One of the big complaints our culture seems to have with Christianity today is our obsession with sin. Christians are against abortion “because it’s a sin.” Christians are against gay marriage “because it’s a sin.” Christians claim to have “good news,” but instead they keep telling me that I’m a sinner, and I have to repent or else go to Hell. Isn’t God supposed to be all about love? So why all this obsession with sin?
Now, perhaps there are indeed some Christians among us these days who are obsessed with sin, and do seem hung up with throwing accusations around and have little else to say. But at the root of the matter, Christians are not obsessed with sin. Although recognizing and identifying sin is a basic part of teaching and living the faith, sin itself is not actually of primary importance to us. Take, for example, the Apostles’ Creed: what does it say about sin? Only one thing: “We believe in the forgiveness of sins.” You see, context is key here! The subject of sin is really only important because of the forgiveness that God offers us.
the penitent man shall pass
As we begin this season of Lent, we are hit with quite a lot of focus on sin, repentance, and forgiveness. And sometimes all this talk of “have mercy on us, miserable sinners” can throw us off track a little – “I thought this morbid obsession with our own sinfulness was just an aberrant trait of Medieval Catholicism?” Well in fact, the Protestant Reformers were just as vivid in their writings about human sinfulness as their Catholic counterparts. It’s not Protestantism that stepped away from this unsettling language of our sin, but rather, modern and post-modern culture. The modernist error of the early 20th century was to assume that we human beings are actually rather more enlightened than we used to be, and we’re not nearly as sinful as we used to imagine ourselves to be. That attitude continues today, usually with the post-modern addendum that there isn’t really any such thing as good and evil anyway, and therefore sin is just a human construct to enable the Church to beat its members over the heads and exercise control over them.
When we turn to the Bible, we find a number of powerful pictures of sin: “I am a worm and no man,” exclaims Psalm 22; “We were all dead in our trespasses” preaches St. Paul. The terrible, awful depravity of the human being is very real, and we have much to repent of, even when we don’t remember that we do!
And yet, God is a God of mercy and forgiveness. He provided the sacrifice, he provided the healing remedy for our sinful condition, and that is the man-who-is-God, Jesus Christ. His sacrifice on the Cross was the death penalty that our sins deserved. If Jesus hadn’t done that, and allowed us to be united with himself, then we would all die in our sin and rightly suffer the second death – the eternal inability to enjoy God’s love.
expressing both sorrow and hope
As surprising as it may seem at first, the more deeply we realize how dreadful our own sins are, the more deeply we appreciate just how merciful God is in providing a way out of death into life! That is why even the most depressing psalms, hymns, and prayers never stay completely in the bleakness of gloom, but always break out into some expression of joy in God’s gracious gift of forgiveness. This is important for us to remember – we don’t pray through the Ten Commandments, the Kyrie, the Litany, and other devotions with the intention of wallowing in our own ugliness. We aren’t simply punishing ourselves or putting ourselves down by such penitential language. Instead, we’re doing two things: one, we’re being real with ourselves and with God, acknowledging the hard truth that on our own we’re hopelessly evil; and two, we’re setting the proper context for how great God’s mercy is! As Jesus explained, “he who is forgiven much, loves much” (Luke 7:47).
The long hymn that we sang near the beginning of the service is from the book I introduced back in December, Lyra Fidelium. It is the poem-turned-hymn that dwells on the line of the Creed declaring belief in the forgiveness of sins. It contains examples of what I’ve already been talking about. We sang of being “laden with sin” and declared “so vile I am.” We confessed that “evil is ever with me day by day” as I dwell in this “deathly wild.” But we didn’t leave it at that. We don’t obsess over sin for its own sake; no, we turned straight to Jesus. We heard the voice of Jesus calling us to repent, confess, and thus be loosed from all our sins. He found us, raised us out of the mire, gave us a heavenly inheritance through adoption, and now continues to clean us up and change us from something squalid to something sacred!
the gospel as told by garments
Here’s something interesting that may help to summarize all this: a whole stanza is devoted to clothing! Three parables from the Gospels are alluded to here, each featuring a different type of clothing.
First we remember the parable of the Prodigal Son. The son who had run off was feeding pigs and living in the mud. His clothes were as filthy as his soul. But then he moved toward repentance and decided to return home, where he would be better-treated even still as a servant.
Second we remember the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee. The Pharisee prayed self-righteously, but the tax collector prayed in true penitence, beating his breast and not daring even to look up. He was clothed in “the garb of penitence and prayer,” as this hymn puts it.
Third we remember the parable of the heavenly banquet, which is a picture of God bringing all sorts of people to heaven. There he gives everyone a wedding garment to wear. Something similar happens in the parable of the prodigal son also – the loving father gives a clean robe to his wayward son when he returns.
These are the outfits that we wear in the course of life. We began in the muddy garments of sin. Then, once our hearts were moved toward God, we put upon ourselves the garments of penitence. Finally, God gives us the heavenly garment, as St. Paul wrote, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14). In the Revelation of John, we see the same image even more beautifully described:
Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure” — for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” (Revelation 19:7-9)
I would argue that it is only in light of this third and final garment, the wedding garment, that we can understand the second garment – of penitence and prayer. You see, the third garment, the righteousness of Christ, is given to us. We don’t put it on ourselves, we receive it from Jesus and the Holy Spirit puts it upon us. In Holy Communion we see a foretaste of this, and the words I just quoted from Revelation form part of the liturgy.
The second garment – the one of penitence – is the one that we put upon ourselves. That’s a big difference. Whenever your clothes get dirty, you put them in the laundry and put on clean clothes. It’s the same thing here; every time we find ourselves wearing the muddy clothes of the prodigal son, we are to take them off, casting aside every weight and chain of sin, and put on the garments of penitence, returning to our Lord in renewed love and devotion. Penitence is not self-punishment, much less is it our attempt to atone for our sins. Rather, it is the proper reaction we should have whenever we discover sin in ourselves. You wouldn’t want to track mud all over your house, would you? Or, if you don’t care, maybe your spouse would! It is the same with our souls; every time we see sin mucking up our lives, it’s time to take a spiritual shower and change our clothes.
putting on penitence & prayer
As we proceed with this service of worship, take this into consideration as we hit upon more penitential language in the prayers. It’s not time to wallow in self-pity, nor is it time to make a pretense of holiness by shouting out our sins; rather, it’s a time to look closely at ourselves, to recognize the mud for what it is, and give voice to the need to change.
And lastly, we don’t do this to earn forgiveness, for we believe in the forgiveness of sins! Forgiveness, absolution, healing, restoration, all are ours already! But it is Christ who clothes us in his righteousness; we do not presume to take it up ourselves.
Let us pray:
ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who hates nothing that you have made and forgives the sins of all them that are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts; that we, worthily lamenting our sins, and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.