Can you stop sinning?
Can you avoid sin?
Do you have power over sin?
Who am I?
Those are some big questions for someone like me to try to address.
To start with, I am not a priest, pastor, or member of clergy in any sense; I just want to lay out my research, and (limited) twenty-something years of experience.
What is sin?
Sin comes from the Old English “syn”, which is in turn a translation of the Greek and Hebrew terms for “missing the mark” (What is Sin? Real Bible Meaning & Examples).
For a Christian, the “mark” or target we aim for is absolute perfection, i.e. to be like Jesus Christ. However, (in case you haven’t noticed), no man has ever succeeded at this.
"(23) … for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," (Romans 3:23, NASB)
Or as he says earlier in the same chapter (referring to various Psalms, most notably Psalm 53),
"(9) What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; (10) as it is written, “There is none righteous, not even one; (11) There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; (12) All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one.” (Romans 3:9-12)
Even Saint Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, could not remove the sin from himself.
"(14) For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. (15) For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate." (Romans 7:14-5, NASB).
Where did sin begin?
(1) Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” (2) The woman said to the serpent, “From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; (3) but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.’” (4) The serpent said to the woman, “You surely will not die! (5) For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3)
In the Garden of Eden, the third chapter of the Bible, sin enters the world. The Serpent (whom some believe to be Satan, others believe to have been sent by him) got Eve to question God. “Indeed, has God said …?” (or in more conversational English, “Did God really say …?”) is a pathway to sin.
What is the origin of sin?
(11) The proud look of man will be abased And the loftiness of man will be humbled, And the LORD alone will be exalted in that day. (12) For the LORD of hosts will have a day of reckoning Against everyone who is proud and lofty And against everyone who is lifted up, That he may be abased. (13) And it will be against all the cedars of Lebanon that are lofty and lifted up, Against all the oaks of Bashan, (14) Against all the lofty mountains, Against all the hills that are lifted up, (15) Against every high tower, Against every fortified wall, (16) Against all the ships of Tarshish And against all the beautiful craft. (17) The pride of man will be humbled And the loftiness of men will be abased; And the LORD alone will be exalted in that day, (18) But the idols will completely vanish. (Isaiah 2:11-18)
Sin starts with questioning God; generally, it is rooted in the human pride of “I know better.” While most people (especially Christians) would never say they know better than everyone else, this is an area where actions speak louder than words. We trust our own judgement over input from others, even those who have gone before and are trying to give us a better path. We subconciously believe that if we cannot understand something, it is either unimportant or wrong.
This is the core of Modernism: that man can know everything, that we as people can rebuild society in a better way than our ancestors, basing our new society on “rational principles” rather than outdated superstitions and traditions.
Modernism was essentially conceived of as a rebellion against 19th Century academic and historicist traditions and against Victorian nationalism and cultural absolutism, on the grounds that the “traditional” forms of art, architecture, literature, religious faith, social organization and daily life (in a modern industrialized world) were becoming outdated. The movement was initially called “avant-garde”, descriptive of its attempt to overthrow some aspect of tradition or the status quo. The term “modernism” itself is derived from the Latin “modo”, meaning “just now”. (Modernism - By Movement / School - The Basics of Philosophy)
Notice the subliminal pride, that my generation (using this figuratively, of course; my generation is largely postmodern) is better than previous ones, that we can overcome our biases and see past the fog of outdated traditionalism that so blinded our forbears, filtered lenses that we, of course, do not fall prey to.
The simple fact is, we are nothing. We are not gods, we are not kings; we are rebellious children, who do not deserve the mercy we have been offered.
But Modernism is not a new beast taking over humanity.
(9) That which has been is that which will be, And that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiates 1:1 , NASB)
Going further back
It is the tendency of modern traditionalists (frequently called “Boomers”) to have the exact reaction, in reverse; that everything was better in “the good old days”, and the vice and vitriol of the new generations came as if out of nowhere. And while I will not argue that some (many) things were better in days gone by, the past holds no perfect Eden either.
From temple prostitutes, to sacrificing children on altars, the Old Testament is filled with sins of the pagan nations neighboring Israel, many of which Israel itself would engage in between various times being exiled. Frequent accounts in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles also tell about divination and witchcraft, as well as the ubiquitous pride that has plagued every generation since the beginning. I will not bring a charge against every generation, because that would take too long, and frankly at this point we just don’t know, but one sin that has been the Achilles’ heel of all mankind is pride.
