With the passing of Thanksgiving, again comes the first Sunday of the new church year. It is now Advent, the season of repentance, when we prepare for Christmas, the season of Christ’s appearing in the flesh. Advent is, perhaps, my favorite season of the year. It seems odd to say that one enjoys a season whose constant drumbeat is “Repent!,” with mentions of Hell-fire. That is, until one experiences it first-hand for a couple years.
Jesus came, the heav’ns adoring,
Came with peace from realms on high;
Jesus came for man’s redemption,
Lowly came on earth to die;
Came in deep humility.
In the Lutheran tradition, we understand “repent” as being far deeper than mere admonitions to stop sinning, as though by telling people over and over, throughout the decades of their lives, they will someday develop the ability to kill the sin nature within them. This depth stems from the fact that in the Lutheran tradition, we also understand sin as being far deeper than being things which we do or do not do; we understand sin as being an infectious condition that has corrupted our entire being, each of us. Far from being a simple matter of whether to choose obedience or to choose disobedience, we have a disease that needs a cure.
As I move further to into the teaching of the tradition that recovered the Biblical understandings of original sin and justification, I’ve come to look at humanity (anthropology, in the words of the theologians) a bit differently than I used to. In my prior mindset, formed by a poor teaching of how people come to be saved (decision theology) and later a puritanical understanding of the purpose of Jesus’ atonement (primary emphasis on satisfying the Father’s wrath against a sinful people), my definition of “sinner” was “rebel.” This isn’t a bad definition insofar as it goes, but it’s lacking. It has no room for understanding the frailties of human flesh. It cheapens Christ’s life and death by improperly depreciating the effects of sin in our persons.
Sickness. Pain. Death.
Jesus comes again in mercy,
When our hearts are bowed with care;
Jesus comes again in answer
To an earnest, heart-felt prayer,
Comes to save us from despair.
But more than these immediate effects of sickness and death, so also come more of the same that are their source. We cannot shake our sin nature! Consider some examples.
God blesses many with an abundance of food. In this abundance, Americans (myself included) are among the most gluttonous people to have existed. Ask anyone who eats too much, or too much of the wrong foods, if they’d characterize their eating patterns as mere poor decisions, or something closer to an inexplicable lack of will at the defining moments (when the food is in front of them), like an enslavement.
I heard a story on NPR this past weekend about Nina Simone, who suffered from bipolar disorder (called manic depression for most of her days). She would suffer from terrible bouts of depression, bad enough by themselves, and then would go through “manic” times, when she had an insatiable sexual desire. I’ve conversed with people in similar positions, where their self-defeating, sinful behavior is at times irrational. My observation is that in these cases, people want to have the desires to “do good” for both self-preservation as well as to please God, but are incapable of having those desires.
In my home state, we constantly have stories of robberies and killings over drugs, in addition to overdoses. In some cases, I’ve had (loose) ties to families who have been victim to these crimes, as well as the perpetrators. I think it likely that none who knew the victim of an overdose (for instance) could say that the victim aspired to such a fate. No; the weakness of the flesh yields an addictive downward spiral. It’s a prison.
I (and you!) have countless times given a startling lack of patience or empathy for a person in a difficult situation. Sometimes the other person is my wife. Sometimes it’s a co-worker. Sometimes it has been a complete stranger. Inevitably, when I think back on conversations, I wish I would have been a better neighbor to these people. But in the moment, when the words are on my tongue, I have no care for the harm my words may cause, not merely because I want my words to sting, but also because I find it impossible to want to not make my words sting.
This goes far beyond the “simple” cases of personal conduct, though. Sometimes we have no choice but to sin.
I will devote little time to political issues, but think of some problems we have in a democratic-like society. Which commandment should we break? Should we allow people to starve and be exploited through lack of basic education (yes, that happen(s/ed)) or should we instead forcefully take a person’s possessions against their desire (that may, in actuality, prevent them from hiring another person with family-sustaining wages), to pay for programs to alleviate such?
Which commandment should we break? Should we allow oppressive governments (who also disallow expressions of worship) to expand and make alliances with other bad governments, or should we go to war and force our own citizens to savagely kill other people out of a sense of self-preservation, while often times wrecking the livelihoods of innocent people (I’m thinking of Vietnam)?
Non-politically, I’ve known far too many people than I care to count who have been abandoned by their spouse. For the victim party, their human desires for companionship and sexual expression aren’t going to end simply because they were abandoned. What is the appropriate response when such desires remain? To remarry is to commit adultery (notice from the scripture that Jesus’ words are that she commits adultery). To not marry is to burn with passion, likely falling into greater sin and rebellion. I think the scriptures demonstrate with Paul’s writings that suffering the lesser sin (remarriage) is preferred, though still a decision wrought in sin (and let’s not hold this against these people, except where the scriptures would have us do so –the “husband of one wife” passages, for instance).
In each of these cases, whether we are examining personal behavior or collective behavior, we see that we have rebelled against God’s good command. In some cases, we find it impossible to “do the right thing,” even having known what is right. In many other cases, our options are to simply pick between the best of bad, sinful choices.
When it is said that sin needs a cure, that cure does not merely end with appeasing God’s anger at rebellions people. We find ourselves in an impossible situation, a vicious cycle of sin, where no option can please God. I’m reminded of R.C. Sproule’s illustration where humanity is stuck in a pit, unable to do the work to please God. Unless we should claim that we are inculpable for our sin due to our pitiful condition (pun intended), R.C reminds us: God told us to stay out of the pit in the first place.
Sin has indeed infected every aspect of our lives. We will die because of it. Who can escape it? What is the cure?
Repentance. We must repent of our sin.
But how can we do so? We are enslaved to sin. We cannot even desire what is good. It makes no sense to tell those entrapped in sin to “invite Jesus into your heart,” when our hearts stand in the way of such! No, changing our heart is not how we are converted. Rather, during conversion, our hearts are changed.
Jesus comes to hearts rejoicing,
Bringing news of sins forgiv’n;
Jesus comes in sounds of gladness,
Leading souls redeemed to heav’n.
Now the gate of death is riv’n.
So how does one repent?
Trust Jesus. Believe his words, that when he lived on Earth perfectly under God’s Law and died an innocent man that he did so while suffering the frailties of our flesh. Believe that such frailties stem from the infection that has frustrated our entire race. Believe that while Jesus’ atonement is indiscriminate, it is also directed: Jesus lives perfectly in human flesh so that he can carry my sin, and your sin. Having resurrected from the dead, he has promised that our Baptisms unite us to his resurrection.
Then, knowing he is carrying all sin, we pray daily for renewal, so that we would not be entrapped in the sin that so easily entagles, preparing ourselves for the promise on the other side of the grave: resurrection and “wellness,” having no fault.
Jesus comes in joy and sorrow,
Shares alike our hopes and fears;
Jesus comes, whate’er befalls us,
Glads our hearts, and dries our tears;
Cheering e’en our failing years.