“It’s Just Human Nature…”

In the attempt to excuse any and all sorts of bad behavior, the phrase, “it’s just human nature,” is invoked.  We all have heard it after the dust has settled from an outburst of anger, mischievous behavior, or perhaps something far worse.  It’s an excuse used to make us feel better about ourselves.  We don’t want to be seen as a monster.  Rather, we just succumbed to “human nature.”

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The use of this phrase, to be truthful to the intent of its use, should be corrected.  It should be, “It’s just fallen human nature.”  God became man to deliver humanity from this fallen human nature and its consequences:  sin, death, darkness, and alienation.    Christ came to give humanity a new nature — a nature that leads to new life.  St. Paul expresses the reality:  “Thus, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, the old has passed away, behold he has become new” (2 Cor 5: 17).  St. Paul undoubtedly comments on Christ’s statement to Nicodemus:  “…truly, truly I say to you, unless someone is born anew [or, from above] (anothen), he is unable to see into the Kingdom of God” (John 3: 3).  A new nature in an ontological reality, and a relational union in Christ, means those in Christ draw from Christ’s divine nature.  This communication between the divine nature of Christ and a recreated human nature demands new life.  The Eastern Orthodox Paschal (Easter) hymn’s words make their commentary:  “Thy resurrection, O Christ our Savior, the angels in heaven sing!  Let us on earth glorify thee in purity of heart!”  Internally, I often change the wording to “…in purity of life!”

A new creature has a new nature.  This new nature, with its empowering, renewing, relational union in Christ gives deliverance form the old nature and its lifestyle and works of darkness, selfishness, and alienation.

Several years ago there was a bumper sticker.  It was, apparently, popular among a certain Christian tradition.  It read, “Christians aren’t perfect; they’re just forgiven.”  I hated that bumper sticker.  I still do, and now a dripping contempt has been added to the initial emotion.  Why?  Because, again, it denies the above truth and reality.  Here is a generalization I have observed (having myself once been an evangelical), though it would be denied by evangelicals, and in the majority cases they successfully do so.  At the core of Protestantism exists a juridical (legal) understanding of salvation.  With this legal idea, salvation is reduced to simply the forgiveness of sin.  It becomes a reduction, it is simply a declaration of innocence.  Again, salvation becomes a legal reality — an intellectual abstraction.  Protestantism bifurcates salvation into justification and sanctification.  In this unnatural split, justification (in Protestantism the legal declaration of innocence — this is contrary to an Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic understanding of justification) takes priority over sanctification (holiness).  This is the false theology that is reduced to the insipid words of a bumper sticker.

So, what is the reality of salvation?  Granted, the forgiveness of sins by Christ is a reality, and essential to human salvation.  But, rather than simply a juridical standing — an imputation of innocence — Christian salvation is a relational, familial, union with God — it is being in Christ.  The Christian — the one in Christ — is no longer only Homo sapien, but rather also Homo Christi!  There is not only a new ontological reality, but a new expectation for humanity by God.  We are to live in a manner worthy of Christ.  We are to walk, live, in this newness of life (see Romans 6: 1 – 11).  This newness of life is  itself to work further holiness within the Christian.

Now, let’s go to another level — perhaps even a frightening level.  We’ll turn to the words of Christ himself:  “Therefore you shall be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).  This is a high calling, but is it just a semitic hyperbole, meaning an intended exaggeration?  I doubt it.  The above verse in St. Matthew’s gospel seals the entirety of Jesus’ teaching that follows upon the Beattitudes (“Blessed are the poor in spirit…”).  In this fifth chapter of St. Matthew, Christ teaches about being salt and light to a decayed and darkened world, anger, and love for enemies.  To live as the blessed of Christ means the disciple is to attain this high standard of holiness of life.  So then, if we live as the blessed of Christ such perfection is ours.

We need to be very honest.  We all fall far short of this shocking goal.  We are all patients in the hospital that is the Church.  Here, in Christ, and also in relationship with the Church, we receive the cures which are to lead to such completion.  However, in this honesty, we are really to try for purification — a cleansing from the corruption (death) and sin which still reside in us.  Truly, such purification only comes by the working of Christ and the Holy Spirit in us as we by faith cooperate with them as we live in the  sacramental practices of the Church.  And it is in the Church that we receive by faith the holy and spiritual medicines of the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist.

Let me now speak of personal experience as I have participated by faith in these two sacraments.  As an evangelical I loved Christ and truly wanted to follow him.  As an evangelical I hated the corruption and sin that resided in me.  As an evangelical I witnessed God’s working in my life.  Yet, there were sins and habits that seemed unbreakable and would always plague me.  I doubted that they would ever be overcome.  Then, while in an evangelical seminary, I was confronted by the truth that the bread and wine of the Eucharist become the Body and Blood of Christ.  I left evangelicalism for a liturgical and sacramental tradition where I would live in and by the Eucharist and Confession.  And it is then, and now as an Eastern Orthodox Christian and priest, that Christ’s victories began to be manifested.  By participating in Confession I have seen temptations crushed, and of course have been cleansed by the work of God with each confession.  With each confession each sin is weakened.  And by living within the Eucharist, my union in Christ is strengthened, my sins are forgiven, I am cleansed, and the victory of Christ over sin and death is given to me to work in me.  Though I have much, much further to go to be purified, ever slowly spiritual progress is made.

Also, let me be clear about some other matters.  Differing measures of faith are given to Christians:  “…to each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him” (Rom 12: 3b)  Hence, some will yield five talents for one given, others two talents for one given.  Such is the working of the Spirit.  Whatever measure we are given — we are to strive to meet the fullest possibility of the measure of faith given to us.

Additionally, such salvation does not come without struggle, labor, and even failure on many an occasion.  Such salvation comes with our cooperation with the working of God in us — only as we yield our will to the will of God will corruption be replaced with the life of Christ in us.  St. Paul writes of this:

Now, may the God of peace himself sanctify (agiasai, optative aspect) completely, and keep (teretheie, optative aspect) your spirit, soul, and body sound and blameless in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ.  The one who is calling you is faithful, and he will do this (1 Thes 5: 23, 24).

The optative aspect of a Greek verb implies a hope, or a wish for something to come into being.  Thus, the need of our deliberate cooperation with God for the reality to take place in us.  Let me add this:  we need not despair of salvation!  Christ is our Savior, not we ourselves.  God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit is for us, and is working in us.

The Ascension of the Lord

The Ascension of the Lord

God never gives up on us no matter how many failures we experience.  Here, I add the words of the Psalmist:  “As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear him.  For he knows our frame and remembers that we are dust” (LXX Psalm 102: 14, MT 103:  14).

Further, to consider the intent of our Lord for our salvation, we should contemplate the Ascension of Jesus.  Here, he is in his glorified resurrection body.  In him is contained all of humanity and all that exists in union with that glorification.  Jesus and all ascend to the eternity of the Kingdom of God — full and complete, pure and perfect.

In conclusion, let’s keep this simple prayer in our minds and on our lips:  “Oh God, have mercy on me and cleanse me a sinner!”

In Christ,
Fr. Irenaeus

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