Tuesday, May 26, 2009

We are all the Walking Wounded

Have you ever lit a candle or used a lighter in pitch-darkness? Even from a tiny flame, the effect from the light is dramatic. Contrast that with lighting a match in the middle of the day. The flame is kind of pretty, but comparably weak. Now, keep that image in your head, I’ll come back to it later.

“Grace” is one of the key words of my generation of Protestants. This is a great thing. At its heart, the gospel is the account of God’s staggering and unmerited love for humanity. Grace, when correctly understood, leads to heightened devotion to God, as well as heightened love for our neighbors. Simply put, it is impossible to dwell too much on God’s fantastic grace in dealing with the world.

One aspect of this heightened awareness of grace is the move away from “hellfire and brimstone” preaching. Once again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve read “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, and I loved it. I still wouldn’t read it from the pulpit now. A common concern is that too much emphasis placed upon escaping Hell will lead to a disregard of God’s will for this life. Once again, I see the point, and I feel that it’s valid. We must emphasize that God’s salvation is seen in this life, and continues for eternity.

All that being said, I have become wary of something that I have noticed in the theology of many of my peers – the increasing silence on the reality of sin. It’s not that sin is denied, it’s just talked about less. Some thinkers, such as Tony Jones, have taken this so far as to deny the doctrine of original sin entirely. What is more common is to find churches and preachers who seem to keep language concerning sin to a minimum, or emphasize its quantifiable consequences
(environmental degradation, unjust economic practices, war – which are all extemely valid) while miminizing the aspect of our natures that is fundamentally corrupt and invariably causes us to fall away from God and necessitates the need for God’s radical action (Romans 3:23, 6:23). What is tragic about this is the fact I get the feeling that the language of total depravity, sin nature, etc. is dropped because it’s seen as too negative and dark to draw in the lost. In fact, I have come to believe that the doctrines of grace, salvation, redemption and God’s love can only be fully grasped when informed by a robust doctrine of human sinfulness.

Go back to the beginning of this post, when I mentioned the difference between a match in the light and a match in the darkness. The metaphor I would like to use is that God’s grace is that match. When it is lit in the context of our sin, we see its full potential. In a dark room, the light of the match is made very evident. By comparison, without a deep theology of our inherent sinfulness, God’s grace is more like a match in the light – it seems small, almost insignificant. John Calvin emphasized the importance of recognizing our inherent corruption, because he pointed out that doing so not only teaches us humility, it also magnifies the grace of God. In this regard I cannot agree more. On its own, God’s grace is a kind gesture that somehow we take for granted. When paired with an appreciation for the pervasiveness of sin in all of our lives, it becomes a miracle in the truest sense.

Of course, the doctrine of total depravity is a tricky one. As formulated by Augustine and Calvin, it states that our “sin” exists from conception and makes us guilty even before it manifests itself in specific “sins”. John Wesley never (to my knowledge) placed a specific starting point on our guilt, but he did write that total depravity was a non-negotiable Christian belief. The point of this post is not to delve into some of those issues, but merely to assert the importance of the truth expressed in Romans 5:19 and 1 Corithians 15:22, which holds that Adam’s sin is the template for all humanity. That fundamentally, we are drawn to rebel against God, and all of us are so guilty that we can only be saved through Christ’s intervention.

The doctrine of sin illuminates a great many other doctrines. However, on my read, this doctrine is most useful for properly understanding the necessity of the cross. On its own, the cross stands as a horrific tragedy which leaves us wondering why on earth God would require such a violent sacrifice. It is only when we see sin as a fundamental rebellion against God that is an affront to his character that we understand why such drastic measures were needed, as well as understanding how wonderful and gracious God’s love actually is. Also, there is a reason the Bible begins with the creation and subsequent fall of Adam and Eve. It illustrates our own fallenness, but also gives us hope by showing us the state in which we were created, and the relationship that we will one day enjoy with God.

Finally, without a robust doctrine of sin, our relationship with God loses much of its wonder. If our starting point is that we can have a relationship with God as we are, then it’s not hard to reach the conclusion that the way we are is just fine. Also, such thinking has a tendency to place ourselves on a pedestal above others who we deem to be “less worthy” than ourselves. When our starting point is our universal sinfulness, then all of a sudden it is impossible to condemn others, because we know that in God’s eyes were just as lost apart from Jesus (James 2:10). My pastor recently commented on Luke 15:7, where Jesus says, “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent”. My pastor pointed out that we could scour the whole earth and never find one person who didn’t need to repent, much less 99, hence the title of this post. The doctrine of sin reminds us that we are all the walking wounded, struck down by our deep-rooted sinfulness. That is why the doctrine of grace is so incredible, it tells us that God saw us as the helpless creatures that we are and loved us anyway.

On its own, the language of sin can be dark, depressing and saddening. This is as it should be, because our sins are dark, depressing and sad (Jeremiah 17:9). However, when the doctrine of sin is considered alongside the rest of Scripture which tells us of God’s actions which restore us to him, the gospel truly becomes “good news”, because we see that God’s love has overcome our sin.

In conclusion, I want to see our churches loudly proclaim the radical good news to the lost. We must proclaim “come as you are” to all who will listen. The truth is that we are all the same. We are all miracles, because we are all enslaved to crushing sin, apart from God’s love. It is only when we can stand back and look in awe at the grace that we have been given, that we will be inspired to call our neighbors to receive it as well.


P.S. I listened to “Hookers and Robbers” by Charlie Hall as I was writing this, and I think this song expresses what I’m thinking quite beautifully. Check it.

1 comment:

Danny said...

Preach it preacher! (I think I might have actually read "Sinner's in the Hands of an Angry God" to my youth group once, that or I just dreamed about it...)