From the Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren, one of the doctrinal standards for the United Methodist Church:
We believe man is fallen from righteousness and, apart from the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, is destitute of holiness and inclined to evil. Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.
I’m not sure why this has come home so strongly in the last week. Maybe it has to do with some things in my personal life. Maybe it has to do with this book I’ve been reading about spirituality of the unchurched.
The thought that has lodged in my brain is how poorly suited Christianity is for America. At the very heart of Christianity is the belief that we — all of us — have gone wrong. We are slaves to sin and death. And we will never be free but for the grace of God.
This does not sound like an American story to me.
In our version of the story, Jean Valjean not only steals the bishop’s silver, but he goes on to success and glory based on his own determination and will to win. He writes a series of best-selling books on seizing the moment and cheers for the New England Patriots.
What we fail to understand is that our lives are not ours. They are a gift from God. Not a single one of us has any right to be alive or expect to draw another breath. That we live at all is because God is good and generous to us. Only if we understand that, can we see our own arrogance when we speak about what we deserve and what we have earned. We’ve grabbed the silver off the bishop’s table and convinced ourselves that it was ours all along. We gobble down the apples of Eden and throw the cores at Yahweh’s feet.
But despite our arrogance and greed, there is grace. God loves us. God forgives us. God gives us life. Praise be to God.
I’m not sure how to write these things or preach these things in ways that will be heard, really heard. I know that what I’ve written here is so much gobbledy-gook to those who have no ears to hear it. I’m not sure how to make it otherwise, but the question has been with me this week.
Here is how John Wesley consistently defined sin:
By sin, I here understand outward sin, according to the plain, common acceptation of the word; an actual, voluntary transgression of the law; of the revealed, written law of God; of any commandment of God, acknowledged to be such at the time that it is transgressed. (“The Great Privilege of Those that are Born of God“)
The criticism I’ve heard of this definition is that it does not take account of unintentional or accidental sins. Wesley’s response to such questions was that those things might be consider wrongs we commit, but not properly sin. They do not damage our relationship with God.
The complication here is that the Old Testament clearly describes sacrifices for unknown sins. In the first covenant, there is such a thing as a sin committed in ignorance of the law. If such at thing is possible, then why would those no longer be considered sins under the covenant of Christ?
My thinking — and I do not pretend to be a brilliant thinker here — has to do with the once-for-all sufficiency of the sacrifice of Christ. In other words, on the cross Jesus covered by his blood all sins of ignorance and accident. Such things are still sins in the sense that they are actions that void the law of God, but they are not sins in that they have already been atoned for and without our conscious participation in them do not represent a deliberate turning away from God, for which we would need to repent. Under the new covenant, such sins of ignorance have been paid for in advance and therefore do not damage our relationship with God. Of course, all our actual sins have been paid for as well, but since these involve a deliberate act of will, we must engage in an act of will to redeem the promise already made. We must repent and seek forgiveness to mend the rupture in our relationship with God.
That is not as elegant as I would like, but it is my attempt to be faithful to the biblical witness.
What do you think? What have your read or heard that helps you work through such questions?
Is the problem within United Methodism at its root theological rather than ethical?
I was reading Robert Fuller’s book Spiritual but Not Religious for my evangelism class, when I was struck by how well it describes the tensions within our denomination. The book is a study of the ways throughout American history that large groups of people have adopted spiritual beliefs and practices outside the domain of church-based Christianity. Fuller argues that such spiritualities tend to reject notions of original sin and the fallen nature of humanity in favor of a belief in the goodness of human beings and the innate divinity within us.
Here is one version of that contrast:
A doctrine of divine immanence affirms that divine spirit is equally present in all creation … This new understanding of God’s relationship to the universe also helps to correct outmoded ideas of “sin.” The biblical view of sin is the act of breaking the commands of a male authority figure. A theology that stresses divine immanence recasts sin as our failure to recognize the presence of God within us and our fellow creatures.
This one quote does not capture everything to be said, but it gives the gist of the contrast. And it is reading about this contrast that has me wondering about United Methodism.
Is our internal conflict these days fundamentally about differing understandings of who God is and what it means to sin?
Here is the best post I’ve ever read on Article XII of the United Methodist Articles of Religion.
Okay, it is the first one I’ve ever read, but it is excellent, especially for those of us trying to get a handle on Wesleyan distinctives. Here’s the article in question.
Not every sin willingly committed after justification is the sin against the Holy Ghost, and unpardonable. Wherefore, the grant of repentance is not to be denied to such as fall into sin after justification. After we have received the Holy Ghost, we may depart from grace given, and fall into sin, and, by the grace of God, rise again and amend our lives. And therefore they are to be condemned who say they can no more sin as long as they live here; or deny the place of forgiveness to such as truly repent.
Now, go read the post.
This post by Ellen Martin at Seedbed has some links to other good resources regarding healthy sexuality and talking about it in the church.
The post also includes some of Martin’s experiences when she was seeking guidance, correction, and support from the church during a time of bondage to sexual sin.
Six years later when I came to the church to be a part of the body of Christ, I lived in sexual bondage. I sought guidance and understanding about my sexual temptations and sins. I wanted to know the voice of Christ. I asked a young adult ministry leader. I was told it wasn’t one of the top 10 sins and to not be so hard on myself. I never went back. I did find a wonderful congregation, but I wandered for weeks and months alone in bondage and shame as I worshipped with no help from the church. I quit asking because it seemed clear that this was not a conversation the church wanted to have. It seemed I would have to go at this part of discipleship alone with Jesus. The world celebrated and offered every opportunity for me to embrace my sexual desires. The church either condemned my sin, abstained their voice, or belittled my bondage.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order has passed away.” (Rev. 21: 3-4)
Before we ponder these beautiful verses, let’s skip down a few.
“Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, idolaters and all liars — they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” (Rev. 21: 7-8)
The beautiful hope of God rings out from the first quotation. The dire warning of God greets us in the second.
I have all these tendencies to want to embrace what people tell me I should believe as a United Methodist. I want to be able to pretend that Jesus never said anything hard that was directed at me and people like me. Sure, he said hard things to Jerry Falwell and the CEO of Monsanto, but not us. I want to be able to smile on my own sin and yours and say, God does not care all that much about it. He loves me. He loves you too much to speak harshly of sin.
And as long as I don’t actually open the Bible, I can get away with this.