We have received from the Enlightenment a rather boring, two-dimensional view of man. We have learned to regard ourselves in binaries such as mind/body, right brain/left brain, scientific/artistic. On a good day someone might speak of the mind and the heart, but usually by heart he means appetites or emotions, and both of those, on closer analysis, turn out to be bodily.
I don’t know if the connection is direct, but it seems to me that the rather feeble way Christians treat sin in the popular forum seems to me to bear a close relation to this simplistic, binary, two-dimensional view of man.
Let me explore my thoughts and see if I can find the connection that seems likely. Christians do not take sin seriously. I don’t mean that they go out and sin every chance they get. It’s much worse than that. I mean they don’t think seriously about it, especially when it comes to raising their children. For example, Englebert, a four year old of the Haggletooth family, is behaving sullenly today. Lorelei, his affectionate, charming, and sentimental mother, appeals to little “Eggie” to cheer up. He refuses, though not without solicitation. He feels rather bad to see that his precious mother isn’t happy that he isn’t happy, but he simply doesn’t feel like being happy. So he doesn’t cheer up.
Lorelei is not only affectionate, charming, and sentimental, but she also went to Sunday school a lot as a child where she learned that she and everybody else has a sin nature. She never really had the strength of character or inclination to absorb the earth shattering, soul-shaking existential reality of that notion, but it seemed to explain her basic inability to always do what she wanted to do and her general inclination to do things she didn’t really want to do (especially when she read Romans 7 and learned that even Paul felt there was nothing good in him) so she accepted the truth for its explanatory power and found some comfort in the notion that she had been destroyed by sin.
So she applies the same comfort to her reflections on her dear little Egghead. “Ah,” she muses to herself comfortingly, “He’s just got that awful sin nature. Isn’t he precious…”
As little Egbert continues to grow and be a pleasant, nice little boy by inheritence, Lorelei is content to know that he is about as good as most kids and really he’s so sweet most of the time that he’ll do and after all she loves him so very much because he’s her little boy and while he’s been destroyed by sin he is, after all, so sweet and kind and able to make friends easily and his winning smile will get him through quite a lot of the crises that life might just throw his way and in the end he’ll succeed because he’s so charming. Besides, his good-nature obviously proves that God’s grace is active in our family and that God is remembering those who feared Him from among our ancestors – even though it’s a little harder for us to be so holy because life these days is so stressful and we have so many more temptations to deal with than the martyrs who were able to go out in a blaze of glory.
So little Gilbert grows up and becomes a decent man and everybody is more or less happy.
Or else he grows up to become a violent, deranged criminal, in which case dear old Lorelei falls back again on the comforting doctrine that she and little Jailbert were both helpless because they were ruined by sin.
It might prove helpful for Lorelei to think a little more about what she is finding comfort in. The Christian doctrine that we are ruined by sin is not an abstraction to explain things to us. It is a concrete description of the state of our souls. It is a fact with which we must deal if we are going to be healed, if we are going to live, if we are going to matter. God did not make us so that we could be comforted or feel good.
And bang, there’s the connection!
So much of Lorelei’s emotional energy is spent seeking comfort, dwelling on sentiments, trying to get the right feeling in herself and her child, that she can’t act or think wisely. She’s burned up her energy on diversions. Like most parents, Lorelei spends a disproportionate amount of time trying to get her little Engel to feel a certain way. What she hasn’t figured out is that by doing so she has put him in charge.
But why does she do so? Because she has a two-dimensional view of her precious Engelbrat. He has reason and he has feelings. She tries to talk him into cheering up, laying propositions on him that no philosopher would attempt. “Cheer up, the sun will come up tomorrow. I love you. God loves you. You are a wonderful boy with positive self-esteem and many wonderful qualities. You’re alive and healthy. Think about all those poor little Sudanese children in Darfur. If that can’t cheer you up nothing will.” Then she tries to hug him, to watch Veggie Tales, to manipulate his feelings. It doesn’t work. And the reason it doesn’t work is because for little Gillie to cheer up would be an act of obedience. But he hasn’t learned obedience. Mommy doesn’t understand obedience.
Because obedience takes place in the third dimension, the dimension nobody believes in because it isn’t mind or body, right brain or left brain, reason or feelings. Obedience takes place in the will. So does sin.
That’s why we don’t take sin seriously. Because we dont’ take the will seriously. For some, the adolescent caricature of Calvin and Luther’s teachings on the bondage of the will removes it from the realm of consideration or at least places it in the realm of confusion. For some the fundamentalist separation of grace and nature puts the will in an untouchable and incomprehensible corner where we’d rather not go. For some the endless theological controversies that are rooted in the fine distinctions between the parts of the will and the proper relation between law and gospel are so discouraging that it isn’t worth trying to work them out.
But my concern is mommy, because she’s the one victimized by the theoretical arguments about the nature of man and all those things that grown men presume to address without making a serious effort on their own part to fully realize the achievements of the grace of God in their own lives. “After all,” they comfort themselves, “I’m ruined by sin. No point fighting it.”
May I say it this way? The salvation of mankind was achieved in part through the obedience of a pure mother. It always has been and it always will be, from Moses to Monica. The only theologians I am willing to take seriously are those who realize that their first earthly responsibility is to show mother’s how to raise their children in the grace of God, men like St. Paul, St. John Chrysostom, Bishop Ryle, and many others who have poured out such a continual fountain of wisdom.
This is not a fit of pique that leads me to this conclusion. It’s a very practical matter. If a theologian can’t tell a mother how to raise children to overcome sin, then he doesn’t understand the gospel except in a theoretical way. And the world will go to hell in a maserati following abstract theories.
Sin has broken through to this world through the human will. When God made man to be a steward of the garden, He gave him a high responsibility that would require a strong and healthy will. When the evil one deceived him, it was not his reason but his will that made the decision. His reason simply did its job – it informed the will of what it had heard and seen. There was no sin in that. But the will chose and the will directed the hand and the will was crushed and Adam (man) became a coward (like a cow).
And through Adam’s will everything was crushed – reason, body, soul, garden, earth, the heavens, Eve, and finally the serpent’s head.
Thus if we seek the restoration of all things, and it is this to which we are called, Lorelei must learn to apply the grace of God to Engelbert’s will until it is brought into submission to the grace of God by the grace of God. If she counts on a two-dimensional salvation, in which he agrees with a teaching and feels good about God, her disappointment will be eternal. “For it is God who works in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure.”
In a word, that means that God works to form sound habits in those He loves.