In the Gospel lesson assigned for this Sunday, we will hear John the Baptist proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The call to repentance, set against the paradigm of the kingdom of God, indicates that John thinks there is something fundamentally wrong with the way things are. Jesus repeats the call to repentance in the context of God’s kingdom (Matthew 4:17, Mark 1:14-15). We will also hear on Sunday Isaiah’s prophetic image of that kingdom. The need for repentance points to our failure to live into God's goodness. It points to the need for change – in our hearts and in how we engage one another. It indicates that there is something wrong with us. We need mercy.
It is the Christian witness that there is something dreadfully wrong with us and the world and that we cannot finally change ourselves. We require deliverance from beyond ourselves. We require salvation from sin which radically infects our hearts and pervades our thoughts and actions. This is the uncomfortable realization that the traditional teaching of “original sin” gets at.
The tendency among some Christians to minimize the radical nature of sin is not very helpful. Nor is it reflective of what Christianity in the Anglican tradition has taught:
What is the inward and spirituall grace [of baptism]?
A death unto sinne, and a new birth unto righteousness: for being by nature born in sinne, and the children of wrath, we are hereby made the children of grace.
That is from the Catechism of the Scottish Prayer Book of 1637. It was according to that Prayer Book that Samuel Seabury, the first bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, was ordained. It is the Prayer Book on which our Book of Common Prayer is based. The same Catechism is found in the 1559 Book of Common Prayer (the Elizabethan Prayer Book used by Her Majesty as well as Lancelot Andrewes, Richard Hooker, John Donne, and others of the formative period of Anglicanism).
The great Anglican preacher and poet, John Donne, did not hesitate to point to the radical nature of sin. Read A HYMN TO GOD THE FATHER.
William Temple, Anglican theologian and Archbishop of Canterbury during World War 2, wrote,
. . . reason itself as it exists in us in vitiated. We wrongly estimate the ends of life, and give preference to those which should be subordinate, because they have a stronger appeal to our actual, empirical selves . . . It is the spirit which is evil; it is reason which is perverted; it is aspiration itself which is corrupt.
Acknowledging the radical pervasiveness of sin is part of the Anglican tradition.
But, a sort of good news is hidden in the Christian doctrine of sin – even that "awful" doctrine of original sin. Original sin indicates that the way things are is not the way things are meant to be. It affirms that violence, selfishness, and “will to power” are not "natural," but aberrations of God's original intent and goal which precede our fall into complicity with evil. Original sin is a hopeful doctrine because it declares that the way the world is and the way we are is not the way the world or we are meant to be. Though it infects our very nature, sin is not the truest thing about us. And we are not stuck with the sinfulness of our egotism, greed, violence, and unlove. We can become "children of grace." We can repent. Through the mercy of God, forgiveness is possible. Change is possible.