Depression, Sin & Self-Reformation

Depression, Sin & Self-Reformation

One of the dominate features of pietism – that methodology which mainly concerns itself with the interior of the Christian life, or how Christians live – is the penchant for emphasizing the behavioral effects of sin (morals) at the near exclusion of the corporate effects of sin (state). Obviously, how we are (morals) is being transformed in the present, but it is equally true that what we are (state) will be finally and immediately transformed in the future. By grace there is victory in both places – here and there. You might say that pietism, as a general rule, focuses on here and not there. While it fully confesses the concept of depravity on the individual level, it pays little attention to the universal consequence of Adam’s disobedience upon his posterity. On the other hand, reformed theology (covenant framework) pays equal attention to the universal “misery” of mankind. Our world is irreparably ruined. An overarching theme, therefore, in the reformed world is redemption from this greater wreckage. State precedes act. (Genesis 6:5) On the other hand, these universal realities of fallen humanity, the shared effects of sin and our final deliverance go missing as central themes in most evangelical literature and sermons. Within pietism “deliverance” is another word for escape. Within the confessional world “deliverance” is another word for doxology. Pietism by nature is pragmatic and not dogmatic. Practical and not theological. You hear mainly of what one must do, but little about what will be done about what one cannot do. All attention is paid to present behavior and very little attention paid to a final deliverance. Within pietism the big picture goes unnoticed.

Typically, pietism emerges within Christianity as a reaction to hyper-orthodoxy (overemphasis on doctrine). As it arrives on the scene the pendulum swings the opposite direction – from doctrine to practice. Those broader reformed & confessional categories that “chalk the field” of the Christian life are erased. This is a primary reason why American evangelicalism (a pietistic movement) is all over the road theologically. It is the same reason why American evangelicalism is ignorant of the important category of representative theology (Adam) and, therefore, perceives Christianity through a therapeutic lens. Obviously, hyper-orthodoxy has its own set of problems and needed corrections. But, American evangelicalism has never been in danger of hyper-orthodoxy. Evangelicalism is the pendulum swing. Our issue is not hyper-orthodoxy, but hyper-sanctification. You need only walk into a Christian bookstore or survey evangelical sermon titles for evidence. The focus is ubiquitous.

In pietism sin is defined and categorized almost exclusively in behavioral terms. There is little sympathy for those inherent effects of sin with which the believer contends over the entirety of their life. Yet, any honest reader of the Bible would admit that certain maladies associated with our “fallen-ness” are only remedied in the resurrection. (1 Corinthians 15:50) While all sin results from disobedience (Adam), not all “sin” is an act of disobedience (state.) Sin is also a state in which we live and breathe. (Ephesians 2:1-3) In this sense, sin is more permeating than we imagine. It is not always a matter of personal rebellion against the standard of God. It is also merely a matter of being human and of having been birthed into the guilt of our forefather. (Romans 5:12ff) We live within the fallout zone of mankind’s idolatry. It is a jagged sphere of pain and suffering where all is distorted. Sin has permanently effected our entire constitution (mind, will, emotion, human relations, etc.) and our very existence. (Romans 3:10-18) Our state is such and our struggle so subterranean; our only hope is God’s promise of ultimate deliverance. Our final hope lies outside of us. Hope is out there on the horizon.

In contrast to this broader reality, pietism possesses a myopic view of sin. It is mainly something from which we must repent (transgression), or curb (mortification), or correct (therapy) and rarely seen a general condition in which we exist (state). Obviously, all of these categories are real. But, whenever there is a failure to acknowledge this latter category (state), Christianity is subsumed by the false ambition of self-improvement. People and life are meant to be fixed and success is measured exclusively in degrees of self-reformation. Inevitably, within this world, believers live under the relentless pressure of personal improvement. (Acts 15:10) Whether it be the pragmatic (Joel Osteen), or legalistic (fundamentalism) branches of pietism the message is exactly the same – self-help. A lack of victory is always due to a lack of effort, or a failure to apply the right combination of spiritual techniques. The concept of resting in God’s final victory over our very state (within the battle over sin) is omitted from the narrative.

Pietism inadvertently holds out a false hope that runs contrary to this greater reality. Long-term, pietism pulls the believer back under the condemnation of the Law by measuring one’s standing before God by one’s advancement in behavioral modification. (Colossians 2:20-23) When the believer is faced with a true awareness of the depth of their sin (state), this paradigm only results in frustration. In the more severe forms of pietism (fundamentalism), should a believer fall back under the gravitational pull of the flesh, salvation itself can be called into question. In pietism assurance is not the essence of the Christian life (8:23-25), but the pursuit. And yet, biblically speaking, fighting against this pull is the norm of the Christian life and not the exception. Clearly, there are some effects of sin that defy mortification.

