From the Newsletter of Revesby Presbyterian Church
Rev Dr Peter Barnes
Probably one of the most obvious of all Christian doctrines is that of original sin, that we human beings are, in C. S. Lewis’ terms, ‘the bent ones’. We are all born with something radically wrong with us, not unlike a crab who determines to go straight. There is a curious and sad inability written into our very nature. Rather famously, the eighteenth century philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau, taught that human beings were all born good, but were corrupted by society. On that view, it is not immediately obvious where the corruption in society came from. The eighteenth century saw an increasing number of Europeans embrace the notion of progress and moral perfectibility. The Marquis de Condorcet perish in a prison – either by murder or by suicide – in 1794, during the French Revolution. Not long before, he made the extraordinarily Utopian declaration that ‘We have witnessed the development of a new doctrine which is to deliver the final blow to the already teetering structure of prejudice. It is the idea of the limitless perfectibility of the human species.’ At the time when he wrote this, Robespierre’s secret police were after him.
The Jesuit priest and palaeontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, was equally as delusional. His message was that ‘Our duty, as men and women, is to proceed as if limits to our ability did not exist. We are collaborators in creation.’ In contrast to the embarrassing optimism of Condorcet and de Chardin stands the biblical realism of Augustine. With regard to original sin, he commented: ‘Nothing is better known when the preacher declares it; nothing is more secret when we try to understand it.’
It is an observable fact that sin appears in every culture in every person across the whole planet. So too does shame and indignation. In the West we have been treated to generations of ethicists telling us that we can do what we like yet people still feel a sense of shame when they are caught out in sin. They also appear no less intent on denouncing sin – usually other people’s.
The universality of sin should humble us. Sin is everywhere. It can be found in what we omit to do (James 4:17). We may be unconscious of it yet we are still culpable for it (Ps.19:12; 1 Cor.4:4). As a leopard has spots, so we have sin – we are so accustomed to it that it becomes natural to us (Jer.13:23). It emerges from our darkened hearts (Matt.15:19-20). By nature, since the Fall, all humanity is dead in trespasses and sins (Eph.2:1-3). When the prophet Isaiah saw the Lord in the temple, he was overwhelmed by a sense of his own sin and also the sin of his people (Isa.6).
In addition, the universality of sin should cause us to be realistic. There are Utopian hallucinations everywhere. H. G. Wells thought that World War I would end all wars, Woodrow Wilson thought that the League of Nations would see to that, while in our own day there have been many who have been quick to see a wonderful new era in the history of the world with the election of Barack Obama in the United States. In reality, humanity stumbles on in sin and death.
Christians are to strive for perfection while recognising our inability to achieve it (Phil.3:12-14). Sin – especially our own – should horrify us but not shock us. Even the great apostle lamented: ‘For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing’ (Rom.7:19). The quest for physical perfection has led to bulimia and anorexia, as well as an unhealthy obsession with appearance. Unrealistic demands can be behind many temper tantrums, in children or adults, and a rise in anxiety disorders. People want some kind of secular heaven here and now, and when they do not get it, they become even more disordered. If we manage to sin ourselves to death, there can also be a sense where we can be, in Richard Winter’s terms, ‘perfecting ourselves to death’.
As he so often does, Calvin puts it all very aptly: ‘Only let us look toward our mark with sincere simplicity and aspire to our goal; not fondly flattering ourselves, nor excusing our own evil deeds, but with continuous effort striving toward this end: that we may surpass ourselves in goodness until we obtain goodness itself.’
With warmest regards in Christ,