The Sorry Spectacle of Our Foulness

“He who knows his own sin is greater than the angels,” said seventh-century Isaac of Nineveh. John Calvin would agree.

To live well, says Calvin, we must come to know ourselves. But that’s difficult to do (Institutes II.i.1). We tend to think too highly of ourselves. In our heart of hearts, we too much cherish “some opinion of our own pre-eminence” (III.vii.4).

Coming to know ourselves, says Calvin, must take place in two stages. First we must recall our original lofty status—“what we were given at creation” (II.i.1). Then we must also “call to mind our miserable condition after Adam’s fall.”

It’s far less inviting to do the second task, of course, which requires great courage and brutal honesty. But there’s no other way of tearing out at its roots our sinful tendency toward “boasting and self-assurance.” Coming to know and to admit our sin “should truly humble and overwhelm us with shame,” Calvin says (II.i.1).

To ensure that his readers don’t skip merrily past sin’s ugly side, in his second book of The Institutes Calvin writes a 100-page penetrating analysis of  “the sorry spectacle of our foulness.” He describes sin’s origin and nature. He points out that we never sin out of innocent ignorance, but always out of rebellious perversity. He shows how powerless we are against sin’s ferocious strength; we’re “willing slaves” to it, he says. Sin continually keeps breeding within us a “perversity that is never idle.”

“Isn’t all this a bit much?” you may ask. Behind Calvin’s lengthy treatment lies a 1,500-year controversy among Christian theologians. They went back and forth about whether salvation is the work of God alone or whether humans add their own little contribution. St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430), following the teachings of St. Paul, was adamant: Sin holds human wills so strongly in its suffocating grip that we simply cannot, on our own, decide to respond to God’s initiative; salvation is God’s activity from start to finish.

A century later, however, the Council of Orange (A.D. 529) presented a toned-down Augustinian perspective called “semi-Pelagianism,” which said that human wills, though weakened, do have enough strength left to respond to God. A thousand years after Orange, the Reformers returned to Augustine and insisted that human wills are bound by sin, helplessly “held in sin’s dread sway,” as the old hymn puts it. (My best illustration of bondage of the will came to me from a student friend who was a recovering alcoholic. He told me, “I used to think that my willpower could keep me sober, but eventually I came to see that my will was as drunk as I was.”)

Deep down, we all wish that Pelagius was right—that we’re not that bad and that we can do our own little part toward making salvation happen. But the gospel keeps bringing us up short. It reminds us that each of us is as sick and as sinful as our deepest, darkest secret.

For two reasons, Calvin and the other Reformers wouldn’t budge a millimeter on the doctrine of bondage of the will.

First, if you muffle the words “we are weak” when you sing “Jesus Loves Me,” then you’ll also fail to give the words, “but he is strong,” the vigor they deserve. To go soft on sin’s effects is to subtract from God’s glorious work of saving you from them.

Second, if we human beings need to contribute even the tiniest bit to our own salvation, how will we know when we’ve offered enough? Insecure hearts can only find peace in God’s grace.

Sin seems to have become a neglected word in the postmodern vocabulary. People prefer not to mention it, let alone admit that they’re guilty of it. But the older I become, the more I find myself identifying with the twin declarations of John Newton on his deathbed: “My memory is nearly gone, but two things I know: I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great Savior.”

FOR DISCUSSION:
  1. What did Isaac of Nineveh mean by his observation, “He who knows his own sin is greater than the angels”? Do you agree?
  2. Calvin states that coming to know and admit our sin “should truly humble and overwhelm us with shame.” Does it? If not, why not? What could we do about that if it doesn’t?
  3. Cooper states the example of an alcoholic who clearly illustrates the bondage of our wills to sin. Can you list other examples from your own life or those of others?
  4. Why does Calvin emphasize our sinfulness so much? Is he just trying lay a heavy burden on us, or is there some good reason for his doing so?
  5. Can you be sure you’re right with God? How?

About the Author

Rev. Dale Cooper is chaplain emeritus of Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich. The Banner thanks him for writing a special series this year on highlights from John Calvin’s teaching.

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