The Apostle Paul emphasized both realities – state and transgression – and in that order. Preachers are usually bent in one or the other direction. We too often miss Paul’s balance. The classic division of Pauline literature between doctrine and ethics is foreign to Paul. It’s more appropriate to see the two dimensions as corollaries rather than dichotomies. One (transgression/behavior) is the logical consequence of the other (state/guilt). There is a reason Ephesians chapters 4-6 follow 1-3. The one (state) explains the other (morals) without eclipsing it. It was this equilibrium that created both the call to repentance (behavior) and an emphasis on ultimate deliverance (state) in Paul’s preaching. It is also why the apostle was sympathetic toward the Christian plight and avoided the tendency toward cold moralism and judgementalism.

Obviously, men sin because they are born with the rebellious spirit inherited from Adam. That is – we are not victims of our circumstances. We are responsible. As a result, the tendency of sin must be rebuked and fought against. But, sin is also a general condition. In this sense we are victims. We are victims of our general context. We are the victims of Adam’s sin. We are the victims of death in all its ugly forms. We are victims of the curse and its effects upon our human frame. We carry the weight of sin around in our persons. It is our misery. Paul acknowledged this in his own life and longed for believer’s final deliverance. The resurrection of Christ is the assurance of this final rescue. There are some effects of sin that will not be fixed in this lifetime. (Romans 7:24) This awareness was the touchstone of Paul’s compassion towards the redeemed but fallen within the church.

When Adam sinned, not only was his personal guilt and consequent corruption passed down to his posterity (behavior), but all of mankind’s existence was distorted (condition). When human beings are born into this world they are immediately at odds with the Law of God (guilt), bent in their natures (corruption) and held captive by sin’s ruthless influence (condition). We are trapped under sin’s dominion until we are united to Christ by faith and rescued from this merciless captivity. (Romans 6:1-5) Paul describes redemption as a transfer of “dominions.” (Romans 6:9) Outside of Christ, sin leveraged the law’s incessant torment of our consciences to cower us before the disfavor of God in the present. At the same time, it used the threat of eternal death and the final judgment to fill our hearts with dread about the future. We were entombed in Adam’s fallen world. Now that the righteous standard of God has been met by the obedience of Christ (law), His wrath has been satisfied in Christ’s death (sin) and death defeated by his resurrection (life) – we are free. Sin no longer has claim to us. Its accusations and threats against us are baseless. Largely, sanctification is living – with increasing awareness – within this reality. We are free. And, we come more and more to believe and find joy in this freedom.

But, this does not mean the believer will never sin, or ceases to be sinful, no matter how much pressure is applied to behavior. Any other view of the Christian life (perfectionism) results from hyper-pietism. The mere suggestion of a sinless existence in the Christian is an absurdity. In truth, all forms of pietism have an inherent thread of perfectionism. If behavior is the focus then perfect behavior is the ultimate goal. To lesser degrees this emphasis shows up in pietism broadly as sustained capacities for inner peace or moral purity. Obviously, we will sin (and do) throughout the entirety of our Christian life. Biblically speaking, this ongoing sinful struggle is not in doubt. It is assumed. This is exactly why Paul felt the need to contrast the “Spirit of Adoption” over against the spirit of “fear.” If it were not for the Holy Spirit reminding us of the benefits of Christ by faith our sin would cause us to despair of hope. We are called sons, but often feel like enemies. The Spirit mediates with news of ongoing peace. While we wage war against sin in this life we need not doubt that God remains right with us. Our justification before God by faith in Christ does not mean our rescue from the broader corporate effects of sin is immediate. We remain bent. There are still tendencies and dispositions that resulted of the first Adam that find their terminus in glorification. Until then, we journey by faith. Hope rests on the horizon. (1 Corinthians 15:53-55)

Practically speaking, not allowing the tension of these categories to exist results in a rather unsympathetic and moralistic view of the Christian life. If we do not keep the general condition of our human frame in view, we will inevitably direct the faith of the Christian inward toward their own capacity and not outward toward God’s promises. Additionally, our counsel will begin to resemble a Christianized form of therapy (fix) and not a Christian view of life (faith). This is exactly why the pietistic culture is inherently formulaic and legalistic. (Matthew 6:1ff) Since sin is mainly a behavior to be modified – the Christian life is strictly mechanical. The Christian life is so finely codified a specific formula is available for every potential form of sin. Simply apply and repeat until the tendency is gone. Of course, under this economy the believer – continuing to struggle with sin – can only despair in light of “failure.” But, whenever the larger category of human sinfulness is brought into view this overly simplistic approach to Christian life begins to break down. What we need to recognize is that the battle against sin (transgression) is lived within the greater perspective of God’s compassion towards our existence (state). Repentance and sympathy meet in this balance. (Mark 2:17)

