In the latter half of Romans 1, Paul presents a very intriguing argument for the universal depravity of man. He states that God has provided the gospel to those who believe (Rom 1:16), because the wrath of God is revealed against all men for their ungodliness and unrighteousness (Rom 1:18). In other words, because we are so sinful and wicked, God has provided a means for salvation. If he had not, his wrath would remain forever upon us.
In Romans 1:18-32, Paul draws out the nature of this wickedness that merits God’s wrath. It’s very interesting to see the paradoxical manner in which he describes our sin.
First, Paul says that our sin is willful and knowing rebellion against God. In Romans 1:20-21, Paul says that though we know that God exists, we willingly and purposefully rebel against him. He also tells us in Romans 1:32 that we know that those who act wickedly deserve God’s wrath. So sin, in this vein, is a meditated choice to rebel against God.
But while Paul does describe sin as willful rebellion, in this very same passage, he also describes our sin as uncontrollable “lusts” brought on by our “hearts of impurity”, “dishonorable passions” and “debased minds” (Rom 1:24, 26, 28). Paul finishes by saying that if God left us in our sin, our sinful desires would enslave us, ultimately sending us to hell. So in this sense then, though we willfully disobey God (Rom 1:20-21), we are also uncontrollably bound in sin. Our sinful desires so control us that we become “filled with all manner of unrighteousness” (Rom 1:29).
In this way, sin is both something we choose, and something that controls us. Sin is both high-handed and willful rebellion, and all at the same time, a slave master who causes us to sin.
Edward Welch comments on this truth, saying,
In sin, we are both hopelessly out of control and shrewdly calculating; victimized yet responsible. All sin is simultaneously pitiable slavery and overt rebelliousness or selfishness. This is a paradox to be sure, but one that is the very essence of all sinful habits. If you deny the out-of-control nature of [sin], as some Christians have done, then you assume that everyone would have the power to change himself. Change would be easy. You would simply say, “Stop it. You got yourself into it, and you can get yourself out”. There would never be a sense of helplessness or a desperate need for both redemption and power through Jesus. So this cannot be our position.
At the same time, there will be other problems if you ignore the in-control, purposeful nature of [sin]. [Sinners] will be quick to place blame outside themselves. They are left with no way to understand their guilt. The redemptive work of Christ is replaced by an emphasis on “healing” that is not rooted in the grace of forgiveness.¹
For Welch then, sin must be personal and purposeful, and enslaving and controlling. And certainly, it is biblical. We are slaves to our sin (John 8:44). Yet, our sin is not divorced from our will. We choose to disobey. We want to disobey (Joshua 24:15).
More than this, though, God addresses our confusing sin problem with a complex gospel. In Christ, God provides an atonement through which all of our individual, chosen sins can be forgiven. But also, by the work of the Holy Spirit, God washes us through regeneration, replacing our sinful heart with a new heart able and willing to obey God. No longer do we have to obey the taskmaster of sin, but we are empowered to obey God afresh. And no longer do we have a record stained with sin, but a clean one filled up with Christ’s righteousness.
We have a paradoxical sin problem. But we also have a multi-faceted gospel solution. And we can be made new in Christ.
¹ Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave, Edward Welch