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  • Writer's pictureMichael Burgos

The Heart of Addiction: A Review

Updated: Apr 13, 2022

Shaw, Mark E.. The Heart of Addiction: A Biblical Perspective. Focus Publishing. 2018.

Prior to the COVID pandemic and the subsequent draconian federal and state shutdowns, mandates, and sundry restrictions, the problem of substance abuse was already a grim reality within the US. Instead of slowing or ending the pandemic, the aforementioned restrictions served only to exacerbate the problem. Habitual substance misuse had already exceeded ten percent of the US population (see here and here) prior to COVID. The impact of shutdowns and restrictions upon those who engage habitually in other vices (e.g., gambling; pornography) remains to be seen. The problem of addiction is severe indeed.

While secular society stives to explain addiction in terms of disease or genetic predisposition, Mark Shaw has sought to equip the church to minister effectively to those struggling with addiction. Shaw earned a Doctor of Ministry in biblical Counseling under noted authority Dr. Howard Eyrich at Birmingham Theological Seminary. Shaw's text, The Heart of Addiction, is a highly accessible and thorough treatment designed to be read by those struggling with addiction. The Heart of Addiction powerfully applies the teaching of Scripture to the heart and situation of the addicted and presents a clear and powerful portrayal of redemption through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Shaw demystifies and refutes misconceptions and secular myths related to addiction, twelve step groups, and other unhelpful concepts.


  • Biblical: The Heart of Addiction is built upon the biblical theology, including anthropology, soteriology, and hamartiology.

  • Accessible: The uninitiated who are not accustomed to reading will not struggle to understand The Heart of Addiction as Shaw is both straightforward and emphatic. Shaw doesn't minimize the physical implications of addiction but addresses them in a faithful and compassionate manner.

  • Local Church: Shaw believes that the local church is God's implement of change in the world: "God has commanded his church to shepherd, protect, help, serve, and minister to Christian addicts" (p. 13).

  • Idols of the Heart: Shaw thoughtfully exposes addiction for what it is, namely, an idolatrous replacement for the Triune God.

  • Gospel: Shaw relentlessly seeks to point those struggling with addiction to Christ and him crucified and risen.

  • Union with Christ: Another point of emphasis The Heart of Addiction is the doctrine of union with Christ, especially as it relates to the sanctification of the so-called addict. For example Shaw wrote, "The transformed Christian addict is not consumed with what others think because he now has a clear conscience before the Lord, a new identity in Christ Jesus, and he is living in obedience to the Word of God" (p. 139).

  • Pauline Sanctification: Shaw effectively employs the imperatives of Ephesians 4:22ff, applying them to areas specific to the life of the addict.


  • Not Scholarly: This isn't really a weakness but more of an observation. The Heart of Addiction is not a intended to afford biblical counselors with a comprehensive theology of addiction. Nor does this text provide a scholarly consideration of addiction. While such a text would be an asset, that was not Shaw's aim in The Heart of Addiction.

  • Hamartiological Error: Shaw believes that all sin is equal in God's sight. For example, drawing upon Matthew 5:27-28, Shaw wrote, "To God, the sin of thinking about committing adultery is the same as committing the actual act of adultery" (p. 90). Lest the reader think this comment is an anomaly, Shaw repeatedly makes similar assertions: "From God’s perspective, all of these manifestations of sin are equally wrong. Sin is sin is sin" (p. 121, cf. 154).

Are All Sins the Same in God's Sight?

While this error is popular among untrained laypeople, it is disappointing to see that Dr. Shaw affirms such an indefensible viewpoint. Even taking our system of jurisprudence into account, it is clear that we rightly distinguish between crimes of greater and lesser wickedness. No one receives capital punishment for parking incorrectly and bank robbers aren't merely fined.

If we evaluate the jurisprudence that God put in place in the nation state of Israel, we can see whether he views all sins to be of equal heinousness. Undeniably, God's law considers some sins to be more evil than others. Sex crimes for example, merited capital punishment (Lev. 18:22, v. 29; 20:13), whereas theft required restitution (Exod. 22:1-14). Theft therefore, while certainly sinful, is a less heinous act than say, rape or kidnapping. Coveting your neighbor's property is not the same as engaging in an adulterous affair with his wife. This inequity reflects God's truth: there are greater and lesser sins. The greater sins result in a greater amount of harm to one's neighbor. Therefore, there are some commandments given by God that should receive special reverence.

Jesus himself taught that there are greater and lesser sins when he spoke about the outward religiosity of the Pharisees who tithed but "neglected the weightier matters of the law:" justice and mercy and faithfulness. Jesus concluded, "These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others" (Matt. 23:23). Jesus said, “it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon” than for Chorazin and Bethsaida since they witnessed his miraculous signs and yet still refused to repent of their sin (Matt. 11:21). While Tyre and Sidon refused to believe, Chorazin and Bethsaida's unbelief was the greater sin because it was in the face of Jesus' mighty works. Referring to Judas, Jesus said to Pilot, "he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin" (John 19:11).

Regarding Matthew 5:27-28, Shaw neglects to consider the manner in which Jesus modified his claim.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

The purpose of Jesus' statement was to disclose that God will judge both outward and inward sin despite the false piety of his interlocutors. Jesus' statements were not intended to equalize all sin since Jesus modifies the phrase "committed adultery" in v. 28 with "in his heart." Thus, Jesus retains a tacit distinction between adultery wherein one physical engages in the act and adultery of the heart wherein one entertains adulterous thoughts.

The Heart of Addiction is a welcome asset to those seeking to minister biblically to the addict. Shaw has done the church a commendable service in this volume.

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