Do you remember those old cartoons when—anytime a moral choice had to be made—an angel would appear on one shoulder and a devil on the other? Each would attempt to convince the central character what should be done, with the angel pleading for the side of good and the devil advocating evil. Invariably, it seemed the evil side came out on top.
Unfortunately, this dilemma is not limited to cartoons. The struggle against evil is an unavoidable reality of life, with far too many people finding themselves trapped in an endless cycle of guilt and shame.
The New Testament book of Romans has much to say about this battle. Romans, the sixth book in the New Testament and the first of what we call “The Epistles”, was written by the Apostle Paul around AD 57 to the Christ-followers (mostly Gentiles) living in the city of Rome. In this letter, Paul expounds on our hopeless condition as well as God’s solution. Drawn from this letter and supported elsewhere, consider these truths about evil.
1. Our basic nature is evil.
“For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Romans 3:23, NLT). Despite our desire to believe otherwise, we are each born with an inclination toward evil. The evil in our lives is not just evidenced in what we do; it’s in who we are. No child has to be taught to hit, to lie, to disobey, to push, or to bite. These all flow naturally from an evil, sinful nature.
As children grow, they (hopefully) learn to control their evil impulses, at least to some extent. While taming behaviour is necessary, though, it does nothing to address the real problem: the evil, sinful nature.
When we talk about sin, we are usually referring to specific actions… those things that we do or neglect to do that are against the perfect moral standard of God. Understood properly, though, sin is not just an action; it is a condition. Lying, cheating, stealing, murdering, lusting… these are all expressions of sin, flowing out of a nature of sin.
The Apostle Paul addressed this reality in his letter: “And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it” (Romans 7:19-20, NLT).
Jesus expressed a similar thought when He said, “It is what comes from inside that defiles you. For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these vile things come from within; they are what defile you” (Mark 7:20-23, NLT). In other words, what’s on the inside (your heart) will inevitably be expressed on the outside (your deeds). Acts of sin stem from a nature of sin.
2. Our evil nature makes us enemies of God.
In Romans 5:10, Paul described how our sinful nature makes us enemies of a perfectly holy and righteous God. Even the best of us are incapable of blotting out this nature. The difference between the best of us and the worst of sinners is only a matter of degrees when measured by God’s standard of perfection. Each of us is in desperate need of God’s forgiveness and cleansing.
“We are constant sinners; how can people like us be saved? We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:5-6, NLT).
One story that has circulated online tells how a middle school devised an innovative solution for a persistent problem. Apparently, female students were applying lipstick in the bathroom and then leaving their mark by kissing the mirror. The result: the custodian was constantly cleaning little lip prints from the mirror.
Finally, the principal decided to do something about it. Calling a number of “suspects” into the bathroom, she explained how the lip prints were causing a major problem for the custodian. To demonstrate, she asked the custodian to clean one of the mirrors. The custodian took out a long-handled brush, dipped it in the toilet, and then proceeded to scrub the mirror. According to the story, the school never again had a problem with lip prints on the mirror.
Whether or not this story started as an urban legend is unclear; what is known is that it has been intentionally reenacted on various occasions by actual school custodians. Either way, it provides a vivid picture of how God feels about sin. When we succumb to the temptation to sin, it’s like kissing filth. What’s more, our evil actions spring from the filth within us, and God is repulsed by it. “O God, you take no pleasure in wickedness; you cannot tolerate the sins of the wicked” (Psalm 5:4, NLT).
3. The penalty for evil is death.
When measured against the holiness of God, our sinfulness—which is really rebellion or treason against God—is deserving of nothing less than death. “For the wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23, NLT)
In another New Testament letter, James agreed with Paul. “Temptation comes from the lure of our own evil desires. These evil desires lead to evil actions, and evil actions lead to death” (James 1:14-15, NLT). Death is the ultimate and inescapable result of sin.
So what is death? The Bible actually talks about three different types of death:
- Physical Death
This form of death entered this world because of the Fall of Humanity, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and sinned against Him. Physical death is what is described in the New Testament book of Hebrews: “We die only once, and then we are judged” (Hebrews 9:27, CEV). Though this tends to be the type of death we fear most, in reality it is the least serious.
- Spiritual Death
We suffer this death here and now because of our sinfulness. In fact, our sin nature means we begin our physical lives spiritually dead. This death robs us of our communion with God and our purpose in life. It’s the death of the image of God in us. Paul referred to spiritual death when he wrote, “Do not let any part of your body become an instrument of evil to serve sin. Instead, give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life” (Romans 6:13, NLT).
- Eternal Death
Spiritual death leads to eternal death, the end result of our sinfulness. This means total separation from God, an eternal existence completely removed from the Source of Life. Jesus acknowledged this form of death in John 3:16 when He said, “God loved the people of this world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who has faith in him will have eternal life and never really die” (John 3:16, CEV).
Understanding our desperate and utterly wretched condition, makes God’s response all the more amazing…
4. Despite the evil within, God still loves each of us.
In one of the most beautiful verses in the whole Bible, Paul wrote, “But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8, NLT). While we were still evil, God loved us enough to send His Son to die for us.
Paul echoed this thought in another letter, this time to the Christ-followers in the city of Ephesus: “But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!)” (Ephesians 2:4-5, NLT)
That’s the extent of God’s love. It’s measureless. It’s beyond comprehension. And nothing you could ever say, think, or do could ever eliminate it. And when Paul realized this, he penned these words:
“And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from his love. Death can’t, and life can’t. The angels can’t, and the demons can’t. Our fears for today, our worries about tomorrow, and even the powers of hell can’t keep God’s love away. Whether we are high above the sky or in the deepest ocean, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39, NLT).
Finally, because of this great love, we can realize that…
5. No matter what we’ve done, we can still be redeemed.
From Star Wars to Schindler’s List to Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, we love a good redemption story. The theme of redemption resonates with us. Why? Because we have all been corrupted by evil. We all fall short of our own expectations and our own standards, let alone God’s. No matter how hard we try, true redemption remains beyond our grasp. The spiritually dead simply cannot stumble upon spiritual life.
Yet because of the incredible grace of God, redemption is made available to all, no matter who we are or what we’ve done. Redemption starts and finishes as the work of God. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23, NLT).
This journey from death to life—from sin to redemption—is defined by one word: forgiveness. “You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. He cancelled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13-14, NLT).
For those who are far from God, the only way to move from death to life is through forgiveness. This forgiveness, offered freely by the grace of God, is received by all who choose to live for Him rather than living to please the sinful nature.
Even for Christ-followers, sin is still a reality. The trappings of temptation must still be faced. As Paul warned, “If you think you are standing strong, be careful not to fall. The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience” (1 Corinthians 10:12-13, NLT).
However, this does not mean Christians must live in bondage any longer. Evil may still be a threat, but we are empowered to live in freedom, enjoying the redemption that Christ has made possible. “We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin. For when we died with Christ we were set free from the power of sin. And since we died with Christ, we know we will also live with him” (Romans 6:6-8, NLT).
Yes, Paul had a lot to say about the effects of evil within us and how Christ chose to rescue us. While the entire letter (and this article) goes into greater depth, Paul summed it all up nicely in these two verses: “Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:24-25, NLT). Amen.