Embedded at the heart of the Anglican Articles of Religion is the melancholy awareness that “man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the Spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation” (Article 1X. Of Original or Birth Sin).
One wonders what grasp the contemporary church or the ordinary believer has upon this solemn truth? One wonders as to how much this solemn truth constitutes the background or basis of our preaching of the Gospel? Without this grounding we have reduced the gospel to meaninglessness, for to discard or downplay the reality and gravity of human sin is to diminish our appreciation of grace and undervalue the salvific assignment and accomplishment of the Redeemer. The purpose of our existence is to perceive and promote the glory of God, and the brightest manifestation of his glory in our experience is the restoration of sinners to the fellowship of God, and the transformation of a severely disordered creation on a cosmic scale to a pristine condition. The Saviour wrought these twin tasks in his death and resurrection. It behoves us to derive the maximum amount of understanding as to the wisdom, power, and goodness of God displayed in the execution of his programme of rescue and renewal so that we may exalt his name to the highest degree of our capacities and join the chorus of praise with the angels for all eternity. The victory of the Lamb will be our preoccupation in heaven (Revelation 5:9-14, The New Song). This victory is our only hope on earth but how may we truly extol him if our knowledge of this triumph is meagre? How can we truly lift up our hearts to the Lord and raise our voices high if our awareness of the condition from which he has delivered us is low? The knowledge of our plight and an apprehension of our peril increases the gratitude and affection that we have for the God who saves, and binds us to him in the sweet submission to his sovereign will and all embracing care. The one whom by nature we despise and fear becomes our Father and communion with him becomes our chief delight. “I will love thee; I will live to thee – Since thou, the everlasting God, my Father art become.” (CHS)
It is for our good that we learn how bad we are, for the undeserved compassion that the Lord shows locks us to him in the firmest possible trust and love, for knowing the worst about us when he found us nothing can ever wrest us from him. Election is his immutable determination. We see the mighty goodness of God in the way that he forgives and heals our depravity. We may never comprehend the mystery of sin’s beginning in the human heart in the lusts of our first parents, or never be able to explain the manner of the spread of sin’s infection to every human being born into this world, but we recognize the facts of our ill desert, moral helplessness, and just condemnation, and then, gazing at infinite kindness in the face of our Saviour we exclaim with the ancient liturgy, “ O, happy fault!” for our misery opens the floodgates of divine mercy. It is that mercy that is celebrated in an honest look at the evil that originates in us, which establishes our guilt and engulfs us in our earthly life. An examination of our sin and woe is the first necessary step on the trail that leads to the discovery of the grace and glory of the Triune God.
THE GREAT OFFENCE IN THE GARDEN
The Confessional statement, “very far gone”, is much more than a description of our natural spiritual situation as fallen beings. It is the heartfelt lamentation of the awakened people of God echoed and re-echoed down through the generations. It is deeply felt in the soul – as we too are meant to feel it – evident in an attitude of contrition, and expressed through continual repentance. “Very far gone” means that we have deliberately severed ourselves from God, broken communion with him, and set ourselves at an extreme distance from him, to the point that we are utterly and totally lost with no desire or capacity to even begin to make a return. Gone are our fellowship and favour with the Lord, gone are the righteousness, security, and joy that were ours in his welcoming presence, gone are the guarantees of the continued blessings that we are so dependent upon. In our Fall we forfeited every good thing from God and cancelled his commitment to us. The chasm between us and the Lord is too wide to bridge from the human position, and no obligation lies with God to close it and call us home. The poignancy of those three words cannot be sensed too strongly or their meaning searched too thoroughly. They convey a complete departure from God that establishes the subjection of our lives to the tyrannous reign of our depravity. We plunge into willing servitude to the devil and this consensual alliance with wickedness seals our doom. This is the catastrophe that dictates the course of our lives and our ultimate destiny – “very far gone’ means that we are without God, destitute of his approval and deprived of his goodwill. And that is our radical choice in Adam and our own hearts.
We are observing not merely an unaccountable misfortune for our race but a self wrought rift with God that amounts to outright rebellion. We have made a move from hubris to hostility to havoc to hopelessness. All the signs are with us in human behaviour and the calamities within nature, the groaning of creation (Romans 8:22). We have moved from the comfort of God’s companionship and protection to the chaos of “come what may’ in the unpredictable but malevolent environment of evil. We have made a transfer from a state of wellbeing in Paradise to liability to God’s wrath, the foretastes of which are omens of the ultimate fury that will be unleashed eventually. We are mutineers against the divine majesty and have no estimate of the audacity and danger of our revolt which is irrational. It is an unthinkable mutiny against bounteous grace, the great love of the Almighty, and all the power, wisdom, and goodness exercised in our creation for blissful communion with him.
Instead of enjoying God we envied him, sought to be like him, and we attempted to dethrone him and usurp his authority. The lure of like power, or the theft of his, caused our grab for autonomy and our defiled hearts defied and denied everything that God is in his essential nature and excellent attributes. The uprising is too colossal for our minds to conceive, which is why Augustine, surveying the depravity of our hearts, and the devastation of our lives and the world in which we live, speaks of the Enormous Iniquity which is the source of our sin and suffering.
