Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A Hymn To God the Father

--John Donne (1573-1631)

WILT Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done;
For I have more.

Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sins their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallow'd in a score?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done;
For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I've spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by Thyself that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as He shines now and heretofore:
And having done that, Thou hast done;
I fear no more.

Theologians tell us we're guilty of "original sin," not that we sin in original or novel ways--most of our sinning is common-place, banal, and boring--but that we're sinful in our origins, sinful from the day our mothers conceived us.[1] We're hurled into the world like a curveball with a hard spin on it, with a predilection to break down and away.

Furthermore, we're said to be "totally depraved," an unpleasant phrase that implies that we’re always on the wrong side of the law. Nonsense. We’re made in the image of God, capable of extraordinary acts of altruism and heroism. But sin and selfishness do touch the totality of our being. If sin were blue we would be some shade of blue all over.

But, though sin is systemic and our sins (the manifestation of our inherent sinfulness) are many, and though sin itself is inexcusable, it is not, thank God, unforgivable. Love has paid the price. Beyond the bad news of our habitual failure, there is the good news of God's amazing grace that has unreservedly forgiven and forgotten our most outrageous and oft-repeated transgressions. [2]

But what of the sin that lingers? I ask with Donne, "Wilt Thou forgive that sin through which I run, and do run still, though still I do deplore?" I lament with him: "When Thou hast done (forgiving), Thou hast not done, for I have more," i.e., I have a lot more sinning to do.

But God is not done, for there is no end to his mercy and forgiveness. Long ago, before we are born, before we did anything good or bad, our Lord paid for all our sins--those that were, those that are, and those that shall be. No matter what we have done, are doing, or will ever do, our sins are gone forever--replaced by Love that "covers a multitude of sins," even sin and guilt not yet acquired. Thus, we live, "by faith in future grace."[3]

Now, despite our false starts and failures, God is at work conforming some part of us to his likeness, making us his masterpiece, his work of fine art.[4 ] We can be confident of this: "He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion..." (Philippians 1:6). God is never in a hurry, but he does mean business, and someday, because he has done all, our battle with sin will be over--God will have "done"--and we will stand, without fear, "faultless before his glorious presence with great joy!"[5]

But, you ask, won’t this unqualified assurance lead to spiritual sloth? To the contrary, it draws us to long for greater holiness and to pray, an inexplicable but indispensable part of the process by which God completes us.[7]

And so I pray with David, God's better poet...

Finish what you started in me, God.
Your love is eternal--don't quit on me now.[6]


[1] Psalm 51:5
[2] Ephesians 1:7
[3] Theologian John Piper’s luminous phrase
[4] Paul says "We are (God's) poiema" (Ephesians 2:10), a word Plato and other Greek writers used for "a work of art."
[5] Jude 24
[6] Psalm 138:8 (The Message) The Hebrew text reads,

Yahweh will perfect that which concerns me;
Yahweh, your love is everlasting.
As for the work of your hands (me!)--do not give up (until the work is done).

[7] It’s worth noting that our Lord’s promises to unconditionally answer prayer are linked to “fruit,” i.e., the acquisition of Christ-like character. Cf., John 15:7 in context.

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