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How to be a Sinner, by Peter Bouteneff 

21 June 2019

John Binns reads about an Orthodox view of sin transformed by grace

EVERYBODY sins. These opening words direct us to that diagnosis of the human condition which Paul describes when he calls himself the foremost of sinners, and which we regularly repeat in worship when we acknowledge ourselves as miserable sinners.

This could lead to several possible forms of self-damage, such as a destructive sense of our own inadequacy or a neurotic obsession with the minute details of behaviour, which are distortions recognised by the author. Happily, there is another way of thinking about sin.

As we come to understand our sinful nature more fully, we can be led into a process of growth and transformation. Recognition of our sin brings a realistic understanding of what we are, and sets us off on a journey of discovery not only of our true nature, but also of God’s grace. This then leads to transformation and holiness. Sin, we discover, is not something to be feared and escaped from, but can be welcomed as the source of Christian growth and maturity.

The guides into the journey into wholeness are the ascetic Fathers of the Early Church, and also some modern guides, such as Metropolitan Anthony Bloom. These teachers show us how sin is a description of the broken world in which we share and which we help to make; how our love of ourselves can be healthy and realistic rather than libertarian; how we can discover compunction as a virtue that opens up God’s love to us; and how the experience of God’s mercy leads us to discover a new freedom and growth in mercy towards others.

The author, a member of the Orthodox Church, does not avoid the stark and uncompromising language of the early Fathers of the desert, but shows us that, underlying this picture of human nature, is the encounter of God’s love with our incompleteness. This gives us clear guidelines towards growth in the Christian life and makes available a strand of the tradition which can seem remote and inaccessible. It is rooted in the author’s experience of the practice of confession and the joy that it brings, which he sets out to share with others.

The Revd Dr John Binns is Visiting Professor at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge.

How to be a Sinner
Peter Bouteneff
SVS Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

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