Why do we do the things we do? Scholars struggle to understand human nature and, in particular, what theologians call sin. Where does it come from and why do we do it? In 2002, James Waller produced a careful work of psychology called Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing. What is fascinating about Waller’s study is that he challenges the common assumption that “extraordinary evil” must arise only from some abnormality within a people or society. Such a common view of extreme evil is a comfort to those of us who are “normal,” as it reassures us that we would never participate in such horrific events — we are not that bad. Yet what is so unsettling about Waller’s study is that he shows “extraordinary evil” actually arises from “ordinary people” — people like you and me.
The reality of extraordinary and ordinary evil remains a nagging problem, not easily answered and not easily ignored. Famed social psychologist Philip Zimbardo recently wrote The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (2007), emphasizing that the fundamental problem that leads us into offensive actions is environmental: what corrupts us is the hostile or acidic situations in which we find ourselves. Zimbardo is right to highlight the significance of context in shaping a person, but he is wrong when he reduces our proclivity for evil to influences from external situations.
Something is wrong not simply “out there” but within us. Jeremiah probed the human heart and soberly declared, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9). Similarly, the apostle James did not blame God for our temptations or sin but concluded, “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:14). But why do we have desires that can be so hurtful to others and so contrary to God? What is wrong with our hearts?
In the early church’s struggle to understand human nature, no debate became more significant than that between Pelagius and Augustine.
Zealous Pelagius, apparently frustrated by the lackadaisical ethical attitudes he saw around him, stressed the importance of unbending moral behavior. In the process, he argued against the idea of what we call “original sin” — when Adam and Eve sinned, their actions fundamentally affected all who would follow. After this fall, people are born with sinful impulses that turn them away from God. Pelagius disagreed. He believed that we are not born sinful, but we sin when we show inadequate willpower and give in to seductive situations. Like Adam and Eve before they gave into the deceptive sounds of the serpent, each of us begins life with the ability to remain untainted by sin. While there is no original sin, Pelagius did admit that people do sin, and thus Jesus is still needed.
By our baptism into Christ, Pelagius argued, all of our previous sins were forgiven, returning us to a clean slate. Baptized believers are called then to follow Jesus’ perfect moral example. Theoretically, Pelagius’ view meant that it is possible for people to live perfectly, without sin, as long as they always make the right choices. As John Anthony McGuckin, an early church historian, writes, “Pelagius thought that if a disciple persevered in strong discipline and prayer he or she would reach a state of stability where even the desire for sin would fade away, a condition of ascetic passionlessness (apatheia).” A Christian could live perfectly, no longer even tempted by sin. Doesn’t that sound good? Doesn’t that sound promising, maybe even inspiring?
Pelagius’ writings were sent to Bishop Augustine. The bishop found himself reluctantly drawn into a debate he wished to avoid, especially since Pelagius was known as a pious man and Augustine had plenty of other things to worry about. But once Augustine carefully read how Pelagius downplayed the gravity of sin, he immediately anticipated just how problematic and pastorally disastrous these views were. Augustine believed he had no choice but to respond.
Saturated in Scripture, and especially the epistles of Paul, Augustine argued that ignoring the extensiveness and intensiveness of sin creates unexpected problems. He was not worried just about how sin keeps non- Christians under God’s judgment, but he also called for sober assessment of the sin that remains in believers. In other words, one of the biggest problems with Pelagius’ teachings was that he had no satisfying explanation for the real continuing struggle that believers have with sin in their lives. Is it really that you and I are just not trying hard enough? Augustine knew otherwise; he consistently stressed God’s grace, from first to last.
Our problem is not just that we sin every now and then; our problem is that we are soaked in sin, are born into it, and are never completely free from its presence this side of glory. Augustine made this point by stringing together just a sampling of biblical texts: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5; see Job 14:4); “Who can say, “I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin?” (Prov. 20:9); “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12); “For we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). Augustine even quoted the great biblical scholar Jerome to support his point about original sin: “For no one is without sin, even if his life has but a single day.”
The problem of sin is deep and personal. We each have done things we regret, things we feel bad about. We remember stealing a piece of candy from a store or yelling in anger at our children or someone else. These actions are wrong and lamentable. But what can be even more disturbing is to begin to see the dark hand of sin shot through all of our internal world. In the quiet, in the dark, we begin to wonder about ourselves.
Working with college students, I sometimes watch them see the depth of their own sin for the first time, and in many cases it frightens them. They would all confess they are sinners if asked, but in truth, most of them view themselves as basically good. Then something happens. They begin to learn the complexity of their own hearts: they are surprised by how jealous they can be, how powerful addictions can form, how manipulatively they work situations and use people, and how accusatory their hearts can be, not just about others, but toward themselves. At some point it hits them — there is something terribly wrong, something bent about their hearts. They often become paralyzed as they begin to see that even their purest love grows out of mixed motives and darkened desires. It seems better to ignore this reality, to never fully see it. But is that better?
When our sin is revealed to us, it is painful. We wonder why sin remains such a violent presence in our lives, creating pain and relational destruction. As Anthony Hoekema observed, we face two issues with sin: the guilt it brings and the pollution it creates. While Christians are justified in Christ and soaked in His love and mercy (freed from sin’s guilt), we continue to wrestle with the ongoing realities of sin (its abiding pollution). Once we do see the darkness of our own hearts, the last thing we need, the last thing that seems to be helpful, is to be told, as Pelagius tells us, to try harder. We have tried, but sin remains. For Christians, part of what can be so troubling is that our sinful impulses do not simply disappear once we are saved. We still live in light of the tragedy of original sin, and it affects us not only every day, but every moment.
No wonder we find it humiliating to come to terms with our sin — it makes us confess things about ourselves that none of us really wants to admit. We are not “good people.” Something is wrong, not just in this world, but within us. Sin has affected not just our wills but our minds, our emotions, even our bodies. But paradoxically, only when we see our slavery to sin can we celebrate our liberty in Christ.
In the end, it is only when we humbly, and with unflinching honesty, come to recognize the true nature of sin that we can finally look, in awe and wonder, at the cross. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). Augustine concluded that our view of sin is not just a discussion about human nature, but ultimately it is a discussion about Jesus Christ and His death. The cross was not significant simply in order to get us “saved,” but its reality continues to govern and guide the life of God’s children. This means that not only are we saved by grace, but we remain dependent on grace for our whole lives. On the one hand, yes, there is our sin. But on the other, we behold the great, loving, and allsufficient work of Christ. And that changes everything. We live in the paradox that the Augustinian monk Martin Luther so rightly understood: Christians are simultaneously justified and still sinners (simul iustus et peccator). In this way, while we continue to struggle with sin, we also find hope and comfort as we lift our eyes to the cross and keep walking.