How to Be a Sinner
Yonkers NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2018
I remember when I first saw the cover of this book I thought, “I must have read the title wrong.” So I did a double take and, lo and behold, it was what I had read: “How to Be a Sinner.” Are they serious? What a crazy name for a book, especially for a book published by an Orthodox Christian press. Besides, who needs a book on how to be a sinner? We’re all pretty good at it already. Right?
Over the past several decades the term “sinner” has fallen on hard times. Sin and sins have recently been replaced with more nuanced words like mistakes, inappropriate behavior, addictions, phobias, etc. Those who commit these errors are not sinners but rather victims of prejudice, narrow-mindedness, racism, sexism, chauvinism, to name a few. The very definition of what is a sin is myriad, and no agreement can be reached. Those who even suggest that there is such a thing as sin are in some circles thought to be psychologically warped.
For all the above reasons, Peter Bouteneff’s book is so important. A professor at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, he deals with several different aspects of the topic, from Scripture, the liturgical services, the writings of the Fathers/Mothers, and everyday practical issues. In the introduction he states that the goal of his writing “revolves around reorienting our understanding of how to ‘successfully’ be a sinner” (p. 18). He enumerates those goals:
- To see a genuine “sinner identity” as realistic and healing rather than neurotic
- To understand that identity as holistic, rather than divisive
- To cultivate a self-love that is healthy, rather than narcissistic
- To find self-acceptance that is realistic and constructive, rather than libertine
Other positive goals are:
- To help you direct your heart towards healthy and genuine compunction
- To help motivate positive change and correction to your life through love
- To help make you aware of our total dependency on God
- To help show you the breadth and depth of God’s love and mercy (pp. 18-19)
Bouteneff adroitly sets about accomplishing each one of these goals. He achieves an excellent balance in setting before us our “sinner identity” while at the same time showing the importance of self-love and self-esteem, all in the overarching context of God’s love in Jesus Christ and the Orthodox Church’s therapeutic approach to sin and the healing of its effects upon our lives. His explanation of the words contained in the pre-Communion prayer of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, “I believe, O Lord…that you are the Christ…Who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first,” leaves no room in allowing us to judge others and their sins, but rather for us to realize that we must own our sins first and foremost and leave the sins of others to the Lord’s mercy. As one who grew up in the Orthodox Church, Bouteneff shares some of his own personal reflections which add to the book’s genuineness and undergird his thesis.
The second section of the book is given over to a more theological treatment of sin in the Bible, and of a more analytical definition of sin. He answers the fundamental question: Is it human to sin? Effectively addressing the Orthodox understanding of sin as it relates to the Western theological concept of “original sin,” Bouteneff lays out the concept of sin as it is literally defined from the Greek as “missing the mark,” and what that means for us as humans and sin’s “mark” on our human nature as well as sin as a condition and as a force. Importantly, he calls for a compassionate application of the commandments, neither denying the need for their fulfillment nor calling for harsh or draconian remedies.
Appropriately, the book finishes by providing several important prayers from the Orthodox tradition which clearly demonstrate the necessary connection between acknowledging our sins to ourselves and then our response by coming to God and bringing our sins to Him, as it were, as the only thing that we truly possess. It is God who, in the love, suffering, death, resurrection and glorification of Jesus Christ, destroys sin and death by His own death, and continues by the work of the Holy Spirit to do this work in us through faith and grace.
How to Be a Sinner is a much needed book in that it provides a helpful presentation on the balance between truly recognizing ourselves as sinful and fallen without leaving us in despair, and encouraging us by showing us that God’s love has overcome sin as a force, that that love continues to help us overcome our personal sin issues while at the same time calling us to the very goal of our existence, the very purpose for our creation, our reason for being: to enjoy intimate communion with God in Christ and to allow Him to fully restore the image of God in us who are fallen, and thereby to bring His healing and restoring love to the world around us.
Very Rev. Fr. Timothy Cremeens holds a PhD in Church History from Regent University in Virginia Beach, an MDiv from St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, a BA in History from Colorado State University, and a Diploma in Bible & Christian Education from Zion Bible College (now Northpoint Bible College) in Haverhill MA. He has served as dean of Holy Resurrection Orthodox Cathedral (OCA) in Wilkes-Barre PA since 2014. In January 2019 he will relocate to Augusta GA to join the Alleluia Community and work to establish an Ecumenical Institute of Studies.
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