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Moral Agency and an At-Home Humility Test

This article was originally published on The Gospel Coalition

In my scribblings as a sorta-sometimes-author, I’ve written a bit about sin and its effects. If you’ve read my early stuff, you may think I had a knack for finding sin needles in every haystack of life. True, undoubtedly, of my younger years, when complex issues were often reduced to two shades—black or white. But age, experience, repentance, and a growing awareness of God’s heart have led me to (what I pray is) a more circumspect view of humanity.

These days, I’m much more cautious about quickly assigning sinful categories or motivations to people. After all, people are complex. “Sin or no sin?” may appear to simplify leadership decisions, but it ultimately creates a greater mess. We can’t reduce all human behavior to righteousness and evil. There are other factors involved. For example, we must consider that in real life, there’s a complex interplay between body, soul, environment, family history, and even the enemy. To accurately discern motive, we sometimes need good pastors and good physicians.

In a similar way, I think we have a tendency to distill Genesis 3 to a mere account about the origins of sin and brokenness. That’s oversimplified, too. Genesis 3:1–13 is really a broader tutorial on the character, nature, and tendencies of imperfect people. It’s about the diabolical design of how sin operates within humans. If Genesis is the Star Wars saga, chapter three is like the stolen architectural plans of the Death Star. It reveals specific ways we’re vulnerable to attack and destruction. It diagrams for us the particular place our enemies—the world, flesh, and Devil—are most likely to attack.

Let’s look at one aspect of our brokenness—a ventilation duct that opens to our core (keeping with the Star Wars analogy), a place where we’re particularly weak. This vulnerability is the matter of agency, or moral responsibility.


Agency in Genesis 3

Part of original sin’s fiber—part of its character—is the tendency to deflect agency from us and ascribe our sinful decisions to others. When Adam blamed the woman, he shifted his God-ascribed moral responsibility away from himself and tagged her: “The woman you put here with me—she gave me fruit from the tree” (Gen. 3:12). This seemingly clever evasion on the man’s part revealed a potent desire embedded in all sin. Sin seeks to shift our status before God and man from morally responsible (and, therefore, “culpable”) to being the victim of other people’s decisions. The ultimate insanity is that we convince ourselves we are also victims of God’s decisions—after all, it was “the woman you put here with me” who delivered the fruit.

When sin arrives for work, it clocks in early and works overtime. When sin speaks, it supplies our hearts with a passive voice. “Me?” Adam says, “I’m just a bundle of goodness enjoying the garden—walking and talking with God, spreading his glory. The bad things are happening to me. It’s that woman, Lord. She gave it to me!” In Adam’s mind, sin was done to him, not by him. Moral agency was swapped for self-pardon. Under the sway of sin, his self-understanding had only one category—sinned against.

When sin knocks, everyone except us is guilty. Even God!

What about you? Have you ever noticed that when we tell our own story, including some of the trials and pains, we’re rarely positioned in the story as a sinner with junk? More often we see others on the stage as actors committing sins against us or omitting things they should have done for us.


Agency and Humility

As leaders, we must be really careful. Don’t let sin dilute agency. Don’t fall into a way of pastoring or caring that removes agency/responsibility from people’s behavior (or your own). Here’s one (among many) good reasons: If we lose agency, we lose the humility God requires (Micah 6:8). Our moral agency—our awareness of our culpability as sinners—brings the daily reminder that we our fallen beings with active hearts. We are not the Creator, but the created; not the strong, but the weak. We are not residents of our eternal homeland, but pilgrims journeying toward it.

Why agency? Agency protects humility by instilling proper self-suspicion and establishing our daily need for God’s amazing grace.

How about you? Does agency have a place in your self-assessment and your inner narrative? Another way to ask the same question would be: Are you growing in humility?

Here are six helpful questions to ask. Think of it as an “at-home” humility test.


