(Focus: The Doctrine of Original Sin)
by Ted Schroder
The image of ashes is a moving reminder of the human position before God. Job’s initial cry of mourning, “I have become like dust and ashes,” later becomes a prayer of confession, “I repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 30:19;42:6) When Abraham interceded for Sodom and Gomorrah he prefaced his prayer: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes.” (Genesis 18:27) Ash Wednesday and the forty days of Lent remind us of our human condition: that we are sinners in need of redemption. What does that mean?
A theologian friend of mine (Paul Zahl, in his book, Grace in Practice, from which this article is extracted) maintains that there are three ways to empty a room. The first was to mention ‘original sin.’ The second was to refer to ‘total depravity.’ The third was to say that he did not believe in free will. Each of these expressions, especially the third, which is a negation, was sufficient to give him all the elbow room in the world. They have the same effect on his listeners as a diagnosis of cancer would from an oncologist.
Original sin is the idea that every woman and every man who has ever been born is infected in their DNA with a tendency to think the wrong and to do the wrong. Original sin is the universal tendency in people to look out solely for themselves to such an extent that when they are on the defensive they become violent and libinal (lustful). Jesus repeatedly described human beings as someone from whom evil proceeds, rather than someone who is the victimized object of outward influences. He traced the problem of sin to the human heart. (Matthew 22:15). Sin is a disease that is never healed in this life. It is forgiven. By God’s grace it is robbed of its total power. But it is never healed or eliminated until death.
Total depravity does not mean that every human being is as bad as he or she could be. Total depravity means that none of us is as good as we could be. There is good and bad in each of us, but there is some bad in every part of us. We are tainted with sin in every part of our lives, even our unconscious. Because of this tendency in each of us without exception, we are vulnerable to the temptations of the devil and the forces of evil.
Martin Luther wrote a most important book entitled The Bondage of the Will. In it he responded to the arguments of Erasmus who contended that the free will of man enabled the sinner to choose freely to serve God. Luther said that Erasmus reduced Christianity to morality which did not need Christ for salvation. If the will is free, and we can choose in our own power to serve God, then we do not need someone to save us – we can save ourselves. We may need some help from time to time but we do not need a savior. In other words, our religion is that of Poor Richard’s Almanack: “God helps those who help themselves.”
But human experience shows how little free will we have. Ask anyone who suffers from addiction or other emotional afflictions. People try to tell you to change, to stop drinking, or smoking, or some other compulsive behavior. All you need is a little will power, they say. The only way to change behavior is to acknowledge that you are in the wrong, and that your life is out of control. Unless you admit your powerlessness in this area you are hopeless. Repetitive compulsion afflicts everyone unless they seek a higher power than themselves. Recidivism is the rule and not the exception. Reversing obesity or anorexia is not possible unless sufferers can admit that they are powerless over their eating problems. The same can be true for worry, grieving and depression. Poor choices in life are inevitable unless we are saved from the bondage of our wills. The answer is not to judge and chastise others but to have compassion on them and introduce them to the good news of the salvation of Jesus.
The human will is in bondage. It is determined and conditioned by forces outside itself, as well as forces within. Our wills follow our hearts, the seat of our desires; and the mind, or reason, tags along behind finding rationalizing reasons to justify what the heart has already decided. That is why people can almost never be talked out of an emotional course of action once they have decided to do it. The will is tied to the heart, with the mind as a sort of ‘face-saving’ caboose. The reasons the mind devises to justify the heart’s needy desires are always pathetic. That is why we need the one person in the world who does not suffer from original sin, total depravity, or the bondage of the will: Jesus, his sacrificial atonement for the forgiveness of our sins, and the life-giving grace and power of his Holy Spirit to give us new life.
Ash Wednesday, 2007
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2007 People of Faith