Regrettably, such a naive conception of one's own sinlessness and holiness, along with a failure to understand the essence of Christianity, has characterised Protestant denominations since the time of Martin Luther (the beginning of the 16th century). A prominent Protestant theologian summed up the Protestant understanding of Christianity thus: "The justification of a sinner is an all-embracing act of God. When a believer is justified, all his sins - past, present and future - are forgiven. The moment God pronounces him justified, the totality of his sins is pardoned" (William G. T. Shed, Dogmatic Theology, Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1888; emphasis added).
Apparently faith in Jesus Christ automatically guarantees a man, if not sinlessness, at least an absence of guilt for his sins. Such an opinion is not only radically wrong, but also very harmful, because it deprives man of the powerful means of regeneration which our Lord Jesus Christ gave to believers for their spiritual purification and sanctification.
First of all, spiritual illness is substantially different from physical illness. For one thing, spiritual illnesses are inseparable from our ego, free will, subconscious, experiences, habits and preferences. When the Lord Jesus Christ healed people who were suffering from various physical illnesses, He did so instantaneously, so that they were freed from their infirmities once and for all and did not require any further therapy. Unfortunately, spiritual healing, which is the regeneration of a soul damaged by sin, is a slower and more complex process, in which a man himself must play a most active part. This is because sin has become deeply rooted in our nature, and almost entirely intertwined with it.
If we wish to seek examples of Christian holiness, we ought naturally to turn to the Church of the first Christians. In reading the books of the New Testament, however, we are struck by the fact that, although the gifts of grace were abundant and many examples of lofty holiness were encountered among ordinary Christians, there were more than a few instances of a contrary nature. In fact, just a few weeks after the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and the formation of the first Christian community in Jerusalem, we see the appearance of favouritism and unfairness amongst believers in the matter of the distribution of relief (Acts 6:1). St. Paul the Apostle castigates the Christians of Corinth for envy, vainglory, pride, quarrelsomeness and litigiousness (1 Cor. 3:1-4; 1 Cor. 4:8; 1 Cor. 6:1-9). He also criticises them for having tolerantly, even indulgently, accepted into their midst an adulterer who had taken away his father's wife (1 Cor. 5:1-7). Further, he calls upon them to avoid sins of impurity (1 Cor. 6:15-19), and warns them against being puffed up with pride on account of the gift of tongues (1 Cor. 12-14). He accuses the Christians in Galatia of "biting and devouring" one another (Gal. 5:15). The Apostles have to caution Christians against drunkenness and excess at their love-feasts, i.e., liturgies (2 Pet. 2:13; 1 Cor. 11:17-32). St. Paul rebukes Christians for eating food offered to idols and scandalising other Christians (1 Cor. 8). He also mentions the treachery of false brethren. In the letters to the churches of Asia Minor which are found in the beginning of the book of Revelation, there is criticism of lukewarmness, arrogance and pride. In other words, along with Christians of high spiritual standards there were those who were as morally degraded as any ordinary pagan, because they had become negligent after their baptism and overcome by their old passions.
Our human condition may be compared to life on an island of lepers, where the inhabitants are in different stages of recovery. The Sacrament of Baptism washes away the leprosy of sin and infuses great spiritual power into a man. The scars of sin, however, do not disappear right away. A certain predisposition to sin remains. There are many factors which threaten a man with the opportunity to fall into sin: external temptations, living in an unfavourable environment, his own sinful habits and weaknesses, spiritual immaturity, fleshliness, inconstancy and feebleness. If one does not fight against little sins and weaknesses and cleanse them by repentance, they can in time form a moral burden which weighs heavily on a Christian's conscience; they can bring him to a spiritual "shipwreck" (1 Tim. 1:19).
