Every age has its own besetting heresy. Looking back – at Arianism or Montanism, for example – it is clear that these sprang out of the way society was structured at the time, and the way people understood themselves and their purpose in that society.
Heretics occasionally realise they have departed in some way from the historic teaching and practice of the Church. When they do, they usually justify their departure from the faith by claiming they have some insight not available to Jesus or the Apostles, or by referring to the ‘trajectory of scripture,’ or claiming that this is what Jesus and the Apostles would have said/done if their culture had allowed them to.
I am increasingly convinced that the underlying heresy of our time is blindness to the reality of the Fall, and/or a refusal to take its consequences seriously.
This was brought home to me on Sunday morning, as we sang Trust and Obey. The second verse was this:
Not a burden we bear, not a sorrow we share,
but our toil he doth richly repay;
not a grief or a loss, not a frown or a cross,
but is blest if we trust and obey.
Quite different from the usual:
Not a shadow can rise, not a cloud in the skies,
But His smile quickly drives it away;
Not a doubt or a fear, not a sigh or a tear,
Can abide while we trust and obey.
The difference is significant.
The former understands that life is toil. There will be grief and loss and disapproval, but all these can be blessed to God’s purposes if we trust and obey.
The second acknowledges that these things may come along, but expects that they will be wiped away by God’s smile. Everything will be fine, the sun will shine, if we trust and obey. In other words, happiness, self-fulfilment, plans coming to fruition, is what we should expect as Christians. I doubt very much that is what John Sammis had in mind.
Similarly with Jesus Loves Me. We used to sing:
Little ones to Him belong, they are weak but He is strong.
Now we sing:
Little ones to Him belong, in His love they shall be strong.
Well, maybe. But again, I doubt this is what Ann Warner had in mind. The whole poem is about our utter dependence on God and His grace. Our weakness, His strength.
This is clear in the following verse, which is not sung at all anymore:
Jesus loves me! Loves me still
Tho’ I’m very weak and ill;
That I might from sin be free
Bled and died upon the tree.
Warner is not talking about physical illness or weakness, but sickness and weakness of the soul, weakness that is part of our fallen nature.
Somehow recognition and discussion of this has become unacceptable, not only in our preaching, but in our singing as well.
One more example. Joy to the World is one of the best loved of Christmas hymns. But how many of us have ever sung Watt’s third verse?
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.
Even the few modern hymnbooks that include this verse mark it as optional.
No Fall, no curse, no original sin to mar and muddy and mislead and confuse. A new day of self-respect, tolerance, self-esteem and hope dawns.
But equally, and fatally to our proclamation of the Gospel, no Fall means no need for redemption. We all just need to do our best, not discriminate, care for the environment, and everything will be lovely. Jesus is nice for those who want that sort of thing, but not really necessary.
But the Fall is real. The curse is real. Our reason, our emotions, our wills, are all warped by sin, as is the whole of creation. We are weak. We are ill. We are lost.
104 years ago, in the second chapter of Orthodoxy (appropriately titled The Maniac) GK Chesterton wrote “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”
Reinhold Niebuhr quoted this as “Original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.”
We want things we should not want. Just as each society has its besetting heresy, each of us has our besetting sin – some desire or temptation that plagues us, that will not go away, that seems to be part of our nature. What often follows is an effort to convince ourselves and others that the acts to which we are tempted are not really sinful. Or not in our case, anyway. Or even that this is the way God made us, and something to be celebrated.
But Isaiah warns us: Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! (5:20).
Going from the sublime heights of Isaac Watts to the depths of empty-headed triviality, Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’ is a perfect example of this kind of thinking:
No matter gay, straight, or bi, Lesbian, transgendered life,
I’m on the right track baby, I was born to survive.
No matter black, white or beige, Chola or orient made,
I’m on the right track baby, I was born to be brave.
I’m beautiful in my way ‘Cause God makes no mistakes
I’m on the right track, baby I was born this way
Don’t hide yourself in regret just love yourself and you’re set
I’m on the right track, baby I was born this way.
Reassuring, but wrong. Comforting, but deadly. The Fall is real. God does not make mistakes. Nonetheless, the world, including us, is not the way God intended.
All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We all need a redeemer.