“All Fall Down”
July 22, 2007 - Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
The Bible teaches that all people are sinners. Yet sin is not the natural condition of the human race. Christian theology includes the doctrine of original sin. We did not begin as sinners. Our disobedience to God had an origin in time. Sin entered our world as an unnatural invasion of God’s good creation. It was a Fall from a better human condition.
The Fall is a key to understanding what happens throughout the rest of Scripture. One premise of the whole history of salvation is that the condition of our race has changed from what it was originally. We have fallen from a state of grace and close relationship with God into a state of sin and separation from God. One way to understand the work of Christ is to say that Jesus came to restore that which was lost in Genesis 3.
When we ask what “original sin” means, we enter a controversial area of theology. Since the early centuries, there has been a spectrum of Christian opinion on the nature of the Fall. One extreme view is that the Fall absolutely corrupted human nature so that human beings are completely incapable of any good apart from the grace of God. The corrupt nature is passed from parent to child, beginning with Adam and Eve, so that every human enters the world already a sinner, guilty, and condemned to separation from God. Without the grace of Jesus, it is impossible for human beings to do anything truly good. In favor of this view we must acknowledge Psalm 51:5, Romans 5:19, and the sordid picture of human life that follows the fall in Genesis 4-11.
The other extreme view of original sin is to see the Fall simply as the entry point of sin into human life. There is no corruption of the whole human race and each person is born in the same condition in which Adam and Eve were created, innocent and in good relationship with God. But each person commits individual sins which affect him or her in the same way Adam’s and Eve’s sin affected them. It is possible for a human being to refrain from sin, but almost no one does. It is theoretically possible for a person acting righteously to remain in or recover a good relationship with God. In favor of this view, we must acknowledge Romans 5:12, Ezekiel 18, and the fact that God holds us responsible for sin. It is difficult to see how we could be responsible for an inherited condition.
As is often true in theology, the truth is in the balance of the extremes. Original sin is a devastating but not absolute corruption of the human race. Human nature remains good since it carries the image of God, but that nature is marred and obscured by the Fall. We do not inherit guilt, but we inherit a tendency to sin and are born into a sinful society. We are capable of doing good, but inevitably fail to do good in many, many ways. On our own, we are not able to return to righteous living or re-establish a good relationship with God. We are all sinners. Responsibility for sin belongs completely to us, but we cannot save ourselves. Only God in Jesus Christ can redeem us from sin and its consequences.
“Imagine,” our physical education instructor said, “you are in a hole.” Now some of us who are tired or broke or depressed may already be able to relate to this, but he was talking about a physical, literal hole. Imagine, he told us, you are in a hole maybe at least twelve feet wide and about nine or ten feet deep. The hole is covered except for a small circular opening about three feet across at the top. You are standing looking up at three feet of daylight just out of reach.
Can you get out? The hole’s too wide to press your back and legs against either side and squirm up like a rock climber. All you can do is jump for the opening. It’s low enough that you can just grab the lip and hang on. But once you’re hanging there you won’t be able to touch the floor or any of the walls. Now, could you pull and chin yourself up enough to get an arm over and crawl out of the hole? Can you get yourself out? If your answer is “no,” said our coach, you need to get in shape. Everyone, he said, needs enough strength and agility to get out of a hole like that.
Genesis 3 is the story of a fall into a hole. It’s the hole of sin. The Fall of Adam and Eve tells how we came to be in the hole of Original Sin. It’s a doctrine about being in so deep we can’t get out. It’s about falling so low that we can never jump high enough to pull ourselves up. It’s a helpless condition over which we have no power. The Fall means you and I don’t have enough spiritual strength and agility to get out of the hole of sin.
Of course, this is the story of the sin of just two people, committing just one sin. What’s it got to do with you and me? It’s hard enough to fathom how they could do it. There were Adam and Eve in Paradise, for Pete’s sake. Everything they could want. No pain, no disease, no hunger, no war, no taxes, no troubles of any kind. Verse 8 suggests that they were walking and talking with God in the Garden. They and the Lord were the best of friends. Nothing to worry about except having a bunch of babies (and painlessly at that) and filling up the world. The animals are all gentle and well behaved. The fruit of the trees gave them plenty to eat. It’s all good. The only negative, the only restriction, was a single little rule: Don’t eat the fruit of this one tree.
So they blew it. They disobeyed the one command God gave them. Sinless, they became sinners. Innocent, they became liars. Loving, they became mean. Good, they became bad. You could say that when the fruit fell out of that tree into their hands, they fell with it. What a waste. What a disaster. But what’s it got to do with us?
