Misprints, original sin and the love of God
Over the Easter period a news story which caught my attention was the report that a mix up at the printers resulted in Acomb parish church in Yorkshire being delivered four banners declaring the good news that ‘Chris is risen.’ This is not, of course, the first time that such a misprint has occurred and what interests me is the way in which, if you think about them carefully enough, misprints can point you towards theological truth.
This is true, for instance of the misprint which declared ‘Glory to God in the high st’ rather than ‘Glory to God in the highest.’ This mistake reminds us that God is to be glorified in the day to day life of the high street and not just in church buildings on Sundays. In the same way the declaration ‘Chris is risen,’ although also a mistake, bears witness to a vital aspect of the Easter message.
To understand why this is the case we need to first of all to understand the problem to which the Easter message offers the solution. That problem is the existence of sin.
No one who is prepared to be honest about the human condition in general, or about their own life in particular, can deny the existence of sin. Sin is the failure to live as God made us to live and that is something that is true of all of us, as our troubled consciences make clear (this is a point made brilliantly by C S Lewis in the opening chapters of his book Mere Christianity).
As St. Paul puts it in Romans 3:23 ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.’ To quote the classic words of the Book of Common Prayer, what this means is that:
‘We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have offended against thy holy laws, we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us.’
Furthermore, there is no area of our lives which sin does not affect. As the Church of England’s Homily ‘Of the Misery of all Mankind’ puts it:
‘…truly there be imperfections in our best works: we do not love God so much, as we ought to do, with all our heart, mind, and power; we do not fear God so much, as we ought to do; we do not pray to God, but with great and many imperfections; we give, forgive, believe, love, and hope unperfectly; we speak, think, and do unperfectly; we fight against the devil, the world, and the flesh unperfectly.’
This bias towards sin is not something that only affects us today. The witness of Scripture and the evidence of human history both tell us that what is wrong with humanity goes right back to the very origins of the human race (hence the term ‘original sin’). There is something wrong with human nature that has affected and continues to affect every single generation of human beings. In the words of Article IX of the Thirty Nine Articles (the historic doctrinal standard of the Church of England), there is a ‘fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is ingendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness , and is of his own nature inclined to evil.’
The existence of sin as an endemic feature of human existence relates to the declaration that ‘Chris is risen’ because this misprint points us to God’s solution to original sin.
It is sometimes asked why, if God is love (1 John 4:16), he does not simply overlook or tolerate our sinfulness. The answer is that he will not do this precisely because he is love. As C S Lewis notes in his book The Problem of Pain:
‘… Love, in its own nature, demands the perfecting of the beloved; …the mere ‘kindness’ which tolerates anything except suffering in its object is, in that respect, at the opposite pole from Love. When we fall in love with a woman, do we cease to care whether she is clean or dirty, fair or foul? Do we not rather then first begin to care? Does any woman regard it as a sign of love in a man that he neither knows nor cares how she is looking? Love may, indeed, love the beloved when her beauty is lost: but not because it is lost. Love may forgive all infirmities and love still in spite of them: but Love cannot cease to will their removal. Love is more sensitive than hatred itself to every blemish in the beloved; his ‘feeling is more soft and sensible than are the tender horns of cockled snails.’ Of all powers he forgives most, but he condones least: he is pleased with little, but demands all.
When Christianity says that God loves man, it means that God loves man: not that he has some ‘disinterested’ because really indifferent, concern for our welfare, but that in awful and surprising truth, we are the objects of His love. You asked for a loving God: you have one. The great spirit you so lightly invoked, the ‘lord of terrible aspect’, is present: not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of the conscientious magistrate, not the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself, the love that made the worlds, persistent as the artist’s love for his work and despotic as a man’s love for a dog, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between the sexes.’
Because love demands the perfecting of the beloved and because God loves his human creatures it follows that he requires an end of our existence as sinners so that we can become the people he created us to be and the good news of Easter is that is precisely what he achieved on our behalf through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In the words of the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth:
‘In the death of Jesus Christ, God took man’s place in order to suffer in his place the destruction of sinful man and, at the same time to realise the existence of the new obedient man. The way is therefore open to restore the lost right of man, his right to live as the creature of God.’
As those trapped by original sin human beings require a radical new start and this is what the death and resurrection of Christ provide.
St Paul tells us in Romans 6: 6-7: ‘We know that our old self was crucified with him that the sinful body might be destroyed and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin.‘ That is to say, our old fallen nature was slain in the death of Christ in order that we might have liberation from the domination by sin which our old nature necessarily entails.
