Monday, December 12, 2011
Laymen's Guide to the Thirty-Nine Articles
Not every deadly sin willingly committed after Baptism is sin against the Holy Ghost, and unpardonable. Wherefore the grant of repentance is not to be denied to such as fall into sin after Baptism. After we have received the Holy Ghost, we may depart from grace given and fall into sin, and by the grace of God we may arise again and amend our lives. And therefore they are to be condemned, which say, they can no more sin as long as they live here, or deny the place of forgiveness to such as truly repent.
Non omne peccatum mortale post Baptismum voluntarie perpetratum, est peccatum in Spiritum Sanctum, et irremissibile. Proinde lapsis a Baptismo in peccata locus penetentiae non est negandus. Post acceptum Spiritum Sanctum possumus a gratia data recedere atque peccare, denuoque per gratiam Dei resurgere ac resipiscere. Ideoque illi damnandi sunt qui se quamdiu hic vivant, amplius non posse peccare affirmant, aut vere resipiscentibus veniae locum denegant.
Fr. Robert Hart
This follows hard on the ending of Article XV in perfect continuity. Article XV ended with a clear quotation from the First Epistle of John 1:8; “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Therefore, the indication is all too clear. Although Article XV forces us to look at the recently added dogma of the Church of Rome called the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, if only because we live after the year 1854, the following of this Article on the last forces us to look at something else altogether. In fact it forces us to look at error not of the Church of Rome, but rather sects that threatened true doctrine from the opposite direction; and, it deals with two basic errors rather than one.
From ancient times to modern, various doctrines have caused individuals to fall into dangerous despair. We can trace heresies throughout history; consider the Donatists, who believed that anyone who had lapsed from fear under persecution could never be forgiven. The Montanists believed that sin after baptism could not be forgiven. And, it is possible for readers of the Bible to misunderstand even the good translations we have. For example, “For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries (Heb. 10:26, 27).” The Greek New Testament, however, is even more emphatically present tense than this English translation, indicating a state of mind not yet repentant, but persistent in willful sin.
Passages in the Old Testament and the New give us practical understanding of the mystery of freewill. The eighteenth chapter of Ezekiel lays out the simple reality that a person may fall into sin, but repent. If that person repents, all of the sins are completely forgotten. If someone known for righteous living falls into sin, all of his former righteousness is forgotten. If the same person repents, everything is forgotten, and he may begin again. And, the end of the First Epistle of St. John (5:16,17) speaks of a “sin unto death” from which the phrase “mortal sin” comes. The meaning is that a sin unto death requires more than intercession from others in the Church; it must be dealt with seriously by repentance. The implication is clearly about sin that is chosen, when one sins willfully.
So, the opening of the Article is stated clearly to help individuals avoid despair: “Not every deadly sin willingly committed after Baptism is sin against the Holy Ghost, and unpardonable. Wherefore the grant of repentance is not to be denied to such as fall into sin after Baptism.” Here we find the practical nature of Anglican reason, in accordance with Scripture. As much as Predestination is a mystery, so is freewill. A person baptized is “in Christ” and is told that, for that reason, must not live in sin (see the sixth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans). The person who is “in Christ” remains, therefore, capable of sinning, even of sinning willfully. Otherwise, no exhortation would be necessary.
And, we must conclude that the same person remains “in Christ” even when committing sin, even when doing so with the will. Here is where the mysteries of freewill and predestination come together. The power to sin, and the power to repent are addressed in the Article in terms of freewill and in terms of God’s work, because of that word “grace.” The person who is “in Christ” may yet repent, but only by God’s grace. This article takes into account the whole of Scriptural teaching on all related subjects in a manner that may be called systematic theology, for it squares with all of the related passages in the Bible. It relates freewill and predestination in a balanced and realistic manner, leaving man wholly dependant on the grace of God.
Finally, the Article rejects the doctrine of those who teach a kind of “sinless perfection” in this life. We hear this today from people in various sects who teach that those who are “in Christ” are no longer sinners because they are saints. They lack the balance of reason. Generally, people who fall into this error do so by taking out of context one simple verse from the First Epistle of John (3:9): “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” They fail to remember that this comes in the context of the very same Epistle in which the Beloved Disciple also wrote the words we have seen:
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world ( -I John 1:8-2:2).”
