Catechetical Lectures: Of Sin and the Grace of God

St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures (Part II)

In continuing my reading through St. Cyril’s catechetical lectures, part II begins the major “lesson plan” after the introductory material of part I. The subject matter for this lecture is rather self-explanatory so I won’t waste much time and dive right in.

On Repentance and Remission of Sins, and Concerning the Adversary.

St. Cyril talks a great deal about the various individuals throughout scripture that were known for various sins and their acts of repentance which brought them to God. Coming from a Reformed background, I could see how some people may take his view to be almost that of “cheap grace”, but a more charitable reading simply shows that St. Cyril’s emphasis on the goodness, longsuffering, and generosity of God absolutely outweigh the short-sightedness, sinfulness, and rebellion of man.

Sin

St. Cyril does not gloss over sin. He describes it in vivid detail:

A fearful thing is sin, and the sorest disease of the soul is transgression, secretly cutting its sinews, and becoming also the cause of eternal fire; an evil of a man’s own choosing, an offspring of the will.

Sin then is, as we have said, a fearful evil, but not incurable; fearful for him who clings to it, but easy of cure for him who by repentance puts it from him.

For suppose that a man is holding fire in his hand; as long as he holds fast the live coal he is sure to be burned, but should he put away the coal, he would have cast away the flame also with it.
St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 2:1

We can see that St. Cyril’s vision of sin is that of a very destructive force like a fire or a cutting instrument, yet this is contrasted with the effectiveness of repentance. If putting away a coal is all it takes to stop it from burning one’s flesh, so too — according to St. Cyril — is repentance all it takes to stop the destructive power of sin in one’s life. Even taking this into consideration, though, St. Cyril is careful not to simply describe sin for the catechumen, but also teach of sin’s source:

Yet you are not the sole author of the evil, but there is also another most wicked prompter, the devil.
St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 2:3

From this, we can conclude that we are both jointly responsible for originating our sin as well as being prompted to sin by the devil. I’ll admit, this notion, as one who has often appealed to the doctrine of total depravity to explain man’s sinful proclivities, can seem a bit odd. I’ve been taught for years that we’re sinful and wicked enough on our own that we don’t need to account for our sins by appealing to demonic influence. I’ve found that this concept is foreign to the early Church. St. Cyril clarifies:

The devil then is the first author of sin, and the father of the wicked: and this is the Lord’s saying, not mine, that the devil sins from the beginning : none sinned before him. But he sinned, not as having received necessarily from nature the propensity to sin, since then the cause of sin is traced back again to Him that made him so; but having been created good, he has of his own free will become a devil, and received that name from his action.
St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 2:4

Once more, I find another Early Church Father placing emphasis on the will which leads to sin. In this case — the first case — sin was not a problem of nature, but of will. It seems that according to St. Cyril, the same is true for man, as he stated above, “[sin is] an evil of a man’s own choosing, an offspring of the will”. It seems it is the case, then, that if we are to assume St. Cyril is correct, we must then conclude that one’s proclivity to sin is informed by man’s will over man’s nature, and by the influence of the devil over the influence of man’s being. This is certainly something to chew on. I imagine this may lead to some of the differences between the East and West regarding original sin, but time will tell.

Having established what sin is, and where it comes from, St. Cyril now tells us what sin does to us:

In a word, we are dead: May we not rise again? He that woke Lazarus who was four days dead and already stank, shall He not, O man, much more easily raise you who art alive? He who shed His precious blood for us, shall Himself deliver us from sin. Let us not despair of ourselves, brethren; let us not abandon ourselves to a hopeless condition. For it is a fearful thing not to believe in a hope of repentance.
St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 2:5

We are described as dead. Being dead in sin we are likened to Lazarus in the grave. As sinners, this should cause us to tremble, but we are offered the antidote hinted at above and described in more detail immediately after:

Your accumulated offenses surpass not the multitude of God’s mercies: your wounds surpass not the great Physician’s skill. Only give yourself up in faith: tell the Physician your ailment: say thou also, like David: I said, I will confess me my sin unto the Lord: and the same shall be done in your case, which he says immediately: And you forgave the wickedness of my heart.
St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 2:6

As the saying goes, “there but by the grace of God go I”. God, in His richness and mercy, serves as the great Physician and heals us of our iniquities. I do recall this to be another difference between Eastern Christianity and that of the West: sin as a sickness to be healed (East) vs. sin as a crime to be punished (West). Throughout this entire lecture, St. Cyril only briefly mentions sin as meriting a judicial punishment (as we will see below). Still, he clearly sides with the East in this regard.

