Sunday, April 20, 2014

Desperately Sick and Deceitful

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Adam and Eve,1538
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves (Genesis 3:1-7).

"If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness..." I was called to confession with these words of Holy Scripture many times in my youth, at the beginning of the Divine Service. No Christian would doubt that he is a sinner and has sinned against God in thought, word, or deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. But is our inclination toward evil and away from God sin? Does Holy Scripture teach the concept of Original Sin?

Original Sin is the total corruption of mankind’s whole human nature which all people have inherited from Adam through their human parents. This corruption of the human nature inclines man toward evil and away from God; it brings guilt and condemnation on all people, leaves all people spiritually blind and dead, and causes all people to commit all kinds of sinful acts (Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation).

Some Christian denominations do not view this corruption, and the inclination of the human nature away from God, called “concupiscence” by theologians, as sin in and of itself. Many teach that this inclination to evil will eventually cause a person to sin, at which point they will be guilty of sin. Some even go so far as to say that it is inevitable that all people are bound to eventually commit acts of sin, due to this corruption of the human nature. If this is true, however, it means that there is a time after a person is born, and before they are morally accountable, when they are sinless – not guilty of sinning. Holy Scripture, however, is clear on the state of man’s nature after the Fall.

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned…Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification (Romans 5:12, 16).

God created man with free will. He placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and commanded them not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, or they would certainly die.” Yielding to the Devil’s temptation, Adam and Eve disobeyed God and, through the “one man” Adam, sin entered the world[1]. At the Fall, mankind became subject to death, both spiritual and physical. St. Paul writes that the disobedience of Adam made all people sinners[2]. God told Adam and Eve that if they sinned by disobeying his command the consequence would be death. Paul echoes this by reiterating the fact that the wages of sin is death[3]. All people, from the oldest old man to unborn babies in the womb are subject to death. Everyone dies. All people who come into existence are subject to the punishment for sin – death. If it were true that the corruption of the human nature, and the inclination of our human nature away from God, were not sin (and simply a defect which eventually causes sin), then people would not die prior to committing “actual” sins. We observe, however, that this is not the case when we see unborn babies, infants, children, adults, and elderly people die.

Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me…As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved (Psalm 51:5; Ephesians 2:1-5).

In Psalm 51 David confesses that he was sinful from the time of his conception. He does not confess merely his actions, but acknowledges before God and man the corruption of his very nature, which is revealed by his actions. Paul, writing to the Ephesians, calls both the corruption of the human nature and the actual acts of disobedience (the actual sins) sin. Paul explains that, prior to being made “alive in Christ” he, along with the Ephesian Christians, were “dead in their transgressions” and also “by nature, objects of wrath”. In other words, not only did they commit actual transgressions, prior to being made alive by the working of the Holy Spirit they were under God’s wrath due to the corruption of their human nature. If we are “by nature objects of wrath” prior to conversion, this must be because we are, by nature, sinners (Perman). In other words, one is not a sinner because he sins, but rather one commits sins because he is a sinner.

Holy Scripture describes man’s heart, i.e. his nature, as beyond cure and deceitful[4]. Moses writes in the sixth chapter of Genesis that the LORD saw that every inclination of the thoughts of his [man’s] heart was only evil, all the time[5]. It was because of this wickedness that God resolved to wipe mankind from the face of the earth by means of a flood. Several verses later, in the beginning of the account of Noah, Noah is identified as a righteous man, and blameless among the people of his time. His righteousness, however, was not due to the fact that he had not sinned, or did not have a corrupt sinful nature; Genesis chapter nine records a graphic instance of Noah’s sinfulness[6]. Noah, however, “walked with God[7].” In other words, Noah was accounted righteous in the same manner that Abraham would later be accounted righteous, by God’s grace through faith in God’s promise[8].

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus demonstrates that these inclinations toward evil and away from God which originate out of mankind’s corrupt nature are sin. In his discourse about adultery Jesus tells the crowd that the sin of adultery is not committed by the mere physical act, but by the lust which manifests itself from a man’s heart, i.e. his nature[9]. Jesus goes on to make this point further. “If your right eye causes you to sin,” Jesus explains, “gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” Of course we know that it is not our eyes or hands that cause us to commit acts of sin, but the evil desires which originate from our desperately sick and deceitful heart.

Along with Paul we ask, “Who will save us from this body of death?” Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Scripture tell us that if we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But, if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness[10]

While mankind was God’s enemy, dead in trespass and sin, hostile toward him and by nature objects of his wrath, God resolved to reconcile the world to himself in the person and work of Jesus. Born of a woman, born without sin, Christ, the divine Son, second person of the trinity, took on human nature and voluntarily subjected himself to the punishment for sin – death – that mankind deserved. By his holy, precious blood and his innocent suffering and death Jesus redeemed mankind, and purchased and won us all from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil. He earned for man what no man can earn, and he gives it to us by his grace. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Works Cited

Engelbrecht, Rev. Edward A., ed. The Lutheran Study Bible. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009.
Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1986.

