Books on identity written by Christians tend to be positively pitched. Writing about humanity by Christians tends to ignore or downplay our sinful nature. This book, written by Professor of Orthodox theology Peter Bouteneff, does it entirely differently and is an excellent book because of it. How to Be a Sinner: Finding Yourself in the Language of Repentance is a challenging and helpful little book that really made me think.
It is worth noting that this is not a book which is designed to make the Christian (or other people!) wallow – but rather to be realistic. As Bouteneff puts it, “The purpose of understanding and even naming myself as a sinner is twofold. It lets me tell the truth about myself in relationship to God and others. It also frees me to acknowledge my need for healing and my surrender to God, as I continue to pursue unity and holiness“. Amen! Those who are in Christ are saints – but we were sinners, and will not be fully free from sin in this life. That fact makes this book very helpful – both as a corrective to those who claim we can be free from sin, and to those who (like this reviewer!) can find it easy to lean too far into sin, despite being in Christ.
Towards the end of the book, Bouteneff writes;
“Coming to understand yourself as a sinner heals you because it lets you acknowledge a truth about yourself. It bolsters your consciousness of goodness, beauty and God. It breaks the logjams that separate you from your true self, from your fellow humans, from God, and from the created world. It is the beginning of your inner acceptance of God’s all-encompassing and unconditional love. It sets you free“.
Truth sets us free. Part of the truth about what human beings are is that we are sinful, we are sinners. Only in recognising that truth can we start to engage with it, to move on through and from it. This little book is thus an invitation to a deep and careful process of discipleship:
“May I learn to discern proper and true self-care, self-esteem, and true self-condemnation, that I may be free and whole, a loving consolation to others, and an active, breathing, fully-alive image of Christ”
I am grateful to St Vladimir’s Seminary Press for publishing this book, and Bouteneff for writing it. Whilst I did not agree – even close – with everything it said, the core message of the reality of sin and repentance as being actually good news makes it an extraordinarily valuable book. If you are wondering about balancing the different aspects of human and Christian identity, this is a great way to think about things from a different perspective. Recommended!