Behavior Modification, Sin, and Rules-Based Religion

I spent years convinced that behavior modification equaled maturity in the faith. Where an outward appearance of good behavior and conformity to the rules and standards imposed on me meant I was sinning less and was applauded as progress in the right direction. But woe unto me if I slipped and messed up. At those times, the solution was never grace, it was more law. A reinforcement and reminder of the rules and laws I was expected to follow. In short, the outside of the cup looked pretty good but on the inside, I was dying a slow death. That’s what law-driven sin management does. When the focus of our faith becomes an obsession with policing sin, our natural inclination is to think imposing laws and rules is the solution. But is it? In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul made this short but powerful observation:

“…the power of sin is the law.” 1 Corinthians 15:56

Think about it. If the law – any law – is what gives sin its power, then piling on rules and law to curb or avoid sin actually has the opposite affect. It empowers sin and gives sin more muscle. Wasn’t that Old Covenant Israel’s problem all along? They agreed to the terms of the Old Covenant – a covenant of law-keeping and works righteousness – and yet God “found fault with the people.” (Heb. 8:8). Why? Because they couldn’t live up to the terms of the covenant. They couldn’t do it. No one is made righteous by keeping laws or rules. No one. Law-based rule-keeping leads to one of two things: a self-righteous attitude in thinking I’m somehow pulling it off (i.e. the Pharisees), or an eventual crash and burn because living under that kind of pressure is exhausting and makes you give up.

Do you remember Paul’s conversation with the Roman believers in chapters five and six of Romans? It’s there he said:

“Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 5:20-21)

Don’t miss this: introducing law as a means to control sin or modify behavior has the opposite effect. It increases sin. How? In the context of Romans 5, the “trespass” refers to Adam’s law-breaking in the garden. Adam was given one command in the garden – don’t eat of that tree – and he broke it. He transgressed it. He sinned and Paul calls that sin of Adam’s a “trespass” in Romans 5. But here’s the rub: when God’s law is introduced to us today, we all, just like Adam, become trespassers. When we bump up against God’s law, we, like Adam, become law-breakers and the trespass increases because all of us, not just Adam, are guilty of trespassing or breaking God’s law. Suddenly, sin is everywhere (James 3:2). But the solution Paul introduces isn’t more law or a fresh emphasis on law and behavior modification, the solution is grace. Where sin increases, grace increases exponentially.

But we’ve heard law preached for so long and in so many ways that when we hear a message of pure grace plus nothing, we think it’s heresy. We think it gives people a license to sin. But get real! We’ve never needed a license to sin. We sin quite well without one. Paul’s remedy to humanity’s sin problem in Romans 5 isn’t more law. It’s more grace (Romans 6) as he reminds them of their new identity in Jesus. We’ve died with Christ and therefore, we’ve died to sin. “Consider yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” He preaches the gospel to them. This is what the Holy Spirit does. He reminds us of the words of Jesus (John 14:26) and speaks grace to our hearts, reminding us of who we are in Him. He never shames us, gets angry, disappointed, or frustrated with us, nor does he  treat us like convicts or outsiders, but he gently reminds us of who we are in him. His message is grace alone and grace is the agent of change:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11-14)

But if you want to give sin a workout, pile on law, rules, and behavior modification and watch the problem increase.


Photo by Adam Birkett on Unsplash