Christ’s death thus brings together God’s judgement and God’s love. The cross was an act of God’s judgement in that on the cross the death penalty was carried out on us as sinners. Our sinful existence has no right to exist before God and was therefore brought to an end. The cross was at the same time an act of love since the purpose of this judgement was to destroy our enslavement to sin in order that we might become free to be the people God in his love for us always intended us to be.
This is a point made forcefully by Martin Luther in his Lectures on Romans. Commenting on Romans 6:3, Luther notes that in Scripture there is alongside the temporal death of the body, a form of eternal death which is a: ‘very great evil’ in which: ‘it is man that dies, while sin lives and remains for ever’. This is the eternal death suffered by the damned. However, there is also a form of eternal death that is a: ‘very great good’. This is the form of death that took place in Christ:
‘It is the death of sin and the death of death, by which the soul is freed and separated from sin and the body from corruption, and the soul is united by grace and glory with the living God. This is death in the strict and proper sense of the word (for in every other death some mixture of life remains, but not in this one, in which there is nothing but life itself: eternal life). It is only this death that the conditions of death fit absolutely and perfectly; whatever dies in it, and in it alone, vanishes entirely into everlasting nothingness, and nothing ever returns from it (indeed it inflicts death also upon eternal death). Thus sin dies, and also the sinner when he is justified, for sin does not ever return, as the apostle says here: ‘Christ dies no more,’ etc. (Rom 6:9). This is the principle theme of the Scripture. For God arranged to take away through Christ whatever the devil brought in through Adam. And the devil brought in sin and death. Therefore, God brought about the death of death and the sin of sin, the prison of prison and the captivity of captivity. As he says through Hosea: ‘O death, I will be thy death; O hell, I will be thy bite.’ (Hosea 13:14) ‘
It was this death – the death of death and the death of sin – that was undertaken on our behalf by Christ through His death on the cross. Our sins are no longer a barrier between us and God, because in Christ our sinful existence has been brought to an end. It is a closed chapter. That is why in Matthew’s account of the death of Christ the curtain of the Temple is torn in two and the tombs of the saints are cracked open (Matthew 27:51-53). The sin and death which barred access to God and kept the saints in their graves have been done away with by the death of Christ.
However, there is more to the work of Christ than simply the termination of our existence as sinners. The work of God in Christ was not simply, or even primarily, a destructive work. As an expression of God’s love for us it was primarily a work of re-creation. This brings us on to Barth’s second point which is that the purpose of Christ’s death is to ‘realise the existence of the new obedient man’. In the words of St. Peter in 1 Peter 2:24: ‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree that we might die to sin and live to righteousness’.
This purpose was not achieved through the cross alone because if the cross was all there was then the story of God’s involvement with mankind would have reached its terminus point on Calvary. If we were to have a future our old existence as sinners had to be replaced with a new kind of existence
This new kind of existence is what has been made possible for us by Christ’s resurrection on the third day. The resurrection is an act of divine re-creation in which a new way of being human is opened up in which we are not only dead to sin but alive to God. That is why St Paul declares in 2 Corinthians 5:17: ‘If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new has come’ and why he writes in Romans 6:10-11 ‘The death he died he died to sin once and for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you must also consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.’ That is why Christ declares in John 11:25-26: ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die’.
If we consider the cross and resurrection together what we therefore have is a twofold divine operation in which, to quote John Stott:
‘We have died and risen with him, so that our old life of sin, guilt and shame has been terminated and an entirely new life of holiness, forgiveness and freedom has begun.’
Or, as John Calvin puts it:
‘…our old man is destroyed by the death of Christ, so that His resurrection may restore our righteousness, and make us new creatures. And since Christ has been given to us for life, why should we die with Him, if not to rise to a better life? Christ, therefore, puts to death what is mortal in us in order that He may truly restore us to life.’
How then does God in his love deal with original sin? He does so by bringing an end through Christ’s death to our old existence dominated by sin so that through Christ’s resurrection we might enter into a new future in which are dead to sin and alive to God in the power of the Spirit, a future which will find its completion when the God’s kingdom is manifested in its fullness in a renewed universe at the end of time and the remnants of sin which continue to dog us in this life are done away with for ever.
To go back to the Acomb misprint with which we began, the good news of Easter is not just that Christ is risen, but that anyone who wants to do so can participate in his rising through faith and baptism, whether Chris, or Dennis, or Angela, or Margaret, or any other human being. Anyone who needs and wants a new start can find it in Christ’s resurrection.
Chris is risen. He is risen indeed, Hallelujah!
M B Davie 6.4.16