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History of sin, part 2

For those in my Sunday Bible Hour class, The Story of our Beliefs, we finished up our look at the Church's various viewpoints of sin throughout the centuries (see the presentation slides here). Sin is one of those subjects that is simple and complex all at once. Simple because we have a pretty good idea of what sin is, at least on a practical level, but complex because there are tricky questions about the origin of sin, the problem of evil, our responsibility for our sinfulness, and the extent of our ability to withstand it.

We can get by in our Christian life without delving into the details of these issues, but whenever we tackle the theological questions relating to our salvation, we need to look first at sin.

We picked up our discussion from week one with a quick look at the reformation. Martin Luther's own struggle with his personal sense of sinfulness and guilt certainly played a role in his study of the book of Romans and the realizations about God's grace that led Luther to his reformed views. Therein lies a great story of how one man's personal struggles can affect what we all believe.

Jean Calvin went on to refine and add detail to our understanding of the extent of our sinfulness. For Calvin, we are in need of grace because our sinfulness renders us are incapable of believing on our own.

What was surprising to many in our class was the discussion of Jacobus Arminius, the reformed theologian who is often viewed as Calvin's opposite; as if Calvin and Arminius were a 16th-century version of Augustine and Pelagius. That image isn't accurate however. Calvin and Arminius were not even contemporaries and neither were exactly familiar with the modern expressions of the famous five points of Calvinism. Those celebrated points, their formulation coming after both men had died, were actually a response by supporters of Calvin against the supporters of Arminius in the Reformed Church's 17th-century debate over issues of our salvation. And on the question of sin, Jean and Jacobus were not that far apart: Our sinfulness is totally debilitating.

Class discussion gained intensity as we considered the views of sin detailed by John Wesley and the Weslyan movement. Wesley, by taking the Arminian view of sin and tweaking it a bit, concluded we can by grace find within us the capacity to believe.

As we discussed the issues, it became obvious the debate is trickier than imagined. Not that there is lack of clarity in the mind of God, but our understanding of these truths has limits. We are not infinite in our understanding of how God saves by Grace, how we are responsible for our unbelief, nor how we can believe in God without taking the credit for our belief. We hold firmly to our belief in God, the work of Christ on the Cross, our assurance of salvation, and our need for salvation. Our grip is lighter when it comes to the issues that go beyond our ability to comprehend.

It is at that point, however, that our faith in God needs to be the firmest. I believe in a perfect God, not in my ability to comprehend perfectly all the details about God.

Also, God is more interested that I see the horrible consequences of sin, turn from my sin, and look to Him for forgiveness (Isaiah 64). The Hebrew Bible is filled with story after story of human sinfulness and it's results. Our theological discussions, on the other hand, take us to debates concerning the order of salvation and similar questions that are not directly addressed in Scripture.

Thankfully, our class assistant Nathan (the man in charge of class practicality!) led us in a look at 1 John 1:5-10 and our need to confess sin and the comfort of knowing we are forgiven.

So let us walk in the light, as He is in the Light.


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