MLK on Sin and God’s Grace

“Christianity is the greatest pessimistic optimistic religion in the world.”

Mockingbird / 1.17.22

The following comes from a transcription of an audio recording of a Martin Luther King sermon, most likely given during his tenure as the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. 

There is something wrong with human nature, something basically and fundamentally wrong. A recognition of this fact stands as one of the basic assumptions of our Christian faith. The picture of this glaring reality of the gone-wrongness of human nature is set forth on almost every page of the Bible. The Bible pictures it in the pride and disobedience of Adam and Eve, which ends up injecting a discord in the beautiful symphony of life in a garden. It pictures it in a ruthless and merciless pharaoh, caught in the clutches of a hardened heart. It pictures it in the jealousy of a Saul, who ends up hating David with a bitter and dangerous hate. It pictures it in the glorious career of a David, who constantly spoils that career with [recording interrupted] and making sex the be all and end all of life. It pictures it in a Judas, who was willing to succumb to the temptation of selling his lord for a few pieces of silver. It pictures it in Pilate, who sacrifices truth on the altar of his self-interest and who falls victim to the whims and caprices of a group of people who are crying out, “Crucify him.” Yes, it pictures it in a vicious but sincere mob hanging the world’s most precious character on a cross between two thieves. The Bible is clear in setting forth the tragic dimensions of the gone-wrongness of human nature.

Wherever we discover life, somehow we discover this gone-wrongness. Wherever there is a struggle for goodness, we discover, on the other hand, a powerful antagonism, something demonic, something that seems to bring our loveliest qualities to evil and our greatest endeavors to failure. Theologians have referred to this over the years as “sin.” That is something that stands at the core of life, this element of sin. And whenever we think about man we must think of this tragic fact—that man is a sinner. Sin is this revolt against God; sin is at bottom separation. It is alienation. It is a creature trying to project himself to the status of the creator. It is the creature’s failure to accept his limitations and, thereby, reach out for something higher to integrate his life, and it ends up in tragic separation.

Man is a sinner before the Almighty God. That is one of the basic facts of the universe and one of the basic facts of life. […]

Notice this element of the gone-wrongness of human nature in our own personal lives. I don’t mean for you to look out here at somebody else this morning; just look at yourself long enough, and you will discover this dimension, this tragic dimension of sin. All men, great minds, philosophers, and literary geniuses throughout the ages have pointed out, and we find ourselves having to agree with them, that there is something wrong in human nature. There is something in all of us that makes us more than one self. We are all two selves, and if you look at yourself hard enough you will discover that other self. We find ourselves split up against ourselves. We have something of what the psychologists or the psychiatrists would refer to as the schizophrenic personality. We are split personalities. There is something high in us and there is something low in us. […]

… That’s why Paul could say, “The good that I would I do not, and the evil that I would not, that I do.” And then man discovers it, and he goes out and tries to resolve the tension, and he finds himself something like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Oh, in the day he’s this respectable person; he’s good and decent, a servant of humanity, but then at night he goes and puts on that other self. And there is that Mr. Hyde, that indecent self, that degrading self, that self that sinks to animalism. And there is something in all of us, although we read it in literature, that comes to the center of our lives, and we find that we are Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

We discover that there is a private aspect of our lives forever in conflict with the personal aspects of our lives. We all have a private self that we don’t want the public self to discover. There is a privacy about all of us that we are ashamed of, that we forever seek to hide, and that we would never want to become public. This is the sin of man. There is a Mr. Hyde in all of us that seeks at the night of life to go into being while pushing aside the day of life that is Dr. Jekyll, and then, the next morning it tries to become Dr. Jekyll again. Then, that night it becomes Mr. Hyde again. There is this conflict between the is-ness of our present natures and the eternal ought-ness that forever confronts us. That comes in all lives.

And so it boils down that we are sinners in need of God’s redemptive power. […]

Now, that looks kind of bad, and I’m about to conclude now. I know you say, “Now you stand there on a somber note. You’ve said to us that we are sinners; we are caught in the clutches of sin in our personal lives and in our social lives.” And yes, if we stop there, I assure you that we would be in a pretty tragic predicament, that man’s life would be a life of nothingness, a life of endless pessimism. So that we can’t stop there. And that’s something of the beauty of the Christian faith, that it says that in the midst of man’s tragic predicament, in the midst of his awful inclination towards sin, God has come into the picture and has done something about it. That’s the beauty of our faith. It says that standing over against the tragic dimensions of man’s sin is the glorious dimensions of God’s grace. Where sin abounded, grace abounded even more exceedingly. That’s the Christian faith. On the one hand it is the most pessimistic religion in the world, for it recognizes the tragic and awful dimensions of man’s sin. But on the other hand it is the most optimistic religion in the world, for it recognizes the heightening dimensions of God’s grace and how God’s grace can come in and pick up. So that over against man’s sin stands God’s grace. Christianity, therefore, becomes the greatest pessimistic optimistic religion in the world. It’s a combination of a pessimistic optimism, it sees over against man’s sinfulness, man’s tragic state, the graciousness of God’s mercy, and His love and His forgiving power.

God’s grace stands over man’s sin. Now, the grace of God is not just some passing phrase, not just some old concept that we should be ashamed to use now. It’s not just some mechanical concept that has no deep meaning. Grace has a very vital place in any life. It has a very vital place in understanding the whole predicament of man and the whole predicament of the universe, for you can never understand life until you understand the meaning of the grace of God. The whole of life hinges on the ever flowing power and ever flowing stream of God’s grace. Grace is just that something that God gives us. It’s a gift that we don’t merit, that we don’t deserve, but which we so desperately need. That’s grace, and none of us could live without it. […]

Have you ever done anything, and you felt that you had become a shame to yourself? You feel a sense of shame before your family and before society, and you felt that your integrity never would come back? That your life now was an endless process of meaninglessness and that everything that turned against you, and as you walked the streets you were ashamed to look at anybody, and you felt that everybody was looking at you with scorn? And you went to bed at night, and you tried to pray that you wouldn’t think about it or you wouldn’t dream about it, but even in the midnight hours you would wake up and discover that it was still plaguing you? And then, at that moment, you decided to try another method; you decided to turn this thing over to God and lay yourself bare before the Almighty God, and something happened to you, and you could walk out before life and before your family and before yourself and your friends with new meaning. Looked like the life had taken on something new, and you wondered what happened. That was the grace of God. Something that you didn’t deserve, something that you didn’t merit, but something that you so desperately needed in order to live through the experiences of life. […]

Where sin abounded, grace abounded even more exceedingly.

Oh God, our gracious heavenly Father, help us to see the meaning of this grace, and help us to realize that in our sinful lives there is some hope, there is a way out through Thy powerful and ever flowing grace. In the name and spirit of Jesus we pray. Amen.

We open the doors of the church now. Probably there is someone here this morning who feels the need of this grace, feels the need of this Christ, who forever gives this grace. Who this morning will accept it? He might be leading you this morning. Will you be able to say, “Where He leads me, I will follow. Wherever He leads me, I will follow.” As we sing this beautiful hymn, hymn number 164, I want somebody to make a decision this morning. I look over this congregation, and I see those who need to make the decision. Where He leads me, I will follow. Who will make that decision? Come in and accept the Christ as your personal savior. For all of His powerful grace, let us stand.


The featured image for this article was created by Mikey Karpiel.

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