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The Problem of Sin and the Last Word, The death of Death

I don’t know about you, but I grow weary of sin; I (we) face an ongoing battle every breath that we take. Whether it be perverse thoughts, dark deep secrets that plague the conscience, actions that result in destruction for you and all those related to you, systemic evil that permeates the very fabric of society (this is probably most insidious since we are conditioned by it in ways that give it a normalcy and thus societal and then personal acceptance); the Apostle can relate,

23But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. 24O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? Romans 7:23, 24

We battle on. But how do we know what we battle; how do we gauge the target, how do we even know that there is a target to hit? How do we realize that evil isn’t some just mysterious lurking principle ‘out there’ that ultimately is outside of me, and not something that actually implicates my very being to its deepest depths—even when I engage in the evil ‘out there’ occasionally or situationally? How do I know, even if I can index concrete and ongoing instantiations of evil ‘out there, that the evil is indeed me? And that this all encompassing wickedness and deprivation consumes my inner self, which organically shapes my outer self—since really ourselves (body/soul) are integrated wholes. In other words, I am sin to the depths, and the reason there is sin, evil, wickedness ‘out there’; it is mostly because it has a context ‘in here’, in me. But how can I say such things, how can I ground such assertions beyond some sort of psychological intuition? We know that we are blind when the impression of light intensifies our darkness; when Jesus acts the way he does, and did, we know we are indeed blind. We come to the realization that for all our good, for all our posturing toward ourselves; that the next to the last word is that we live in a state of No, or blindness to the fact that what we see the Apostle Paul giving voice to can only come when faced with the depth of our problem as we participate in the life of Christ. The One who took our No, our blindness, and indeed our sin unto himself ‘by becoming sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him’ (II Cor. 5:21). As Calvin so perceptively knew, we only truly have knowledge of ourselves (and our abysmal state), when we first have knowledge of God through Christ, God the Redeemer.

It is this that John Webster masterfully elucidates as he engages Karl Barth’s vision of a christologically conditioned knowledge of sin in its most depth dimension. Let me quote Webster, who is commenting on Barth’s Church Dogmatics & Ethics, and the moral anthropology embedded therein:

[B]arth’s Christological determination of sin is not so much an attempt to dislocate ‘theological’ from ’empirical’ reality, as an argument born of a sense that human persons are characteristically self-deceived. Human life is a sphere in which fantasy operates, in which human persons are not able to see themselves as they truly are. The ‘man of sin’

thinks he sits on a high throne, but in reality he sits only on a child’s stool, cracking his little whip, pointing with frightful seriousness his little finger, while all the time nothing happens that really matters. He can only play the judge. He is only a dilettante, a blunderer, in his attempt to distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong, acting as though he really had the capacity to do it. He can only pretend to himself and others that he has the capacity and that there is any real significance in his judging. (CD IV/1, p. 446.)

This theme of concealment surfaces frequently in paragraph 60 (and elsewhere). Believing ourselves to see clearly, even allowing ourselves to suppose our sight to be sharper than that of our fellows, we are blind to the reality of our own selves. Barth acutely perceives that moral earnestness frequently rests upon clouded vision and lack of self-awareness and self-distrust. And so, once again, we return to the Christological basis for the treatment of human sin: ‘Compared with Him we stand there in all our corruption … The untruth in which we are men is disclosed … We are forced to see and know ourselves in the loathsomeness in which we find ourselves exposed and known.’

Human sinfulness, then, entails an ability to disentangle ourselves from our acts in such a way that they are no longer really ours. As Barth puts it in a passage in Church Dogmatics IV/2, we allow ourselves to believe that:

The sinful act is regrettable but external, incidental and isolated failure and defect; a misfortune, comparable to one of the passing sicknesses in which a healthy organism remains healthy and to which it shows itself to be more than equal. On this view, the individual — I myself — cannot really be affected by the evil action. I do not have any direct part in its loathsome and offensive character. In the last resort it has taken place in my absence. I myself am elsewhere and aloof from it. And from this neutral place which is my real home, I can survey and evaluate the evil that has happened to me in its involvement with other less evil and perhaps even good motives and elements; in its not absolutely harmful but to some extent positive effects; in its relationship to my other much less doubtful and perhaps even praiseworthy achievements; and especially in my relationship to what I see other men do or not do (a comparison in which I may not come out too badly); in short, in a relativity in which I am not really affected at bottom. I may acknowledge and regret that I have sinned, but I do not need to confess that I am a sinner.  (CD IV/2, p. 394)

These clarifications of the forms of human self-deception (which are by no means intended to underrate the ambiguity of the moral situation) are an important background to Barth’s treatment of original sin. His objection to some formulations of that doctrine is, at heart, that they are deficient in their account of positive evil. And his refusal of an independent locus peccati, his rejection of anything other than a Christologically determined account of sin, is directed by precisely the same concern. Far from averting attention from evil as fact, Christology is intended to furnish a means of clarifying our vision and dissolving our illusions about our own moral integrity. [John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought, 69-70.]

The Apostle Paul concurs with this kind of assessment about the deleterious effects of sin upon a life that knows that it only knows its true state of affairs because of the One who finally has given the last word  to our No-being by his Yes to the Father for us—viz. a Yes that is given concrete form through his death, burial, and most importantly resurrection-ascension. The Apostle Paul, with his eyes wide open, as we noted earlier, gives a final sigh of relief when he writes:

 25I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin. Romans 7:25

The Apostle knew, that he knew sin, not ultimately because of the Law; but ultimately, because of Christ who penetrated deeper than the Law could on its own—viz. into the cavernous depths of the human soul which left to itself continues to look at evil and wickedness as if its ‘out there’, while all along failing to realize that they’ve never even seen sin and evil and wickedness in its most grotesque form; that’s because they’ve never presumed that maybe, just maybe the most insidious form of evil, in the end, dwells where they can’t peer, where they dare not, in themselves.

*This is a repost from awhile ago.

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