Struggle of Religious Leaders and Original Sin

ravi zacharias
Rev. Ravi Zacharias, RZIM

In the past five to ten years, we’ve seen some explosions in the church world across many denominations: from Evangelical, Protestant to Catholic. For many it was a shock and a let down, especially for those who followed the teachings of these religious/spiritual leaders.

A recent evangelical, Ravi Zacharias, was a well-known Christian apologist. Other ministers in the past were Mark Driscoll, CJ Mahaney, Jim Baker, Jimmy Swaggart. There are hundreds of pastors and priests who have faced allegations of misconduct of some sort. All these Christian men have had great ministries and have led many people into a deeper understanding of faith and knowledge of Christ.

It is easy to label them as fake, but doing so does not make sense. They got into ministry for all the right reasons. Their calling of God was very real—as real as anyone else’s. Their faith and ministry are real and it would not be fair to dismiss their prior ministry accomplishments.

What is also real is their struggle with sex, money, power. Some might even struggle with all three. This struggle is common to all persons in vocational ministry and people in all stations in life–regardless of spiritual calling.

I recently read Martin Luther’s teaching on original sin. It describes who we are, not only human beings, but also as a redeemed Christian people. Luther taught, “our entire nature and person is sinful, that is, totally and thoroughly corrupted in God’s sight and contaminated by original sin, as with a spiritual leprosy” (SD I 6, 13) . As a result, we lack the original righteousness we had in the Garden of Eden.

‘Human nature’ is subject to the rule of the devil and ‘is abandoned to the devil’s power and imprisoned under his rule, which intoxicates and seduces many important and wise people in the world with horrible errors, heresies, and other blindness and drags people into all kinds of vice.’”

This quote leaves no one untouched. It points to all of us as human beings including those whom we count as important and wise. There is no sin we are incapable of committing as human beings. It drags us into all kinds of vice.

Yes, Christian people are simultaneously saints and sinners. We all are. Having accepted this as one of my theological beliefs, the moral failure of Christian leaders no longer surprises me, but nevertheless, it does sadden me. I pray that we may all remain faithful to our calling as servants and ministers of the gospel.

A common error we make in how we view our own human nature can be detrimental to one’s faith. Historically in the 16th century, errors were made by teachers of Pelagianism and Manichaeanism. Pelagians believed that after Adam’s fall in the garden, our human nature remained uncorrupted and our spiritual goodness and purity still remained intact. Manichaeans believed that sin was alien from the person committing the sin.

As human beings, we want to believe that humans are innate good and pure. As a result, we alienate ourselves from the sins we commit or even imagine in our minds. The more heinous the sin, the more we distance ourselves from this sinful human nature. How can this play out in our behavior? We try to show we are deadly critical of people like Hitler, Pol Pot, and pastors and priests who commit sins. We display our criticism to prove to others (and ourselves) that “I am nothing like these corrupt sinners.” This is a dangerous ground on which to stand. This is a judgmental and a self-righteous attitude. It is wrong and does not makes us less of a sinner.

We ought to approach God from a more humble starting point. As Christians we are simultaneously redeemed and yet sinful. It places a person in a safer place from which to see ourselves as human beings. Every person, Christian or unredeemed, have been impacted by sin–even from birth.

Martin Luther (1483–1546), Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder (German, Kronach 1472–1553 Weimar), Oil on wood
Martin Luther

The temptation that ministers and common people have is to hold up our religious leaders as spotless examples of “good Christians.” It is an impossible expectation to fulfill one-hundred percent. Actually, the higher a spiritual standing one has in the church, the greater the expectation one has to be that “spotless Christian example.” This is especially true in evangelical and Catholic traditions that follow 1 Tim. 3:2 and 5:8. It’s a bizarre expectation of anyone because we have not truly understood the gospel. The gospel is about forgiveness of sins–not about moral perfection, but yet, we make it about moral perfection.

The only expectation we can actually fulfill is to fall upon the grace of God and plead for his daily mercies. We need to see ourselves for who we really are–we are simultaneously saints and sinners. Luther stated, “scholastic theologians have taught pure error and blindness against this article [concerning sin]…

… 2. That the human being has a free will, either to do good and reject evil or to reject good and do evil.
3. That the human being is able, by using natural powers, to keep and carry out every command of God.
4. That human beings are able, using natural powers, to love God above all things and their neighbors as themselves…”

SA III I 5-7

These above are impossible because we are bound by original sin. By acknowledging that my free-will has been kept in bondage, I am now free to lean upon God’s grace each day. This has helped me remain humble and confess my weaknesses. Though I am weak, it is God who strengthens me each day.

And the good news is this. God has provided us a way out through a spiritual rebirth and renewal in the Holy Spirit. Though we are fully justified by grace through faith alone, we are also sanctified through the washing of the word as we repent each day. In Christ Jesus name, we are healed from our spiritual disease and corruption. Praise the Lord.

Quotes from Luther found in:
Kolb, Robert and Timothy J. Wengert, eds. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.

