The nature of man and the nature of sin

From my last blog Theological Coherence (Theology matters) I compared  the views of Calvinism and Arminianism briefly. I implied  that these two positions essentially hold different views regarding  the nature of man and the nature of sin. How we view mankind and sin will  impact how we develop our theology.

It is my view that the bible doesn’t paint a positive picture of man. I would  go  so far as  to say the bible really  doesn’t have anything  good  to say about the nature of humanity at all. The bible lacks a certain egoism on the part of its authors to gloss over and sensationalize the attributes of the characters  it portrays. The bible could have said all  the good things about Solomon and his great wisdom and left  out the part where he married all  those wives  that believed in false gods that ultimately led him astray. Solomon is quoted by many as being the wisest man that ever lived… Those  who say  this  must not have read his biography very well. My point is  that  these facts are not hidden.

The biographer of King David said David was a man after God’s own heart. The biographer could have neglected  to say  that David was also an adulterous murderer with blood  on his hands who was not permitted to build the Temple, but this embarrassing detail is not omitted.

One more example  is that of Samson the Hercules of the bible. Why is Samson even mentioned? Samson was a violent, hedonistic womanizer. It appears at the end of his life he showed faith and acknowledged the Lord as the source of his great strength.

My point here is if you compare the bible  to many of the religious texts of false religions both  ancient and modern,  and cults there is  an absence of grandiose self-centredness. The bible doesn’t dress us up and make us look good.

What is clear is that we object  to the idea  that humanity is really that bad. We can acknowledge that there are bad individuals  who  do bad things, but our opinion of humanity and society is that it we aspire  to  do good. The positivist’s believe that we will overcome sickness and evil, that we will eventually  solve life’s problems.

Some popular television programs over the decades have postulated the idea that in a progressive society where science and logic dominate, religion and faith will decrease or disappear altogether. However with the advent of postmodernism over the last decade or so who can be sure of anything? The point here is to say neither humanity or  the future is really that good or positive, we are beyond  the point of being that positive.

So how  does  this relate  to man and sin  you may ask? The bible both explicitly and implicitly implies  that man is incapable of doing any real good either  for  himself or the culture and society he lives in. You may think  that is a very pessimistic view, yes it is,  but it is  also an accurate commentary on much  of  what history tells us about man and his actions.

Many of the great thinkers and philosophers throughout history thought towards  the future and a better society. Through history we as humans have experimented with  their great designs politically, economically and even socially but as great as many of these ideas may have been how have we really improved on the person’s  portrayed in the bible as great followers, thinkers and lovers of the Lord God? The simple answer is  that in terms of morality and behavior we are exactly where we were the day Adam sinned. In other words our nature hasn’t changed since that moment in time. Improvement in technology and innovation, improvement in living standards and or even our treatment of others bears no reflection on our basic nature.

Where Calvinism and Arminianism are concerned the nature of  man and the nature  of sin are central themes  for both positions, in fact they are essential elements of their theology.  I would say the nature of man and his sin are part of the foundation from which both positions develop their theology.

One can’t address  this  however  without first addressing  the other foundational imperative which is Jesus Christ. The bible tells us that Jesus came   to  die  for the sins of the world. Jesus is God  who humbled Himself  to becoming a man  to  die in our place  to turn aside  the wrath of God towards sinners so that we as sinners might receive forgiveness and enter into fellowship with God the Father once more. When Adam sinned, that sin effected all of creation. Adam’s disobedience became our disobedience, Adam’s sin became  our sin and we were all cursed because of it. The punishment of that curse is death and separation from God and eternal life. Now however  through Jesus Christ our sin has been dealt with. Through Jesus Christ and His sacrificial death on the cross we are once again able  to enter into a relationship with the Father by confessing our sin and repenting of it and confessing faith in Jesus Christ as our savior. This is the central theme of  all serious Christian doctrine and theology. Without Jesus as  the object of our faith and without God the Father as  the author of our faith we are dead in our sin, we have no hope.

