The season of Lent is a time when Christians around the world acknowledge our constant tendency toward sinfulness. Each year at this time we are to engage in a season of repentance and reflection – seeking God’s grace and mercy anew as we journey toward glory.
As I reflect on the importance of Lent, I recall a debate tracing back to my final year of seminary. We heard that Dr. Robert Schuller, a Reformed Church pastor out in California who had founded the first ‘megachurch,’ had eliminated the ‘prayer of confession’ from the order of worship in his services. He believed it was too negative and reinforced a sort of futility about the spiritual life. It undermined self-esteem and self-confidence and was a turn-off to potential members in Orange County. Since we were students of Reformed theology we debated the idea a bit among ourselves. Our Calvinist tradition insisted that a prayer of confession was a necessary part of a worship service – it helped to put the worshipper in the proper “spiritual posture” before a holy God.
If you pay attention to our order of worship at Westminster you will notice that the prayer of confession is always included near the beginning of the service just after our opening ascriptions of praise to God. For some it may seem a ‘rote’ part of the service that is one of the motions we go through each week in order to get to the more meaningful parts of the service. Some people may wonder why we don’t just eliminate this part of the service since the corporate admission of our sin and guilt is sort of a ‘downer’ for a service of worship.
The confession of sin in worship grows out of the very important Christian doctrine of original sin. The Scots Confession, which is part of our Presbyterian Book of Confessions, explains the doctrine clearly and simply “By this transgression (the sin of the first humans), generally known as original sin, the image of God was utterly defaced in man, and he and his children became by nature hostile to God, slaves to Satan, and servants to sin” (Book of Confessions 3.03). I recall one of my seminary professors saying “The Christian doctrine of Original Sin is the only Christian doctrine which is empirically verifiable.”
When we hear this very negative assessment of the human predicament, some may desire a more positive view of humanity. Yet the strange paradox of history and theology is that those who have the highest view of human nature have historically tended to do the greatest deeds of evil against humanity, while those who have embraced the biblical understanding of human nature have tended to do the greatest deeds of good for humanity.
The utopian socialist vision of humanity which came into vogue in the 20th century resulted in the bloodiest century in human history. Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot all embraced the Marxist utopian vision of the perfect society powered by universal human goodness. The philosophical foundation of their movements was the goodness of the human being. All that was needed was the ‘correct’ political/social/economic system to unleash great human potential. If the evil system of capitalism could be replaced by the noble system of communism/socialism then we could achieve a kind of heaven on earth. Unfortunately, this belief in the establishment of the perfect society led to the murder of untold millions of human beings who stood in the way of the noble vision.
There is of course another global movement based on human goodness which has achieved great power today. That movement is Islam. There are some similarities between Islam and Christianity – but there are of course many differences as well. One of the most important differences is that Islam is missing the doctrine of original sin which is so essential to Christianity. This missing element is one small part of what drives the genocidal tendencies of the Islamists who have declared war against all who stand in the way of the perfect society they seek to establish. They are convinced of the purity of their mission which they believe gives them the right to kill those who are ‘less pure.’ They do this in the name of Allah and believe they are doing the right thing. They serve as but another example of the rule that those who believe the most in human goodness tend to do the greatest deeds of evil against humanity. Those who stand in the way of heaven on earth must be eliminated so that universal peace may triumph.
The stubborn insistence of biblical Christianity which declares unequivocally “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) turns out to be one of the most important doctrines of the church. Though the pioneer megachurch pastor, Robert Schuller sought to do away with the prayer of confession, I am glad that many of us have rejected that path. I have come more and more to appreciate this piece of wisdom from our Book of Confessions:
The reconciling act of God in Jesus Christ exposes the evil in men as
sin in the sight of God. In sin, men claim mastery of their own lives, turn
against God and their fellow men, and become exploiters and despoilers
of the world. They lose their humanity in futile striving and are left in rebellion,
despair, and isolation.
Wise and virtuous men through the ages have sought the highest good
in devotion to freedom, justice, peace, truth, and beauty. Yet all human
virtue, when seen in the light of God’s love in Jesus Christ, is found to be
infected by self-interest and hostility. All men, good and bad alike, are in
the wrong before God and helpless without his forgiveness. Thus all men
fall under God’s judgment. No one is more subject to that judgment than
the man who assumes that he is guiltless before God or morally superior
to others. (The Confession of 1967, Presbyterian Church USA).
So although the season of Lent may seem like a ‘downer’ for Christians, it turns out to be one of the more important seasons of the Christian year. It reminds us that none of us is perfect, that all of us continue to be sinners in need of a savior, and that we must reject any belief system based upon the perfectibility of humankind since such systems tend to inflict great harm on the human race wherever they are embraced. More importantly, the belief in human goodness tends to prevent us from happily receiving the good news of the gospel – because the gospel is only good news for those who know they need saving.
My prayer during Lent is that we will be found at the foot of the cross where we can admit that we are great sinners and where we can point people to our Great Savior.