By Fr. Gavin Dunbar
One of our cherished notions is that our virtues make us acceptable to God – which is a bit like thinking a few hundred dollars are going to make a difference, when your credit cards are maxed out. Moreover, the virtues of the Pharisees were to them occasions for self-righteous pride, envy, and anger. Still, it is very hard for us to accept that we are deeply flawed. Yet watching criminals being led to execution, John Bradford said, “There, but for the grace of God, go I”. The best among us have the same instincts, the same impulses, as the worst criminal – we simply have the benefits of better socialization, to restrain our worst instincts, and to channel them in socially-acceptable ways. But is this grounds for self-congratulation and self-exoneration? When a murderer goes before a judge, who cares if he wipes his nose? God does not grade on a curve. We are not as bad as we could be – but that does not mean we are good. At the core, sin is not just the bad things we do, or the good things we have not done. Sin is rejection of God, it is ignoring God in the world he made – it’s rebelling against him by living without reference to him – it’s even trying to live a good life in our own strength: that too is sin, the deadly sin of spiritual pride. Moreover, sin is not something we choose or don’t choose; we are by nature inclined to sin; indeed, apart from God’s grace, it is not possible for us not to sin. We are damaged goods. We don’t start out where Adam started, in the harmony of the garden, able to make good choices. No, we start where he left off, with the consequences of his bad choice; expelled from paradise and barred from returning by the angel with the flaming sword of God’s just wrath against sin. We are damaged goods. That is why we begin as we do on Ash Wednesday, acknowledging our solidarity with Adam, hearing the same words that God said to Adam, now said to us – Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. In the ashes imposed on Ash Wednesday, this knowledge is literally rubbed into our faces, because in this knowledge our deliverance from sin begins. For Christ has taken into himself the sword of God’s wrath against our sin – he has fully satisfied the demands of God’s justice on our behalf – and the way to God is now open, for those who trust in him, and his righteousness, and not their own, for their salvation. As long as we cling to the idea that we are not so bad, not so unhealthy, not so sick, we will never go to the doctor; we will never take the treatment; we will never get well. But as long as we cling to our own righteousness, we will never make the righteousness of Christ our own. Christ is ready to clothe us with his own perfect righteousness; the Holy Spirit is ready to renew us from the inside out – but first we have to take off the filthy rags that we call righteousness. Let us go as we began, in humility, honesty, and hope.
The Reverend Gavin Dunbar is the Rector of St. John’s Church in Savannah, Georgia.
This article was originally published in The Parish Paper of St. John’s Church (March 5, 2017). Reproduced with permission.