Take, for example, the potential of clinical depression among Christians. Everyday numbers of Christians suffer depression to greater or lesser degrees. In certain cases it is possible for a born again Christian to be paralyzed by the effects of clinical depression. Depression may be brought on by any number of factors such as trauma, stress, or chronic physical pain. Or, it may result, not from one event, but the accumulative effects of numerous events over a period of time. At other times, there is no explanation for its presence. Some people are simply predisposed to melancholy and fight against it their entire lives. Generally, the effects of depression are both physical and emotional. This is why anxiety often accompanies depression. The ability for reasoned responses to normal life circumstances is lost under the duress of certain stressors. Panic sets in when there is no apparent reason to panic. Since we are not Christo-Platonist we realize sin has affected our immaterial part in the same way it affected our material part. Our emotions are as fallen as our bodies. It is reasonable, therefore, to assume that part of our struggle would exist in the arena of emotional health. How could it not? Depression is part of this our fallen reality.

But, more to the point, depression is not the result of personal disobedience. Unless, of course, it’s the result of God’s chastening for unrepentant sin. But, most often, people simply become depressed due to a prolonged exposure to some situation that wears down their physical and emotional strength. People don’t choose (transgression) to be depressed. They become depressed (condition). Additionally, depression itself is not strictly a spiritual problem. That is, it is not the result of some spiritual failure. There was no wrong done. Life happens. This is where the distinction between transgression and state becomes essential. Pietism’s tendency to over-spiritualize, or moralize a normal life experience like depression creates a peculiar bondage for the sufferer. In a situation like depression suggesting that relief is tied to the discovery of some hidden spiritual reality, to one’s ability to think their way out of it, degrees of contrition, or to a hyper-formulaic application of Scripture is more akin to medieval superstition than biblical spirituality. Depression, like grief, owns the emotional capacity of its victims. Obviously, we are spiritual creatures and how we respond to depression is a spiritual event. But, depression itself does not necessarily have a spiritual cause. The depressed person is not depressed because they disobeyed some specific command, or because they are inadequate. The spiritual moment within depression is a struggle of faith. Will we trust in God despite our inability to see the world around us clearly? What a depressed believer is lacking most is hope. This hope can only be found in God’s triumph over what’s underneath depression. You may call a depressed person to repent, but you’ve no clue what your doing. If repentance would relieve their darkness, there would be no hesitation. But in depression faith and not contrition is most often the need.

Let’s imagine for a moment a Christian who is a soldier in active duty. He has spent months on the frontline of active combat in the Middle East. While overseas he prays and reads his Bible everyday. And, at the same time, everyday he is exposed to the horrors of war. He sees things no human being should see. After returning home, the effects of Post Traumatic Disorder begin to set in. Among the symptoms are depression and anxiety. Let’s say he’s your close friend. In a moment of honesty opens up to you about his pain. What do you tell him? Do you tell him that his depression is a sin and he needs to repent? No. Of course not. That would be ridiculous and unkind. His depression is not a spiritual failure. It’s reasonable physical, mental and emotional reaction to the unbelievable traumatic experience of war. The absence of sympathy in this situation would be a form of unspeakable cruelty. Such is the typical response within pietism, “Get better.” This mixture of categories is a fatal flaw of this system and where pietism fails in its view of the Christian life. There is simply no action to take. Trust, time, compassion and common sense are the needs. There are seasons when everyday life takes its toll on good and godly people. It does not take active combat to wear a human being down.

Is depression a sin (transgression)? No. Is depression an effect of sin upon the human frame (condition) brought on by certain aspects of our fallen existence? Yes. In a certain sense, given the severe cosmological situation into which the fallen human being is thrust, depression is inevitable. We are all objects of God’s wrath from birth. We are born into a prison of torment from which there is no hope for escape (outside of Christ.) We are constantly tormented by our own lusts. We are at odds with other human beings as we fight each other for self. We are unable to worship God exclusively. We are unable to perceive life correctly. We are faced with an endless stream of death and destruction. We contend daily against the effects of the curse. We are all in the process of dying. Who wouldn’t be depressed? Life has a way of exhausting the soul. Even the believer can collapse under the weight of such pressure. But, such moments do not result from a lack of faithfulness on our part. They are the result of being human. The myth of the “victorious Christian life” popular within pietism would have us believe the most faithful Christians experience less of the struggle. It’s hard to describe how contrary to real Christianity this is. If the above sentiment were true, Christ himself would not qualify.


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