“For all have sinned, and fallen short…”
We’re all familiar with Murphy’s Law; ‘If something can go wrong it will go wrong.’ Or, there are those famous commentaries on Murphy’s law; ‘Murphy was an optimist’ and, ‘If you think things are getting better, look again!’
We can chuckle over such unvarnished pessimism but it has a very long history and is well-entrenched in our Lutheran heritage.
Traditional Lutheran language about sin has emphasized the totality of our sinfulness. The older service of confession and forgiveness spoke of our being ‘sinful and unclean’. Nowadays, we use the language of being in ‘bondage to sin’. In either case the Lutheran tradition has wanted to take sin seriously. But this emphasis on the total sinfulness of humanity also has caused problems. Many of us remember a Lutheran church that constantly reinforced the sinfulness of people to the point where there was simply no point in looking for anything good. This in-house pessimism created a Lutheran culture of quietism and cynicism. The human future was bleak. What was actually a very important biblical and theological emphasis became quite destructive, psychologically, of many peoples’ self-understanding.
The modern reaction to this heavy emphasis on the corruption and sinfulness of the human has been to move in a couple of directions. On the one hand, prosperity, feel good, positive thinking ministries have attempted to say that anything is possible. There are no limits to human potential if only we adopt the right attitude, biblical principles for living, etc. The very fact that these movements have been so successful is a sign of how far the church had gone in the other direction. The corrective became a wild over reaction.
At the same time, the more liberal side of the church has also turned the wheel hard over, shifting its’s focus away from our need for a gracious God to our need to have and to be gracious neighbors. Good will and fairness will create a just and peaceful world because all of us essentially good and well-intentioned people want it to be so. Everything is affirmed, nothing is out of bounds. Unconditional affirmation will bring a glorious new day.
Both of these correctives, it seems to me, fail at a crucial point. Like the two natures of Christ, a solid, biblical affirmation of the human sees the goodness and sinfulness of humanity as a paradox. Two contradictory truths – that must be preserved for the sake of the Christian witness – are being held in tension.
The way we as Lutherans have talked about the sinful human, therefore, is to say that we are “at the same time justified and sinful.” This does not have to be an invitation to hang black crepe all over the world and sit in sack cloth and ashes. Rather, we are making a theological, biblical distinction here, not a psychological one.
When I confess, as I do, that I am totally sinful, I am not in any sense denying that I can be good, responsible and creative. What I am saying when I confess this is, that like a drop of ink in a glass of water, sin taints or colors every aspect of my life. I may not see it or feel it but the attitude and tendency toward rebellion against God and lovelessness is always there, even in my goodness, responsibility and creativity.
So, I also confess that I am totally justified in the God\Man Jesus who loved me and gave Himself for me, in whom my sin is forgiven. I am free to actually rest back in God’s grace and enjoy the gift of life, giving myself to living for all that I am worth, even with all its’ contradictions.
Christian people can and should affirm, encourage and support human goodness, responsibility and creativity wherever we can. At the same time, our Lutheran understanding of sin and the paradox of human nature qualifies claims about human goodness, reminding us that no human effort will bring the fulfillment we ultimately long for. This realism is important both for the future here and now and for our bottom line as Christians. For it reminds us that no person or cause, however good, can be blindly identified with the work of God.
Our bottom line is the trust that salvation comes by God’s grace in Christ, apart from human goodness or effort. Such trust does not deny human goodness and its’ role in the immediate future. Rather, such trust affirms that it is God’s gracious goodness alone that will bring the ultimate future.
“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”