In other words, that one verse they interpret so badly is another way of saying the very next thing that comes in the earlier quotation from chapters one and two: “And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments (2:3).” Or, as James says, “I will shew thee my faith by my works (James 2:18)” It means that someone who truly believes cannot live in persistent, unrepentant willful sin. “His seed remains in him,” in terms of the Parable of the Sower, neither destroyed nor hindered by fowls of the air, by shallow ground, nor thorns. That seed is the word of God. One who believes may, by God’s grace, arise again and amend his life.
Fr. Laurence Wells
Once a week I visit an elderly indigent gentleman in a miserably substandard nursing home. He has no family to speak of and circumstances have compelled him to be placed in a facility at some distance from his shrinking circle of friends. He has been dear to me for about twenty years and I value his friendship because he illustrates so well the truths, both painful and joyful, of Article XVI. He was once a man of some means and the spiritual lay leader of his Protestant congregation. He taught me much about prayer and the Gospel. But old age brought great adversity. His wife died, after a long period of affliction, and his tiny Methodist church fell apart through attrition and neighborhood decline.
Left rather alone in the world, some old bad habits returned in his time of weakness. He was victimized by prostitutes and other dishonest people. His retirement savings were run through, his health left him and now, having wasted his substance in riotous living, he is an invalid in a wheel-chair in a dingy facility where the indigent elderly are warehoused. He has nothing left but his faith.
Article XVI alludes to a widespread belief in the ancient Church that if Baptism washes away sin, then there is no remedy for sin after that chronological point. This teaching, which seems so strange to us, led to the practice of delaying Baptism until a person reached the point of death. This seems to have been the case with that famous adult convert, the Emperor Constantine. This led to the slightly more wholesome teaching that the Sacrament of Penance is "the second plank after shipwreck," i.e. the plank sinners grab when the first plank--Baptism-- has been lost. An even better teaching would be that the effects of Baptism as an act of God are not confined to the chronological moment when the sacrament is administered. For the washing away of sin and the gift of new life in the family of God, Baptism has effects which are lifelong. Baptism belongs to the new creation, not to the old. It is therefore not eroded by the passing of time or anything sinners do subsequently.
Article XVI can be reduced to four points. First, sin is a continuing reality in the life of the Baptized. While Baptism is a supernatural act of God, the sacrament does not zap us into instant perfection. It is not magic. If perhaps the old creation began with a big bang, the new creation is still a work in process. As Charles Wesley wrote, "Finish then thy new creation, pure and spotless let us be."
Second, God's pardoning and cleansing love is a continuing reality in the life of sinners. Whatever extravagant claims we may try to make for the notion of "free will," we are simply impotent when it comes to changing God's determination to redeem us. When my elderly friend suffered his shocking lapse in his mid-eighties, a number of friends cast him off and would have no more to do with him. "That old reprobate! He has been a hypocrite through all these years!" Mediaeval theologians amused themselves by speculating on things which God cannot do: making a rock bigger than He can move, creating another god, telling a lie. But we may be certain that we cannot even think of a sin too horrible for Him to forgive. The Cross is proof of that. In the realm of grace, His capacity to redeem is infinite. The Church Fathers were not entirely off-base when they speculated on the final redemption of even the devil himself.
Third, the Christian life (that is, the Baptismal life) is characterized by what C. S. Lewis called "the law of undulation." As the Article says in its usual laconic style, "After we have received the Holy Ghost, we may depart from grace given and fall into sin." It seems clear enough that "receiving the Holy Ghost" here means the gift of regeneration, the new birth which Baptism effectively signifies. But what is meant by "departing from grace given?" Is this a total fall, in which the miracle of regeneration is absolutely eradicated? Some of the semi-Pelagian school have so interpreted the phrase, but the Latin "possumus recedere" does not seem to bear such an interpretation. Every Christian knows that his life has had spiritual "dry spells" when little growth was going on and probably periods, even long periods, any the "growth" was mostly in the wrong direction.
What seems more certain is that "we may" (possumus, more accurately rendered "we can") is a dramatic understatement. Not only "can we" or "may we," but experience tells us we probably will and frequently do. The fourth and final point is that sins committed in the course of the Christian life are real sins, deserving the wrath and curse of God. They are not to be trivialized by unfounded distinctions between sin and concupiscence, or mortal and venial sins. In such a moral universe, there would be no place for the Cross, no voice for the Gospel, no reason for Christ to shed His blood. The Gospel contained in this Article is that "by the grace of God we may arise again and amend our lives."
No exceptions, not even for elderly lechers waiting for death in a waking nightmare.