My Sin Problem

It’s funny how our theologies write and then rewrite hymns. For instance, I was raised singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” with the last line of the first and third stanza as – “Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty, God in three persons, blessed Trinity!” But the first time I sang “Holy, Holy, Holy” in a Disciples church using “Christian Worship: A Hymnal” (1953), the last line of the first and third stanza read – “Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty, God over all, and blessed eternally.” In the 1950’s when we were still interested in emphasizing the particularities of our life and faith as a church, the things that made us different from other churches, it was important to change the words of this standard hymn to better reflect one of the “peculiarities of our plea.” Here’s how that “peculiarity” was classically explained –

“While accepting fully and unequivocally the Scripture statements concerning what is usually called the trinity of persons in the Godhead, we repudiate alike the philosophical and theological speculations of Trinitarians and Unitarians, and all unauthorized forms of speech on a question which transcends human reason, and on which it becomes us to speak “in words which the Holy Spirit teaches.” Seeing how many needless and ruinous strifes have been kindled among sincere believers by attempts to define the indefinable, and to make tests of fellowship of human forms of speech which lack divine authority, we have determined to eschew all such mischievous speculations and arbitrary terms of fellowship, and to insist only on the ‘form of sound words,’ given to us in the Scriptures concerning the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. (From: “Our Position” by Isaac Errett – 1880)

Because the word “Trinity” is not in the Bible, our 1953 hymnal changed the words of “Holy, Holy, Holy” so that we wouldn’t have to sing it.  But in 1995 when the “Chalice Hymnal” was published and we were more interested in emphasizing what we had in common with other Christians, how we were like other churches, the last line of the first and third stanza of “Holy, Holy, Holy” reverted to the original “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”

I’ve been thinking about this recently after singing that grand old (it was written in 1743) Charles Wesley hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” (#517 in the “Chalice Hymnal”).  In its second stanza, we Disciples ask God to “Breathe, O Breathe Thy loving Spirit into every troubled breast,” with the expectation that when this fresh infusion of grace occurs that it will “take away our love of sinning.”  But in the Methodist Hymnal (and the original Charles Wesley version of this hymn) it asks God to “take away our bent to sinning.” Now, I think we can agree that there’s a difference between a “love of sinning” and a “bent to sinning,” and that distinction is theological.

Those parts of the church that are comfortable talking about “original sin” are the parts of the church that are most likely to sing about our “bent to sinning” as human beings. They believe that the entrance of sin into the equation at the headwaters of the human story has contaminated everything that comes downstream and has corrupted who we are as human beings. We now have a “bent to sinning.” It’s easier for us to sin than it is not to sin. Those churches that teach this like to point out that when the dust from the story of the fall finally settled, that the book of Genesis makes a frank statement about God’s regret for and grief over the creation of humanity – “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humanity was great in the earth and that every imagination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). That’s the “bent to sinning.

Churches that emphasize the spiritual freedom and moral accountability that is intrinsic to our humanity are the ones that are most likely to sing about our “love of sinning” rather than our “bent to sinning.” We choose to sin because we love what it does for us, at least in the short term. Sinning is what we choose to do because it promotes our sense of control, serves our self-interests, and satisfies our appetites for pleasure, power, and possessions.

So, which is it? Is sin a problem for us because we love what it does for us, or because we are bent in its direction? I think it’s both.

After the Bible, the most important book in my spiritual formation has been the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, the 1928 version.  I have prayed its words my whole life. One of the things that I have wrestled with in its use is the frequency of the confessions of sin that it calls for.  There is a solemn call for the confession of our sins, a prayer of “General Confession” that is the standard for prayers of confession if you ask me, and 2 versions – the long and the short of it – of “The Declaration of Absolution, or Remission of Sins.”  At the end of each day, it is good to examine what you’ve thought, said, and done that is contrary to what God wants, and to confess those sins. What always confused me was that the next morning, presumably after a night of sleep, in the order of Morning Prayer, you did it all over again, using exactly the same words!  I don’t sin much — or at all — when I’m asleep, so I always wondered why the Book of Common Prayer thought it necessary for me to begin the day with the same prayers of confession that I end the day with after a constant struggle with sin? I finally understood the reason for this when I read “The Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary” by Massey Hamilton Shepherd, Jr. (Oxford University Press – 1950). He explained –

“To confess one’s sins and seek God’s pardon at the close of the day’s work is perhaps more natural than to do so when one has just arisen from refreshing sleep. There is always in us the disposition to sin, but at the end of the day we could more readily make up a lengthy list of the times we have given in to this disposition during our waking hours.”

