Sermon: Broken, Valuable, and in Need of Grace

05.31.2015     Preaching Text: “‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’” (Isaiah 6:5)

As thoughtful, open-minded people, we naturally abhor dogmas and creeds. Such things serve only to limit our thinking, putting us in an intellectual cul-de-sac that naturally restricts free thought and expression.

But what if I were to tell you that everybody has a dogmatic view of things and holds necessarily to certain defined creeds?

Dogma, after all, is any principle or set of principles considered incontrovertibly true. Dogma is the basis of all ideology and belief systems, be they secular or religious.

Similarly, a creed – or confession, symbol, or statement of faith – is a concise statement of shared beliefs, a kind of fixed formula summarizing core tenets.

While both dogma and creed are characteristically associated with religious communities, such a definition is too narrow. Whether we are part of a religious community or we’re an agnostic or atheist, we hold to a certain set of beliefs that guide our understanding of life. These core beliefs can be either conscious or unconscious.

G.K. Chesterton, the brilliant early 20th century Christian writer and journalist, once pointed out that those who object to religious rituals betray their duplicity by honoring any number of social rituals throughout the day. Think of the countless rituals we unthinkingly participate in day after day.

His point, and mine, is that we all participate in rituals, whether we know it or not. And we all hold to certain dogmatic beliefs and creeds, sometimes without realizing it. The question isn’t whether dogmas and creeds exist; they do. The real question is whether any given dogma is good, bad, or somewhere in-between.

One creed or belief our contemporary world holds to be incontrovertibly true is that human beings are essentially good (or blank slates); all that is necessary to fix things is “an environmental tune up,” as Mike Konrad puts it.

Christian dogma, in contradistinction, holds that human beings are at core prone to sin (John Calvin went so far as to say that all human beings are “totally depraved” due to Original Sin.)

No matter which side you take, each is a dogmatic assertion. Both are statements of belief that in large measure define how we live our lives.

Tim Keller concedes that both creeds – that either humans are intrinsically good or evil (or prone to evil) – are statements taken on faith, and are ultimately unprovable. The question is whether one more accurately describes life as we find it.

The Christian insistence on human sin doesn’t mean human beings are incapable of doing good. It’s just that everything we do carries with it some element of imperfection. We can do good, in other words, but our good is never perfect. Thus even the best human system carries within it the seeds of its own destruction.

Marxism assumes that human nature is a blank slate ready to be reprogrammed by its external environment. With enlightened deployment of science and reason, with proper social engineering, perfection can be achieved. We all know how well this has served humanity.

Every great evil in our world seems to find its root cause in the human attempt to achieve godly perfection here on earth without, that is, the necessary tempering Christian insistence on humility.

In today’s famous call narrative of Isaiah, the would-be prophet gets it right. He demurs when God calls him. He says that he is a man of unclean lips living in the midst of a people of unclean lips. He is not worthy of the task to which God summons him. He is unworthy, but God will direct his path.

As if echoing this same sentiment, Paul centuries later writes in Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” It is not we who effect the good, in other words, it is God working in and through us.

Because most of don’t like to think there’s anything wrong with us, we reject this idea (that only God can save us – from ourselves – apart from any merits or works. According to Christian dogma, however, all that is required is that we trust in the work of Christ. For only when we admit this do we find God’s grace.

Writing in the American Thinker, Mike Konrad reports asking various clergy if Paul has it right in Ephesians. “[They] nodded their head and affirmed [it],” he writes, “[but] why didn’t they mention it in their sermons?” he asks. “I found it mentioned only in old classic theological texts, and the occasional writing of some incisive Bible commentators.”

Liberal clergy, he argues, tend to assume humans are good and must act for some social cause to earn God’s favor. The liturgically-inclined clergy require weekly attendance at worship, the sacraments, and holy ritual. “But what good is this,” he wonders, “if the clergy never mention the gospel of free grace?” Hard line preachers say we must stop drinking alcohol and dancing to rock n’ roll, he says, “as if being frumpy saved us.”

“These clerics, of whatever persuasion, always teach what one must do for God, rather than what Christ has done for [us], as if we [human beings] were somehow capable of self-improvement.”

What is truly needed is a return to the ancient Christian dogma that assumes human sin, which, though hard to accept, offers the only path to God’s free grace, grace born of a humble honesty before God.

In a recent Washington Post article entitled, “The End of Casual Christianity,” columnist Michael Gerson makes the same point. He begins by citing the declines in church participation over the last 7 years, mostly in the Catholic and Mainline Protestant churches. (The Evangelical churches, he points out, are holding steady.)

“The mainline,” he writes (and as we’ve discussed here), “has not so much declined as faded into the broader culture.” Quoting George Marsden he adds, “[It’s] difficult for the church to survive if there’s nothing that makes the church distinct from culture.”

And a big part of why the church has become indistinct from the culture is its headlong embrace of the contemporary secular creed that humans are naturally good (or blank slates) who can be perfected with the right environmental changes, as if perfection is in some sense right around the corner!

Gerson goes on: “The broad decline of institutions leaves many people betrayed, lonely and broken – not only unaffiliated with religion but unaffiliated with family, with community and with all the commitments that give meaning to freedom.”

To meet this hungering need, he argues, the church must reclaim “the heart of Christian faith – a belief that every human being is valuable, and broken, and in need of grace.”

It is yet another Christian paradox: that the heavenly blessings of genuine forgiveness, authentic grace, and the peace of God are found only in a renewed faith that admits humility, and humility alone, in confronting the unwelcome fact of human sinfulness.

For only then, as Isaiah puts it, shall our eyes see the King, the Lord of hosts. Amen.