It is a sad fact of life that small sins are as unavoidable as dust in the air. Just as it is necessary to wash every day and to clean one's room, it is equally necessary to repent constantly for one's daily failings. Who would consider himself holier or more perfect than Christ's Apostles? Yet even they did not regard themselves as being sinless. "In many things we offend all," wrote St. James the Apostle (Jas. 3:2). "If we say that we have not sinned, then we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us...If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness," wrote St. John the Apostle (1 John 1:10, 8-9). St. Paul the Apostle is painfully aware of his own unworthiness: "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief" (1 Tim. 1:15). Note that he does not say "I was," but "I am," evidently because he continued to repent for having once persecuted believers. Tradition tells us that the Apostle Peter's eyes were always somewhat reddened, for, when he heard roosters crow at night, he would wake up, remember his denial of Christ and begin to weep.
St. John the Apostle teaches Christians to look after their spiritual state in these words: "My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world....But if we walk in the light...the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin....And every man that hath this hope in Him purifieth himself, even as He is pure" (1 John 2:1-2; 1:7; 3:3). Similarly, St. Paul writes: "Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (2 Cor. 7:1; cf. Heb. 9:13-14). Clearly, in these passages the Apostles are not summoning pagans to repentance, but Christians, and the words they use, "cleanseth" and "let us cleanse," suggest that moral purity has its gradations, as does sinfulness. For the same reason another scripture says: "He that is unjust, let him be unjust still; and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still; and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still" (Rev. 22:11).
Thus, moral blamelessness is a goal and an ideal, not a condition already attained. The Gospel parables of the net cast into the sea, and that of the wheat and the tares, tell us that the Church is not made up only of saints, but includes people of various spiritual levels, even sinners. This is what St. Paul the Apostle has to say about the Church: "In a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some to honour, and some to dishonour" (2 Tim. 2:20). Only in reference to the future kingdom of heaven is it said that "there shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie: but they which are written in the Lamb's book of life" (Rev. 21:27).
The origin of our spiritual troubles is that we have been born with a human nature which is damaged by sin. What could be purer and more innocent than a child? Yet even in the most favourable conditions of family life children are sometimes stubborn, cruel and dishonest; they are capable of being deceitful, telling a lie, hitting another child or spitefully breaking another child's toy. Parents often take these things to be childish pranks. They should understand, however, that unless they teach their children to keep watch against their bad tendencies and to fight them, these tendencies may in time become unruly and disordered passions. This is why the Church calls upon children to go to confession starting from the age of seven.
When members of Protestant denominations look upon themselves as sinless saints, simply because they believe in Jesus Christ, they cause themselves great spiritual harm, depriving themselves of those means of grace which the Lord gave us for our spiritual regeneration. Among these means of grace are the frequent and careful examination of one's conscience, constant repentance, confession of one's sins before a spiritual father and receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion.
Let us suppose that you sincerely believe in Christ and that you try to live a Christian life. You haven't killed anyone; you haven't committed adultery; you haven't stolen anything; you don't get drunk; you live a hard-working and temperate life. Does this mean that you are completely irreproachable? What about impure thoughts and feelings, which arise in us involuntarily? What about idle talk, boasting, feelings of envy or anger in the heart? What about an indifference to the truth and the acceptance of false teachings - sins which all Protestants are guilty of? What about self-love, vainglory, a feeling of one's own superiority, pride, suspicion, gloating over the misfortunes of others, faintheartedness, despondency, condemnation of others, spiritual torpor, laziness, wasting time, hypocrisy or the lust of the eyes? What about an attachment to worldly goods and comforts, dreaming of getting rich, or hardheartedness and indifference towards the suffering of others? Is there anyone who can carefully analyse his life, or even one day of it, and declare that he is completely righteous, even holy? If not, then he is impure (cf. Matt. 15:18-20), and ought to repent and ask God for help to amend his life.
It is paradoxical that those who were truly righteous - such men as St. Seraphim of Sarov, Elder Ambrose of Optina, St. John of Kronstadt, Archbishop John of Shanghai and other like them - always repented with heartfelt contrition for their sins and faults, whereas some of our contemporary self-styled Christians, who avoid any kind of spiritual struggle, walk around with their heads held high and look down contemptuously on the rest of us sinners. It was to such self-satisfied "saints" that the Lord said: "I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot....Thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked. I counsel thee to buy of Me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear" (Rev. 3:15-18).