This begs the question as  to how far or how much sin has effected us and  our nature. The debate between Calvinism and Arminianism on this one issue sets them apart even if one of these denies  there is a difference. Both will agree that sins curse is death and separation from God. Both will agree  that Jesus Christ is the solution that only through repentance can we receive forgiveness of our sins by placing  our trust in  what Christ has  done  for us. What  they can’t agree on is whether sin makes us incapable of choosing  to repent and believe without God first intervening through His Holy Spirit. Or if by the act of our own free will we can choose  to repent and follow Jesus Christ. One view assumes that man can and  does  desire to please God and seeks Him out. The other view is that man left  to himself without any intervention on God’s part will never seek God  out and has  no desire  to please God but his  happy  to stay spiritually dead in his sin.

Both claim the bible as  support   for their arguments but seeing  as  they are antithetical (opposite) to each other can one draw a consistent argument from scripture  for both positions? I can’t see how  both can be true. Once more we need  to return to the sources from which these views come from.

Pelagius appears   to be  the primary source of the view  that man has free will to choose  between  right and wrong, good and evil. Without repeating what has been said  in my previous blogs we can’t say  for certain that Pelagius originated the idea of free will we can only cite him as our earliest source. What we  do know  is that Pelagius denied  the idea  of original sin, how he arrives  at this conclusion we can’t fully know because not enough of his writings have survived  for us  to know  this. Pelagius lived an extremely ascetic life style and was accused  of teaching heresy  that man could achieve salvation  through his own good works. More recently Ian Bradley is his work The Celtic Way  challenged this view denying Pelagius taught salvation   by works. Bradley goes on to say  that Pelagius’ view of free will was actually  the orthodox position and held by Pelagius’ contemporaries as well. One has  to criticize  this claim because Bradley doesn’t say whom these contemporaries  were only that  there were others  who agreed with Pelagius. The fact  that others may have agreed with and defended Pelagius doesn’t  make his view any more correct than millions of children believing in the tooth fairy makes that true.

Pelagius drew his view from Deuteronomy 24:16 which states, ” Fathers shall not be put to death for their sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin.” However in its context this verse is referring  to servants and slaves and the idea  of mercy not eternal punishment  for sin. Contextually this verse does  not support Pelagius’ assertion  that we are only accountable  for our own sins not the sins of Adam.

The view  that Pelagius objected  to  was that  of Augustine who upheld  the doctrine of original sin and grace in Christ as the means of salvation. Augustine of Hippo before  his conversion  had been influenced  by the Gnostic Manichaeism and also the Greek Philosophy Neo-Platonism developed by Plotinus. If these views had continued   to influence Augustine as some  still claim  today we might have seen a very different Christianity emerge from the Patristic Era or Augustine would more than likely have been declared a heretic as Pelagius was.

This could very easily degenerate into a philosophical debate over the nature of man and sin. All kinds of subjective arguments  can been drawn  upon  to support Pelagius’ free will position and  his rejection of original sin. Although because Pelagius’ misuses scripture, in that his method was  to  proof text his argument rather  than let scripture speak objectively and contextually I would accuse him of eisegesis. It is noted that Pelagius rejected the idea of original sin, was  this before  he discovered Deuteronomy 24: 16 or  did he draw  his conclusion afterwards? Of course we don’t know, but building a whole theology around a single verse is a very dangerous practice.

So where  did Augustine draw his ideas from if not  from the Gnostic’s and Greek philosophers? For one, original sin was not first postulated by Augustine. Augustine drew his   thinking from IrenaeusBishop of Lyons. Secondly Both Augustine and Irenaeus drew  their ideas from the bible, Romans 5:12–211 Corinthians 15:22, and Psalm 51:5. So far as reformers  such a Luther and Calvin were concerned original sin destroyed freedom or the ability   to freely choose  to  do good or right in God’s eyes our nature is bound by sin.

If one were  to look at many other passages  in the bible  the implication is  that our nature was  so changed through  the fall of Adam that we are helpless   to help ourselves. Even  the simplest of statements  especially  those made by Christ Himself before mentioned in John  15:1-16 have serious ramifications about whom chooses who  and why John 15:5 where Jesus says “Apart from me  you can  do nothing.” and John 15:16 are consistent with each other  “You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you.”

