The Stain of Sin

Wine spilled on a carpet

The Stain of Sin

I have a nice Brooks Brothers shirt. The patter is subtle enough to work with a suit, yet looks good with a pair of jeans. It’s one of my favorite shirts. Except it has a couple stains that bother me. It’s been through the wash a couple times, but comes out with the same stains. The shirt is remains a great shirt, yet the stains ruin if for me. Everyone can see the stains; the shirt no longer looks good. It’s been ruined.

In the Orthodox Trisagion hymn is a prayer known as “O Heavenly King”, which goes like this:

O Heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of Truth,
Who are in all places and fill all things;
The Treasury of good things and the Giver of life:
Come and abide in us, cleanse us from every stain,
And save our souls, O Good One.

We pray for the Holy Spirit to cleanse us from every stain. This has its roots in a different conception of sin than we in the West are used to. The western concept of sin is in two parts. While we normally are concerned with the sins we commit (as we should be), the concept of Original Sin is that the guilt of Adam’s sin has been passed on to all of humanity. In other words, human nature itself was not simply corrupted, but actually changed. Thus, even if we had never committed any personal sin, we would still bear the guilt of Adam’s sin.

Think for a moment about my shirt. It is still made of the same fabric. The fit and finish are still the same. It has the same no wrinkle finish, and never needs ironing. It has those nasty stains, which affect the appearance of the shirt. Yet the stains are not part of the shirt, and do not change the essence of what it means to be a Brooks Brothers shirt. The stains are something extra, something that has corrupted the shirt, yet without affecting its essential nature.

For though thou wash thee with nitre, and take thee much soap, yet thine iniquity is marked before me, saith the Lord GOD. (Jer 2:22)

Here Jeremiah clearly references the idea of sin as a stain that cannot be removed with a simple washing. The stain remains, despite our best efforts. We need something more. And yet, even so, the idea of sin as a stain implies that while sin may injure us, damage us, make us less than we were meant to be, yet sin is something foreign, something other, something that comes from outside us. It adheres to us without becoming part of us.

Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. (Isa 1:18)

No matter how much I try, I cannot get rid of the stain of sin. And yet the Lord says that He can make them whiter, “as no fuller on earth can white them.” (Mar 9:3) In other words, our Lord can remove the stain of sin, leaving our essential human nature intact. Our Lord can return us to the Edenic state, a state of purity, a state of innocence, a state where we can commune with God “face to face”, as it were.

Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.

Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.

Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.

Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.

Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. (Ps 51:1-7)

This is a fascinating psalm, a psalm of repentance, written after David’s adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. Take a look at how David refers to his sin, and what he is asking of God. First, David asks God to “blot out my transgressions.” The best way to combat stains is to blot them up. Basically you apply a towel over the spill to absorb it. This works better than rubbing the stain, which has a tendency to spread the stain and push it further into the surface. Second, Daniel asks God to wash and cleanse him. David asks God to “purge him with hyssop”, which is part of the ceremonial cleansing made for people who had been cured of leprosy, and buildings that had been healed of a “plague of leprosy” (Lev 14). This purging with hyssop also has reference to the ashes of the red heifer (which had burned with cedar and hyssop), and was offered for “purification for sin”, as well as for cleansing from ceremonial uncleanness (Num 19). Finally, David asks God to wash him and make him whiter than snow, which reminds us of the passage from Isaiah, and also the transfiguration account in Mark.

The description of sin and its affect upon the human person is not done in one way. The idea of Original Sin fails to account for all the ways sin is discussed in the bible. In particular, the idea of sin as a stain upon the human person brings with it the idea of sin as something extrinsic to the human person, rather than being something essential to human nature.

Humanity and the Incarnation

Christ in Glory

Christ in Glory

Most of us misunderstand the Incarnation, because we have a faulty understanding of humanity, of what it means to be human. When we misunderstand the meaning of humanity, we don’t know what it means for God to become not only of us, but consubstantial with us according to His humanity, while remaining consubstantial with the Father and the Holy Spirit according to his divinity.

Archimandrite Justin Popovich, in a Christmas sermon entitled “Perfect God and Perfect Man”, writes of the Incarnation.

God is born on earth, and moreover He is born as a man: perfect God and perfect man–the unique God-man. And He has forever remained as the God-man both on earth and in heaven. Indeed, the God-man is the first perfect man on earth. Perfect man? Yes, because only in the God-man is man without sin, without evil, without death, totally filled with God, and thereby with all divine perfections.

 The God-man has demonstrated and proved this most convincingly: man is only a true man when he is completely united with God, and in everything and every way completely lives in God, thinks in God, feels in God, acts in God, is virtuous in God, is immortal in God, is eternal in God. Only and solely in God is man a man, a true man, a perfect man, a man in whom all the fullness of the Godhead lives.

For what purpose did God take upon himself the form of a servant? For what reason was He made in the likeness of our humanity? If we accept the western idea of substitutionary atonement, then God need not be consubstantial with us. In fact, the western idea of original sin, and the necessity that Christ be born without the guilt of original sin, means that the Christ could not have been “touched with the feeling of our infirmities”, nor could He have been “in all points tempted like as we are” (Heb 4:15). If humanity is contaminated by Original Sin, and if the Christ was born without Original Sin, then the humanity of Christ was something other than our humanity, and therefore Christ cannot be consubstantial with us according to His humanity.

Gregory of Nazianzus, in his Epistle 101 against the Apollinarians, describes the problem for us.

For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole.

Do you see the problem? If Christ was not fully one of us, if He did not assume the entirety of our human nature, then Christ’s work on the cross was for nothing, and we are still in our sins.

(To be continued)