Thou Hast Not Left Me Here Without Grace
O my crucified but never wholly mortified sinfulness!
O my life-long damage and daily shame!
O my indwelling and besetting sins!
O the tormenting slavery of a sinful heart!
Destroy, O God, the dark guest within
who hidden presence makes my life a hell.1
This the final post in a series focused on God’s forgiveness. Not that three articles are enough to cover the topic—far from it. However, they should help lay the groundwork for further exploration. Our guide has been John Donne, particularly his poem A Hymn to God the Father. Following Donne’s lead, we first looked at the basis for our salvation: Christ’s life and death. Probing deeper, we turned to the ongoing sin in our lives and examined how proper repentance brings us rest in Christ. The final element of Donne’s poem that we will examine takes us into what might be, for some, murkier theological waters. However, we need not get in so deep that we cannot find our way back to Christ, which once again is the proper response to our sin.
These murkier waters are often referred to as Original Sin. Calvin defines Original Sin as, “a hereditary corruption and depravity of our nature, extending to all the parts of the soul, which first makes us obnoxious to the wrath of God, and then produces in us works which in Scripture are termed works of the flesh.”2 That is, Original Sin is a result of the Fall and has two specific effects on our lives. First, we are guilty parties to Adam’s sin. Second, we are born rebels, looking to serve ourselves rather than God. We often describe this rebellious orientation as a sin nature. Of course, there are ways to describe Original Sin that are more poetic. Consider the above reference to “the dark guest within.”3 In addition to providing imagery for our fallen nature, the description of sin as a guest is helpful. We need to remember that our fallen condition, while present from birth, was not part of our design. As Calvin puts it, “It is true that nature has received a mortal wound, but there is a great difference between a wound inflicted from without, and one inherent in our first condition.”4 Alternately, Donne speaks of Original Sin when he asks, “Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun / Which was my sin, though it were done before?”5 In contrast to the picture of a dark guest, Donne highlights the personal responsibility inherent to Original Sin. Despite the fact that it is the sin with which Donne started life—indeed, it was committed before he was born—Donne still refers to it as “my sin.” And, considering this, Donne raises the question “can God forgive this part of my sin?”
It’s a fair question. If nothing else, the presence of Original Sin should bring humility to our assessment of ourselves. Calvin puts it this way: “In examining ourselves, the search which divine truth enjoins, and the knowledge which it demands, are such as may indispose us to every thing like confidence in our own powers, leave us devoid of all means of boasting, and so incline us to submission.”6 Further, it also reminds us that we truly are life-long rebels. There isn’t room for thinking that God perhaps extended his forgiveness to us because we were likeable or had been a good citizen at some point.
This again brings the question, “Why would God forgive me?” Paul begins to answer when he explains that, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).7 In Ephesians, he expands on this thought: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4-7). God’s love and glory are behind his sacrifice. While this might answer our question, it only adds to our wonder. There are plenty of ways God could have displayed his glory, yet he chose to save us sinners. The wonder only increases as we learn how Christ addresses our corrupted nature. Paul explains it this way: “For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:17). The stain on our nature is not merely washed out; rather, we are newly created.8 In exchange for our old, hopelessly sinful nature, we are given a new and glorified nature that will last us through eternity. Once again, the answer to our sin has been found in Christ. And, once again, we are left with wonder, gratefulness, and joy.
As was mentioned at the beginning of this article, there is certainly more to God’s forgiveness than we have examined in this series. However, there are several points that we have repeatedly returned to. First, our sin is a cause for humility. Whenever we are tempted to think that perhaps we’ve got the Christian life down, or at least aren’t quite “like other men”9, our sin is there to remind us that we are always dependent on Christ. Which, is our second lesson. Our sin constantly points us back to Christ. Where our sin presents a problem, he is always the answer. This is exactly what Donne told us. Having a greater appreciation of Christ’s work for us, let us continue to turn to him when confronted by our sin. Christian, may others find us adopting the perspective found in this prayer:
Yet thou hast not left me here without grace;
The cross still stands and meets my needs
in the deepest straits of the soul.
I think thee that my remembrance of it
is like David’s sight of Goliath’s sword
which preached forth thy deliverance.
The memory of my great sins, my many temptations, my falls,
bring afresh into my mind the remembrance
of thy great help, of thy support from heaven,
of the great grace that saved such a wretch as I am.
There is no treasure so wonderful
as that continuous experience of thy grace
toward me which alone can subdue
the risings of sin within:
Give me more of it.10
Is it possible to focus too much on our sin nature?
If so, how do we determine when we’ve crossed that line?
2. Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion translated by Henry Beveridge (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2008), 152.
3. In context, this seems to reference sin as a whole, which would certainly include Original Sin.
4. Calvin, 154.
5. Donne, John. The Complete English Poems edited by A.J. Smith (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1996), 348.
6. Calvin, 147.
7. Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
8. Paraphrasing 2 Corinthians 5:17.
9. ala the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14.
10. “The Dark Guest”, 127.
Photo courtesy of Stefan Kunze