It was their sin. You and I didn’t do it. If you’ve got a bank robber or a slave trader or a prostitute in your family tree, nobody blames you for that. We’re each responsible for our own sins, not for those of our ancestors. If your mother’s a drug addict or your father’s an embezzler, that’s their failing, not yours. It may mess you up some, but it’s certainly not your fault. The blame is all theirs, not yours. So why do most Bibles label Genesis 3 “The Fall of Man,” or “The Fall of the Human Race.” Adam and Eve did it, not us!
I have to tell you honestly I can’t explain it completely. But the fall of Adam and Eve was also our Fall. Those two dragged the rest of us down with them. Human sin is a domino story. First one falls, then the next, then one by one every single domino drops. All fall down. But why?
There are all sorts of explanations and theories of original sin. Beginning with St. Augustine some Christians have thought that sin is simply inherited. As Psalm 51:5 seems to suggest, we are born sinners. In modern terms, we would say it’s in our DNA. It gets passed along from generation to generation, like red hair or blue eyes, a dominant gene that no one escapes.
Another view is that Adam and Eve represented us in some deep and profound way. What happened to them happens to us because at the very beginning of the world, they stood before God as representatives of us all. It’s a little like how your favorite team represents you on the field or on the court. If they hit that hoop, you jump to your feet, wave your hands and shout because when they win you win too. And if they miss, if that beautiful pass gets picked off by the other team? You slump in your seat and groan. If they lose, you’re a little beaten yourself. It’s like that with Adam and Eve. They blew the play, but we all lost.
Ultimately it’s largely a mystery. Just how you and I are connected with the sin of Adam and Eve is terribly difficult to explain. No theory is really satisfying. Some views go too far and take away all our responsibility. Other theologies don’t take the problem of sin seriously enough and make it out like we’re all just really good people who have a few problems that can be fixed with education or welfare or counseling.
But the Bible just keeps on telling us that sin came into our lives at the beginning and that without the help of God it’s not going away. As in our text from Romans this morning, the Bible keeps on saying that we are all sinners, just like Adam. Romans 5:10 says, “through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners.” Whether we inherited it, or were represented by a team that lost, or just grew up in a world of bad examples, you and I are sinners. And we can’t help ourselves.
That’s the paradox and mystery of our sinfulness. Just like Adam and Eve, we don’t have to sin. We have free-will, as we discussed a few weeks ago. We can choose to do good. But we don’t. Inevitably we don’t. And we can’t seem to do anything about it. We just keep on sinning and can’t seem to change. Whether it’s yelling at our family or torturing prisoners, we keep doing it. Whether it’s a little fib on a tax return or a huge insider stock trade, we keep doing it. Whether it’s watching a bit of soft porn in an R-rated movie or selling children to be sex slaves, we keep doing it. Whether it’s a tiny racial joke or a war of ethnic cleansing, we keep doing it. We keep doing it. We are, and always have been, sinners. G. K. Chesterton said, “The only Christian doctrine for which there is empirical evidence is that of original sin.” The evidence is overwhelming. We are sinners, from the beginning.
It all sounds terribly depressing. Not the sort of thing to lift your spirits and send you out rejoicing and hopeful into the week ahead. Original sin is the original bad news. No wonder we don’t pay too much attention to this part of Christian doctrine.
Yet the Christian Church has always taught this, always taught this depressing, hopeless sounding truth that we are all a bunch of miserable sinners who can’t help ourselves. We’ve believed it and we’ve taught it, down through the centuries. We done so because hidden in the horrible bad news of human sinfulness, like the wedding ring your baby swallowed hidden in a poopy diaper, is a bright, shining, golden gleam of hope.
In Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica he mentions a phrase that in the middle ages became part of the Easter vigil Latin mass in the Catholic Church. Late on Saturday night, as Sunday morning has just begun, the priest begins to sing the Exúltet, the Proclamation of Easter. And in that hymn of praise for the joy of Easter morning we find the phrase O felix culpa. “O blessed sin.” Literally, “O happy fault.” Right there in Easter worship, Christian people find a reason to call the bad news good, to call sin blessed, to call our terrible, debilitating fault “happy.”
The whole phrase is, O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorem, “O happy fault which received as its reward so great and so good a redeemer.” Here is the gleam of hope in Original Sin. Here is the good news in all the bad news about you and me. Were it not for our sin, we would never have known the awesome depth of God’s love to us in His Son Jesus Christ. Not just “O happy day when Jesus washed my sins away,” but in a wonderfully bizarre and beautiful twist, “O happy day when I sinned, because then Jesus could come to wash my sins away.”
The same thought shows up in another medieval Christian song, this time in English from the fifteenth century. Benjamin Britten set it to music in his “Ceremony of Carols.”
Adam lay ibounden, bounden in a bond;
Four thousand winter thought he not too long.
And all was for an appil, an appil that he tok,
As clerkès finden written in their book.
Ne had the appil takè ben, the appil takè ben;
Ne haddè never our lady a ben hevenè quene.
Blessèd be the time that appil takè was.