A measure of the this tragedy and its consequences is essential to our grasp of the Magnanimity of Divine Redemption. Why did we commit such an act? Why do we repeat such rebellion? And why, above all, does God bother to care?
THE SPREADING INFECTION
Theories abound as to the culpability and bias towards evil in the hearts of Adam’s descendents. There is plausibility in each of them and we reach towards them to make some sense of our situation. But there is no ultimate and exhaustive explanation available to us – yet. But the facts are clear and we accept them from divine revelation and human experience and observation. The solution lies with God. The great relief is that he has provided the Remedy. In the meantime we admit that in our nature there is no health in us. That is the starting point for our recourse to the Great Physician. The malady of soul is self inflicted. Spiritually, in terms of our relationship with God and life before him we are dead, absolutely inert. Not annihilated but imprisoned in the realm of trespasses and sin and disconnection from God. We have forfeited spiritual powers and capacities that can work for our good or our reversal of an innate hatred for God (Romans 8: 6-8,). Our sinfulness, rebelliousness, and aversion to the Lord are inherent, fundamental, constitutional to our being in Adam. This structural phenomenon is organic to our race, the mass of humankind permeated by the force and influence of sin. We are in solidarity with Adam, heirs to his wellbeing had he proved obedient, complicit in his sin, and heirs of his pollution. Intellectually we live with the conundrum, but experientially we know the awful truth. As Archbishop James Ussher observes Adam’s offence is the bitter root of our corrupt fruit. As G.C Berkouwer comments, “We have no alibis”. Yet our ingrained deviousness is evident in our tendency to manufacture excuses or place the blame elsewhere. Our hearts are so wicked and constantly spewing forth their rancid content and yet we cannot own them for what they are. We are reminded of Jeremiah’s mournful insight, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (17:9). We twist and turn to avoid the truth about ourselves and the refusal to acknowledge our sin obviates the forgiveness that David found in honest admission of his warped nature and wrong doing (Psalm 51). We cut ourselves off from the way of life and obstruct our own deliverance. We are beyond cure by nature and our perverse volition. Our hearts are not only corrupt, our lives misdirected, and the pursuit of our own pleasure destructive, the horror of sin is not only in its ugliness and degradation, not only in its character as switching sides to Satan, its sheer enormity and absolute horribleness is asserted in the Davidic confession, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (51:4). We have aimed our hatred at God. We respond to his love with loathing. The nature of our crime is immense beyond measure and the shock waves have reverberated through the universe. Man has taken up violence against God. Whilst heaven is disbelieving and appalled we are insensible to the outrage we have perpetrated.
Until the intervention of grace our hearts are adamantine, our consciences evasive, our minds in a stupor as we stumble through confused and crooked lives. As we attend to the increasing army of scoffers who address us through the media nowadays we wonder at their blindness, brazenness, and foolish boldness in contending with Lord and marvel that the recorded and recurrent iniquities of our race and the judgments of God do not startle and subdue their stubborn hearts. The prophecy of Charles Hodge appears to be being fulfilled before our very eyes. Eventually there will be the collision of two great icebergs crushing everything in between, Orthodox Christianity and an aggressive Atheism, the futile attempt to do away with God, the flimsy fancy of murderous hearts. The fierce battle is on and we need to be ready for it and we shan’t be prepared if we fail to recognize the deep, indelible sinfulness of the heart of man, the insane hatred of the devil that inspires us, and the triumphant omnipotence of God gloriously vindicated in salvation and judgment. We tremble at the inability of the church to withstand the ordeal ahead with our diet of entertainment and the inanity of our worship which is designed to be man pleasing rather than pleasing to God. Our temples have become theatres and praise is no longer a sacrifice in the use of the mind and the ardour of the heart. Sunday is perhaps our Lord’s least favourite day when his people become extremely juvenile paying heed to the Osteens of the day and passing by precious truth that might save and mature the soul.
THE BLEND AND BALANCE OF LAW AND GOSPEL IN OUR PREACHING
A survey of the church in our time, and an analysis of its message doesn’t seem to show that we have a firm grip on the catastrophe of the Fall, the condition of the human heart, the devastation and wreckage wrought in our experience by our revolt, and the constant conflict in which we are involved. Does our preaching reflect the honesty and urgency of an earnest approach to what God sees in us, and says to us, through the pages of Holy Scripture? Do we give proper proportion to law and grace in our proclamation? Do we awaken and console concurrently? Law and Gospel upheld together testify to our desperate sinfulness. Law and Gospel witness to the unimaginable mercy of God. The Law, which John Murray so aptly refers to as “the transcript of God’s perfection”, reveals our lapse from original righteousness and our antipathy to divine perfection. The law when duly considered marks the extent of our departure from God, that we are “very far gone”. But equally the Law discloses the compassion of God in showing how our hearts may be preserved in safety and kept close to God. The law is the light on our path in our walk with God and continues to be so. The Decalogue is a summary of God’s design for our welfare in resemblance and obedience to him. The Law only condemns because of our contempt for it. The major offence in our rejection of the law is that we elected to break communion with God and spurn his holy love. We attempted to frustrate his goodwill towards man and wounded his fondness for us. Jesus summarized the Law as love to God and man. We chose to hate him and each other, and perfect love can only react in deserved anger to such a flagrant misdemeanor, and the blatant dishonouring of his name. We refused the wisdom and guidance of God accusing him of being unreliable and a liar. Now the law convicts our conscience of sin rather than confirming the kindness of God in revealing the nature and way of love.
