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Common Sin, Common Salvation:

When the Anglican formularies declare that “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation” we are tempted to jump ahead to the saving work of Christ on the cross, which is surely a critical aspect of the salvation that Scripture reveals to us. But it is easy to forget that Scripture not only gives us the cure, but also the diagnosis. We, as Scripture tells us, were made good by a loving God, but we decided that we knew better and sought our good outside of the God who holds existence in being. We initiated our own undoing. This is true in its primal sense in the fall, but also in our daily lives whenever we chose to place our hope in anything outside of God. Article X of the Thirty-nine Articles reads,

The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith, and calling upon God: Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.

This profoundly sobering diagnosis is an affront to our cultural assumptions of “self-creation” and “wholeness,” and yet it is also good news. It is like when an alcoholic walks into an AA meeting and can finally admit that they have no control over alcohol: it is the first step to freedom. The theological understanding of the fall is a divine revelation, and one that corrects both extremes of human optimism and pessimism. Before we arrive at the solution, we must admit that we are neither self-created nor whole and, as the Article notes, that we have no power to become whole on our own. But in Scripture we also find ourselves to be beloved of God, who sent his Son that we might have life in him. The latter truth only makes sense if we accept the former.

While there are personal and individual dimensions to a theological understanding of “fallenness,” it is ultimately common. Since the fall, humanity has become rooted in this disordered life. It is a place, strangely, of unity, of equality. The playing field is even in our need for God. The General Confession from the Daily Office taps into both the personal dimension of fallenness, as well as, by its very nature as a common confession, the corporate reality of sin:

Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.

Phrases like “there is no health in us” are deeply out of sync with our contemporary cultural assumptions of general personal goodness. But I wonder if something like this understanding is actually what our cultural and political moment needs.

A common symptom of our divisions is an assumption of the rightness and wholeness of one’s view over and against the absolute bankruptcy of the other side’s perspective. Now, there are certainly positions that are indeed more morally dubious than others, and it is the important work of Christian ethics to discern these variables in light of Scripture and Tradition. But the Prayer Book seems to suggest that there is a deeper point of commonality that lies behind our convictions: our common sinfulness. What would it mean both theologically and politically to begin our conversations by acknowledging this reality?

The author of the “General Introduction” to the anthology Love’s Redeeming Work offers a reflection on a healthy “theological skepticism” that Anglicanism has traditionally retained. It is one that suggests “I am always ready to deceive myself, because my passions distort clear judgement. I am a fallen being whose mind is readily swayed by selfish concern and idleness or cowardice.” And this skepticism suggests furthermore that “if I so often deceive myself, I need the presence of history and community to check my self-obsessions. I can only move by tracing analogies and probabilities, by a very patient listening and looking and not being afraid of depending on others.” We do this in the Body of Christ every time that we gather for worship. We acknowledge our need for God’s grace and our need for one another, as members (parts) of the same Body, whose head is Christ. And we listen as the narrative of Scripture reveals to us how we got to this place and where we are going.

While we might have important and profound political convictions, as Christians we must never depart from these two theological realities: our common sinfulness and our constant need for God’s grace. The solution to our problems is not ultimately determined by our political victories (nor is it lost by defeats). The solution to our universal predicament is found in dying and rising with Jesus. And in this strange and wonderful process, we find that we have been made part of a Body whose (expectant) wholeness is the work of God. As Michael Ramsey writes in The Gospel and the Catholic Church, “[The Church] exists in faith and hope, in a hidden life in Christ, by a power which can never be known in terms of the world’s progress. It is the place where human personality is lost and yet found and enriched, and where all mankind shall be made one by the death and resurrection of Christ.”

There will not be headlines that declare the subversive power of this unity here described, but it is lived out by the faithful around the world whenever we acknowledge where our true hope is found, in the joyous and ever-challenging proclamation: “Jesus is Lord.”

This notice was published in St. John’s Parish Paper, July 3, 2022. Image: