering, let me ask, why are you so sure that it is not? Your answer is probably that it is a human right; people must be free to fulfil their sexual desires; to act in line with how they feel. For to suggest otherwise would be terribly to limit them as human beings; it would prevent them finding fulfilment and satisfaction; it would involve the repression of something inherent in their very nature.

If that is your answer, then, in a sense, fair enough. But you might as well know that what you have described is exactly what Christianity means by sin. Recognise the pattern of the garden of Eden again: here is something desirable, I want it, if I can’t have it it will be a terrible limitation of my freedom; for life to be good I must be free to follow my desire. If I don’t it will damage me and prevent me being who I truly want to be.

But Christians know, because God has taught us through his Son and in his word, that following our desires leads not to freedom but to slavery. Our desires are not the innocent things we think they are. Just because I want something it doesn’t mean that it is good. Quite the reverse; what sin means is that the human heart longs for wrong things all the time. Every sinful human action is an instance of someone doing what he or she wants to do. So when secularists say that people must fulfil their desires to be their true selves, they are saying we are bound to follow them. They are our masters, and we must obey.

And in that insight the whole sexual revolution – not just the LGBT manifestation of it, though that is certainly included – is as perfect a demonstration of the sin principle as the world has ever seen. Here was a great promise of liberation from the shackles of social expectation and the laws of a supposed deity. There are no reasons to limit our pursuit of fulfilling our desires! Let’s embrace all the sexual pleasures we want, of any sort, and the result will be a wonderful future world of sexual freedom.

And the results have been slavery. Slavery of women to men who now can expect sexual favours while taking none of the responsibilities of marriage. Slavery of children to the misery of broken families and absent love. Slavery of countless men and women to the endless chasing after the supposedly perfect sexual experience or provider of it. Slavery of appalling loneliness of countless people in middle age with no stable family structures to love or be loved by. Slavery of all the victims of abuse whose abusers were, after all, simply being true to themselves and obeying the commands of their sexual desires.

And the gay lifestyle too fits the bill. Gay liberation promised a glorious future of sexual fulfilment and the end of discrimination. But for countless men and women who embraced it, it is a lifestyle of loneliness, sadness, disease, and still not the satisfaction that was promised. It is a slavery to unsatisfying relationships, endless pursuit of pleasure, and a strangely unshakeable sense of shame testified to by many. In a slightly different sense the voracious hunger of the LGBT movement – never satisfied with achieving what were its stated goals, always finding a new frontier of sexual liberation to fight for and believing that when it is achieved the fight will be over, but once it is achieve demanding the battlefront be moved on to something more – itself demonstrates this. What began as a cry for freedom is now a social norm which demands absolute conformity. The very question the politicians are being asked shows that what purports to be about freedom has become an authority that may not be questioned.  There is no freedom here. Only slavery.

I say this not out of disapproval but out of empathy. For I too know, as all Christians do, the enslaving power of sin. This is far from limited to sexual desires, though of course for many of us these are particularly acute. Slavery to sin applies across the whole spectrum of human desires; not in the same way for any of us, but really and powerfully for all of us. We Christians know what it is like to pursue what we thought would satisfy us and find that it has really enslaved us. For those of us who became Christians as adults we remember what our lives were like beforehand. For those of us who have had the privilege to be brought up as Christians we nevertheless have felt the clawing, grasping power of sin in our hearts and have often enough been ensnared by it.

But Jesus Christ came to save sinners. ‘If the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed’, said Jesus (John 8:36). That is what he has done for us. That is what we have experienced. Come to a church and you will find Christians who were once slaves to alcohol, to pride, to greed, and yes, to sinful sex, including gay sex. And we will be there because Jesus Christ has set us free. We are Christians because we know the power of sin and we found that there was only one person who could set us free from the misery of constantly chasing our warped desires. And that person is Jesus. His death broke the chains which bound us. His resurrection is the power that gave us new life. He gave us a new desire, which we did not have before: a desire to live a life according to God’s laws, reflecting God’s character, a life which is truly good, on his terms and not on ours. A desire to be what a human being should be, rather to be what by nature we naturally want to be. That is why we go to church and sing. That is why we love our Lord and Master. That is why we listen to his word with delight and willingly get on our knees to confess our sins, thank him for his mercy, and ask for what we need. He has saved us from a path of wanton self-destruction that we could never have saved ourselves from.

And so, for a third time, I need to ask, why does the Bible identify sin? Why identify such things as gay sex as a sin (among many others)? Because like all sins it enslaves, controls, and ultimately destroys us. That is why God cares about it. And that is why he sent his Son from heaven to earth, to become one of us, to die the death of a slave: to rescue us from this slavery. He has not left us in the miserable condition in which our sin-slavery has put us. He calls every man, woman and child on this planet – whatever form their slavery to sin takes, including whether it is sexual or not – to hear and receive the true freedom that Jesus Christ promises. He promises you, if you will repent of your sins and believe in him as Lord and Saviour, to make you a new man or woman, no longer defined by the passions of our hearts but newly redefined by the King of Kings himself.