I have a nice Brooks Brothers shirt. The patter is subtle enough to work with a suit, yet looks good with a pair of jeans. It’s one of my favorite shirts. Except it has a couple stains that bother me. It’s been through the wash a couple times, but comes out with the same stains. The shirt is remains a great shirt, yet the stains ruin if for me. Everyone can see the stains; the shirt no longer looks good. It’s been ruined.
In the Orthodox Trisagion hymn is a prayer known as “O Heavenly King”, which goes like this:
O Heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of Truth,
Who are in all places and fill all things;
The Treasury of good things and the Giver of life:
Come and abide in us, cleanse us from every stain,
And save our souls, O Good One.
We pray for the Holy Spirit to cleanse us from every stain. This has its roots in a different conception of sin than we in the West are used to. The western concept of sin is in two parts. While we normally are concerned with the sins we commit (as we should be), the concept of Original Sin is that the guilt of Adam’s sin has been passed on to all of humanity. In other words, human nature itself was not simply corrupted, but actually changed. Thus, even if we had never committed any personal sin, we would still bear the guilt of Adam’s sin.
Think for a moment about my shirt. It is still made of the same fabric. The fit and finish are still the same. It has the same no wrinkle finish, and never needs ironing. It has those nasty stains, which affect the appearance of the shirt. Yet the stains are not part of the shirt, and do not change the essence of what it means to be a Brooks Brothers shirt. The stains are something extra, something that has corrupted the shirt, yet without affecting its essential nature.
For though thou wash thee with nitre, and take thee much soap, yet thine iniquity is marked before me, saith the Lord GOD. (Jer 2:22)
Here Jeremiah clearly references the idea of sin as a stain that cannot be removed with a simple washing. The stain remains, despite our best efforts. We need something more. And yet, even so, the idea of sin as a stain implies that while sin may injure us, damage us, make us less than we were meant to be, yet sin is something foreign, something other, something that comes from outside us. It adheres to us without becoming part of us.
Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. (Isa 1:18)
No matter how much I try, I cannot get rid of the stain of sin. And yet the Lord says that He can make them whiter, “as no fuller on earth can white them.” (Mar 9:3) In other words, our Lord can remove the stain of sin, leaving our essential human nature intact. Our Lord can return us to the Edenic state, a state of purity, a state of innocence, a state where we can commune with God “face to face”, as it were.
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.
Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.
Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. (Ps 51:1-7)
This is a fascinating psalm, a psalm of repentance, written after David’s adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. Take a look at how David refers to his sin, and what he is asking of God. First, David asks God to “blot out my transgressions.” The best way to combat stains is to blot them up. Basically you apply a towel over the spill to absorb it. This works better than rubbing the stain, which has a tendency to spread the stain and push it further into the surface. Second, Daniel asks God to wash and cleanse him. David asks God to “purge him with hyssop”, which is part of the ceremonial cleansing made for people who had been cured of leprosy, and buildings that had been healed of a “plague of leprosy” (Lev 14). This purging with hyssop also has reference to the ashes of the red heifer (which had burned with cedar and hyssop), and was offered for “purification for sin”, as well as for cleansing from ceremonial uncleanness (Num 19). Finally, David asks God to wash him and make him whiter than snow, which reminds us of the passage from Isaiah, and also the transfiguration account in Mark.
The description of sin and its affect upon the human person is not done in one way. The idea of Original Sin fails to account for all the ways sin is discussed in the bible. In particular, the idea of sin as a stain upon the human person brings with it the idea of sin as something extrinsic to the human person, rather than being something essential to human nature.