destroying sin through the instrumentality of death

There is a whole lot in my paltry readings of Maximus the Confessor that I don’t understand. However, I continue, and Maximus rewards patience time and again.

Here’s a recent example. Maximus says that Jesus came to give human death a new purpose. He made death into a weapon that we can use against our own sin. This confused me a lot at first, so let me set up the theological background a little more.

Death is simply a natural result of sin. We sometimes read Genesis as if God proclaimed that death would be the punishment for sin. In fact, God was not “assigning a consequence” but simply pointing out a reality about life. Death is fair (or just) because it is a natural extension of sin. This is because sin is turning away from God who is the loving source of life.

Moreover, death became tied up with human nature because our first sin caught us all in bonds of pain and pleasure. Our first sin left us serving a vicious tyranny of the urgent, always fleeing a pain or pursuing a pleasure that seemed more near-at-hand than God’s presence. It became natural for humans to pursue anything but God, and mortality became a human characteristic. It is terrible to think of death as natural to those made in God’s image, but we all learn to see each other in this world as destined for death instead of God. Socrates takes it as an axiom that “man is mortal.”

Maximus also points out that death and suffering are merciful because they keep us from going too far off course while we wander between increasingly extreme fears of pain or desires for pleasure. Although death is merciful in a way, God did not impose death on us as either a kindness or a punishment (most fundamentally). Death is simply reality apart from life with God. As love and the source of life, God hates death.

Moving a step further, human death attacks the core of God’s purpose in creation. Humans were made uniquely to ensure that all creatures would enjoy and display God’s love. By sinning (turning from God to pursue another source of goodness), the image bearers of God tangled up their own natures with death itself, entrapped there by pain and pleasure. Instead of promoting and protecting life in all creation, God’s image became connected to death by our sin. God’s image brought death to the world.

To set up a little background, I’ve wandered from Maximus’ main point (and wandered into a few points of my own, no doubt). Maximus is focused on explaining exactly how salvation is accomplished by Jesus Christ within this situation. Because God’s image became connected to death by our sin and brought death to all creation, Maximus shows how Christ becomes a human and used human death as an ingenious weapon against sin. Maximus says that Jesus Christ “turned death from a weapon to destroy human nature into a weapon to destroy sin.” This attack on our sin gives us a new weapon and opens a way for the curse on all of creation to be undone. Christ surprised the devil and death itself by giving this new purpose to human death. By becoming human and repurposing death, God restored to humans a way to serve again as the image of God.

Maximus explains at length how this was possible. Christ fully took on our own human desires for pleasure and our fears of pain, all the realities of our sins, while remaining free from committing any sins of his own. Therefore, death was not a natural or just consequence for Christ. The normal purposes of death did not apply to Christ, and he was able to give death a surprising new purpose. I won’t go into further details, but this surprise move required all that Jesus Christ was (as fully God and fully human).

This noble use of death to restore life with God is full of profound encouragements and implications regarding how to suffer and to carry our own cross with Jesus Christ each day in this life, even into our own eventual deaths. Amazingly, Maximus claims that “the baptized acquires the use of death to condemn sin.” Christ has now given death to each of us to use as a weapon against our own sin. Christ changed the function of death for all of those who unite themselves to Christ. In Christ, humans can learn to accept everyday experiences of suffering and death in ways that free us from our sin. Maximus is giving a theological basis for the Christian practices of asceticism and mortification (which are very easily abused and misunderstood).

Pointing continually to the work of Christ, Maximus points us to the only perfect example of how to use death as a weapon against sin. However, Maximus the Confessor, as a follower of Christ, is himself a profound example. All those tortured for Jesus Christ were called “Confessors.” In Maximus’ case, he insisted on confessing the truth even when they promised to cut out his tongue and remove his right hand for preaching or writing one more word about who Jesus was. That didn’t stop him.

Here are some passages from Maximus himself (from Ad Thalassium 61 “On the Legacy of Adam’s Transgression”):

For if the deviance of free choice [by Adam] introduced passibility, corruptibility, and mortality in Adam’s nature, it only followed that in Christ, the immutability of free choice, realized through his resurrection, introduced natural impassibility, incorruptibility, and immortality.

…He exhibited the equity of his justice in the magnitude of his condescension, when he willingly (κατὰ θέλησιν) submitted to the condemnation imposed on our passibility (τὸ παθητόν) and turned that very passibility into an instrument for eradicating sin and the death which is its consequence—or in other words, for eradicating pleasure and the pain which is its consequence. For it was in human passibility that the power of sin and death (the tyranny of sin connected with pleasure and the oppression associated with pain) all began. Indeed, the rule of pleasure and pain over our nature clearly originated in the liability to passions. Wanting to escape the oppressive experience of pain we sought refuge in pleasure, attempting to console our nature when it was hard-pressed with pain’s torment. Striving to blunt pain’s spasms with pleasure, we merely sanctioned against ourselves a greater debt (cf Col 2:14) of pain, powerless to disconnect pleasure from pain and its toils. But the Lord exerted manifest strength of transcendent power by inaugurating for human nature a birth unchanged by the contrary realities (of pleasure and pain) which he himself experienced. For having given our human nature impassibility through his Passion, remission through his toils, and eternal life through his death, he restored that nature again, renewing the habitudes of human nature by his own deprivations in the flesh and granting to human nature through his own incarnation the supernatural grace of deification.

…Therefore death, in its dynasty, dominates all of human nature because of the transgression. …But the Lord, …naturally willed to die…. Clearly he suffered, and converted the use (χρῆσις) of death so that in him it would be a condemnation not of our nature but manifestly only of sin itself.

The baptized acquires the use of death to condemn sin. …Such will ensue if indeed the saints, for the sake of truth and righteousness, have virtuously finished the course of this life with its many sufferings, liberating their nature within themselves from death as a condemnation of sin and, like Christ, the captain of our salvation (Heb 2:10), turned death from a weapon to destroy human nature into a weapon to destroy sin.

From the translator’s notes:

Maximus repeats here his slightly earlier affirmation that Christ “converted the use of death” (τὴν τοῦ θανάτου χρῆσιν ἀντέστρεψιν) so as to condemn sin and not human nature itself. We already see in Ad Thal. 42 (translated above) Maximus’s larger perspective on Christ’s assumption of human passibility in its fullness, becoming the “sin” which is a consequence of the fall (but not the “sin” committed in moral acts) and so for our sakes taking on the mortality which is its condemnation. Recalling here the christianized Stoic idiom of “good use” of the human passions (cf Ad Thal. 1), Maximus describes Christ “using” death, the ultimate “passion” and the end of human passibility, as a redemptive instrument. Elsewhere, Maximus speaks of Christ’s blameless use of the fear of death (Disputation with Pyrrhus, PG 91:297B), for Christ alone turns it into a “voluntary” fear that encourages the Christian faithful in their own confrontation with death (Opusc. 7, PG 91:80D; cf Comm. on the Lord’s Prayer, CCSG 23:34, 135–35, 142).

…Maximus is insistent that the Christian appropriates Christ’s own good “use” of the ultimate passion of death (see note 9 above) by his or her own discipline of mortification. One should not overlook his important distinction between destroying death and destroying sin through the instrumentality of death.

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