One of the greatest acts of Christian mislabelling is our ongoing use of the term ‘personal sin’. Ours is a privatised and individualised world, a space of readily agreed boundaries where the great measure of morals is whether or not our behaviour ‘harms anyone else’. If the answer to that loaded question is in the negative, then the individual is free to follow whatever course they wish. Theirs are personal decisions, personal preferences, personal inclinations, with no external check on their propriety. In that kind of conversation, ‘personal sin’ in the Christian life can sound like a ‘no harm done’ kind of default, a third party fire and theft arrangement where we can accrue as much personal damage as we like, with no wider implications for those around us.
The biblical reality is that there is no such thing as ‘personal sin’, at least not in terms of a buffered series of defaults which cannot impinge on others. Yes, we are personally responsible for our actions, we are personally accountable for their outcome, and yes we will personally answer to God in the end, but the fallout of our sins is always collective, and it is always political with regard to the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man. We can refer to the examples of men like Achan whose very privatised iniquity brought horrendous public consequences, or we can look to the leaven principle, where a whole lump of dough is permeated by very small and invisible measures. Sin is never entirely or ultimately personal.
In this post I want to explore one specific way in which one specific sin has ramifications beyond our own bounds, and to think through how viewing it in this way might transform our indulgence of it, or our perspective in helping others who are entangled by it. The sin is that of sexual immorality, and the public outcome is of a global and eschatological nature.
Sinning sexually is choosing sides
The book of Revelation is a potent mix of the local and global, the parochial and political, a Spirit inspired interweaving of the grand scheme of world history and the small scale of local Christians. Seven churches are addressed, their strengths encouraged, their sins specified, and their promises personalised, in a way which ought to catch our breath. The risen, ascended Son of God is the one who rules the nations, and the one who walks among individual assemblies of Christians. The macro and micro are here married seamlessly.
By the time we reach Revelation 17 we have become accustomed to the rotation of seals and trumpets, of the inevitable rush of history towards the glory of Christ in judgement. We have become acclimatised to how grand John’s vision is, but the ‘great prostitute who is seated on many waters’ again brings us face to face with the industrial scale on which sin is promoted and enjoyed in the world. This ‘Babylon’, this political and polluting influence over all of the earth, this great machinery of antichrist, this burgeoning metropolis of vice and viciousness, stands for a world set against the Lamb and his people, a systematised arcade of depravity and debauchery.
What is interesting is that the chief export of Babylon is the ‘wine’ of her sexual immortality on which ‘the dwellers on the earth have become drunk’. The great outflow of the heavenly city in Revelation 22 will be water for the healing of the nations, the great outflow of the sinful city of Revelation 17 is wine for the annihilation of the nations. All of earth’s abominations trace their ancestry back to this city, sexual depravity is its national anthem, the proud flag flown from every bulwark.
This has huge implications for us as Christians when it comes to sexual sin. Sexual sin is not a merely ‘personal sin’, a kind of foible of our personality, a misfiring of our biology, but it is a declaration of allegiance, it is the purchase of a timeshare in Babylon. As Christians, when we sin sexually, we are handing in our heavenly passport to the offices of a hostile embassy, we are taking up the traditions of a city which is not our home, we are reserving ourselves a villa in a territory from which we are called to come out and be separate.
The allure of pornography, the intractable illogicality of adultery, indulgence of sex and sexualities outside of God’s order, all of them owe their material and spiritual currency to the exchequer of Babylon. The world might be intoxicated by them, mindlessly indulging them, but the Christian can never sexually sin without leaving their native city, without deciding to be part of a world diametrically opposed to the Saviour. This means that the wavering finger ready to click a link, the lingering glance ready to undress another person, the playful flirtation of temptation on the heart and mind, is nothing less than an invitation to salute the flag of a city which hates Jesus.
Sexual sin is fuelled by blood
The tragedy of this choice is that we don’t get to segment the sins that Babylon offers. The woman and the city of Revelation 17 and 18 are an integrated whole, so one sin which is offered by her entails all others. This should give us pause, because the city which stocks the shelves of the world with sexual sin is fed by blood – that of the martyrs of Jesus (Revelation 17:6). The mindset of this city is violently set against Christ and his people, its satisfaction and intoxication lie in their very destruction, the festivals of the city are fuelled by Christian fatalities.
This betrays our every recourse when tempted to sin sexually. The opposition between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world is not a matter of preference, not a matter of differing priorities, but the difference between light and darkness, life and death. The sexually sinning Christian is not defaulting from a high ideal into neutral territory but from the code of the kingdom bought with the blood of God’s Son, to the code of a kingdom buoyant on the blood of God’s saints.
This means that we must ask ourselves serious questions. Sometimes aversions to sexual sin are deployed which appeal to our sense of guilt, or perhaps by even allowing us to see some of the human wreckage which would lie in the wake of propping up the porn industry, or destroying our marriages etc. This, however, is a mere topical treatment of the reality that lies behind sexual sin. We are engaging with a system, with a network of ideals and concerns which are set on the decimation of those who belong to the kingdom we name. Do we really wish to support such a regime? Do we really want our names in the visitors’ book of the brothels in Babylon? Those are serious and searching questions.
Sexual sin should be an evacuation zone
Our only conclusion in the wake of all of this is to heed the call of Revelation 18:4-5, ‘come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues; for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities.’ This is not a call to leave the world bodily, it is not a call to remove ourselves from society, but it is a call to withdraw our sympathy for all that Babylon offers. It means that we will not drink at the table where the nations become intoxicated, it means that our view of holiness is bigger and wider than our own private realm. One of the signs of our allegiance to the kingdom of Christ is our willingness to eschew the kingdom of this world, to understand the polarity, the simple binary, that lies between seeking Christ’s kingdom first, and entertaining Babylon.