Summary: There is, in fact, something in our nature that yearns for the divine, that longs for goodness and beauty and truth. Original sin has wounded us, but only our own deliberate actions can spiritually kill us.
Thursday of 2nd Week in Lent 2018
“More tortuous than all else is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it?” If any Scripture verse summarizes the view of the Protestant reformers about the nature of humans, this one from Jeremiah must be it. The RSV renders it starkly: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” Luther and other reformers “articulate[d] the meaning of this passage by using Augustine’s description of sin as “pride and despair.” ‘“Scripture’, Luther tells us, ‘describes man as so curved in upon himself that he uses not only physical but even spiritual goods for his own purposes and in all things seeks only himself’ [Luther’s Works 25:345] In another passage, he is “over the top”: “if we would drive away our one worst enemy, who does us the most harm, we would have to kill ourselves, for we have no worse enemy than our own heart.” [Luther: Wittenberg Sermon 4] For his proof text, he uses this line from the prophet Jeremiah. Calvin raised the ante even further, saying that the human heart or will is “bad beyond recovery.” To him is attributed the teaching that humans are “totally depraved,” although Protestant theologians disagree about what he meant. He wrote: “The will is so utterly vitiated and corrupted in every part as to produce nothing but evil" [Institutes, Bk. II, Chapter II, Para. 26]. Calvin even teaches that those who have been justified by Christ “cannot perform one work which, if judged on its own merits, is not deserving of condemnation” (Institutes, Bk. III, Ch. 9, Para. 9).
Now the original text of Jeremiah should best be translated “the human heart is very sick.” Original sin, that condition we inherit just by being born human, has injured us in our minds and in our hearts. Modern science confirms it. Those who have succumbed to evil habits, who are steeped in vice, actually show changes in their brains. They rewire themselves so that they believe they are doing good, even when they are hurting themselves and others all the time. That’s why those who are most vocal about making evil behavior legal are also working to make certain the Church cannot preach against such behavior. They will only be satisfied when we start teaching that evil is good and good is evil. This, of course, we cannot do. But, frankly, such activists for evil are unconsciously following in ways he didn’t intend John Calvin’s logic. “If we cannot do good, then let’s have some fun going to hell and take as many people with us as we can.”
Now that’s just depressing. So let’s look at the truth about humans through the lens of Scripture. Yes, our hearts are sick, and we cannot be justified and attain the presence of God without His grace. But it is possible to act justly purely on a natural level. Our nature is not totally corrupt. St. John tells us that those who act justly are just. They are not always pretending. There is, in fact, something in our nature that yearns for the divine, that longs for goodness and beauty and truth. Original sin has wounded us, but only our own deliberate actions can spiritually kill us.