Advent: Understanding Sin, Understanding Salvation

By Christian Bergmann

I have recently finished reading Georges Bernanos’ classic novel, The Diary of a Country Priest.

It is about a young, inexperienced priest who lives a fairly ascetical life, struggling against the apathy and boredom of his new parish in France. Bernanos was a descendent of Saint Joan of Arc’s brother. This is a novel unlike any other: it is richer than any work of theology you will lay your hands on, no doubt.

At one point in this fictional diary, the priest puts his finger on a common misunderstanding when it comes to sin, one that struck me deeply.

He remarked, in passing, that we often think of sin as disobedience to God’s laws. Whilst this is true, it is as strange as saying that a disease is acting in disobedience to the body’s laws. If we were to think that, we would fundamentally misunderstand the nature of disease itself. Doctors treat their patients individually in order to understand the nature of the sickness and work out a remedy. In fact, the nature of some diseases, like a tumour, is that they cover the organ and mimic the organ’s shape, but in distorted form.

This got me thinking about the Incarnation.

Why, oh why, did the Son of God need to take on human form?

Sometimes I think we have a very simplistic view of 'salvation'. We trot out the narrative as if we can prepackage it and keep it easily digestible: human beings sinned, they needed forgiveness, God took on the punishment due to sin for us so that we could be forgiven and go to heaven.

But if forgiveness in an abstract sense was all we needed, it doesn't make any sense of why Jesus needed to take on flesh and become a man.

If forgiveness of our disobedience to God’s laws was all that was needed, then God could have pronounced a word of forgiveness from heaven. With a single word, a single utterance, we would have been forgiven and been given a clean slate.

But there has to be more to it than that, surely.

Like the analogy of the disease, sometimes we fail to understand the nature of sin. It is, fundamentally, a kind of sickness. Yes, we do it freely, but the more we feed it, the more we engage in it, the less freedom we have to escape it. In the Gospel of John, Jesus points us to this reality by saying, "Whoever commits a sin is a slave to sin" (John 8:34). Human nature was not simply in rebellion against God: human nature became corrupted by a disease. And we fed it. We keep feeding it, allowing it to grow and take over our lives, leaving human nature in a distorted form, imprisoned within a kind of tumour.

This is a condition that requires more than simply forgiveness.

It requires healing.

It requires a remedy.

The only way to heal the human condition was for the Son of God to take on human form and fulfil the human vocation: to be the human being that we never could be. And, moreover, to offer us sacramental participation in his very life. Thus, the more we participate sacramentally in his life - through baptism, the Eucharist, through Confession - the more we are healed from this diseased condition.

This is something that Saint Anselm of Canterbury talks about, too.

Human beings are like diamonds in the mud. We are created in the image of God, but that image has fallen and needs restoring. The only way to do that is to bend down and pick it out of the mud yourself. That's what Jesus did. In the Incarnation, which we celebrate every Christmas, he took on our humanity and raised it from its fallen condition. Because only that could solve the problem of sin.