Conduct an interview with Christians from a variety of different theological traditions, and all of them will almost certainly say yes to the following question: “Are human beings sinners?” The Bible’s teaching that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23) is simply too clear for people to deny outright. Moreover, from our own experience, we are well aware of how often we and all other people (except Christ) transgress our Creator’s law. Few professing believers, then, would deny that human beings are sinners.
If we probe a little deeper and ask what it means to be fallen, what it means to be a sinner, then the differences between professing Christians will start to be clearer. In fact, there exist significant disagreements between professing Christians and even between professing evangelicals as to the extent of sin and its impact on our minds, hearts, and wills. Many people believe that the wills of sinners are essentially free in the sense that they have an equal ability to choose good or evil. Others confess that some kind of enabling grace is required for us to choose what is good, but that receiving this grace does not ensure that we will choose salvation. Precious few will state that our enslavement to sin is so powerful that we cannot muster enough cooperation in ourselves to be released from bondage.
If we consider the writings of some of the most important Christian thinkers in history, however, we will find that they are quite clear on the enslavement of our wills to sin. Martin Luther, for example, considered the idea that human beings possess an equal freedom to choose good or evil so foolish that he wrote a lengthy attack on this notion titled The Bondage of the Will. In this famous work, Luther argued that the human will serves one of two masters—God or Satan—and that apart from grace, all people are enslaved to Satan and are not free to escape this bondage on their own. Many biblical passages testify to this truth, including John 8:34, which tells us that those who oppose Christ are enslaved to sin.
Luther and others such as John Calvin agree that since the fall, human beings possess wills and make choices. The problem is that sin has so enslaved us that unless God sovereignly intervenes, the only choices we make are displeasing to God, because they aren’t made from a heart inclined toward Him. Apart from grace, we cannot love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30).
Understanding that sinners are enslaved to sin can help us have more compassion on them. Although people know better, they do what is wrong because as slaves to sin that is all they can do. We, too, were once in such a state, and we did not free ourselves, but the Lord released us from bondage to sin. Thus, we should be patient with sinners, not excusing their sin but also not expecting them to do what is right apart from divine grace.