I was sitting in Church History yesterday, learning about indulgences for the first time. For those of you who don’t know what indulgences are like I didn’t about 24 hours ago, they began around the 11th century and essentially were payments that could be given to the church in order to make penance for a loved one who is now dealing with his or her sin in purgatory. More specifically, they held a view that there was eternal and temporal sin – eternal sin being a sin that offends God and temporal sin being a sin that wrongs other humans. Indulgences were only meant to deal with the temporal sins of a person but were believed to expedite a loved one’s time in purgatory. Interesting, huh?
Well, Luther didn’t like this. I don’t much like it either. He believed it was an exploitation of the people in addition to being something that replaced the forgiving grace of God. Luther wrote a letter in 1517 to the Archbishop Albert of Brandenburg, saying, “These unfortunate souls seemingly believe they are assured of their salvation as soon as they purchase letters of indulgence. They also believe that the souls leave purgatory as soon as they put the money into the chest…Christ nowhere commanded to preach indulgences but emphatically insisted on the preaching of the gospel.”
However, in this discussion of Luther’s response to indulgences, my professor, Dr. Pak, stopped us to say that it is easy for us to understand why Luther, or anyone else for that matter, is justified in disliking the concept of indulgences, but, she also said that Protestants in particular have a very cheap view of grace. We will not pause very long to think about why indulgences could have been appealing to the people. Sin is a real and present evil that has detrimental effects on individuals and communities. In our commitment to believing that there is grace for our sin, and rightfully so, it is not common that we think about the seriousness of it in the first place.
If you’re a fan of the Enneagram, I have a typological description that might help us to better understand the ways in which we need to think and speak about grace. I have a few people in my life who are “1s.” This type of person, according to the Enneagram, is very concerned with achieving perfection. In case you were wondering, I am very certainly not a 1, for better or for worse. I know someone who pretty fairly evaluates what it means for him to be a 1 – that it is not a matter of necessarily having a high intolerance for imperfections in general but for imperfections specific to himself. He even goes so far to say that he has quite a high tolerance of other people’s imperfections while dealing with himself more critically. His understanding of what it means to think about these imperfections is that on the one hand, if we have too high an intolerance for imperfections, then it leads to self-deprecation, and we often miss out on the forgiving and transformational grace of God. On the other hand, if we have too low a tolerance for imperfections, we can become complacent in how dissimilar we truly are from Christ. We must strive toward the middle – confessing our sins and acknowledging the ways in which we are not yet conformed to the image of Christ, while also recognizing that there is grace and that we are human and that sanctification is a process.
Pascal writes that people often divert themselves in any and every possible way, rather than dealing with the realities of our human condition – that condition being that we are completely and totally depraved. We are sinful and corrupt; we have earned nothing but damnation. I can pretty readily agree that it’s not something I like to spend a lot of time thinking about. However, in order to have a bigger picture of grace, we have to have a bigger picture of sin and the ways that it is detrimental to our very existence. Paul writes in Romans that this is in fact the point of the law. “What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.'” (Romans 7:7). Luther expounds in his commentary on Galatians, noting that, “Now once a man has thus been humbled by the law and brought to the knowledge of himself, then he becomes truly repentant; for true repentance begins with fear and judgment of God. He sees that he is such a great sinner that he cannot find any means to be delivered from his sin by his own strength, effort or works.” Notice that Luther says that through the law and understanding sin, we actually become more knowledgeable about ourselves – as Pascal would say, a greater understanding of our own nature and condition. Only then can we be truly repentant. We cannot start from grace but must recognize first what it is that grace has covered.
To make one more note, as was emphasized earlier by the “1” in my life, I understand that there will be people who have a tendency toward self-deprecation. Perhaps you are a person who dwells too much on your own depravity and do not want to recognize the fullness of grace that God is offering you because you don’t believe you deserve it. And, truly, you don’t. And I know that’s unfair, and it sucks to be given so great a gift sometimes, but there is no need to accept it out of guilt and feel the constant need to accept as minimal as grace as possible. There is abundant grace, and God wants us to take it – joyfully as He finds joy in us.
I met with my Old Testament professor, Dr. Chapman, last semester in office hours, and I still think about something that he said very frequently. He told me that people have developed a kind of moralism in believing in God. People who grew up in the church often feel bad admitting to those who still believe that they no longer do, and he gave me this little anecdote to describe such a phenomenon – A person was talking to the pastor of a church he no longer attended and timidly confessed that he no longer believed in God, to which the pastor responded that it makes no difference to God – I don’t think the point is that God doesn’t care if we don’t believe in Him, but He has never forced Himself on us. In the same vein, people develop a kind of hyper-moralism that isn’t always existent in the Bible. God used the scum of the earth to be his leaders and prophets; our sin, after forgiveness, does not leave Him with a tainted view of us. As soon as God pronounced forgiveness over us, it was done. We are forgiven. Basically, my professor said that we just need to let it go.
Another professor from my undergrad, Dr. Muehlhoff, likes to remind his students that when Jesus died on the cross, all of our sin was still in the future. And yet, he still died and was raised and invites you to accept salvation. There is no sin that is too big to be forgiven because our God is infinitely bigger.
So, I invite you to aim for the mean, as Aristotle often challenges us to do. Recognize your own tendencies toward self-deprecation or to become complacent in not dealing with your sin. Now I could be wrong, but I’m guessing there a few more of us who tend towards not dealing with the damning effects of sin, because as noted with Pascal, it just simply isn’t a pleasant thing to think about. So what are some ways to help us grow our understanding and thereby gratitude for grace?
>Talk about your sin with others. James 5:16 says, “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” While many Protestants don’t practice a formal kind of Confession, we are still commanded to do it in some setting. The more we acknowledge and verbalize it to another person, we not only bring it into the light to be forgiven, but we recognize it for what it is and give it its due weight. We also are less likely to do it again with accountability.
>Talk about your sin with God. Take more time in your prayer life to discuss the ways you have disobeyed and failed to love God as you ought. Psalm 19:12 says, “But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults.” We don’t even know the sin that we commit half the time! I suspect at least part of that reason is because we are not cultivating an awareness of it by acknowledging and confessing it.
>Change the way you talk about grace. Admittedly, the first descriptor on my instagram bio is “grace upon grace.” So, I am the first to want to jump to grace, skip over sin, and be happy that I supposedly don’t have to think about it. But maybe we should start to have a wider description of grace that starts with sin. I know that means vulnerability in the ways you talk about grace, but as the researcher Brene Brown states, “Vulnerability spares others from shame.” We are all broken and sinful people, and we should be more willing to sit in that in order to have a greater experience of the ways we have been saved together by grace. I hope that we will start to form communities that are marked by a greater compassion for one another in our sin and a greater understanding of grace, that results in gratitude for our Father in heaven.
So, don’t let your grace be cheap. As I’ve heard around Easter, we want to immediately jump to Sunday without being present in the sadness of Friday. Christ’s death was costly, and as a result, our salvation, but praise be to Him who made a way for us!
“But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.” (2 Peter 3:18)