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'There is no health in us'?

Sam reflects on these words from the confession in BCP liturgy, which are also used in Morning Prayer

Every Morning Prayer, we confess:

“We have left undone those things that we ought to have done;

and we have done those things that we ought not to have done;

and there is no health in us.”

In our therapeutic age, this final clause seems catastrophically harsh. Certainly a tad awkward for the newcomers at our seeker-friendly services. Surely such words belittle our self-esteem and damage our mental health?

What does it mean to confess “there is no health in us?”

What would we lose if we deleted this line?

Article 9, “Of Original, or Birth, Sin,” sheds clarifying light. It includes the sentence, “Original sin is . . . seen in the fault (vitium) and corruption (depravatio) which is found in the nature of every person who is naturally descended from Adam.” Article 9 is saturated with medical terminology.[1] It stresses humanity’s inherited sin-sickness. For example, “fault” is vitium, from which we get the English derivation “to vitiate” (to make defective; to disease). It shares the same root as vieo (to twist). Hence vitium is something twisted, defective, flawed, blemished—in this case, the human nature of all those born naturally (all except Christ, cf. Article 15). Like a stick of Blackpool rock, human nature east of Eden is shot through with “corruption”—depravatio (a distorting, perverting, twisting)—from which we get the word “depravity.” Rightly channelling Scripture, human depravity is total in extent not degree (we’re not as bad as we could be).[2] Yet as sin-sick sinners, we are still corrosively depraved in mind (Eph 4:17–18), will (Rom 6:16–17), emotions (Titus 3:3); conscience (Titus 1:5); body (Rom 8:10); spirit/soul (1 Thess 5:23); desires (James 1:14–15).

This corruption runs deeper than sin as merely willed agency. Sin is more than “personal, wilful rebellion” or “Shove off God; I’m in charge; No to your rule.” To press home the depth of our moral depravity, Article 9 uses the language of concupiscence (concupiscentiam). As a technical term within the Article, concupiscence denotes those disordered desires or impulses that operate at the level of pre-conscious consent. Concupiscence, according to Calvin, is a burning furnace or bubbling spring (Inst. 1.5.12). It represents the disordered impulses of “when a man is tickled by any desire at all against the law of God” (Inst 3.3.10). Calvin’s final few words are worth exploring. Concupiscence is the very impulse towards ends/goals that are not of God or from God. As such, concupiscence runs against God and against nature, which includes our neighbours, our societies, and even our own hearts. Thus, if we instinctively desire any ends that are against our created natures (i.e., against that which is naturally good for us), such desires are not only bad for us, but, according to Article 9, inherently sinful. It doesn’t matter if our will is engaged or not—or if we consciously “give in to temptation” or not—temptations from within, in the form of concupiscent desires, are inherently sinful.[3] Hence the lament, “there is no health in us.”

Dare we dismiss this corruption as the unhappy lot of the unregenerate, Article 9 continues, “this infection (depravatio) within man’s nature persists even within those who are regenerate (renatis).” Article 9 assures us that while there is no condemnation because of Christ, our sin “infection” remains (note the repetition of depravatio). The penalty of sin is paid for by Christ, the power of sin is broken through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, yet the presence of sin persists in our concupiscent disordered desires, which remain a sick offense to God. As “born again believers” (renatis et credentibus),[4] it is not that we happen to sin consciously from time to time. There is an enemy within that is a sinful offence to God. In short, I’m not a sinner because I sin; I sin because I am a sinner.

To extend the medical analogy, in Christ we are no longer declared spiritually “dead” in the morgue. We are indeed spiritually “alive” in Christ, yet we still need critical care in the ICU. Yes, we are “getting better” by the Spirit’s gospel medicine, but we do not yet have a “clean bill of health”—nor will we until the new creation. Any present “health” in the regenerate is an extrinsic gift. Thus, I must confess, due to my indwelling sin-sickness, “there is no health” in me, coming from within me. Or as the start of the Litany enforces eight times, we are “miserable sinners.” Wretched, pitiable, lamentable, sick. Or as Cranmer bewailed, our concupiscence is “the great infirmity of ourselves.”

So what? Why does Article 9 stress the seriousness of our inherited and indwelling corruption? Is this a “good” thing? The Roman Catholic Church denied (and still denies) that concupiscence is sinful. A desire only becomes sinful when my self-serving will is engaged (sound familiar!?). However, even if James 1:14–15 were opaque, if concupiscence is not sinful, then a door is left ajar for me to produce a little self-justifying righteousness. As long as I make good choices (which I’m able to do because I’m not really that corrupt—or if I get myself into the right environment), I won’t necessarily and always need Christ’s righteousness. Yet Article 9’s insistence that concupiscence is sin, ensures that I am very aware that I need—and always need—the imputed righteousness of Christ and the healing, sanctifying work of his Spirit. Part of what’s at stake is the glory of Christ in salvation. Recognising that “there is no health in us” puts the spotlight firmly on Christ—and him alone. Thus, article 9 is very “good” for us. It humbles our puffed-up self-esteem, and it forces us onto the free and efficacious grace of God. We always need healing from the Great Physician. Good news—he never goes on strike!

Footnotes [1] The legal concept of Original Guilt (culpa) is affirmed in Article 2. [2] Moreover, it is vital to affirm that our total depravity is moral not metaphysical. The image of God is defaced not destroyed. The alternative runs the risk of reifying sin, undermining our doctrine of humanity (am I really human like Adam?), salvation (is Christ really the “Last Adam”? If so, then what’s my essential connection with Christ?), God (if sin is a metaphysical substance, then does God have a rival?), eschatology (how can I become sinless without ceasing to be human?). [3] Note that Christ’s impeccability ensures that he is free from concupiscent desires, and so all temptation from within. Absence of concupiscence does not preclude Christ from representing humanity, nor does it deny Heb 4:15. Rather, Christ has plumbed the depths of all temptation from without. [4] The English translation in the BCP goes with “them that believe and are baptised.” This seems odd, especially given renatis is rendered as “regenerated” in the preceding sentence. We can save the conversation about baptismal regeneration for another day…

_____ Sam Ashton is the minister at St Paul's Hadley Wood. The Latimer Trust recently supported Sam for his PhD, which will be published next month by T&T Clark. Check it out here.



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