Hyperbolic, isn't it? "Sin is death" sounds like something you'd hear echoing from a bullhorn in a city that embraces noise as part of its culture. Philadelphia and New York come to mind (no offense, by the way; it's just that I hail from a quiet fishing town in Canada). In the context of so much physical turmoil and death in our world, calling sin "death" seems almost offensive, as if we're insulting people struggling with leukemia or COVID, the real death threats. How can we claim something so serious about a problem that seems more conceptual than physical?
It all depends on how you define life and death. What is life? If life is measured only in blood flow and heart beats, then "Sin is death" sounds ludicrous, like a misinformed battle cry of pre-modern street preachers. Sin might be a hindrance, a nuisance, or even a threat to moral flourishing in society at large, but death? Hardly.
But what if life has more to do with bonds than with blood? What is life is more deeply about a relationship than it is about our respiratory system? What is life is about an active (even if neglected or forgotten) bond of communion between us and the God whose breath gave us our breath? That would change our perspective on the whole "Sin is death" thing, wouldn't it? And doesn't Jesus refer to himself as the life (John 14:6)? Living would thus be a relationship with him, not a set of physical and mental animations.
What if life has more to do with bonds than with blood?
And what is death? If it's not just about the stillness of the body, the absence of animation, or the fading pulse beneath your skin, then what is it? Maybe if life is all about relationship, then death is really about the ending of that relationship, or at least the most dramatic change imaginable.
Sin as Death
Now, what struck me as I read Romans is just how direct Paul is in linking sin with death. He clearly views sin as more than a behavior problem that can be remedied by a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality. Sin is far more serious. Sin is lethal.
7 What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. 9 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. 10 The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11 For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me (Rom. 7:7-11).
For Paul, sin kills. It brings death. This doesn't mean that sin is an actual substance, some soul disease that spreads like wildfire. Sin is ethical, and it has no independent existence. It's parasitic; it can't exist on its own, so it follows around the good things of God's creation and distorts them, deforming us in the process. As Bavinck put it in The Wonderful Works of God, sin is "a manifestation which is moral in character, operating in the ethical sphere." Sin is moral and ethical. Yet, the fact that it's moral and ethical doesn't mean it's not lethal. Paul's language makes it clear that sin brings death. It destroys us.
How do we understand this in a time when sin is treated merely as a pattern of poor behavior? It seems to require that we go back again to our understanding of life and death. If sin is moral and ethical, and life is a moral and ethical relationship with God, then the death of that relationship is our death. It's not metaphor or hyperbole; it's reality. Note the connection Paul makes in the next chapter:
5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace (Rom. 8:5-6).
Do you see what he's doing? Setting the mind on the flesh means the destruction of a holy relationship. Setting the mind on the Spirit is life because it's the restoration of that holy relationship (note that while Jesus is life, the Spirit of Christ is the Holy Spirit). That's why Paul can say sin is death. Death is the end of a relationship, not merely the end of a pulse.
Death is the end of a relationship, not merely the end of a pulse.
As it does in other areas of our lives, Scripture encourages us to foreground spiritual life, to not make physical life the end-all of existence. Because of the culture we live in (secularized, cynical toward faith, confident in all things physical), we have a really hard time with that, don't we? And so we take Paul's language of sin as "death" as hyperbole or metaphor. In doing that, what if we're losing the gravity of his message?
What Is Satan After?
If sin really is the death of the soul, of the life-giving relationship we have with God, what's the endgame of the one who wields sin, Satan? The answer is simple. Recently, Satan's strategy has been laid out practically by John Mark Comer in Live No Lies. He refers to the traditional evil triad of the devil, the flesh, and the world.
Everything starts with deceptive ideas, or lies we believe (put our trust in and live by) about reality—mental maps that come from the devil, not Jesus, and lead to death, not life. But deceptive ideas get as far as they do because they appeal to our disordered desires, or our flesh. And then the world comes in to complete the three enemies’ circular loop. Our disordered desires are normalized in a sinful society, which functions as a kind of echo chamber for the flesh. A self-validating feedback loop where we’re all telling each other what we want (or what our flesh wants) to hear (John Mark Comer, Live No Lies).
Deception, disorder, and normalization. What follows this triad, however, is death. Death, the complete annihilation of the relationship you have with God—that's what Satan wants. That's what he uses sin to do, to kill us by killing our relationship with the life-giving God.
If Paul isn't being hyperbolic in linking sin with death, that means we need to work on re-envisioning sin in our era. We're so bent on sin as a behavioral problem that we ignore it's spiritual ramifications; we ignore what it's doing to our soul.
While sin isn't a substance in itself, that doesn't make it any less lethal. Sin isn't just a series or errors or poor judgments with momentary consequences. Sin is taking you somewhere. It's leading you down a path of decay, a path that ends in spiritual death. Every little decision you make during the day is either taking you farther down that path or down the other path, the path of the Spirit. The Spirit's path always leads to life because the Spirit is life, as is the Son, as is the Father. It's the little decisions each day that do far more than we realize to set our souls walking. The decision to make coffee for your spouse; the decision to read Scripture instead of browsing social media; the decision to offer a word of encouragement instead of the habitual silence. Decisions. Decisions. Decisions. Every one of them is moving you.
Sin is taking you somewhere.
Every time you sow to the Spirit and invest the resources of your mind and body into nurturing your inner man or woman’s connection to the Spirit of God, you plant something deep in the humus of your central fulcrum, which, over time, takes root and bears the fruit of a Christlike character (John Mark Comer, Live No Lies).
That Christlike character is life. You are either moving closer to Christ by the power of the Spirit, or closer to Satan in the power of death. There are only two directions.
Paul was right to use such strong language regarding sin. Sin is a killer. It's lethal. And the one behind it longs for your spiritual death. Satan wants your relationship with the living God to go up in flames. He would be happy to see the smoke rising. Thank God that, in Jesus Christ and by the power of the Spirit, we can keep stepping towards the light.
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