When I was a grad student, I taught world religions in a community college. The way I approached the topic was to say that each major religion offers a particular diagnosis of the greatest problem with the human condition. Likewise, each religion provides a solution to this problem. For example, take the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, which can be roughly rendered as follows:
Life is suffering.
The cause of suffering is desire.
The overcoming of suffering is through the overcoming of desire.
The overcoming of desire is through the Eightfold Path.
(If you want to know what the Eightfold Path is, that’s why God made the internet.)
The problem here is suffering, and its cause is desire, or craving. But there is a way of living called the Eightfold Path by in which we can overcome our desires. Thus we can overcome our suffering.
Christianity has a different diagnosis of the greatest problem with the human condition. The problem is sin. We also have a vastly different way of understanding the solution to this problem. We cannot overcome sin by our own power, by a particular way of living or some ethical program that we will ourselves to follow. No, we are incapable of solving this problem. Only God is capable of effecting such a cosmic shift, and God has done so through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). This is the Christian doctrine of atonement, or at-one-ment. Though there are many ideas regarding exactly how Christ’s death defeats sin, belief that it does is indispensable to the Christian tradition.
We in the Wesleyan tradition tend to hold our noses when confronted with the Calvinist notion of “total depravity.” Yet if you read what Wesley had to say about human sinfulness, it is clear that his understanding of sin was no more optimistic than Calvin’s. Sin runs deep. We are incapable of escaping its hold on our lives on our own. The difference between Calvin and Wesley on this was not their opinion of how deeply sin has permeated into human will, but the way in which God has gone about selecting those who may overcome sin. Calvin believed that God chose certain people to receive a gift of irresistible grace that would lead to their repentance, new life, and salvation. Wesley held that all people receive a gift of grace, but that we could resist it, and, in fact, most people do. Every person, he believed, has the capacity to repent, but repentance is not easy, and most people avoid the narrow gate in favor of the wide one.
The older I get, the more convinced I am that Wesley and Calvin were right in their assessment of the human condition. I see it in myself: in my hard-heartedness, my lack of forgiveness, my own ego, my desire for things that are not of God. I see it in other people as well. Sin can manifest in so many different ways, from manipulative behavior to self-deception to mass shootings. Sin is real and pervasive, and we cannot save ourselves from it.
This belief will separate Christians from the broader culture. The general cultural consensus seems to be that human beings are evolving morally. I suggest this is now the basic principle of Western morality. Beliefs and practices of the past are simply inferior. We are moving ahead into an era unfettered by the antiquated morals of days gone by.
Continuing to hold this view in the face of the constant accumulation of evidence to the contrary is a dangerous exercise in self-deception. As Western Christians, we must guard against this view precisely because it is the cultural water in which we swim. The chronology of an ethical position is irrelevant to its truthfulness. The Church has its own resources, which include Scripture and tradition, for constructing a concept of human existence. We will inevitably differ in our perspective from those who are not informed by these sources. Yes, it is uncomfortable, but we’d better get used to it.
Hugh Hefner recently died. He is held up by some as a hero of the sexual revolution, a liberator who leveraged the forces of the free market to crack open a puritanical America that was suffocating under the weight of unhealthy moralism. Alternatively, one might say he helped to usher in an industry that has unleashed untold misery upon the world. Pornography addiction, the development of unrealistic body images, the heightened commodification of sex, broken marriages, and the spread of global sex trafficking are among the “liberating” effects of pornography in the age of mass communication.
I have known Christian men who were addicted to pornography and were consumed with guilt, regret, and self-loathing. They were as Paul describes in Romans 7:15: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” What Paul tells us is that, when we do things we know we should not, we do not simply have an ethical problem. We have a spiritual problem. And as followers of Christ, we need no longer be victims, though many will remain trapped in patterns of destructive, sinful behavior. We can be victors through Jesus Christ, but we must first recognize the spiritual nature of our entrapment.
We rightly react with horror as we hear of the deadliest mass shooting since 1949 in Las Vegas, or a killing spree in a church in Texas more recently. But are we surprised? Let’s admit it: mass shootings are now so common that we can’t keep up with them anymore. The world is broken. Sin is real. We can reach for tools such as psychology and sociology to explain why these mass shootings keep happening. We can enact laws that will restrict gun use and ownership. Perhaps these measures will help, and perhaps they will do less than we think. But along with the scientific and legal approaches to this issue, there is also a spiritual issue. Mass shootings are an outworking of sin in the world. They reflect the deep brokenness of humanity and our need for a savior. We cannot save ourselves. We have tried again and again, and it hasn’t worked.
We cannot save ourselves. Politicians cannot save us. Legislation cannot save us.
“Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals in whom there is no help” (Ps 146:3, NRSV).
Only Jesus, mediated to us through the Holy Spirit and the ordinances of the Church, can save us. And for this battle in which we find ourselves, the church complacent and the church complicit will not do. We need the church militant.
In our United Methodist baptismal vows, we renounce “the spiritual forces of wickedness.” Sadly, too often these words are left out of the baptismal ritual, much to our detriment. These spiritual forces of wickedness are quite real, and they exert tremendous influence upon the world in which we live. Likewise we are often reticent to talk about sin in our churches. The self-esteem movement seems to have undercut our resolve to name sin as an inescapable element of human existence.
You may think me foolish, superstitious, or out of touch, and if you do, I understand. I would think those things too were I not a Christian. But I am a Christian, and so I see the brokenness of this world as a spiritual phenomenon, and not simply one that can be reduced to social and psychological forces or simply solved if we get the right set of laws in place.
“He breaks the power of cancelled sin, he sets the prisoner free; / his blood can make the foulest clean; his blood availed for me.” These words of Charles Wesley remind us that, in Christ, we are not just forgiven; we can receive new life. We cannot save ourselves, but we can change–really change–from the inside out, by the power of God. That is the heart of the Christian message. If we give up on that, we are left with a thin, bland imitation of the Christian gospel of salvation.
The world is full of deep, heartbreaking tragedy. It always has been, and it will be until Christ returns. In the meantime, however, we have the capacity to form communities where heaven breaks out, where the will of God becomes our highest priority and the Spirit of God becomes our guide. At its best, that is what the church is. The church is–or should be–where people can come to be made new by the saving blood of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. So we are not given over to despair. We have hope. Sin is powerful, but Christ is King, and so we pray with the saints through the ages, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”