Therefore we moun singen. Deo Gratias!
It starts out with the doctrine of original sin, “Adam lay ibounden, bounden in a bond.” Adam and all his descendants lay in the bonds of sin for four thousand winters, for as long as human life has been. And it was all for the apple, the apple he took. But then the singer reflects, “Ne had the appil takè ben.” What if the apple had not been taken? What if Adam and Eve had not disobeyed and eaten it? Well then, “Ne haddè never our lady a ben hevenè quene.” Never would Mary, our Lady, have given birth to Jesus Christ and become thereby a queen in Heaven.
Without that apple, the whole Christian story fails to start. Without that apple, no Virgin Mary, no baby Jesus, no suffering Savior, no Cross, no Resurrection, no great and wonderful and glorious Salvation.
So, as weird as it sounds, we sing, “Blessèd be the time that appil takè was.” Deo Gratias! Thanks be to God. Thanks be to God for that day, for that terrible day when we fell. Thanks be to God because, on that very same day of sin, He had already planned for Jesus, planned for His virgin birth, planned for His suffering and Crucifixion, planned for His victorious rising from the dead. Thanks be to God for our Fall into sin and death, because in it we received the possibility of being raised into an even richer holiness and life.
That’s what Paul is really after there in Romans 5. Sure he talks about Adam and his disobedience and how we are all condemned in and through Adam’s first and original sin. But he only talks about Adam so he can compare Jesus to him. He brings up Adam’s sin only to show how much greater and better is the grace of Christ. He only says what I already quoted from verse 19, that “through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners,” so that he can go on to say “so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.”
Romans 5 is all like that. It’s a celebration of felix culpa, the happy fault, because Jesus triumphs over original sin. In verse 15 we find, “if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!” Please, please don’t get it wrong. Sin is not a good thing, neither Adam’s nor ours. If we had not fallen, we would still know all the fullness of God’s love. But God’s grace and power is enough to take even our sin and put hope into it.
The doctrine of original sin is a doctrine of hope, as hard as it might be to believe. It’s hopeful, first of all, because it’s realistic. It’s a lot more true to life than all the nonsense about folks being basically good that you’re going to get from politicians or new age gurus or education textbooks. Original sin is an honest, gritty, factual appraisal of the way we really are: helplessly, hopelessly sinful.
Second, original sin is a hopeful truth because it means we don’t have to be the way we are. If you only believe science, believe that evolution is the whole story, then it’s hopeless. The way we are is the way we started out, competing with each other, driven by our genes and our emotions. All that we call sin is just natural, the outcome of biological forces beyond our control. But to believe in original sin is to believe that sin is not natural. It’s not how God made us. It’s not how He meant us to be. He created us good and we fell out of it. And by His grace we can be raised back into His goodness once again.
And that leads to the third and most hopeful part of belief in original sin. God made us knowing it was going to happen. God made us knowing we would fall, that we would become helpless sinners. God made us knowing just how much our sin was going to cost Him to set it straight. God made us and planted that tree in the Garden knowing very well that one day three dead trees would be planted on a hill outside Jerusalem and His own dear Son would hang on one of them. God knew it all, knew the sin was coming, and created and loved us anyway.
That means huge hope for you and me. Yes, original sin means we are helpless. It means we’re down in a hole we can’t pull ourselves out of. It means that as much as you or I strive with all our hearts to be good, we’re going to fail. For whatever reason, however it works, we are children of Adam and Eve and sin is in our bones and in our souls. It shows up at every turn, when we’re trying hardest, when we least expect it. We fell and we keep on falling. But God knew that when He made us, when He made you.
Let it never make you want to sin more, but let it always give you hope. Your sin, in a mystery you should never take for granted, is God’s incredible opportunity to show you His love and grace. As Paul says at the end of Romans 5 in verse 20, “where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” That’s what God does with original sin, with your and my sin. He makes it the occasion for grace, for the most original grace the world has ever seen, the grace of a dying and rising Savior.
So we confess our sins as we did in worship this morning. Ideally, we confess them both here together, in public, and individually, in private prayer each day. We comb through our hearts and minds and find all the nasty spiritual fleas and ticks and lice that infect us constantly. And then we admit it, as much as we can discern and remember, we admit our sin. And instead of dragging us down, instead of paralyzing us with guilt and remorse, that admission, that confession sets us free and gives us hope. Hope even to the point of blessing the very day we sin because it is also the very day Jesus Christ forgives us and raises us up.
Felix culpa. “Blessèd be the time that appil takè was.” Blessed because we are blessed by the grace of Jesus. Deo Gratias! Thanks be to God. Thanks be to God who loves us when we deserve it least. Thanks be to God who loves us knowing we will never deserve it. Thanks be to God who reaches down, down, down into whatever hole of sin we manage to dig, and lifts us up, up, up into new and eternal life.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj