“Let us beware of saying that death is the opposite of life. The living being is only a species of the dead, and a very rare species.” (Friedrich Nietzsche)
What makes a person a slave of sin? What is the root of our drive to go back to the same sin over and over? Moreover, how deep is that root? How deep do we need to dig to get to the base of that root?
There is a thought-provoking passage in the book of Hebrews that speaks about fear of death and ties it to our slavery to sin:
“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, He [Christ] Himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death He might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” (Hebrews 2:14-15, NRSV).
Could it be that deep beneath our sinful habits is a fear of death? Before you say this doesn’t apply to you, humor me and read on.
The Fear of Death
Here are John Piper’s thoughts on these verses in Hebrews:
“Have you ever asked yourself how much addiction and personality dysfunction and disordered lifestyle may originate in the repressed fear of death? Very few people live their daily lives with the conscious fear of death in their minds. Yet this text says that Christ came to die for people ‘who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.’ There is something profound here. The point is not that people are enslaved to a constant, conscious fear of dying, but that they are enslaved to a thousand ways of avoiding this fear” (Future Grace, p.354).
The lifelong bondage to sin is something that is driven by a fear of death lurking beneath the surface. This is not merely a conscious fear of death, but a subconscious fear, something that hides beneath our stated motives and visible actions. We fear death so much that we seek to pad our lives with momentary pleasure, security, and control in order to numb this repressed fear.
Is this you? Is this me? The proof of this fear of death can be seen in the way we live our lives. If someone looking in on your life saw . . .
- how you spend your time,
- what you buy with your money,
- what you speak about most often,
- what you make the biggest sacrifices for,
- what excites you, what you long for the most,
- what worries you the most,
- what has your attention throughout the day,
- where you run for comfort,
- what makes you happiest,
. . . would that person be able to tell that you are living for the next world, or this world? Would others see you simply trying to squeeze the most out of this life, or would they see you longing for the expectation of eternal life?
God has placed eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11); we want to live forever. We avoid death or mention of death at all costs. We long for immortality, hoping somehow that at least a piece of ourselves will live on. We want to leave our lasting mark on the world. Even amidst our noblest pursuits, we feel the frustration of mortality.
- Optimists push all thoughts of death from their mind and surround themselves in comfort: “Relax, eat, drink, be merry” (Luke 12:19).
- Pessimists accept the inevitability of death and try to soak up as much of life as possible: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32).
- Spiritualists fix their vain hopes on immorality in the afterlife, and they sooth their guilty consciences by speaking false peace to themselves and others: “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14).
Lifelong Bondage to Sin
When we subconsciously anticiapte the loss of our own life, we seek to find real life in the world around us, no matter how temporary. This is where slavery to sin comes in. We wish we could stop going back to the same sins again and again, but we can’t imagine what our lives will look like without that sin. That sin somehow still makes us feel alive, if even for only a moment, and we believe that buzz is worth the pain the sin causes us and others . . . and even God. The pleasure of sin helps to numb our hearts from the fear that one day this life will be over.
Moreover, people naturally fear what might be beyond death. Is it heaven? hell? judgment? reward? nothing at all? Each man and woman knows, deep down, that they are not right with God and that their sins will catch up to them (Romans 1:32). The fear of this puts us in a strange position. On one hand, we desire to feel righteous, to feel that we are doing good in the world, so we slavishly obey the powers-that-be in order to feel right with the universe. We buy into a system of ethics and try to live by it, however inconsistently (Romans 2:14-15). On the other hand, the idea of facing our day of reckoning threatens our desires for autonomy, independence, and selfishness. We hate that Someone Else is our sovereign and authority, and so we become slaves to our own rebellion.
To review, the fear of death makes us slaves to sin in at least three ways: (1) We are slaves to the way we medicate and distract ourselves from the fear of life coming to an end; (2) we are slaves to our own ethical codes that we hope will tip the scales in our favor when it comes time for judgment; and (3) we are slaves to our desire to rebel against God as long as we have this brief window of time to do so. We are slaves to pleasure, security, and control.
Here’s where our bondage to sin needs to be broken, by breaking the fear of death.
The Death of Christ
The fear of death is not merely something rife in the pagan mind, but in the Christian mind that is still being sanctified. How do we unearth our own repressed fear of death?
The book of Hebrews teaches that Christ came as a human being to make “propitiation” for our sins (Hebrews 2:17), to become the lightning rod of God’s wrath for our sin. He drank the cup of God’s wrath dry. As a man, he tasted death for all of us (2:9). Satan, who stands as the prosecuting attorney in God’s courtroom, accuses us rightly of our sins, but Jesus took our guilt from us, thus stripping the devil of his power to accuse us.
Moreover, Christ did not stay dead: He rose from the grave and is now crowned with glory and honor at God’s right hand (1:3; 2:9). His resurrection is the foundation of our great hope that we too will be raised from the dead and be heirs of the new creation. We will live forever.
As we contemplate what Jesus accomplished on the cross and the resurrection life He enjoys, our fear of death dissipates.
- No longer are we slaves to pleasures that numb our fear of a temporary life. We see the world as it really is: its current form is fading away, and the new world is coming. We begin putting our stock in that new, good world that God is making. Because the sting of death is gone we can be “steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:56-58). Moreover, we begin to experience real, lasting pleasure for the first time: we begin tasting the eternal pleasures found at God’s right hand (Psalm 16:11).
- No longer are we slaves to the false security that we try to merit by being good, trying to measure up to face our day of judgment. We can throw all our confidence in the words of Jesus, “It is finished” (John 19:30), knowing that our sin has been paid in full on the cross. We no longer need to be performers who try to merit God’s favor, but obedient children who love because we have been loved first. In this we find a new kind of security, we are assured of our adoption into God’s family. “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16).
- No longer are we slaves to our desire for rebellious control because Jesus’ resurrection has proven to our hearts and minds once and for all that He is the Judge of the living and the dead (Acts 17:31), that He is the promised King (Romans 1:4), and we say with deep-felt conviction, “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9), not me. Only the risen King can tame our rebellious nature. Moreover, in knowing Jesus we have found the source of real power and control, knowing that if we are children of God, then we are heirs in His kingdom (Romans 8:17). Our whole identity is no long wrapped up in ourselves, but in Christ.
As we meditate on the death and resurrection of Christ, as we behold Him, we are transformed.
Rooting Out Sin in Community
Rooting out this repressed fear (and our slavery to sin) is not something done alone. God has given us the real biblical fellowship of the body of Christ to aid in this process.
Hebrews says that Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers, that He even stands “in the midst of the congregation” to direct our lives in praise to God (2:12). By getting into intentional communities of prayer where we live as the true family of God, we can help each other probe beneath even our seemingly good deeds, looking for hidden motives that fuel besetting sins.
Read Part 4.