Repentance

Having discussed the ontology of sin, it’s effects on man, and the remedy for sin, St. Cyril then turns to addressing the practical. He takes a survey throughout the scriptures speaking of various instances of sin, repentance, and forgiveness. Each case is modeled after the first, which speaks of Adam and Cain:

Hear about Adam. Adam, God’s first-formed man, transgressed: could He not at once have brought death upon him? But see what the Lord does, in His great love towards man. He casts him out from Paradise, for because of sin he was unworthy to live there; but He puts him to dwell over against Paradise : that seeing whence he had fallen, and from what and into what a state he was brought down, he might afterwards be saved by repentance. Cain the first-born man became his brother’s murderer, the inventor of evils, the first author of murders, and the first envious man. Yet after slaying his brother to what is he condemned? Groaning and trembling shall you be upon the earth . How great the offense, the sentence how light!
St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 2:7

Here we see St. Cyril’s mention of sin meriting judicial punishment, but it’s not in the sense which we’re often meant to take it. He makes it clear in Adam’s fall God would have been justified in bringing death upon him at once, but instead God casts him out of the garden. Adam fell into a state of sin, and instead of avenging Himself, God sets about a state of affairs to lead Adam to repentance. In the same way, when Cain becomes a murderer, God does not in turn spill Cain’s blood, but rather casts him out. In St. Cyril’s words, “how great the offense, the sentence how light!”

This is actually a fantastic illustration of what I’m seeing more in more in Eastern Christian teaching. While there is a judicial element of punishment for sin in that it was punished, it was not so in such a way as to punish the offense in proportion to the sinfulness thereof, but rather to offer mercy in the hope of future repentance. While the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23), the love of God endures forever (1 Chron 16:34).

“Christ the Healer”

You see that it is good to make confession. You see that there is salvation for them that repent.
St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 2:13

Here is St. Cyril’s call to us: confess your sins and see the mercy of God. He is essentially rewording 1 John 1:9. He goes to great lengths to describe sin and its effects in vivid detail, but what’s interesting about this lecture is that St. Cyril does not do the same for repentance. In contrast, he states it plainly that repentance brings salvation, and that confession of sins is the antidote to sins. That’s it. After stating this, he simply repeats the point to drive it home. After making the catechumen fearful of sin, he plainly offers repentance and speaks of its importance. It’s a notable difference from his treatment of sin, and an effective rhetorical device.

Take heed lest without reason you mistrust the power of repentance. Would you know what power repentance has? Would you know the strong weapon of salvation, and learn what the force of confession is?
St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 2:15

This is why I stated above that some may view St. Cyril’s teachings here as a kind of “cheap grace”. In modern evangelicalism, the standard teaching is that when one makes an act of repentance, they’re good to go — they’ve punched their ticket to heaven! While I think a sensible reading of this lecture would remove such suspicions, I still find the Reformed theologian in me wanting to say there’s more to it. This is a common fight for Reformed Christians (and a bit ironic, as I now see, that they make accusations of legalism towards more ancient Christian traditions).

Conclusion

St. Cyril’s catechetical lectures have already been a tremendous blessing to me. I can’t wait to write about the next one. While I did not want to quote the lecture in its entirety, I’d encourage readers to examine it, especially as he goes through various people in the Bible and expounds on their sin, God’s response, and their repentance. After doing so, he concludes:

Having therefore, brethren, many examples of those who have sinned and repented and been saved, do ye also heartily make confession unto the Lord, that you may both receive the forgiveness of your former sins, and be counted worthy of the heavenly gift, and inherit the heavenly kingdom with all the saints in Christ Jesus; to Whom is the glory for ever and ever. Amen.
St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 2:20

Amen, indeed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s