One has  to ask  why we are unable  to  do anything apart from Christ and why He chooses us  and not us choose him Paul the Apostle put it this way  Rom 3:10 as it is written, “THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE;
Rom 3:11 THERE IS NONE WHO UNDERSTANDS, THERE IS NONE WHO SEEKS FOR GOD;
Rom 3:12 ALL HAVE TURNED ASIDE, TOGETHER THEY HAVE BECOME USELESS; THERE IS NONE WHO DOES GOOD, THERE IS NOT EVEN ONE.”
Rom 3:13 “THEIR THROAT IS AN OPEN GRAVE, WITH THEIR TONGUES THEY KEEP DECEIVING,” “THE POISON OF ASPS IS UNDER THEIR LIPS”;
Rom 3:14 “WHOSE MOUTH IS FULL OF CURSING AND BITTERNESS”;
Rom 3:15 “THEIR FEET ARE SWIFT TO SHED BLOOD,
Rom 3:16 DESTRUCTION AND MISERY ARE IN THEIR PATHS,
Rom 3:17 AND THE PATH OF PEACE THEY HAVE NOT KNOWN.”
Rom 3:18 “THERE IS NO FEAR OF GOD BEFORE THEIR EYES.”

This says  everything about  our human nature. Where did Paul as an inspired writer get his ideas from? Obviously from the Old Testament which were his scriptures at the time. The theme of man’s sinfulness runs throughout  the bible, it is a relentless thought continually battering away at our consciousness telling us   we are not  worthy by any measure. If I am  to  be a little provocative with the text, I would say sinners don’t care  that  they are sinners nor do they worry  about their destination until the Holy Spirit takes  the blinders off and convicts us of our sin. Jeremiah says  this, Jer 17:5 Thus says the LORD, “Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind And makes flesh his strength, And whose heart turns away from the LORD.
Jer 17:6 “For he will be like a bush in the desert And will not see when prosperity comes, But will live in stony wastes in the wilderness, A land of salt without inhabitant.
Jer 17:7 “Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD And whose trust is the LORD.
Jer 17:8 “For he will be like a tree planted by the water, That extends its roots by a stream And will not fear when the heat comes; But its leaves will be green, And it will not be anxious in a year of drought Nor cease to yield fruit.
Jer 17:9 “The heart is more deceitful than all else And is desperately sick; Who can understand it?
Jer 17:10 “I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind, Even to give to each man according to his ways, According to the results of his deeds.
Jer 17:11 “As a partridge that hatches eggs which it has not laid, So is he who makes a fortune, but unjustly; In the midst of his days it will forsake him, And in the end he will be a fool.”
Jer 17:12 A glorious throne on high from the beginning Is the place of our sanctuary.
Jer 17:13 O LORD, the hope of Israel, All who forsake You will be put to shame. Those who turn away on earth will be written down, Because they have forsaken the fountain of living water, even the LORD.
Jer 17:14 Heal me, O LORD, and I will be healed; Save me and I will be saved, For You are my praise.

Two things are contrasted here the man  who trusts  the Lord and the man  who doesn’t, it shows  that man’s heart is more deceitful than all else and desperately sick, No one can know  the heart and mind except God and he searches  and knows it. It dies say here we are rewarded according to our ways  and results of our deeds. On the other hand  the man who believes in and follows after  the Lord is blessed. Be aware  this is not saying mere works are rewarded Jeremiah 17:9 is pivotal in contrasting the person  who has faith in God and the one  who doesn’t.

Paul says in Rom 3:19 Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; Rom 3:20 because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. Rom 3:21 But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, Rom 3:22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; Rom 3:23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, Rom 3:24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; Rom 3:25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; Rom 3:26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

As this is a stream of thought I realize I haven’t fully concluded the issue of the nature of sin and the nature of man although  the scriptures  do say it much better  than I can. I  think there is very little evidence contextually that supports Pelagius and Arminius views. I  think  those views are based on proof texting, and subjective arguments based on human equivalency. Using human observation and then imposing it on scripture  to make it say what  you want  or bringing it  down  to  the level of human experience, which is not the way to exegete the bible.

Calvinism doesn’t leave much  room for humanity  to boast of itself. If we were  to look at the bible from  the stand point  that it improves our self esteem and  is a manual  for life  coaching we are missing   the two most central themes  that God has proposed to us the Bible deals with us  on a spiritual level not a material level. Also that we are sinners in need of spiritual healing and regeneration because  we are otherwise dead in our sins.

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