I am preaching from Paul again this Sunday. The scripture will be Romans 7.14 through 8.11
“The law, as we know, is spiritual. But I am fleshly, sold into slavery under sin. I am completely at a loss to account for my own behavior. For it is not what I want to do that I do. But I do what I hate. If what I do is contrary to my own will, this means that I agree with the will of the law and hold it to be admirable. But the situation is that it is no longer I who do this but sin dwelling in me. For I am aware that in me, that is, in my flesh, there dwells nothing good. For the will to do the proper thing is there, but the power to achieve it is not. For I do not do the good that I want to do, but the evil that I do not want, that I do. But if what I do not want, that I do, then it is no longer I who do it, but sin dwelling within me.
“So this is what I find to be the case with respect to “law”: when I want to do good, it is evil that lies at hand for me. I take delight in the law of god according to my inner self. But I see another law in my members at war against the law of my mind and holding me captive to the law of sin, which dwells in my members. Wretched me that I am! Who will deliver me from the body of this death? Thanks be to God , through Jesus Christ, our Lord. So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but in my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.”
There is, undoubtedly, a strong conviction of the sinfulness of all men and women in Paul. The above passage is but one, albeit powerful, example of this. While much has been written about the identity of the “I” whom Paul writes about here, all of us should be able to identify with the “dividedness” expressed so personally–the feeling of impotence to be the people we want to be, the personal powerlessness to become the Christ to ourselves and to others.
Some strong threads of theology have grown out of this sense of powerlessness and shame in the face of such powerful, inner sinfulness.
For the Roman church, much reliance and comfort has been offered through the Church’s sacraments and membership in the Church. “Look not on our sins, but upon the faith of your church” is a line from the Roman Catholic communion service.
In some Protestant traditions, we humans lack any capacity at all to transcend our natural sinfulness, even in the presence of the Spirit. We are “filthy sinners” and any so-called “good” we can accomplish in trying to respond to God’s presence and will is so saturated by our own sin that even this “good” is foul and worthless in the eyes of God. So, all we can do is believe rightly and rely totally upon the sacrifice of Jesus made in our place on the cross.
This last voice has been a very, very strong in the history of this country and is still spoken loudly from many pulpits. Perhaps THE most famous and influential sermon in the history of this nation, next to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” sermon (yes, sermon!) was given by Jonathan Edwards, a clergyman of the Congregational Church, in 1741 in New England. The sermon struck such terror in the hearts of so many men and women as to be the start of what is called in history “The Great Awakening,” a religious revival that swept, and I mean swept New England. A small portion of this sermon is below:
“All wicked Men’s Pains and Contrivance they use to escape Hell, while they continue to reject Christ,
and so remain wicked Men, don’t secure ’em from Hell one Moment. Almost every natural Man that
hears of Hell, flatters himself that he shall escape it; he depends upon himself for his own Security;
he flatters himself in what he has done, in what he is now doing, or what he intends to do; every one lays
out Matters in his own Mind how he shall avoid Damnation, and flatters himself that he contrives
well for himself, and that his Schemes won’t fail. They hear indeed that there are but few saved, and
that the bigger Part of Men that have died heretofore are gone to Hell; but each one imagines that
he lays out Matters better for his own escape than others have done: He don’t intend to come to that
Place of Torment; he says within himself, that he intends to take Care that shall be effectual, and to
order Matters so for himself as not to fail. But the foolish Children of Men do miserably delude themselves
in their own Schemes, and in their Confidence in their own Strength and Wisdom; they trust to nothing
but a Shadow.”
As superior as we likely feel to such a primitive, fear- and not love-based theology, I fear (note the irony) that our collective theology has swung much too far to the opposite side—that we believe there is no sin within us, that we are so comfortable and successful that we must be deserving of our blessings, that God loves us just the way we are, that a sense of sin only leads us to shame and unhappiness. After all, doesn’t God want me to be happy, above all? So the prophetic fire is doused by our complacency, all the social injustice and suffering that results from our self-satisfaction and pursuit of our own “happiness” is preserved, the teachings and example of Jesus are forgotten, and we never become the people whom God wants us to be and whom we can indeed become.
In my sermon Sunday I want to deal more, and from a bit different perspective, with the drawbacks from the theology that we are hopeless sinners, unable to become “new creations” at all, and the “theology: that there is no sin, that there is only God’s love for just the way we are, that there is only happiness and unhappiness. For this, I am going to rely a lot on the writings of Paul, and a gospel, and a bit on the writings of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell.
Hope to see you Sunday.
Your Brother, Brooks