By Rev. Mark Buetow
Have you ever heard someone say, “He’s all about himself?” or “She only think about herself?” “Looking out for Number One.” These are all just sayings that reflect the original sin and corruption we inherited from Adam. One of the phrases used to describe this state of being turned inward, focusing on ourselves, and putting ourselves above others is the Latin phrase incurvatus in se (in-coor-VAHT-oos in say). It means, literally, “curved inward on himself or herself.” It’s a shorthand way of describing what original sin does to us. It makes us turn inward—away from loving God and our neighbor.
Now that sounds like a pretty good description of sinners. We love ourselves. We put ourselves first. But this doesn’t magically go away when we hear the Gospel and are made Christians. In fact, the Old Adam thinks he can play the religion game. And suddenly, our religion goes all incurvatus in se! Our faith and piety get all all inwardly turned. Our Old Adam loves to make religion about himself. Look how we pray! Look what we do for God! Look how much I love Jesus! See how good Jesus makes me feel! And so faith becomes something that gets twisted and aimed at ourselves, and we make our “being Christian” all about us.
This is where we are rescued by Jesus in a way that is described by another little bit of Latin: extra nos (EX-tra nohs), which means “outside ourselves.” The Gospel, the forgiveness of sins for Jesus’ sake, is outside of us. It doesn’t depend on us. It’s there and it’s true, whether we believe it or not, whether we can feel it or not, or whether we like it or not. Extra nos means that Jesus is the Son of God, no matter who you think you are. It means He died for you, no matter how good or bad you consider yourself to be. It means He rose for you, whether you are afraid of death or not. It means baptism, absolution, His Word and the Supper of His body and blood bestow forgiveness upon you whether you really feel like they do or not.
Extra nos means that your salvation and standing before God are never dependent on how much faith you have. They aren’t determined by how many sins you’ve committed. It’s not based on whether you feel happy or sad. It isn’t about if it makes you feel good or not. It’s not attached to your attitude or even how much sleep you got. The extra nos of Jesus and His gifts means that you can rely on them even when you don’t feel like relying on them! There is a great example of what this all looks like in the Garden of Eden. Consider Eve. The serpent shows up to deceive her into thinking God is lying. Eve has the Word of God extra nos: “If you eat of it, you shall die.” That command/promise of God doesn’t change whether she eats it or not. That Word is sure and certain. But Eve and then Adam chooses the incurvatus in se path. They look to themselves. What does Eve think? The fruit looks good; it’s good food and it will make her wise. Those are deductions that Eve makes based on her own heart and emotions and reason, and not based on God’s Word.
The same thing happens with sin. We choose to do something only because it makes us feel good (because we’re turned inward, thinking only of ourselves) and not because of the clear Word of God extra nos that something is right or wrong. But it happens in our piety, too. We think some way of worshiping or being religious that makes us feel good (because we’re turned inward, thinking only of ourselves) is better than something that doesn’t seem to get us excited or out of which we don’t “get something.”
The answer to both is the extra nos Gospel. By the Word outside of us (in water, Word, body and blood), the Spirit works in us to turn us to Christ in repentance and faith and turn us toward our neighbor in love and service—like a spring, only an external force can unravel it. Let it go, and it snaps back into its coiled self. In the same way, the Word acts on us outside of ourselves, to crucify the Old curved-inward Adam and to bring forth that New Man upon whom is bestowed forgiveness of sins, life and salvation.
Now when someone says about you, “You’re only into yourself,” you can reply, “Well of course, because I’m incurvatus in se.” Then you say, “But extra nos, Christ counts me as His own. A sinner forgiven. And the Spirit is at work to keep turning me away from me and toward God and my neighbor.” Or if someone says, “You’ve got to feel like you’re changing and loving Jesus,” you can reply, “Well of course we think that. We’re incurvatus in se. But outside me is something that isn’t so fickle and changing and unstable. Outside of me is Christ and His baptism, Word, absolution and Supper. And those things don’t change. The promise they declare to me, that my sins are forgiven and I am the Lord’s, doesn’t change either.” When you say that, then it’s about Jesus and not about you. Besides, who doesn’t like to throw a little Latin into their conversation every once in awhile? Incurvatus in se means me and my love of me. And extra nos is about Jesus and His love for me. And without a doubt, it’s the extra nos that wins every time.
Rev. Mark Buetow is pastor of Bethel Lutheran Church in DuQuoin, Illinois and serves as Media Services Executive for Higher Things. He can be reached at email@example.com.