Sin (1)


'Sin is the transgression of the law' (1Jo_3:4).

He that wishes to attain right views about Christian holiness must begin by examining the vast and solemn subject of sin. He must dig down very low if he would build high. A mistake here is most mischievous. Wrong views about holiness are generally traceable to wrong views about human corruption. I make no apology for beginning this volume of papers about holiness by making some plain statements about sin.

The plain truth is that a right knowledge of sin lies at the root of all saving Christianity. Without it such doctrines as justification, conversion, sanctification, are 'words and names' which convey no meaning to the mind. The first thing, therefore, that God does when He makes anyone a new creature in Christ, is to send light into his heart and show him that he is a guilty sinner. The material creation in Genesis began with 'light', and so also does the spiritual creation. God 'shines into our hearts' by the work of the Holy Ghost and then spiritual life begins (2Co_4:6). Dim or indistinct views of sin are the origin of most of the errors, heresies and false doctrines of the present day. If a man does not realize the dangerous nature of his soul's disease, you cannot wonder if he is content with false or imperfect remedies. I believe that one of the chief wants of the church in the nineteenth century has been, and is, clearer, fuller teaching about sin.

1. I shall begin the subject by supplying some definition of sin. We are all, of course, familiar with the terms 'sin' and 'sinners'. We talk frequently of 'sin' being in the world and of men committing 'sins'. But what do we mean by these terms and phrases? Do we really know? I fear there is much mental confusion and haziness on this point. Let me try, as briefly as possible, to supply an answer.

I say, then, that 'sin', speaking generally, is, as the Ninth Article of our church declares, 'the fault and corruption of the nature of every man that is naturally engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth alway against the spirit; and, therefore, in every person born into the world, it deserveth God's wrath and damnation'. Sin, in short, is that vast moral disease which affects the whole human race, of every rank and class and name and nation and people and tongue, a disease from which there never was but one born of woman that was free. Need I say that One was Christ Jesus the Lord?

I say, furthermore, that 'a sin', to speak more particularly, consists in doing, saying, thinking or imagining anything that is not in perfect conformity with the mind and law of God. 'Sin', in short as the Scripture saith, is 'the transgression of the law' (1Jo_3:4). The slightest outward or inward departure from absolute mathematical parallelism with God's revealed will and character constitutes a sin, and at once makes us guilty in God's sight.

Of course, I need not tell anyone who reads his Bible with attention, that a man may break God's law in heart and thought, when there is no overt and visible act of wickedness. Our Lord has settled that point beyond dispute in the sermon on the mount (Mat_5:21-28). Even a poet of our own has truly said, 'A man may smile and smile, and be a villain.'

Again, I need not tell a careful student of the New Testament, that there are sins of omission as well as commission, and that we sin, as our Prayer Book justly reminds us, by leaving undone the things we ought to do', as really as by 'doing the things we ought not to do'. The solemn words of our Master in the Gospel of St Matthew place this point also beyond dispute. It is there written: 'Depart .... ye cursed, into everlasting fire.., for I was an hungred, and ye gave Me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave Me no drink' (Mat_25:41, Mat_25:42). It was a deep and thoughtful saying of holy Archbishop Usher, just before he died: 'Lord, forgive me all my sins, and specially my sins of omission.'

But I do think it necessary in these times to remind my readers that a man may commit sin and yet be ignorant of it and fancy himself innocent when he is guilty. I fail to see any scriptural warrant for the modern assertion that: 'Sin is not sin to us until we discern it and are conscious of it.' On the contrary, in the fourth and fifth chapters of that unduly neglected book, Leviticus, and in the fifteenth of Numbers, I find Israel distinctly taught that there were sins of ignorance which rendered people unclean and needed atonement (Lev. 4:1-35; Lev_5:14-19; Num_15:25-29). And I find our Lord expressly teaching that 'the servant who knew not his master's will and did it not', was not excused on account of his ignorance, but was 'beaten' or punished (Luk_12:48). We shall do well to remember that, when we make our own miserably imperfect knowledge and consciousness the measure of our sinfulness, we are on very dangerous ground. A deeper study of Leviticus might do us much good.

to be continued