Do You Hear This Song of Freedom
A party where the featured guest denounces everyone probably wouldn’t last long. But, if the act of denouncing started to free people, a new entirely different type of party might begin–one with quite a future.
In our contemporary theological conversations, we often talk about sin. It is interesting that when we read through the works of Martin Luther, especially the Large Catechism–a teacher instruction book for teachers and pastors–we can be struck at just how contemporary his talk about specific sins can be. But the real problem, of course, is the root or what is sometimes called “hereditary sin” that curves us in upon ourselves, stripping away our ability to fear, love, and trust in God above all things. It is the sin of the First Commandment, a power that ties us up so that we cannot trust in God or take God at His word. All of our sins are a fruit of this sin, just as tumors are a fruit of cancer.
So, if this view of sin is true, and we believe it is, we aren’t as concerned with sins as we ought to be about sin. Sins are deeds, bad things done, or good things left undone. Sin, in the singular, is a condition, a power binding and holding and shaping us.
Sin’s advantage is that it is stealthy. Most of us don’t get up in the morning and think “Today I’m going to make an enemy of God.” Or, “Tomorrow it would be fun to lust after my neighbor’s wife.” We are generally convinced that we do what we do for good reasons. Often, it is only later, after the damage is done, that we become aware of what’s happened.
Take despair, for example–one of the “great and shameful sins,” according to Martin Luther. Despair takes hold secretly, not with a show of muscular might, but with soft whispers. “I shouldn’t feel this way.” “It can’t happen to me.” “I’ve got to snap out of this.” Despair breeds on whispered words like can’t, should, mustn’t, and ought. Despair multiplies hopelessness by suggesting that we should be able to find hope within ourselves. Then, despair lets us discover again and again that there is nothing we can do. That there is no hope within us.
The damage is done. The person gripped by despair becomes convinced that God can’t or won’t help, that family and friends don’t understand, that life on earth is but an endless cycle of deaths.
The opposite of despair is pride. It too is subtle; less a strutting, swagger than a quiet determination to go it alone as far as possible. Like despair, it feeds on itself as each little or big success provides food for the notion that we can make it on our own. And like despair, it cuts us off from those around us: God, neighbors, even the earth. Any acknowledgement of our need for help is considered a sign of weakness and a failure.
Despair and pride are fruits of the one root or “hereditary sin.” They show all the trademarks of sin: its secretive but powerful way of taking hold of us by what we hope for, dream of, wish for, and worry about; and its way of gripping, binding, bending, and driving us to isolation.
Unchecked, this sin shuts out the living voices of God, our neighbors. It allows us to hear only one voice–that of the Old Adam in us, the sinful self.
This is why we often use words like bondage and dominion to describe sin. There are some sins that can be considered voluntary, but with them, we stand a fighting chance. It really is, most often, within human will power to control the outward appetites for food, drink, and sexual relations. The Scriptures even tell us that it is possible to lead decent outwardly honorable lives without any help from God beyond what God has already given in creation. This is why many of us can say we know unbelievers who are nicer and more decent than many of our “church friends.” But, where faith and the first commandment are concerned, it’s another story. Here, sin exercises dominion.
But, you may ask, how can such talk of bondage and dominion ever be freeing? Well, this theology of sin is really the beginning song of freedom. For a real theology of sin describes how things actually work. There’s freedom afoot in the very word that tells us that things aren’t supposed to work that way. It’s already freeing to know that we weren’t made to be bound to death.
And yet there is still more to the song! The Scriptures tell us that as God identifies the godless, unbelieving, inwardly-curved self in each of us, God Himself takes hold of it to put it to death. And in doing so God creates a new and clean heart, a new self. God calls you what you are; a sinner through and through. God then declares what you are; a saved child of the Father on account of Christ. And furthermore, you are free to live as what He has already declared you are.