Sin and Grace: The Broken System

Is the Christian religion a broken system? If so, what is the answer to the problem of sin?

“The kingdom of God, it’s a pressure machine // Every step, gotta keep it clean” (The Killers – “Pressure Machine”)

On their new record, beautifully detailing humble stories of a rural town, The Killers made a profound point on modern religion and the role it plays on its followers. Instead of the well of healing and life that it proports to be, it is nothing more than a pressure machine keeping a watchful eye on the behavior of its followers. There is no freedom in the reigns of the machine for with every step one is conscious of the constantly looming presence of sin. One slip, one lust for something that isn’t deemed pure, could send us spiraling back into bondage once again. Ironically, the very fear of the bondage of sin is a prison itself.

While it is true that not all Christians live like this, it is disingenuous to personally allow particulars, like R-rated films or alcohol or cussing, in a system that frowns upon them (as evidence I’ve known self-professed Christians to say they “don’t take it seriously”). One can hammer it down to personal conviction, but that is merely an open admittance to disagreeing with choice values or functions of the religious system. It is proclaiming that the system itself, the machine, is imperfect. I believe this is why some Christians frown upon the ever widening gap of compromise in Christian culture. The wider it gets the more apparent it becomes that the machine is falling apart. This in turn leads to insults and faith-based judgements made on the behalf of the machine towards those allowing the compromise, which only serves to highlight how broken it all was from the start (we avoid proclaiming salvation by works until we don’t).

What is the answer to all of this? Clamp down on sin and judgement in the church or cast away outlaws? The answer Paul came to, in one of the most relatable and beautiful passages of literature ever written, was grace. In a thought piece in response to religious law, Paul says,

I can anticipate the response that is coming: “I know that all God’s commands are spiritual, but I’m not. Isn’t this also your experience?” Yes. I’m full of myself—after all, I’ve spent a long time in sin’s prison. What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it becomes obvious that God’s command is necessary.

But I need something more! For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.

It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge.

I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?

The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different. (Romans 7:14-25 The Message, bold mine)

I love how The Message words it (I love how The Message words most things, actually). When I talked about The Cross and the New Humanity I noted a person who had “come to the end of his rope,” so to speak. His works had failed him. The machine had beaten him down. The man looked to the church for an answer, but was met with more mechanical instructions. Paul doesn’t look to the machine that holds the law, he looks to our Lord and proclaims that Christ is the one who sets all things right. The law, from the very beginning, was a broken system….

The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more (Romans 5:20 NIV)

What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”[ But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead….Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death (Romans 7:7-10 NIV, bold mine).

The purpose of the law was not to produce saints, as Paul notes that coveting only became a temptation for him when it became prohibited by law. The actual purpose of the law was to highlight the work of grace as a contrast. A life bound to the machine compared to a life of freedom outside of it by the Son who sets us free (John 8:36). Outside of the machine, we have a constant and joyous expectation that grace will produce wonders in us that the law could never do and we, in the flesh, shall no longer face the battle religion has ordered on us. Becoming free from the machine altogether is the first step towards our answer for sin.

David confirms this way of looking at it, saying that the one who trusts God to do the putting-everything-right without insisting on having a say in it is one fortunate man:

Fortunate those whose crimes are whisked away,
    whose sins are wiped clean from the slate.
Fortunate the person against
    whom the Lord does not keep score. (Romans 4:6-7 The Message)