Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #8 ©

Struggling with Sin

Back in my seminary days one of the big intellectual fads that swept across America was a form of psychotherapy called Transactional Analysis (TA).  It was built on the foundation of acceptance and appreciation of both yourself and others (which is in principle a good thing but taken too far – as it was – destructive).  The mantra of TA was “I’m Ok, You’re Ok.”

About that time I was taking a course in pastoral theology from the great Methodist theologian Albert Outler.  I remember him lecturing on the subject to TA and Sin.  He pictured a worship service starting with the liturgy of the pastor saying, “I’m Okay!”and the Congregation responding, “You’re Okay!”  Then pastor would echo back, “You’re Okay!” And the congregation would respond with gusto, “We’re Okay!”  At that point Professor Outler said that someone standing in the back of the sanctuary should respond with a loud, “Bah humbug!”

And now, I give pause. We have reached a theological state in American Protestantism where the notion of sin is almost foreign. When sin applies it is someone else who sinned.  When we talk of sin, far too often it is in reference to sexual peccadillos and rarely to explore the greater sinful hedonism of our own lives in the pursuit of pleasure though gross overconsumption. (Forgive me Lord! I know I am guilty.)

Recently my spiritual mentor, Dr. Sid Spain, wrote a paper offering deep insight into the spiritual life of walking with God.  As part of his work, both in writing and in serving as a pastor and spiritual guide, he noted our struggle in the modern world with the whole concept of sin.  Dr. Spain wrote:

David Brooks is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times.  Recently he wrote an article entitled The Strange Persistence of Guilt referencing a longer article of the same name by Wilfred McClay in the Hedgehog Review. [(See David Brooks, “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” March 31, 2017; and Wilfred M. McClay, “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” The Hedgehog Review; Vol 19 No. 1).  Brooks and McClay are only two of many writers who have diagnosed part of the cause of the rise of incivility in our society as a consequence of the inaccessibility of opportunities for absolution.  Brooks writes, “Religion may be in retreat, but guilt seems as powerful as ever.” As the influence of the church has diminished in the West, fewer people have the opportunity to deal creatively with feelings of guilt, failure and inadequacy. Instead of confessing sin and receiving forgiveness and absolution, we project our dissatisfaction and angst on others.  Unable to process our sin we feel victimized and we vilify.

An inevitable consequence of contemplative prayer is confrontation with the self and the recognition that we are complicit in the brokenness of the world (Sid Spain, Make the Time and Find a Place: Contemplative Prayer for the Easily Distracted, p. 6).

The concept of grace, God’s radically free wholly unmerited forgiving love is applied so casually as to leave us often (not always!) unaffected.  [You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed.  It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives (Ephesians 2:8-10).]  What slips our more careful attention is verse 10 of Ephesians 2, repeated here for emphasis, “Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things.  God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives. Our good intentions often ignore the moral harm of sin both in ourselves and others. In Dr. Spain’s terms, we fail to confront our complicity in the brokenness of this world. It is somebody else’s fault.

Yet classical Methodist doctrine will not let us off so easily.  For Methodists the response to sin is worked out in sanctification, in “holiness of heart and life.”  This historically is a cardinal assumption of Methodist theology (thinking about the ways of God).  The claim always is that we are to be ‘”moving on to perfection.” To borrow from Sid in paraphrasing St. Augustine’s definition of sin, homo incurvatus in se in the Latin, loosely translated as “Sin is the self, turned in upon its self.”  The Apostle Paul reached for its essence in his great biblical letters. “I’m sold as a slave to sin.  I don’t know what I’m doing, because I don’t do what I want to do. Instead, I do the thing that I hate. But if I’m doing the thing that I don’t want to do, I’m agreeing that the Law is right. But now I’m not the one doing it anymore. Instead, it’s sin that lives in me” (Romans 7:14c-17). John Wesley understood sin as a disease, a radical flaw in our human nature that could not be cured simply by our own moral effort yet at the same time needing our willing participation in its cure.

Here again Professor Outler is instructive in his seminal lectures on Wesleyan Theology. “Sin is spoken of as a sickness that can be cured by the Great Physician if we will accept his threefold prescription: 1. Repentance (self-knowledge), 2. Renunciation of self-will, and 3. Faith (trust in God’s sheer, unmerited grace”  (Albert C. Outler, Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit, p. 37).

I invite the reader to carefully note that our struggle with sin is met in the grace of Jesus Christ. But I also urge an embrace of the truth that such healing comes in repentance and renunciation. There is no such thing as cheap grace for the price of grace is the cross of Christ and our embrace of grace comes in repentance and renunciation. The antidote of Christ comes to us in the divine human synergy as we struggle with sin. Augustine is reputed to have said, “Without God, we cannot. Without us, God will not.”

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