It was 1966. The song was the coolest sound on the radio. It sounded like chimes on a reverb. The lyrics were indistinct enough to let one assign almost any meaning to them. Was it about the war? Was it about social unrest? Was it the song of teen-agers wanting to express their frustration with the world they were growing into? The song propelled Buffalo Springfield into the forefront of music for a short period of time. The first two lines sound almost theological - except I now know from the rest of the song, that was not their intention. "Something's happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear . . .".
Though it was not intended, those words describe the dynamic of our faith, of the Law and the Gospel. Something is happening, but most people have not a clue. Even those who study it for a lifetime cannot quite get it all in place. Because of our very nature we do not understand or appreciate the law well, and we cannot quite grasp the entirety of the Gospel. We pastors had a rollicking good time talking about it at our September Winkel. We had a marvelous sermon on the topic (as all good sermons must be), a good Bible Study on the topic of Original Sin, made better by the discussion of the fellow-pastors, and a paper presented by the Vicar of Stover on flags in the sanctuary which, oddly enough, seemed to carry the same topic forward. Something is happening here, but what it is ain't exactly clear.
Most people have trouble with the concept of the Law. They understand the principle of "law" just fine. They simply do not understand the law, how it applies to them, or what their relationship to it is. A large part of the problem is that they do not believe or understand the doctrine of Original Sin. Even when people claim to believe the doctrine, they don't understand what it means for them. The doctrine of Original Sin speaks about our total corruption. We start out corrupt and sinful before we take a breath. We see the world through the spectacles of sin and sinfulness. Normal is sin. Evil is our mother's milk, so to speak. It accounts for the horrific things we see on the news at night, and our complicity, our corruption, is the foundation for our cultural inability to deal effectively or honestly with sin and evil.
Because we are creatures of sin by nature, corrupted from our birth, we are slaves of sin and utterly incapable of keeping the Law of God. Our flesh cannot accept that judgment. We have this sense in us that we are decent people, and not like those "sinners" who do terrible deeds of violence, for example, or those who rob banks, or those that burn buildings down for fun, or delight in committing acts of terrorism. We believe that we are better than that, or so says that little voice in the back of our heads. We end up coming across, especially to others, like the Pharisee in the parable of Jesus who proudly praises God that he is not like other men, particularly like that repugnant tax-gatherer.
See, what is happening is not quite clear. We desperately need to believe that we are fundamentally decent, perhaps not holy, but basically good. We measure such things by comparing ourselves to the worst examples of humanity we can think of. I am not like Hitler! I never killed anyone, let alone six million people. I am not like Stalin! I never caused the death of fifty million people. I am not even like Bernie Madoff. I have never defrauded anyone out of millions. I have never even had the opportunity! Okay, maybe that should have said, "had the desire", but the truth is that I might have cut corners or shaved a little here or there for my own advantage. The difference between one crime and another is usually degree. I would guess that Bernie Madoff did not begin with a desire for or intention of hurting people or stealing from them. He just wanted to make lots of money and things just sort of got out of hand. Once you are into a deception, it is really hard to back out. "Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive." Sometimes it is even hard to find the desire to back out.
It is true that we do have a certain ability to make socially useful and pleasing choices - what people often imprecisely call "being good". We can choose to be kind (after a fashion), at times. We can choose to obey the law when we drive or go to the bank. We can conform ourselves more or less to an outward, social morality. That is why we can have decent, law-abiding society around us. The fact that we cannot always make ourselves choose to conform to outward morality is the reason (and it is a demonstration of the truth of our limited abilities in this area) that we have crime, divorce, drive-by-shootings, and gangs in our nation. The issue addressed in this article is not our outward decency, but our inward corruption and inability to be what God would have us to be, holy.
We need to believe that we are basically good, because we are basically sinful, and our unregenerate nature thinks sin is just fine. It is hard to come to grips with the corruption that is in us due to sin. That is why self-help books are so popular. We believe that there is something in us capable of making things better, of doing things right. Decision theology arises out of that same stubborn belief that we must have some true goodness in us and can perform some positive role in our salvation. That belief is the failure to understand our corruption, beginning with Original Sin.
God gave us the Law to help us understand who and what we are. He gave us something we can agree with, but still cannot obey consistently. We do and say things that we know we ought not to do. We glorify this behavior in our music and movies and books. Rappers did not invent violence against women or sexually suggestive lyrics. Heaven was "just sin away" in the '70's, and the Mills Brothers were singing the truth of it back in the forties - you always hurt the one you love, the one you shouldn't hurt at all. We simply celebrated our sin with more grace and style back then. The law was given for the single purpose of highlighting our sin and inability to be holy. That is why the Law always accuses.