It was for the pride of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day that they sought to kill Him, as they recognized Him as a threat to their position. It was the pride of the Catholic church to prevent laypeople from reading the Scriptures, as though they were the only ones who could truly understand it. It is, today, as it has been for hundreds of years, the pride of many Protestant pastors to teach that millenia of church understanding is wrong, that they alone have discovered the truth, or had a revelation from God. (As for the Orthodox church, I do not have much information, either in modern positions or church history).
The motivation behind telling a half truth about the Gospel of Christ to make it more pop-culture acceptable is the same as that for any large megacorporation to lie about how amazing its products are; greed, and its close ancestor, pride. And, make no mistake, changing, editing, or intentionally leaving out parts of the Gospel message is misrepresenting it, and teaching a false Gospel.
Megachurches today exist because people want to be told everything is going to be ok. They want to have a god to fit in their back pocket to bail them out when they need it, and to give them everything they want. This god is absurd, and absolutely explains the prevalence of Atheism and Agnosticism in the current day. All one needs to disprove this god is to experience life; you will not get everything you ask for, you will not find all your problems go away, and you will not get bailed out from all of the consequences of your bad choices just because you say a prayer. That is absurd. It doesn’t matter how badly you want it to be true.
The fallen church
Much of the modern heresies (especially in Protestant churches) come from a movement known as the Church Growth Movement. This idea basically boils down to the goal of a church being to get as many people to come in as possible, so that everyone can hear the message, everyone can say the prayer, everyone gets saved. Easy. Except it doesn’t work.
There is no verse in the Bible that you can find that says “if you say the Sinner’s prayer, you will go to Heaven.” You will find many about Salvation being free, but Salvation is not the total of a Christian’s life. Sanctification, the process of being made more like Christ, is the telltale sign of a Christian. And it is not something you can just say a prayer and have finished, it is a lifelong process of being changed and remade by the Creator, wherein the old you dies, and the new you is created. If a person is being Sanctified, there can be no doubt of their Salvation; but if a person claims to be saved, but is unchanging, then there can be.
But, as with sin, heresy entering the church is nothing new. Before the Church Growth heresy, was (what is commonly referred to as) the Health and Wealth Church, or Prosperity Gospel. Many of these churches are still very popular today. The main teaching here is a misread of various verses, to the conclusion that Jesus wants you to be happy above all, and to have a successful and prosperous life, so whenever you need (read: want) anything, all you need to do is say a little prayer and the floodgates of Heaven will be opened for you.
This came from the Word of Faith movement, which believes that words (specifically our words) have the power to change reality, and that through how we speak we can manifest the reality we want. And when this didn’t happen, the answer was inevitably that one just needed to “believe harder”, or “have more faith.”
This came from the Pentecostal movement, which is focused on “baptism in the Holy Spirit”, and specifically the manifestation of “Speaking in Tongues.” I am not one to claim that one who is empowered by the Spirit cannot speak in tongues, as I am a first-hand witness to having seen (or rather, heard) it. I will say that they way it frequently appears in Pentecostal churches, however, is not Biblical, as is most of a standard Pentecostal service, which runs contrary to how Paul outlined a church should.
We can continue digging back through heresy after heresy, but the ultimate point is that the underlying cause is the same today as it was yesterday, as it has been since the Fall, as it will be until the world is made new.
The opposite of pride
We know pride is this great root of evil running through humanity; but surely not everyone suffers from it, right? I know of many people who hate themselves, so surely they’re safe, right?
That is not what pride is. Pride is most often manifested as an inflated love or value of the self, but it is just as prideful to always be hard on yourself, to always punish yourself, to always make everything about how awful you are. Why? Well, frequently this is just a cover, a cry for attention, but even when genuine it is still a fixation on the self. By focusing your life on you, even if you don’t like yourself or your life, you are still placing yourself in the center of your own universe. That is a position only suitable for God.
Humility is not about low self-esteem (and especially not so-called “humble bragging”), but rather about not focusing on onesself in the first place. A humble man doesn’t think of himself too highly or too lowly; rather, he doesn’t think of himself very much at all.
Where do we go
So, hopefully I’ve convinced you (or at least gotten you to consider) that pride is the ultimate root of sin. For a Christian, this should not be a hard sell; there are very many verses about how God sets himself against the proud. But how can we (if it be possible at all) get rid of pride?
The simple answer, is we cannot. We don’t have that power.
Only through Sanctification, allowing God to transform and renew us, can we make any progress on this at all. The ability to see past ourselves, and focus on the Creator, is a supernatural gift. The carnal man (the man living according to the flesh) cannot do so; but to the man truly living through the spirit, it is as a second nature.