Sola gratia. By grace alone. With the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Protestants around the world have been revisiting this revolutionary concept. And rightly so.
But with the festivities behind us, let’s set grace aside for a moment, and focus on sin.
From my vantage point in the American church, it seems as though a thorough reckoning with the pervasiveness of sin may be in order. Not the sin of others, primarily—American Protestants have generally done fairly well on that front. But I wonder if a renewed appreciation of the pervasiveness of sin might not prove restorative, especially in an era of religious polarization.
Since I have been shaped by the Calvinist strand of Reformed Christianity, I may have a more acute sense of “total depravity” than other Protestants. But in recent weeks I’ve been struck by the fact that an awareness of the pervasiveness of sin is often lacking, even in many Reformed conversations.
First case in point: purity culture.
A few weeks ago, I was asked by a friend (who hails from the same Calvinist tradition as I do) what I thought of “purity balls”—those elaborate affairs where young Christian women pledge to maintain their “sexual purity,” and where fathers, in return, pledge to protect their daughter’s virginity. As regular readers here might imagine, I have a lot of thoughts about purity balls. But instead of expressing my concerns about sexual double standards, patriarchal distortions of Christianity, potential harm to girls and women, and the like, it occurred to me that, in addition to all these things, something else was at stake: the whole purity culture rests on an utterly unbiblical (or at the very least, unReformed) notion of purity.
As a historian, I know that nineteenth century ideas of female purity were influenced by strands of Christian perfectionism, but I’d never given much thought to the fact that one of the theological problems with contemporary purity culture is the notion that women are “pure” to begin with. The notion that, in the absence of sexual activity of a certain sort, women are untainted, innocent, unsullied. (And, of course, the flip side: That sexually active women are impure, forever tarnished, “fallen.”)
This view certainly doesn’t align with Calvinist notions of total depravity, which reject any sense of an innate, mythical “purity,” sexual or otherwise. Nor does it align with Reformed (or generally Christian) notions of redemption. A fuller appreciation of sin, it seems to me, would allow for multiple ways in which human sexuality can be affected by sin (even heterosexuality within marriage, for example), and, ultimately, for more restorative understandings of redemption.
I found myself thinking of purity in a different context, too: in connection with contemporary debates over religious freedom.
Over the past few years I’ve watched as religious freedom has become a rallying cry for many American Christians. Here genuine constitutional issues are at stake, as are conflicting rights and freedoms, and the very definition of “religious.” But I’ve been particularly intrigued by how an often unspoken assumption of personal and institutional purity has functioned in these discussions. In the case of the contraceptive mandate, for example, one of the primary concerns is that employers will be forced to participate in a system that makes potentially objectionable contraceptive options available to women who may choose to use them. Rather than focusing on changing the hearts of women through conversion, for example, the rhetorical emphasis tends to focus on the rights of employers to remain untainted from any connection to potentially objectionable actions. (Some discussions of abortion and the Hyde amendment reflects these tendencies as well, with a key issue being a sense of coercive culpability through tax dollars).
Perhaps most clearly, however, the notion of purity and sin come together in discussions of who is deserving of assistance, and who is not.
Distinctions between the deserving and undeserving are closely linked to a sense of moral culpability or presumed innocence, and these often unexamined distinctions shape conversations ranging from responses to police violence to immigration policy to poverty and inequality.
In a recent essay on the website of the Christian Reformed Church, Suzanne McDonald, a professor at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, articulates these connections well. The essay is part of a series on “Justice and the Reformed Confessions,” and in it McDonald examines how the Canons of Dort can help Christians think about the call to do justice.
The key, according to McDonald, can be found in the Canons’ emphasis on sin.
Because “sin infects and affects every human being and everything that human beings do (III/IV, 1-3),” injustice is inevitable—“on an individual level and in our systems and structures.” McDonald puts it in true Reformed fashion: “We are born into the web of everyone else’s sinful choices, and our own inclination away from God means that we will inevitably contribute to that web.” McDonald, too, emphasizes that this is true for every individual, and for religious communities.
By expounding on the doctrine of election, the Canons also emphasize the role of Gods sovereign grace, over against any notion of our own as far as “who might seem (to us) to be ‘better’ or ‘more deserving’ (I, 7).” Because the identity of the saved remains a mystery, “we must proclaim Christ indiscriminately to everyone (II, 5).” McDonald extrapolates that so, too, ought we to resist the temptation to try to decide who is deserving of justice. “Justice isn’t only for those who are Christians, or those who belong to communities that make us feel comfortable. The scriptures are clear that God requires us to seek justice, even when it involves those who might appear to us to be ‘aliens’ or ‘enemies.’” Election, McDonald concludes, “is never an excuse for an apathetic superiority complex.”
In all of this I’m reminded of a powerful quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
How might an appreciation of the pervasiveness of sin, in institutions, ideologies, and running through each and every heart, position Christians to engage others, and the broader culture, on different terms? Likely with greater humility (we might be wrong!), generosity, and prudence.
It’s worth remembering, too, that by acknowledging the pervasiveness of sin, Reformed theology also positions one to recognize the far reaches of grace.
So in this time of commemoration, we would do well to focus not only on the triumphant “Grace alone! Faith alone! Scripture alone!,” but also on a more somber and quieting reality of our own limitations, oversights, and shortcomings.