Sin is a virus, but Christ is the remedy

Human sin seems to rear its ugly head day-in and day-out—everyday! Somebody help rescue us from this virus that we can’t shake off! It’s in front of us, behind us, to our left and to our right. We can’t get away from it. It’s like a viral infection we can’t sem to shake off. It’s everywhere, and it seems to follow us wherever we go. We human beings also seem to attract all kinds of sins like a magnet, e.g., gossip, quarreling, jealousy, anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance, disorder, unforgiveness, sexual sins are just a few (2 Cor.12:20-21). We all contract this sin in the same way that Adam and Eve first contracted sin, and it leads to many other sins, and it spreads like a virus. We were born in sin no differently than the first man and woman were. We are born in sin and are naturally curved in on oneself.

The reformer, Philip Melanchthon (Luther’s sidekick), says in the Augsburg Confession that “all human beings who are born in the natural way are conceived and born in sin. This means that from birth they are full of evil lust and inclination and cannot by nature possess true fear of God and true faith in God.” As a result, our natural human inclinations, without the grace of God in our lives, are that: we do not love God, are ignorant of God, despise God, lack fear and trust in God, hate and want to avoid the judgment of God, are angry at God, and despair the grace of God. The only remedy is that God grants all of us grace and forgiveness so that we can be free from the consequences of our sin. Jesus Christ is this remedy.

Can the Orthodox doctrine of sin be post-modern?

I have come across an alternative view of original sin which I find very compelling. The Eastern Orthodox view of sin is a little different from how Luther and Calvin saw original sin. The Reformers saw our human nature and essence as so thoroughly corrupted and damaged (total depravity) that it cannot be recognized by our human technical reason but only from logos Word and through ontological reason. This Evangelical view has been my view for a long time. But the reason I find the Orthodox view of sin compelling is in its starting point. Orthodox theology seems to view sin more in terms of a relationship than judicially (i.e., right and wrong). Holiness is still a virtue. Original sin is seen from the viewpoint that humanity has stopped being hungry for God and for God alone. It considers humanity’s failure to be hungry for fellowship with God’s Spirit. In other words, we humans have stopped seeing our whole life as a fellowship with God. It is not that sin has less to do with disobedience and unrighteousness; it does not condone sin in any way way shape or form. It emphasizes our relationship with God while not making light of sin–which is what evangelicals would agree with too. Guilt is not seen as being inherited, rather, human beings are born into an environment where doing evil is easy and doing good is more difficult. This view seems to make a lot of sense for those who do not see how human beings have inherited sin from our ancestors Adam and Eve. This doctrine of sin could potentially be repackaged as a post-modern view because it’s a way to view sin that is more understandable (perhaps you could say it is contextual to our post-modern generation). Perhaps our evangelical view could also incorporate our traditional view of sin with this Eastern Orthodox view of sin. It might also help contribute to a stronger sense of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Total depravity is not the only way to help us rely on God, but also, knowing Christ relationally can also help us to not trust in our own power, will, intellect, etc.

What is original sin?

Today, as I was teaching my Sunday School class on today’s lesson from Luke 3:14-17 and 21-22 on Jesus’ baptism, which led to our own baptism, and eventually onto the elusive topic of original sin. Many Christians do not seem to really understand what original sin really is and have never really moved beyond our Sunday School understanding of “Sin”. Many have a rather naive understanding of original sin, i.e., Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and became corrupted by their sinful fleshly desire to be like God. However, it goes much deeper than this contemporary view that has been made popular by the cartoon image of Adam eating the apple. Our view on sin ought to be deepened and expanded. I was a little surprised the kids in the class were able to grasp the concept of concupiscence or original sin. But I really shouldn’t be so surprised because kids have much intellectual capacity than we generally give them credit for. In the Sunday school classes of our churches, we ought to draw deeper from the wealth of the Reformers like Luther and Calvin, and also Augustine. That is why I appreciate seminary education and the opportunity to put it to use in my congregation. Perhaps I will talk a little about original sin here on this blog.

The Reformers, Luther and Calvin, saw one’s guilt of original sin being washed away after baptism; however the immaterial element and essence of sin still remains. This immaterial element may be seen as concupiscence. Simply put, concupiscence is the “leftover” base human desires that cannot be erased, which can be witnessed in our natural inclinations of the flesh. It remains indelibly marked as part of our human nature. After baptism and spiritual regeneration, this inner inclination toward evil is still seen as sin; it never disappears (until the day of full redemption). Sin will pop up sooner or later…no matter how hard we may try to hide it. (Unfortunately, many of us try to hide it and work hard at hiding it too). Luther agreed with Augustine that in baptism, our “Sin” (in the singular) and “sins” (in the plural) are forgiven but this immaterial element of sin still remains within us, which explains why we still continue to commit sin. Luther described the person in sin as being “curved in on oneself.” An existential theologian, Paul Tillich, described concupiscence in a creative way. Tillich says that humans have removed one’s center from the divine center, and has made oneself the center of oneself and the world. This creates a void, which makes one seek for abundance, and the temptation is to seek for unlimited abundance. This desire is called concupiscence.