The worst thing about Protestantism is that it has drastically lowered moral standards. Understandably, people can have different ideas about cleanliness. A "slob" is happy as long as there is no food rotting in his room and his sheets don't stick to him, while a "neat freak" suffers from the slightest violation of orderliness.
God does not want us to live by slovenly standards. He desires that each of us strive earnestly toward spiritual perfection. "Ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy" (Lev. 11:45). Note that the beatitude referring to the pure in heart (Matt. 5:8) comes seventh among the other beatitudes. It is preceded by statements about humility (the poor in spirit), repentance (they that mourn), meekness, an ardent striving towards righteousness (they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness) and mercy. In other words, purity of heart is attained by intense effort, and therefore, "Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God".
A sad consequence of our damaged, sinful state is the radical conflict which exists between the noble aspirations of our spirit and the disordered desires of our flesh. The problem of this internal dichotomy is so important that the Sacred Scriptures pay the greatest attention to it. They call upon us to compel ourselves to live a spiritual life. We shall cite here only a few of the most striking passages.
"Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other; so that ye cannot do the things that ye would" (Gal. 5:16-17). "To be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God....Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live" (Rom. 8:6-7, 12-13). "Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth He any man: but every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin; and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death" (Jas. 1:13-15). "Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind: for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin; that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh to the lusts of men, but to the will of God" (1 Pet. 4:1-2).
At times this warfare against temptations can become quite intense, requiring of us great spiritual effort; as St. Paul wrote to some Christians who were downcast in spirit: "Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin" (Heb. 12:4).
As if to sum up the teachings of the Apostles which we have cited here, St. John of Kronstadt says: "Keep firmly in mind that you are a two-sided person. One side is fleshly, old and sick with the passions. This you must mortify, not giving in to its insistent sinful demands. The other side is spiritual, new, seeking Christ, living in Christ and finding in Him its life and repose."
In order to escape enslavement to the disordered desires of the sin-loving flesh, a Christian must always fight with temptations and not allow sins to pile up on his conscience. As St. Seraphim of Sarov teaches,
"He who would be saved must always have a heart that is contrite and inclined to repentance. 'A sacrifice unto God is a broken spirit; a heart that is broken and humbled God will not despise' (Ps. 50:17). With such a contrite spirit a man can readily and without harm avoid all the cunning snares of the devil, who directs all his efforts toward disturbing a man's spirit and sowing his tares amidst the disturbance created... Throughout our lifetime we offend God's majesty by our falls into sin; and therefore we should always ask the Lord humbly for forgiveness of our sins."
It is foolish and destructive to deceive ourselves with the thought that we are no worse than other people, and that God loves us and therefore everything will turn out right. No, sin is a serious moral sickness. In the Sacrament of Baptism the Lord washes away our spiritual leprosy and infuses us with fresh spiritual energy. Still, the scars of our former illness remain with us, as does the danger of a relapse from living amongst the rest of the "lepers."
The Church offers us powerful weapons for the prevention of sin and for doing battle with it. Fasting, asceticism, penitence, confession - all these things can sound gloomy, especially to a heterodox person who seeks in Christianity only that which is joyful and easy. It must be understood that spiritual perfection, righteousness, holiness, closeness to God, contemplation of God, the kingdom of heaven and eternal blessedness are all various aspects of one quality which occupies a central place among them. This is purity of heart, which is acquired through doing battle with one's own faults. Here we discover a clear law: The purer the crystal, the more light it conveys; the more polished the diamond, the brighter it shines.
Thus, if we wish to obtain all the blessings promised to us, let us carefully examine our spiritual state and let us sincerely repent even of our smallest sins. The path is narrow, and sometimes steep, but there is no other way!