At church last Sunday, the pastor was contrasting a Methodist version of a Charles Wesley hymn with a Lutheran version. The hymn is “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” The reason that the pastor was commenting on this is that she will soon be leaving us to pastor another church, and the church that she will pastor is a combination of Methodist and Lutheran churches. She once told me that you see these sorts of combinations a lot these days, since there are a lot of small denominational churches, and churches believe that they can support themselves better and get more done by combining. The pastor at the church that I attended in upstate New York before moving here used to be involved in a similar set-up: he pastored a church that was a combination of Presbyterian and Methodist churches.
But back to the hymn! The Methodist version of the hymn has “Take away our bent to sinning.” But, according to the pastor last Sunday, the Lutheran hymn asks God to take away our desire to sin. When I first heard my pastor make that point, my thought was, “What’s the difference? They sound to me like the same point!” As I reflected some more, and especially as I read that book about George Whitefield, I realized that the points are different.
George Whitefield and John Wesley had debates. I already knew that one of their debates was about predestination—-that God decreed before the foundation of the world who would come to Christ and be saved, and who would not be saved. Whitefield believed in predestination, whereas Wesley did not. But Whitefield and Wesley also debated another issue: whether sinless perfection is possible for believers in this life. Whitefield said no, whereas Wesley said yes. (To read more about what Wesley thought sinless perfection is and is not, see my post here.)
I thought back to Calvinist things that I had read, such as John MacArthur’s The Gospel According to Jesus, Faith Works, and Saved Without a Doubt. A point that MacArthur made, if I recall correctly, is that Christians will never be free from sin in this life, but that, once they become saved, they do not want to sin. Their desire is to please God. When they do sin, they feel bad about it. I have encountered this sort of view among other Christians, as well.
That said, I can understand what the Lutheran version of Charles Wesley’s hymn was saying, and how that differs from the Methodist version. The Methodist version was saying that God can take away our bent to sin. The Lutheran version, by contrast, was saying that God can take away our desire to sin, but that we will still sin in this life; the overall desire of believers, however, is not to sin. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak, and, on some level, this will be the case until our last breath.
Where my pastor takes this insight about the contrast between Methodism and Lutheranism, I am not entirely sure. I doubt that she believes that she has arrived at a state of sinless perfection. My impression is that she does, however, prefer to focus on spiritual growth and advancement, becoming closer to God, and doing good rather than on beating oneself up on account of sins.
On a related note, I was thinking of a book that I recently read, Carl Schmuland’s Parables of the Deer, which was written from a Calvinist perspective. Schmuland, in my opinion, was rather ambiguous about what happens to the sinful nature of people once they become born-again believers in Christ. In one place, he said that believers are essentially like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, prior to the Fall: they can freely choose between good and evil, rather than being bent towards evil. In another place, Schmuland was saying that believers still have to contend with their sinful nature, on some level, which implies that some bent towards sin is still present within them. I am sharing my impression of what Schmuland was saying, and I hope that I have conveyed his thoughts accurately, as opposed to taking his thoughts in a direction that he did not intend.
I was meditating on the second century C.E. (according to A.F.J. Klijn) Jewish work, II Baruch, a few days ago. II Baruch was saying that, even though Adam and Eve sinned, people after Adam and Eve only have themselves to blame for their sins and the punishment that God dishes out to them. It seemed to me that II Baruch was interacting with some notion of original sin, and I wondered how developed the doctrine actually was in the second century C.E. In any case, these passages encouraged me to ask myself: “If I were in the Garden of Eden, would I eat the forbidden fruit?” Wouldn’t that be a sign of whether one has the new, born-again nature—-that we would not commit the sin that Adam and Eve committed, were we in their shoes? I have read or heard more than one Christian say that human beings, with their fallen human nature, would eat the forbidden fruit without hesitation were they in Adam and Eve’s shoes. That is how some Christians try to justify the idea that God is just to punish human beings for the sin of Adam and Eve.
Would I have eaten the forbidden fruit? Speaking for myself, it is a strong possibility. I can imagine myself not fully trusting God, believing that God is holding something back from me, and desiring for myself the wisdom, power, and divinity that the serpent said would come from eating the forbidden fruit. Come to think of it, though, I can also envision myself making the opposite decision. And, while I do not know people’s hearts, I can picture even non-believers going either way. It’s not as if all non-believers are power-hungry or obsessed with vainglory.