One of the great tragedies of the Christian life is captured in Article 9 of the 39 Articles of Religion in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Article 9 is entitled “Of Original or Birth-Sin,” and argues that “Original Sin,”
Is not found merely in the following of Adam’s example (as the Pelagians foolishly say). It is rather to be seen in the fault and corruption which is found in the nature of every person who is naturally descended from Adam. The consequence of this is that man is far gone from his original state of righteousness. In his own nature he is predisposed to evil, the sinful nature in man always desiring to behave in a manner contrary to the Spirit. . . .
This is the tragic definition of the state of humanity from which Jesus came to save us. We are all under the judgment of sin, but Jesus has taken that condemnation on himself. Alleluia.
However, the tragedy for the Christian life is shortly revealed as the article continues:
This infection within man’s nature persists even within those who are regenerate.
Yes Virginia, even sainted Aunt Betty remained a sinful human being to the end of her life. For some of you, this may sound overly simplistic, but you might be surprised by how many people fall away from the faith when they come up against the persistence of their own sinful selves in the face of having “accepted Jesus.” For centuries, there was no explanation for the existence of persistent sin in the lives of Christians except for casting aspersions on whether they had actually ever believed in the first place.
Sadly, this resulted in a situation where, at the very moment when people needed to be reminded the most of God’s saving Grace in Jesus to them –at that point of final desperation, at that moment of farthest running or darkest hour—-they did not have the assurance that comes with the belief that “this infection [of Original Sin] within man’s nature persists.” And, when this infection is not reduced to some sort of lack of morality or virtue and is seen, rather, as the very denial of the existence of God, then the persistence of the infection of Original Sin means that like Adam and Eve, our constant temptation this side of death will be to question God and doubt not only his goodness towards us, but his very existence. As those who are thrown in a world “leaning towards death,” this type of uncertainty and instability proves to be profoundly unsettling and has lead to all manner of attempts to silence this voice of nihilistic doubt.
This is why the role of the law in the life of a Christian is fundamentally the same as it is in the life of a non-Christian, because even though it has moral ramifications, its greatest offense to all people lies in the fact that it makes claims on us and about reality about which we have no say. In short, the law makes the claim that there is a God and we are not him. The Gospel, on the other hand, reveals that this heretofore unknown God is the father of Jesus and has been involved in the creation, preservation and redemption of the world for all time. But, this is not only difficult to believe, but impossible for those beset by Original Sin until–following the language of the Bible–they are given eyes to see, ears to hear, or to use another Biblical metaphor, are brought out of death to life.
However, it is the persistence of Original Sin in the life of the Christian that necessitates the continued preaching of the Law and Gospel, because it is by the constant confrontation with our own doubts, fears and questioning that we are brought to a life of repentance and confession. Repentance, in this respect, is merely a synonym for honesty, in that we are those who are given to speak honestly about who we are, how little we believe and how much we are reliant on God’s mercies in Jesus to keep us going. This is why Martin Luther’s 1st thesis of his famous 95 reads:
“When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent”, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
As someone intimately aware of how quickly religion could degenerate into a moral veneer for agnostic despair, Luther was adamant that it should be exposed as such and brought to an end. In our final installment next week, we will address the relationship between the moral law and the existence of God as it relates to Christian discipleship, but until then, I’ll leave you with something completely ridiculous.