1. Am I growing more amazed by grace?

Paul wrote to the Roman church and said, “I’m eager to preach the gospel to you” (Rom. 1:15). The implication is pretty profound. The good news isn’t just for unbelievers, but for every Christian and church too. It’s easy for us to lose track of this simple truth. Are you able to see your own daily need for Christ’s love and gospel renewal (and not just how the people you lead need it)? Are you growing in awareness of how the gospel applies to your own specific sins? Do you find yourself amazed at Christ’s all-sufficiency to meet you exactly where you’re struggling or hurting? And are you expressing gratitude to God for his astounding pardon and power?


2. How do I respond when I’m critiqued or corrected?

There is a vital link between wise leadership and the way we receive correction:

  • “Rebuke the wise and they will love you” (Prov. 9:8).
  • “The wise listen to advice” (Prov. 12:15).
  • “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid” (Prov. 12:1).

Do others see your desire to grow in wisdom when they provide input, or do you have a reputation of stiffening or reacting? Everyone hates criticism, and no one more than me. A fellow pastor told me recently some ways I can improve. I hated it for two reasons: It suggests I’m imperfect and it confirms I’m responsible. I look in the mirror and see Adam and, oh boy, do I want to deflect! Had my wife, Kimm, been standing in the room, I probably would’ve thrown her under the bus, too. Just like Adam.


3. How do I respond when someone sins against me? 

If you’re a leader, you’re called to be at the blunt end of someone else’s sin. Here’s one thing I’ve learned about the call to lead: How I relate to being sinned against reveals my true grasp of the gospel. Are you tempted to give yourself special permission to be angry or cynical toward those who wrong you? Do you have a tendency to retaliate? We can all relate to these temptations, but I’m talking about your actions. Remember how Christ responded to us when we acted as his enemies (Rom. 5:8–10). He demonstrated humble, persevering love. Don’t ever forget, it’s when we were still sinners that Christ died for us.


4. When I describe my largest internal obstacles, do I use words that acknowledge my moral agency?

You know what I mean here. It’s our penchant for creating a soft, amoral world where, when I describe myself, I don’t really need a Savior. I need self-improvement or understanding. But this hijacks our ability to share in the gospel’s benefits. As Jerry Bridges says, “To benefit from the gospel every day, then, we must acknowledge that we are still sinners.”

The other day I became angry with Kimm. I wasn’t throwing anything, but it was the slow burn that spills over in a subtle sinful judgment and a passing critical comment. I can’t tell you how much I wanted to confess I was feeling moody, touchy, irritated, frustrated, oversensitive, stressed out, ticked off, tense, edgy, annoyed, picky, testy . . . well, you get the point. But those words have little moral bite to them. The Son of God didn’t shed his blood because I’m grumpy or high-strung. He died because sometimes I’m a selfish and angry sinner. As Thomas Watson said, “Until sin be bitter, Christ will not be sweet.”


5. Is my accountability local, defined, and consistent?

Is there a defined group of people in your local church who know you and feel responsible to care for your soul? Do they know where you are tempted? Do they know how to pray and what to ask you about? Does your wife know there is someone she can call if she has concerns? And, let’s get real, when this group comes calling, will you submit to their counsel? Will you bring your moral agency and culpability, or will you cast blame?


6. Do I flee to the last Adam when I become aware of sin? 

“For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22). Christ came as the last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45–48), obeying God’s law in all things at all times where the first Adam was unable to comply with one simple restriction. The record of Christ’s perfect obedience then became the bankroll of righteousness that was reckoned to us (Rom. 4:23–25). This means that when we sin, we don’t need to proudly protect the illusion of our perfection or atone for our sin by doing good works. The last Adam whispered, “It is finished” at the moment of his death so we could live an abundant life until we go home. Humble people flee to the Savior in this life so they can celebrate his glory (1 Pet. 4:13) in the next one.

Which Adam Will You Follow?

How did you do? Here’s the thing: As pastors and church leaders, we have to decide which Adam we will follow. In a defining moment of life, the first Adam could only see himself as sinned against. But being sinned against is not the biggest problem we encounter each week.

Since the catastrophic fall in Eden, the biggest problem has been that we forget which Adam we will follow. The first Adam lost his agency; the last Adam, though innocent, took the blame for all who call on his name. If that thought humbles you, it means your agency is probably intact—which also means your test score may be improving.

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