In terms of the versions of Charles Wesley’s hymn that we sing, what this means is that the Disciple version – “take away our love of sinning” – is appropriate for Evening Prayer while the Methodist version – “take away our bent to sinning” – is appropriate to Morning Prayer. Using both versions help me understand that my problem with sin is both a matter of what I do and of who I am.  This idea finds expression in the Biblical witness by the use of both the singular “sin” in places like Romans 6:6, 7:7-25, and I John 1:8, and the plural “sins” in places like Matthew 26:28, Acts 2:38, and I Corinthians 15:3.   Tom Smith explains – “’Sin’ singular refers to the powerful nature of sin within us.  It’s like a tree that produces its fruit – ‘sins.’ It follows then that ‘sins’ plural refers to countless acts of sinning as the fruits of this sinful nature within is.”  As the prayer of General Confession in the Book of Common Prayer puts it –

“I have erred, and strayed from Thy ways like a lost sheep.

I have followed too much the devices and desires of my own heart.

I have offended against Thy holy laws.

I have left undone those things which I ought to have done;

And I have done those things which I ought not to have done.”

Sins are what I do. My sins are “manifold.” But there’s more to it than just my record of bad behavior.  As the prayer of General Confession in the Book of Common Prayer goes on to admit – “there is no health (wholeness) within me.” Sin is also bound up with who I am as well.  Theologian Michael Bird explains this reality well –

“All people sin. All people imitate sin. All people have a propensity to sin. All people are guilty of sin. That human beings sin, transgress, break laws, violate rights, and commit immoral deeds is self-evident to everyone. I have to confess that one of the things that amazed me as a parent was that I never had to teach my children how to lie. They picked it up quite naturally. The mess that one child makes he or she will instinctively blame on another child, preferably the younger one, who cannot yet speak for themselves. Greed, violence, and selfishness seem like the default setting that they are born with. I sincerely believe that crying babies would throw their own mothers under a truck if it would get them what they want. Experience has also taught me that raising toddlers is like working for Caligula and Charlie Sheen combined. A house run by teenage boys has about the same degree of law and order as lunatics running an asylum. A colony of minors stranded on an island would not resemble Peter Pan’s paradisiac Never Never Land, but would descend immediately into violence and terror more akin to William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies where the strongest ruled the weakest with merciless spite. If you ever want to see what people are like, what they are truly like, see what they do when they think no one is watching them. …Anonymously on the internet, that is when you see what evil desires and what dark proclivities lurk within the hearts of men and women.”  (www.patheos.com/blogs/euangelion/2014/02/paul-on-sin-in-romans-5-6/)

Fortunately, neither sins (plural) nor sin (singular) is the point of the story that the Bible tells or the focus of the truth that it teaches. If I had to point to just one passage in Scripture as expressive of the essence of the Gospel, it would be John 1:29-34.  This is the story of John the Baptist’s witness to Jesus Christ at the beginning of His public ministry. This text opens with John announcing that Jesus is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (1:29), and it closes with John explaining that Jesus is the Promised One who will “baptize with the Holy Spirit” (1:33). Forgiveness through Christ’s atoning sacrifice for sins is how God deals with the problem my sinful behavior, and regeneration through the transforming work of the Spirit in my heart is how God deals with the problem of my sinful nature.  And so, when I sing “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” I pray that both my “love of sinning” (behavior) and my “bent to sinning” (nature) might be addressed by a fresh infusion of grace.

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