This week we continue our study of the Second Helvetic Confession with everyone’s favorite topics: Sin and Free Will! That’s right, we’re into chapters 8 and 9 this week!
I confess that I have a hard time with writings like these. The Augustinian world view (a view of life, the world, humans, and everything that is built around St. Augustine’s idea of Original Sin) does not resonate with me. I have a hard time with the concept of “original sin” somehow wiping out the image of God in us. I fit better with the Iona Community affirmation that “goodness is planted more deeply than all that is wrong.” But having said that, I also do believe, with Paul, that we are incapable of choosing the good unless God moves in us to empower us for that good. We may want to do good, but we cannot do good on our own, apart from the movement of the Holy Spirit. Or at least, I think I believe that most of the time. Or some of the time.
In other words, this whole sin and free will thing is complicated. (Luckily, grace is not so complicated.)
“In the beginning, man was made according to the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness, good and upright.” Yes! In Genesis, God declares “it is good” and “very good” in the midst of the creation story. Things do go downhill from there, sadlly.
Bullinger writes “By sin we understand that innate corruption of man which has been derived or propagated in us all from our first parents.” hmm. What do you think? This is where the Augustinian thing comes in–Augustine believed sin to be passed from parent to child through sex. Because that’s how we’re conceived, we must all be conceived in sin, and be sinful from our first moments–our nature is sinful. (There is another worldview that suggests that sin is not our “nature” but instead is our “second nature”–one that often covers up our true nature as people made in the image of God. This second nature is not “innate” or “inborn” but is more like an overlay. Because we are born into systems of brokenness and hurt and sin, we inevitably take on those things too. It’s a slight difference on the surface, but an important one!)
Bullinger goes on to say that “Actual sins (notice the plural–he means acts, not nature) are those that arise from original sin. They are called and truly are sins, no matter by what name they may be called, whether mortal, venial, or that which is said to be the sin against the Holy Spirit which is never forgiven. We also confess that sins are not equal; although they arise from the same fountain of corruption and unbelief, some are more serious than others.” What do you think about that? We have often said that sin-is-sin, that all people fall short of the glory of God and it doesn’t matter how exactly. This confession disputes that, saying that indeed some sins are worse than others. What do you think are the “worse” sins? And who gets to decide what is worse? (Remember that Jesus said that with the judgement we use we will also be judged…)
The whole chapter on Free Will is an exercise in confusion. The confession says that while we are free to choose various actions, God may use them differently than we intended (see the story of Joseph and his brothers for evidence). It also reminds us that we are not able to do good on our own, only through God’s work in and through us (see most of Paul, particularly Romans, for more discussion of this idea). So if we cannot choose good, and the evil we do can be transformed for good, what is free will anyway? And isn’t it a little presumptuous to say that what we perceive as evil God will just change to be good somehow–what about the suffering in between?
The confession ends up with a few important scripture texts to help us on this journey. First we have Jeremiah and Ezekiel both saying that God will “write my law upon their hearts”–in other words, God’s word and will and spirit will be inside us, and part of us, and therefore we will want to follow God’s way. Second we have Paul in Romans 8, discussing how we are transformed and equipped by the Spirit of God so that we may choose and do the good. But ultimately we have Philippians 2 where we learn that “God is at work in you.”
There was a theologian named Pelagius who believed that God offered us grace and we had to receive it–one metaphor sometimes used to describe Pelagius’ view is that of a staircase. God built the staircase toward heaven and even placed us at the foot of the stairs, but we have to choose to walk up the stairs. Pelagius believed that our free will was sufficient for us to choose to accept grace, to choose to walk up the stairs, without any action on God’s part. The Reformed Tradition (of which we are a part), including this confession, utterly reject this idea, because there are so many scripture texts that tell us that the only way we can make that choice is through God’s action in our lives already. Only because we have already received grace can we begin to walk up the stairs. Only because we are already saved can we live lives worthy of our calling. Only because God is already at work can we participate in God’s kingdom work. Only because God is already in us can we turn toward God. Only because Christ has set us free is there any freedom to exercise. In a quote that almost makes St. Augustine palatable, we learn “What have you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” In other words–everything we have and are is a gift from God, and in no way do we earn it or even have the ability to earn or do it on our own without God’s grace already moving through us.
So what does all that mean for free will, particularly in light of the Original Sin worldview? Or if we take the second-nature worldview instead, what does all this mean for our lives and our choices and actions, and how we live through a faith lens? What do you think of all these things?