Lately, I’ve been reading Martin Chemnitz’ Examination of the Council of Trent, where he just trounces on Rome’s view of concupiscence and original sin, and what remains in the regenerate. Page after page he demonstrates how the Papalists have skewed the meaning of the Scriptures. The question is basically this: is there still sin in the regenerate after baptism? Chemnitz argues from Scripture, and also relying heavily on St. Augustine, yes–the remnants of the old nature remain in the baptized, though this stain of sin is not counted against them. There is still much weakness in the regenerate person, who has not completely shed his old skin. The papists were asserting that the Church, and her members, no longer have the stain of sin. Chemnitz, along with other Lutheran teachers, disagreed on the basis of clear passages of Scripture. In one place, Augustine quips, “The Pelagians dare to say also this, that a righteous person has no sin at all in this life and that in such persons it is true already in the present time that the church has neither spot nor wrinkle; as if that were not the bride of Christ which throughout the whole earth says what it has learned from Him: ‘Forgive us our debts.’
Indeed! Why would the Lord have instructed the disciples to pray, “Forgive us our debts,” if it were true that the Church and her members this side of glory were already perfected? Would Jesus have us lie, by confessing our sins, which were not really sins, since we have already put on our full glory? But why does this matter? Why does it matter to me, a poor Christian at that? Why does it matter to the person sitting in the pew? How does it affect our preaching, and our pastoral practice?
For the believing Christian who struggles with his or her weakness, this teaching is of the utmost comfort. We can look at St. Paul’s own struggle with his old nature in Romans 7 and say, “Yes–that is how it is with me! I hate the things that I do and say. I know they are contrary to the holy life that God would have me live. I want to be free of them. But yet I do them anyway. Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” But what of those Christians who are taught to think that if they commit sin after baptism (or conversion, depending on your ‘flavor’ of Christianity) they are not truly Christians, or that they must not be regenerate? If they take this teaching seriously, they must live in utter despair. It is hard enough for me, a Lutheran who believes that there is a new and an old nature in Christians, to live in the freedom of God’s grace. I cannot imagine how I would live my life thinking that every false move, every sin committed out of weakness, was a death blow to my faith and salvation.
In our preaching and pastoral practice, this also helps us know how to comfort the one who falls into sin, but hates and despises the very sin itself. We don’t comfort them by saying, “Oh, it doesn’t really matter since you are baptized.” But we can say: this is bound to happen. You are not entirely pure yet. You have not fully put on glory. It is not you who is doing it, but sin living in you. Confess it. And receive the absolution of the Lord, and come soon to the holy Supper, where your life may be hidden with Christ in God. You are free. Go in peace.
Of course, we would deal differently with someone who was obstinate, someone who stubbornly insisted either that what he or she was doing was not sinful, or that they saw no need to turn from it. That is not repentance. That is not humility before God. That is willful disobedience. It is quite a different thing from the one who sins out of weakness, though he or she strives diligently to avoid such sins.
I love this teaching. I love it because I know very well my weakness. I see and feel it every single day. I must constantly pray: “Take away my love for sinning,” as the hymn says. I love being a Lutheran, because the Biblical teaching is maintained that though we are baptized, reborn, and renewed by the Holy Spirit, this renewal is not yet complete. It is still waiting to come to full glory, which it will do only when we put off this flesh in death. Perhaps this was one of the most important teachings that was recovered in the Reformation: that regenerate man is simul justus et peccator, at the same time saint and sinner, free and in bondage. AT THE SAME TIME! If nothing else, it is an explanation of our frequent lapses into sin. It gives the Christian the ability not to excuse or justify his or her sin, but to say, “Yep, still have a sinful nature.” When we ask ourselves, “Why? Why do I continue to have these evil desires?” We can answer: “It’s simple. Your flesh is still impure. The weakness of the mortal nature remains. You will not perfectly overcome sin this side of glory. But you must continue to strive against it.”
Thanks be to God for the Lutheran Reformation. Thanks be to God that Luther did not go as far as the Reformed and throw the baby out with the bath water. We still have the Sacraments. And we have the true comfort and teaching of the holy Gospel. God be praised!