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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Human behavior placed under the scrutiny of a law of works? That is NOT good news! Why, that is lethal to human beings and an absolute perversion of the message Paul preached. Anyone so distorting the Christian gospel, even an angel straight out of heaven, must be eternally condemned!

Why such strong words? Because law keeping can never be the source of human justification, it’s just that simple. And, by the time the reader has reached Galatians 3:18, Paul has established that proposition beyond all doubt (unless one is willing to deny the inspired authority of the Apostle Paul!)

But, believe it or not, Paul is not done. He will add to the already devastating jabs he has taken at law these equally pejorative comments:

  • Principles of law are weak and miserable, 4:9a.
  • Going back to them will enslave you all over again, 4:9b, 5:1.
  • Returning to law as a basis for your relationship with Yahweh makes Christ worthless, 5:2.
  • Returning to law means you have fallen from grace, 5:4.

So, Paul anticipates the only logical response to his tirade against law: “If the Law is so terrible, why did God give it to the human family in the first place?” Paul answers the question with five emphases:

  • It was added: the Law was added to God’s promise.
  • Because of transgressions: literally, because of overstepping.
  • Until the Seed: the Law was temporary and incomplete but completed and eliminated by Christ.
  • Ordained through angels: Deuteronomy 33:2, Psalm 68:17-18, Acts 7:38, Hebrews 2:2.
  • By a mediator [Moses]: his somewhat obscure point in these last two emphases seems to be that the Law was not something given directly by Yahweh to the human family as was the promise.

And so, Paul says, the Law was merely a temporary babysitter given by Yahweh because of overstepping on the part of human beings. Now that Christ (the Seed) has come, it is time for God’s people to grow up. Faith in Christ forms the basis for human justification as well as the basis for living out a justified life—not rule keeping!

“The truth of the gospel” (ἀλήθεια τοῦ εὐαγγελίου). Paul uses this expression twice in his short letter to the Galatian churches (2:5, 14).

First, he tells them that he earnestly resisted false teachers so that the “truth of the gospel” could be preserved within them, the believers (2:5). Then, he shockingly tells them that he confronted a group of Jewish Christians, led by Peter and Barnabas no less, because they too had been caught up in the deception of legalism and “were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel.” (2:14).

The truth of the gospel is that God has done for humankind what we could not do for ourselves: God has supernaturally and sufficiently dealt with our sin problem. According to the New Testament, both aspects of the message (i.e., it is supernatural and it is sufficient) must be present or it is not “the truth of the gospel.” Let’s look at this more closely.

First, God took upon himself human flesh. Then God, in the person of his only begotten Son, suffered and died in order to remedy the problems caused by human sin. In other words, the gospel is supernatural in its origin. To deny that is to deny “the truth of the gospel.”

Second, Jesus Christ and him crucified has sufficiently handled the problem of human sin. When it comes to the elimination of sin, there is nothing left to do. Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection has accomplished it all. In other words, the gospel is sufficient in its scope. To deny that is to deny “the truth of the gospel.”

But we, gasping within the throes of sin and being drastically distorted by sin, often refuse to accept God’s straight-forward solution to our sin problem. Attacks on God’s plan come in many forms and from many sources; however, according to the New Testament, all false teaching and all false teachers can be classified into one of two categories. While both groups directly attack God’s plan of salvation and try to modify it in some way, the difference between the two groups is seen in the angle of the attack.

  • Gnosticism, Liberalism. The first group attacks the gospel from a philosophical perspective. God could not and would not ever take on human flesh. His interaction with this creation is extremely limited (as proven by the empirical study of our world) and, therefore, any allusion to the supernatural is a figment of an overactive imagination. This category includes ancient Gnosticism as well as modern liberalism.
  • Legalism. The second group attacks the gospel from a religious perspective. God could not and would not ever offer to merely forgive human sins. His justice requires so much more than that (as proven by our own deep-seated need for vengeance) and, therefore, any dependence upon God’s grace is the result of a lack of self-discipline. This is legalism.

Notice that Gnosticism/Liberalism attacks the supernatural nature of the gospel whereas legalism attacks its sufficiency. The truth of the gospel is that God’s plan (the incarnation, suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ) is both supernatural and sufficient to deal completely and finally with the human sin problem.

“The truth of the gospel” (ἀλήθεια τοῦ εὐαγγελίου). Humankind cannot accomplish it, must not detract from it, and must not add to it. According to the Bible, those who accept it by faith will be saved; those who deny it must be opposed.