Editor’s Note: Following the outline established by the 2005 Jesus Still Lead On study guide, we are sharing different aspects of The Ground of the Unity, one of the worldwide Moravian Church’s key doctrinal statement, in each 2016 issue of The Moravian. This month, we’ll discuss A Church of Sinners and Personal Belief.
Both the Ground of the Unity and The Moravian Covenant for Christian Living are available on www.moravian.org. We covered the Covenant throughout 2015.
Thanks to Dr. Craig Atwood and the editors of Jesus Still Lead 0n for this material. If you are interested in obtaining the entirety of Jesus Still Lead On, please contact the IBOC or visit store.moravian.org. —Mike Riess, editor, the Moravian magazine
A Church of Sinners
In the light of divine grace, we recognize ourselves to be a Church of sinners. We require forgiveness daily, and live only through the mercy of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. He redeems us from our isolation and unites us into a living Church of Jesus Christ.
Here we come to one of the central teachings of the Moravian Church. Christians, unlike many people, know that we are sinners. It is because of God’s free gift of redemption that we recognize the full extent of our sinfulness. At times, this recognition does not feel like grace, but what it means is that we can look at ourselves honestly and without self-justification precisely because we know that we are loved with an infinite love. This is not a call to condemn others because of their sinfulness but to recognize that our redemption is real. We do not need to hide from God or from our own true nature because we know that we are of infinite worth to God.
Those who proclaim their own righteousness are trapped by their own need to appear righteous, but those who trust in the mercy of God have the courage to show mercy to others. We are a church of sinners, and that knowledge acts as a hedge against our human tendency to condemn others for the sins that we long to commit. Because we know that we need forgiveness daily, we can be forgiving to our fellow Christians and all of God’s children. In Moravian teaching, a church that is not forgiving is not really a church. This does not mean that we simply accept and condone sin. It is because we are forgiven that we can see our sins and strive to overcome them, knowing that perfection is unattainable.
A good summary of Moravian teaching is found in the line “He redeems us from our isolation and unites us into a living Church of Jesus Christ.” Redemption is a matter of being called out from the loneliness of self-righteousness; from the alienation of fear; from the bleakness of hopelessness; from the segregation of sin. Sin, selfishness, fear, and despair leave us strangers to ourselves and others. Like Adam and Eve, we try to hide our shame and flee from our true selves, but Christ seeks us out to bring us back into the true community. He does not make us perfect but joins us together with others into a life-giving community of grace. Moravians understand the Church to be a living community where no one is left alone and forlorn. One of the old Moravian litanies prayed “may no one need to eat his morsel alone.”
- How does it feel to say that we are a church of sinners? Does this sound like the church you know?
- How does it affect the way you treat others when you admit to yourself that you are a sinner saved by grace?
- How do you understand the relationship of forgiveness and the call to live a moral life?
- Have you ever experienced being redeemed from isolation? Can you tell the story?
- How should the Church deal with sinners?
The belief of the Church is effected and preserved through the testimony of Jesus Christ and through the work of the Holy Spirit. This testimony calls each individual personally, and leads each one to the recognition of sin and to the acceptance of the redemption achieved by Christ.
The previous section was the “belief of the Church,” which means that it focused on the profession of faith of the Church, not just individuals in the Church. In 1981, a section on personal belief was added to stress the importance of individual commitment. This statement in the Ground of the Unity tries to keep two very important truths in balance. One is our firm conviction that humans are not in charge of the Church, and that God is not subject to human definitions of truth. It is the testimony of Jesus Christ expressed in the gospels and the on-going witness of the Holy Spirit that are the foundations of our belief, not our own futile efforts at understanding the mysteries of God. Therefore we are humble in our expressions of faith. Moravians do not set up elaborate doctrinal systems and rigid confessions of faith that act as barriers to individuals who are called by God.
We also understand that each person stands individually before God and is responsible for his or her own actions. Responsibility is a keynote of Moravian doctrine. It is not enough to experience conversion and “wash away your sins” without acknowledging the harm that you have caused others. In connection with what was earlier stated in the Ground of the Unity, this recognition of sin is a life-long process, not a matter of a single emotional moment of repentance. Honest recognition of one’s own sinfulness is not the end of the story, however. There is also the importance of accepting for oneself the redemption that has already been achieved by Christ. Acceptance of redemption simply means believing in the deepest recesses of one’s heart and soul that God has purchased you from sin and death; that you are loved with an infinite love that cannot be erased. According to Moravian teaching, we do not save ourselves, nor do we save others, but we are saved by Christ. The moment of our salvation was a Friday afternoon nearly 2000 years ago.
- What is the “testimony of Jesus Christ”?
- How do you think the Holy Spirit works in the Church and in the world?
- What does it mean to recognize your sins? How does this relate to the Gospel?
- Is this important? Why or why not?
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