No one likes to focus on sin, right? We want to be people of grace, people of hope, people of redemption, don’t we? That’s the thing. Without a clear picture of the depth of our sin, grace isn’t as amazing, hope isn’t as solid, and redemption isn’t as powerful.
Jared Wilson is a pastor friend of mine, and he has recently written a new small group study with LifeWay’s Threads called Seven Daily Sins. I worked my way through this curriculum a few weeks ago and was convicted, challenged, and encouraged at the same time. Here’s a description:
The so-called “seven deadly sins” – lust, greed, envy, sloth, pride, gluttony, wrath – are not merely things we “do” with our behavior but, as Jesus reveals, conditions of our heart. Even if we don’t act on them, we carry these desires around with us every day. How does the gospel address the needs at the root of these sins and empower us to break patterns of bondage to them? Seven Daily Sins reveals from Scripture how Christians can stop managing their sin and start experiencing freedom in Christ. As Tim Keller tells us, “We are more wicked than we dared believe.” But also, “We are more loved than we dared hope.” There is good news for Christians struggling with these appetites – for that’s what they are, deep down – and it comes by and from the redemptive power of the gospel of Jesus.
I asked Jared to stop by the blog and answer some questions about the study. Our conversation is below.
Jared Wilson: The biggest challenge was focusing on sin without preaching condemnation. It can happen so easily.
Luther says it’s the supreme art of the Devil to turn the gospel into law, so even as I was attempting to apply the gospel to these “big sins,” by focusing on them, the shift into law-giving happened so imperceptibly. And the law is helpful and good for what it’s designed to do, so it’s not like there’s no practical instructions or application of the imperatives in the book. I just had to make sure that by leading readers into focusing on their sin, I found a way to stand beside them, to write as humbly as I could as a brother who shares these sins and similar struggles myself.
Another challenge, of course, is writing honestly and candidly and substantively about sin without indulging prurient interests. The chapter on lust was probably most dangerous in that regard. The aim of the book is not to indulge fascination with sin but to face it head on, sober-mindedly, and really not play around on the surface of the behavior.
Trevin Wax: Your writing always features good illustrations from movies, cultural trends, and contemporary events. The illustrations communicate the biblical truths powerfully. Can you give us a little insight into how you work these into your teaching and writing?
Jared Wilson: Well, I don’t have a formulaic way of making these connections. I “read” a lot of the entertainment I take in on an illustrative basis. I think a lot of preachers do this, actually; as a preacher and a writer, I’m sure you do too.
I started making “gospel connections” in books and movies — and to a lesser extent, TV shows — in grade school, actually, writing little pieces on how Superman is a picture of Jesus. It was very childish but appropriate because I was a child.
I think people can go way overboard in making religious connections in everything they see, but good art resonates with me in ways I can’t really explain, so it’s a practically instinctive thing to see when Ben Stiller at the end of “Along Came Polly,” just as one example, says to Jennifer Aniston that he’s never been more afraid in his life than when he’s with her but wants to be with her forever anyway, to see this as a picture of the appeal and the danger of the call to discipleship. That’s just a silly little note, but these can be helpful for listeners and readers when you don’t make them about the movie but instead about the moment in the movie.
I don’t want to do a “Gospel According to Lost” type of thing, but I can certainly find little moments of dialogue in “Lost” that even people who’ve never watched the show can resonate with and see the appeal of. I did that last weekend in my sermon where I asked if anyone had seen the Werner Herzog documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.” Nobody had, but I shared my favorite part anyway — where the film crew is not allowed around a certain corner despite the fact that they are promised amazing things are back there. And then I just led from that to say that Jesus, as the self-disclosure of the God nobody’s ever seen (John 1), takes us around the corner. That really resonated with people; they liked the description of that movie scene even though they had no previous knowledge of it.
I think it works best if it’s not a stretch and if we make it about the connectable moment, a true illustration, rather than about the movie or book itself as a whole.
Trevin Wax: Of these seven “deadly” (or daily) sins, which do you struggle with the most?
Jared Wilson: The premise of the book is that the deadly sin of pride is the root of all the others, that all the others flow from the first sin of pride, so that is the one we all struggle with most.
But for me personally, the other so-called “deadly sins” that I most apply my pride to are gluttony and lust, but more so gluttony these days. I’m not an obese guy, and that’s one way I have been tempted to avoid it, because there are not many physical repercussions. More than when I was younger, with a faster metabolism, and was more active, of course, but still not too many. But I love to medicate with food when I’ve had a rough day or week. I like food too much.
By God’s grace I do not struggle with lust nearly as much as I used to. This is purely a God thing, not a me thing, because I used to be a struggling pornography user. God broke me of that through some serious consequences, and I’ve been repentant and “clean” for almost 8 years now.
Trevin Wax: Which one do you think the church struggles with in general?
Jared Wilson: I think the church struggles in general most with greed and envy. This comes out in a million different ways, as the message of Christianity gets corrupted by the idolatrous parts of the American dream and even as whole churches succumb to competition with each other or a “shameful gain” of numbers, be it budgetary or attendance.
Trevin Wax: Why is it important to have a gospel orientation when speaking of sin?
Jared Wilson: If we don’t continually center on the gospel of grace, we either leave people feeling the burden of condemnation or the deceptive burden of moralistic self-improvement. The latter may delay the felt experience of the former, but it goes there eventually anyway, as people tend to burn out or wonder why they can’t get beyond certain sinful habits or thoughts. The gospel is the only thing the Bible calls power to save.
What we need is not *initially* a set of new behaviors — although new behaviors are required and expected — but a new set of affections. According to 2 Corinthians 3, the only way to change (“from one degree of glory to another,” even) is by beholding the glory of God in Christ. So Thomas Chalmers talks about how the only thing that can remove an idol from our heart is the expulsive power of a new affection. This is what happens when grace comes home to roost in our hearts.
Trevin Wax: How does a gospel posture help us call out sin in a way that magnifies grace?
Jared Wilson: A gospel posture magnifies grace because it shows us only God’s grace has the real power to conquer sin. And it also, as we receive the welcome of grace time and time again — as we are faithful to confess, He is faithful to forgive, because He always lives to intercede for us — dwarfs our sin in the bigness of Jesus’ embrace.
As big and ugly and besetting as our sin is, God really is more eager to forgive than we are to sin.
Trevin Wax: Why are Christians tempted toward sin-management instead of sin-killing? What’s the difference?
Jared Wilson: Sin-killing is more painful and requires more self-honesty. Any schmuck can change his behavior. The Pharisees did. Buddhists do. The unsaved working the program in addiction recovery can do that. But it’s the desire, something much more elusive, much deeper, more rooted in our interior life and worship-wiring, that has to be fixed.
It’s the difference between mowing over weeds and actually uprooting them. And it’s a pain to pull weeds; we’d all just rather mow them down. Over and over and over again. It takes some grit to manage our sin — and then we can feel proud of ourselves — but it takes grace to kill sin.
It really is like messing with DNA. One of the premises of the book is that we don’t just do sin, we are sin. So sin-killing involves the dying to self that Jesus talked about, that taking up of our cross. But there is astounding power in knowing that He who knew no sin became (our) sin that we might become His righteousness.
Trevin Wax: Thanks, Jared. The study is an excellent resource, and I commend it to others.