But the Gospel of Christ presents the facts of sin and mercy in even higher relief than the Law. The love of God is magnified in the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the greatest surprise of human history. Because of what he have become it is not motivated by anything in us, present or potential. We certainly see nothing meritorious in our past. God’s gift of a Redeemer to us is utterly gratuitous and in no sense a reward. Heaven is amazed at the Son of God’s descent into the putrid mire that surrounds and saturates us. Angels gape at every scene in the ministry of our Champion. Those whom he saves are astounded at his sweet action. The Gospel reveals the Magnanimity of Divine Redemption. The cross shows the dire and costly measures freely and affectionately adopted by God to put that Great Wrong, and our many ensuing wrongs, right. The inevitable death due to us is borne by the Lord Jesus. The necessity of his atoning sacrifice highlights beyond any doubt the enormity, gravity, and repugnancy of our sin. The Gospel prostrates us with shame and raises us in rejoicing. The crucified is the victim of our sin and of deserved justice on our behalf. He takes our place in that hellish region far gone from God and from his cross draws us to himself. He travelled that long distance to retrieve us to God and reinstate us to favour. The journey was prolonged, painful, and strife-ridden. All his life he strove and suffered, and ultimately sacrificed himself for our recovery. Until we register the fact that we are lost we will never truly cry out for salvation. The grace of which we hear and dubiously profess to possess will always be cheap. “So what!”, we shall say, like the German poet, Heinrich Heine, “Its God’s business to save”, and we shall have no thought for God’s holiness, our transgressions, the vindication of his justice, or the marvel of forgiveness. We will be presumptuous towards him and harbour a sense of entitlement.
But there is more to the uncovering of our wickedness in the mission of rescue carried out by the Lord Christ. Even when we first hear of it we are relentlessly opposed to it. The mention of grace arouses our enmity, our pride, our self righteousness. We see no need for a restored rectitude through justification won for us by the Messiah, we feel no necessity for any reconstruction or renovation within wrought by the Holy Spirit. Our resistance to the gospel compounds our guilt, confirms our antipathy to God, and increases the penalty of our rebellion against him. The word alone of divine amnesty towards us does not mellow our mindset. We who are “very far gone” prefer our estrangement from God. We have actually lost ourselves and cannot generate any will to reverse our steps. It is a matter of self-imposed moral inability dictated by our perverse affections. We cling to them and they hold us captive and we delight in the arrangement. We are not only won for God in Christ’s passion we must be wooed to God by Christ’s Spirit. We who have gone far away have to be enticed back by an affection that counters all that attaches us to sin, self, and Satan. The wicked will has to be freed from all the dark charms that enthrall it. The irresistible loveliness of Christ has to be displayed to us. The chords of mercy have to draw us homewards as John tells us in his Gospel (6: 43 – 45, 60-65, 35-37). Compassion has to melt our hearts into compliance with God’s gracious call. John Newton marks the miracle of our yielding to the mercy of God in these words:
Why was I made hear his voice,
And enter while there’s room;
When thousands make a wretched choice,
And rather starve than come?
‘Twas the same love that spread the feast,
That sweetly forced me in;
Else I had still refused to taste,
And perished in my sin.
We cannot preach according to fad or fashion or comply with popular request. We have to be faithful to God and fair to our flocks. There is too much “feel good” and flattering preaching in our time, too much fear of man and dread of the loss of revenue and support, too much fostering of a false self esteem, and note carefully those preachers, some highly esteemed, who distort the word of God and deviate from the true Gospel (the writings of Warren Smith may be of assistance in identification)**. The sacramentalism of the ritualists is no substitute for the truth of the Gospel which facilitates a personal faith union with the Saviour. The decision card, altar call, and formulaic prayer have deceived many into a false assurance. Each individual needs an authentic, interior, heart-changing work of God to make them safe and truly his. Souls are too precious to mislead with medical care that is inadequate treatment: “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace’, they say, when there is no peace’ (Jeremiah 6:14 & 8:11, a double caution).
We must reach the “very far gone” with the map that shows them how much they have strayed into alien and hazardous territory. We simply have to apprise them of the distance they have traveled and the danger they invite. We must point them to the path of life and the one who will lead them home. We must humble man and exalt the Saviour. We must implore God that his Word and Spirit will sound these notes, Sin, Grace, and Faith, in the ears of sinful folk and engender contrition, consent, gratitude, and praise in their hearts so that they may cry with the poet:
“Free grace alone from the first to the last,
Hath won my affection and held my soul fast.”