[1] Romans 5:12
[2] Romans 5:16
[3] Romans 6:23
[4] Jeremiah 17:9
[5] Genesis 6:5
[6] Genesis 9:21
[7] Genesis 6:9
[8] Genesis 4:26 says, “At that time men began to call on the name of the LORD.” This verse is generally understood by theologians to say that people were, as the population on earth increased, teaching others about, and passing down to the next generation, God’s promise of a savior that he gave to Adam and Eve after they were expelled from paradise. It could more accurately be translated, “At that time men began to proclaim the name of the LORD.” It was in this promise that Noah believed, and it is by this faith that he was accounted as righteous. It is the same faith which makes Christians righteous today (Engelbrecht).
[9] Matthew 5:27-30
[10] 1 John 1:8-9

Monday, April 14, 2014

Jesus at the Feast of Booths - II

Not until halfway through the Feast did Jesus go up to the temple courts and begin to teach. The Jews were amazed and asked, "How did this man get such learning without having studied?" (John 7:14-15).

It's difficult enough these days to get a job when you have all your ducks in a row. It's nearly impossible to do so without the proper credentials. For the vast majority of high school students that involves some sort of college education. College, of course, isn't right for everyone. Some people go to technical schools to receive practical hands-on training in their chosen field. Still others, such as policemen, may not be required to have a college education by their employer. They are sent to a police academy, where they are taught the skills and learn the information vital to a successful career of doughnut-eating and vindictive ticket-writing.

The thing these examples have in common is that, before one can begin a job, one is required to demonstrate proficiency. Imagine a "doctor" practicing without a medical degree, or a lawyer practicing without having passed the bar. Today we demonstrate our proficiency through some sort of license, degree, or certification. When the patient sees the diploma on the wall of their physicians office, they understand that it represents the many years of hard work, study, and practice (not to mention money) that the doctor spent learning and honing his craft. When the citizen sees the badge on the breast of the policeman, he can reasonably trust that the officer's job proficiency, as well as his authority, are derived from more than simply watching reruns of T.J. Hooker.

Jesus, however, had no credentials. He had no "degree", and this was a serious affront to "the Jews", the religious leaders made up of the scribes, the Pharisees, and the teachers of the Law. There may not have been a system of accredited seminaries in first century Judea like we have today in the United States, but there certainly was a system. Jesus, however, had not been a part of that system and for him to teach as he did was scandalous.

It wasn't, however, only that Jesus was teaching without being properly certified. When the Jews taught, they carefully cited previous teachers and scholars of the Law. They all sought to cite their teachings in order to show that they were correct (by two or three witnesses shall testimony be established, after all) and that they had credibility. Jesus taught, as Scripture says, as one who had authority. In other words, Jesus taught the people, not by showing what those rabbis who came before him said about the Law. He taught as the one who wrote and implemented the Law. This attitude was not lost on the people and the Jews. The Bible tells us that the people marveled and openly wondered what kind of statement Jesus was trying to make:

The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law...The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him,” (Mark 1:22, 27).

This also included the religious leaders:

Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?” They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn't you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things (Matthew 21:23-27).

The Jews, however, really understood that Jesus was claiming deity for himself, and that's why they plotted to kill him. Jesus could, of course, teach in this way because he is the Messiah, the divine Son of God and second person of the Trinity. He is, as Scripture calls him, the author of life, the one through whom creation came into being, the one who was the very image of God the Father.

Jesus demonstrated this authority by what he did in addition to what he said and the manner in which he taught:

Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” Then the man got up and went home (Matthew 9:5-7).

He restored sight to the blind, opened the ears of the deaf, loosed the tongues of the dumb, raised the dead, and ultimately, rose from the dead himself. The Jews saw all these things but refused to see them for the signs they were. These things were the credentials, so to speak, that holy scripture said would accompany the Messiah. The Jews, however, demanded that Jesus "tell them plainly" who he claimed to be, and asked for a sign to prove his claims. Having ears, they did not hear; having eyes they did not see.

“ [Peter said] Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day (Acts 2:37-41).

So, with this picture of Jesus presented to us, we are in the same situation as the Jews to whom St. Peter preached. When we give in to our sinful nature, gratifying it's desires and falling into sin, we are just as guilty as those who sought to put Jesus to death. The devil, the world, and our own sinful nature mislead us into false belief, despair and other sin. When we, however, repent of our sin, God, who is faithful and just, forgives our sin and cleanses us from all unrighteousness. We can rest in the assurance of Jesus' authority as God to forgive our sin, and we can live with the sure and certain hope that, even though we may suffer many things on this earth - including physical death - Jesus will, on the Last Day, raise all the dead, and give eternal life to all believers in Christ. Until that time, we strive to live in accordance with the new nature we have received by the Spirit:

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law (Galatians 5:16-18).