God gave us the Law so that we could we see, beyond any reasonable denial, our corruption and weakness and slavery to sin. We are so twisted in sin that men have taken this God-given evidence of our sinful nature (the Law) and tried to employ it as the way we go about making ourselves holy and acceptable to Him. Its purpose is to convict us of sinfulness, and most people use it to try to demonstrate how good they really are. Nevertheless, we all stand convicted. Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.
Original Sin - the doctrine - teaches us that we are born utterly corrupt. Our nature prefers what is wrong to what is right. Adam and Eve proved it to be true for themselves by violating the single rule they had. They lived in a garden of abundance, and just one thing was denied to them, and they had to have that one thing. Their sin was unique because they had the ability to do what was right and choose to be holy, and they chose to turn away from God and do what He forbade them. In their sin, they corrupted the entire race of men because it was limited to the two of them at the time. They did a thing that determined human nature from that time forward, and robbed their posterity of the ability to be other than sinful.
Part of the guilt of that sin rests on every man and woman born since then because we are Adam and Eve. We are many generations removed from them, but everything we are is from them, and that includes our sinful nature, determined and sealed to us by our first parents. Just as the descendants of Jacob were known ever after as the children of Israel, or just "Israel", we are Adam and Eve. Genetically, spiritually, we are nothing more and nothing less both as a herd and as individuals. The original breeding stock was tainted, and all of their progeny were likewise tainted. We are tainted with their corruption, and our failure to be holy and do good consistently stand as proof of that fact.
People like to dream that it is not so, even though God tells us these truth in His holy Word. Every age has developed its dreamers that suppose that if we only do things 'this way', we could overcome the evils that cast a shadow over our lives and sabotage our societies. They are the great moralistic teachers. They draw crowds and adherents because the law always sounds so good to us. It sounds right and reasonable - and it is! But we remain sinful and unable to consistently meet the standards we set for ourselves, no matter how generous they may be. Nietzsche tried to suggest that the problem was with the morality of men itself, which would be superceded by the Übermensch - the superior being who would transcend morality and religion and what all. Various teachers like Norman Vincent Peale, or Robert Schuller, or today's Joel Osteen, each preach (or preached) the requisite attitude to achieve a satisfactory, happy, or blessed life. They each had their own formula and ideas about what was out of place in human life and how to address the problem, but they were each confident that their method, or philosophy would resolve the problem for their listeners. They are all preachers of the law, to one degree for another.
God has a different answer. It is called "the Gospel." He began with the truth, about human nature and its corruption since the fall, and He set about to save us by taking the process of our salvation out of our hands and doing it Himself. He sent His Son to be born human, so that He, too, would be obliged to obey the law or die. Jesus kept the whole will and law of God and earned the right to live forever. Then Jesus died, deliberately, in our place, to pay the penalty of our sin and corruption. Because He was also truly God, His life and death were of far greater value and consequence than the life of any single person - more than all of us put together, so He could redeem us all from sin and death. Now God tells us what He has done, and promises life everlasting - and resurrection from our graves - to everyone that simply takes Him seriously, believes what He has promised and trusts Him to do what He has said He will do. He that believes and is Baptized shall be saved. The whole of the Bible is the account of God preparing to do this great work, and setting the stage, as it were, so that men could identify what He was doing and who He was at work in and through. He recorded the events and left us an inspired witness in written form of both what He has done, and what He has promised, and what it all means.
Because of the corruption of our human nature, we human beings tend strongly to reject God and distrust His Word. He has to overcome that by His own power at work through His Word so that some might believe. When we do not believe the total corruption that inhabits our nature due to sin, we find the whole revealed plan of God to be beyond belief. Sometimes the closer one gets to the truth, the harder their nature struggles against the word and work of God. That may account for the constant rising up of false teaches within the church, and for the popularity of those false teachings among those who want to get religious. If we don't believe our own sinfulness is quite as bad as the Bible paints it, or course we will believe that we can work out some measure of true righteousness of our own accord. If we cannot accept the thorough-going nature of the corruption within us, we might well imagine that we can make the right choices and decide the issues of salvation, particularly if we keep those decisions simple sounding enough.
The point is that the whole issue is beyond our reasoning without divine help. We cannot see it, at least not clearly. We have to take God at His Word when it is not all that reasonable to our way of thinking. We have to accept and confess that even at our best, we are not holy and good and deserving of His grace and love. Then we have to believe Him when He tells us that He has forgiven all of our sins and has accepted us, adopted us through Baptism, into His family. We have to simply trust Him that we have forgiveness and salvation, particularly when we don't feel it, and walk in faith in spite of who we are, and in spite of what the adversary is always telling us and prompting us to feel and believe.
Something is happening here - it is called the grace of God in connection with Jesus Christ. It is spelled out clearly in the Scriptures, but our human reason will always muddy the picture because it is so much unlike us and the way we just naturally think. But, oh, don't these truths give you a great cause for thanksgiving?!
Yours in the Lord,
These sermons are for the Church. If you find it useful, go ahead and use it -- but give credit where credit is due.
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