Reporters covering the White House during the administration of President Calvin Coolidge had a tough go of it. President Coolidge wasn’t called “silent Cal” for no reason. On a Sunday morning, the story goes, President Coolidge went to church. Coming out at the close of worship, a reporter accosted Coolidge.
“What did the preacher speak about?” he demanded to know. Coolidge pause, looked at the reporter and commented, “Sin … [long pause], he was against it.” So are we – at least in theory.
Officially a doctrine of sin (and original sin at that) is part of the lexicon of United Methodism. Article VII of the Doctrinal Standards and General Rules of the Methodist Church states:
Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk), but it is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby every man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually. (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2012, Paragraph 103, Section 3, p. 65)
Similarly Article VII of the Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren Church states:
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. . . . (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2012, Paragraph 103, Section 3, p. 72)
[It is important to note that both General Rules are currently operative and protected by the Restrictive Rule 2, Paragraph 18 of The Book of Disciple of the United Methodist Church 2012.] On paper we hold to a doctrine of sin as central to understanding and diagnosing the human condition. Its evidence is all around and within us in a bewildering variety of personal and corporate ways. And yet, our easy acceptance of the cult of the nice precludes real analysis.
Similarly the book of The Acts of the Apostles is peppered with specific references to sin. None perhaps is more pointed than the conclusion of Peter’s great Pentecost sermon.
Peter replied, ‘Change your hearts and lives. Each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is for you, your children, and for all who are far away — as many as the Lord our God invites.’ With many other words he testified to them and encouraged them, saying, ‘Be saved from this perverse generation’ (Acts 2:38-40).
We must repent of sin and be saved by the Lord our God in the fullness of the Trinity – baptized in Jesus Christ, received through the gift of the Spirit, at the invitation of the Lord God. It is all there in the original doctrinal claim of United Methodism, and yet much of it is lacking in our preaching and teaching today.
The original Methodist movement also reclaimed a strong doctrine of sin. The aforementioned letter of the Duchess of Buckingham offers dramatic evidence of this conviction and practice. Wesley’s sermon on original sin leaves no room for doubt.
This, therefore, is the first, grand, distinguishing point between heathenism and Christianity. The one acknowledges that many men are infected with many vices, and even born with a proneness to them; but supposes withal that in some the natural good much overbalances the evil. The other declares that all men are ‘conceived in sin,’ and ‘shapen in wickedness,’; that hence there is in every man a ‘carnal mind which is enmity against God, which is not, cannot be, subject to his law, and which so infects the whole soul that ‘there dwelleth in him, in his flesh, in his natural state, ‘no good thing;’ but ‘all the imagination of the thoughts of his heart is evil’, ‘only evil’, and ‘continually’ (John Wesley, “Original Sin,” Sermon #44, in The Works of John Wesley, Sermons II, 34-70, Volume 2, ed. Outler, p. 183).
The modern mind chokes at the strong words and harsh language of Wesley’s sermon. Yet there is a truth here which we have forgotten and largely ignored even though it lies still embedded in our core doctrines. We have succumbed to the foundational idolatry of self-salvation. In moralistic therapeutic deism, Pelagius stands triumphant. Almost forty years ago Albert Cook Outler offered the theological challenge we face in comfortable middle class Methodism. “How many of you would take seriously the notion of a human flaw that is radical, inescapable, universal – a human malaise that cannot be cured or overcome by any of our self-help efforts or ethical virtues, however ‘moral’ or aspiring – which is not, at the same time, of the actual essence of God’s original design for the humanum (what he intended human existence to be)?” (Outler, Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit, p. 32, 34).
The great American theologian of the twentieth century, Reinhold Niebuhr, defines sin as rebellion from God ultimately rooted in pride. We are not the center of the universe. It is not about us. Our personal pleasure, regardless of whether it is golf, gold, or grumbling is not the purpose for which we are created. Outler, the great Methodist theologian, labeled sin “a radical universal human flaw … a malignant disease” (Outler, Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit, p. 24).
A simple, basic way to think about this issue is to ask yourself who is in charge of your life. Who is your ruler; your ultimate boss; the commander of your existence, resources, actions, and reactions? C. S. Lewis put it this way: “A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world and might even be more difficult to save” (C.S. Lewis, quoted in Dean, Almost Christian, p. 25). H. Richard Niebuhr summarizes this watered-down, blanched out understanding of sin in his famous statement: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America, p.193).
And yet, at any age, we are called to greatness through life in Christ under power of the Holy Spirit. The way of salvation begins with a Holy Spirit-inspired recognition of our sin, of the fact that we are not the center of the universe. This is what Wesley called the first dawning of grace. Prevenient grace is the grace of God that goes before. It leads us to an awareness of our sin and our need for a Savior. Such grace is the first step in the “order of salvation.”
The critical element of reclaiming a doctrine of sin lies in its connection to the doctrine of salvation. Indeed any concept of salvation (Christian or otherwise) reflects to the need to be saved from something. In the Christian case, that something is sin – our persistent separation from God and determination to have ourselves as our own gods. If the failure of the human condition and the sad state of human affairs is endemic and systematic, then surely we need rescuing. If it is merely a matter of being “nicer,” then why bother? We merely need to work a little harder at being nice people. We need to be more arduous at improving our moral behavior. And yet, at the center of the Christian claim is the notion of sin that is a radical human flaw that cannot be adequately dealt with by any self-help solution or governmental intervention. St. Augustine’s words whisper from the past, guiding us to reclaim the present and the future: “But my sin was this, that I looked for pleasure, beauty, and truth not in him but in myself and his other creatures, and the search led me instead to pain, confusion, and error” (Augustine of Hippo, translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin, Confessions, Book I, 20, pp. 40-41).
It is the centrality of this conviction of sin that delivers us to the issue of atonement and a doctrine of salvation along with the concomitant need for the reclamation of a vibrant doctrine of the Trinity.
Think of the standard images for atonement (at-one-ment with God). The term salvation comes from the battlefield. We are knocked to the ground and about to be run-in by a spear-wielding enemy. Just then, someone steps into to take the blow and dies to save our life. We are saved! Or think of redemption, the image comes from the slave market. It is an especially powerful image for those caught in the grip of an addiction. We are being auctioned into slavery for our sins – our willful separation from God. Someone, Jesus Christ, steps in and pays the price for our freedom. Or again, consider the term Paul uses in Romans, Justification. We are in court and held to account for our failures, our sins. Any plea that we are mostly a nice person is easily thrust aside. The evidence is clear. We are guilty of sin, of separation, from God. As the gavel is pounded down, Christ steps in and sets the verdict aside declaring us justified, that is made right by his actions.
While hardly a complete list, each image referenced points to the seriousness of our separation from God. They signal a far different reality than the need for just a little correction. They give evidence of a radical flaw in our makeup; a flaw so deep that none escape. This truth was demonstrated recently by Pope Francis when he posed the question about himself. “‘Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?’ I am a sinner. This the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”
It is the cross rising before us in the distance that makes us face fully and truthfully the reality of sin, our propensity to be our own gods. It is the cross standing before us in the distance that challenges our naïve assumptions of our own essential goodness.
The Christian conviction wrapped up in the theological concept called atonement is that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus somehow this sin has met its match. Sin is still real. It is still present. It still needs to be faced, confessed and repented of; but its power is ultimately broken. Heading towards the cross we are challenged to face the seriousness of our separation. Only then can the joy of Easter morning be fully embraced.