Whenever I speak or write about the problem of human sin I always insist on also speaking or writing about salvation by grace. I don’t want people to hear the bad news about our struggle with sin without also hearing the good news that salvation in Jesus Christ is a free gift that is both undeserved and unachievable. Some Christians in the Reformation traditions refer to this twofold aspect of biblical revelation as law and gospel.
Before I discuss what are known as the seven deadly sins, I’ll begin with a brief discussion of salvation as a gift of God.
Salvation by Grace
The apostle Paul reveals to us the good news: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.” (Ephesians 2:4–5)
I hope these words never get old for you. God, the creator of all things, saved us in and through our redeemer Jesus Christ. And this salvation came while we were spiritually dead and at enmity with God. Yet it was motivated by God’s great love and rich mercy. Theologians refer to this gracious act on God’s part as justification.
Concerning the gospel of grace theologian Anthony Hoekema reminds us that “one of Paul’s strongest emphases is that no one can earn eternal life by his or her good deeds.”1 Salvation is never something we deserve and it cannot be earned by our spiritual and moral efforts. It is a gift of God’s goodness and kindness—not merited by our works.
The apostle Paul makes the contrast between grace and works clear: “And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.” (Romans 11:6)
Consider this formula:
Grace = Unmerited Favor
Merit = Earned
Grace = Gift
Therefore, merit contradicts grace in terms of salvation. (In the process of sanctification we cooperate with God’s grace but not in justification.)
Hoekema continues: “The idea that one can ‘merit an increase of grace’ would seem to be a contradiction in terms. For if something is of grace, how can it be merited? And if it is merited, how can it still be grace? Further, the teaching that one can merit everlasting life is clearly contrary to Scripture.”2
The apostle Paul summarizes how we should think of grace, faith, and works in the salvation that comes to us from God. It’s comforting to know that all three members of the Trinity are involved in our salvation.
“But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.” (Titus 3:4–8)
In the scriptural pattern of salvation, we are:
saved by grace
not by works
and saving grace motivates good works
Motivation for Living the Christian Life
Not only are we saved by grace but we should also seek to live the daily Christian life by grace. We rely on the Holy Spirit to produce his fruit in our lives, including the virtues of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22–23). The Spirit’s work in sanctification is consistent with our own effort to conform to godliness. Theologians Anthony Hoekema and John Jefferson Davis emphasize the Spirit’s role in the process of sanctification:
“The Christian life is now to be lived, not first of all in obedience to a set of rules (though the rules of God are still important guidelines for Christians), but in the strength of the Holy Spirit.”3
“In this view, the state of holiness begins with regeneration and conversion, and is to grow throughout the believer’s life through the ministry of the Word and the Spirit and through personal faith and obedience. In this understanding, the old sin nature is progressively subdued, but never entirely abolished in this life.”4
For as our Lord stated: “Then he [Jesus] said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.’” (Luke 9:23)
Despite the good news of what God has done for us in salvation, we can be swamped by doubts due to our ongoing struggle with sin. What do we do when some sins seem too difficult to overcome and even deadly?
The Seven Deadly Sins
The so-called seven deadly sins are not found as a specific list in Scripture. But all seven are mentioned in the Bible as sins first against God but also against our neighbor and even against ourselves. Christian thinker David Naugle tells of their origin:
“The list of the seven deadly sins was originally formulated to protect monks and nuns from misbehavior in monasteries and nunneries. Yet it was quickly apparent that they applied to regular people in everyday life whether they were in religious orders or not. Sin is no respecter of persons.”5
Here are the seven deadly sins listed alphabetically:
1. anger (or wrath)
4. greed (or avarice)
7. sloth (or lack of affection)
These sins present a tangle of vice. Naugle describes how they’re interconnected: “The seven deadlies are causes, other sins their effects. Murder, for example, is anger’s son. Theft is the daughter of greed. Adultery is the offspring of lust.”6
Naugle uses St. Augustine’s description of these sins as reflecting “disordered loves.” As fallen human beings we love temporal things more, and eternal things less, which leads to a deep-seated discontentment. These disordered loves then, in turn, disorder our lives. Augustine and the reformer Martin Luther described the sinful condition as incurvatus in se—Latin for the person “curved in on himself” rather than outward toward God.
Building on the idea of sin as disordered loves, theologian Michael Reeves describes the broken condition of human beings after the fall: “Lovers we remain, but twisted, our love misdirected and perverted. Created to love God, we turn to love ourselves and anything but God.”7
In his classic text Confessions, St. Augustine writes about his own disordered life, which mirrors our own: “But my sin was this, that I looked for pleasure, beauty, and truth not in him but in myself and his other creatures, and the search led me instead to pain, confusion, and error.”8
Human beings pay a heavy existential price for these twisted affections. Naugle again provides helpful connections on the seven deadly sins: “Pride, envy, and anger flow from an obsession with the self. Avarice [greed], gluttony, and lust originate in excessive love for money, food, and sex. Since these things rank high in our hearts, love for God ranks low, and this deficiency of affection for him is called sloth.”9
During times of doubt over our disordered lives, that’s when we need to cling to what we know is true about God. The words “when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy” are our assurance of God’s good favor to us.
The biblical concept of a fallen humanity possesses significant explanatory power. And if the Bible can explain the enigma of the human condition, then there is good reason to believe it is a true revelation from God.
Yet in light of the seven deadly sins and their power to disorder our lives, let me remind you that as a believer in Christ, you are saved by grace. And that saving grace motivates the believer to pursue virtue, which is its fruit instead of its root.
Anthony A. Hoekema, Saved by Grace
Kenneth Richard Samples, 7 Truths That Changed the World: Discovering Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas, chapters 9 and 10
1. Anthony A. Hoekema, Saved By Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 165.
2. Hoekema, 166.
3. Hoekema, 44.
4. John Jefferson Davis, Handbook of Basic Bible Texts: Every Key Passage for the Study of Doctrine & Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 94.
5. David K. Naugle, Reordered Love, Reordered Lives: Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 65.
6. Naugle, 65.
7. Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 67.
8. Augustine, Confessions, R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York, NY: Penguin, 1961), Book 1, 20.
9. Naugle, 66.