Stricken by Sin, Cured by Christ

There is much talk today about the Christian doctrine of sin. A new book has just been released:

  • Jesse Couenhoven, Stricken by Sin, Cured by Christ: Agency, Necessity, and Culpability in Augustinian Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

As a preacher in Churches of Christ, this book is a challenging read for me.

Many non-Christians in America are turned off by the Christian teaching on sin. Why would anyone want to go to church and sing about human failure, death, and dying?

Perhaps more surprising, however, is the fact that some Christians find the biblical depiction of human sin overly pessimistic.

  • When Scripture speaks of human corruption, some Christians speak of human potential.
  • When Scripture says “all have sinned,” some Christians say, “Yeah, but I have overcome all that now.”
  • When the Lord Himself says, “With men, [salvation] is impossible,” some Christians say, “Get over it—pull yourself up and let’s do this thing!”

In Churches of Christ, a movement born on the American western frontier and steeped in the rationalism of the Enlightenment, as well as the views of John Locke and Scottish Common Sense Realism, we deny the traditional, orthodox Christian teaching on “original sin.”

Many of our critics accuse us of being “Pelagian” in our view of human sin. Right or wrong, our critics do point out a serious issue in our theology, in our view of the human condition after the Fall.

My question to our people is, “What do we believe about sin and its effects on the human condition?” What did we inherit from Adam, if anything? What were the effects of “sin entering the world” through Adam’s disobedience? What is Paul’s point in Romans 5:12-21?

As a man who makes his living preaching in and for Churches of Christ, I want to know what to teach about the ability of human beings to overcome sin by themselves. Do I go with Christian orthodoxy and risk losing my position of employment? Or do I go with the party line and, while retaining my job, run the risk of violating the overwhelming testimony of our Sacred Text? This presents quite a dilemma.

I have heard sermons within Churches of Christ, many sermons, which could be accurately characterized as Pelagian. According to these sermons, even after the Fall human beings at birth are, following the philosophical view of John Locke, a “clean slate.” According to these sermons, every human being born after the Fall is capable of living a perfect life. Our logic is, “Otherwise, God could not hold us accountable for sin.” Or, “How could God command us to keep a law that is impossible for human beings to keep?”

Fair enough, at least according to “common sense.” But what about Paul’s clear teaching–teaching inspired by God’s Holy Spirit–that it is humanly IMPOSSIBLE to keep the Law, or any law, perfectly? What about Paul’s teaching that it was never the purpose of the Law, or law, to produce righteousness but, rather, to expose human sin?

Furthermore, the other side of the question is, “If every human being born after the Fall is capable of living a perfect life, why did it take the miraculous birth of Christ—the incarnation of God Himself—to produce a human being who could actually accomplish that feat?” Surely if it were possible for every human being to live a perfect life, there would be at least one example from history. Heaven knows many have tried. The problem is that each and every one who has tried has failed, most failing miserably–except One, and He was God-in-the-flesh.

My present sermon series is an expository journey through Paul’s letter to the churches of Galatia. In this hard-hitting letter, Paul is attacking the human tendency toward self-reliance head on. He is intense, he is angry, and he is pulling no punches. Why? Because Paul has discovered hope—true hope for the human condition.

And true hope does not come from the power of positive thinking. No! True hope comes from “the truth of the gospel,” which is: Christ and Him crucified is the ONLY cure for human sin. This truth is pessimistic to some, but liberating to those who see its power.

In his new book, Jesse Couenhoven makes some very insightful observations:

  • The Christian teaching on sin seems pessimistic only to those who think we ought to be able to justify ourselves, by ourselves.
  • The view that we can justify ourselves degrades the Bible’s teaching on human sin.
  • The belief that we participate in—or even contribute to—making ourselves righteous offends God’s claim that righteousness (justification, salvation) is a free gift, given by grace.
  • The Bible’s teaching that we are not masters of our own goodness and cannot justify ourselves is not a counsel of despair but testimony to our only true hope—Christ and Him crucified.
  • Freedom is NOT an autonomous achievement but, rather, a free gift. One that we ought to receive joyfully.

I am still wrestling with this mystery. Regardless of which view one takes, there remain unanswered questions. It seems to be impossible to tie up all the loose ends in this challenging debate.

After more than three decades of struggle, however, my conclusion is this: Regardless of “who made me do it,” I have personally participated in Adam’s rebellion—I am guilty of sin.

And so I do not need a self-help remedy for my sin problem. I need a Savior.

Praise God that He has provided One for me—and for everyone else who comes to Him in humility, repentance, and submission.

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