(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? 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”. (1John iii. 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 any one 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. 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”. The solemn words of our Master in the Gospel of St. Matthew place this point also beyond dispute.
(2) Concerning the ORIGIN AND SOURCE of this vast moral disease called “sin” I must say something. I fear the views of many professing Christians on this point are sadly defective and unsound. I dare not pass it by. Let us, then, have it fixed down in our minds that the sinfulness of man does not begin from without, but from within. It is not the result of bad training in early years. It is not picked up from bad companions and bad examples, as some weak Christians are too fond of saying. No! it is a family disease, which we all inherit from our first parents, Adam and Eve, and with which we are born. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh.” – “We are by nature children of wrath.” – “The carnal mind is enmity against God.” – “Out of the heart (naturally as out of a fountain) proceed evil thoughts, adulteries,” and the like. (John 3. 6; Ephes. 2. 3; Rom.8. 7; Mark 7. 21.) The fairest babe that has entered life this year, and become the sunbeam of a family, is not, as its mother perhaps fondly calls it, a little “angel”, or a little “innocent”, but a little “sinner”. Alas! as it lies smiling and crowing in its cradle, that little creature carries in its heart the seeds of every kind of wickedness! Only watch it carefully, as it grows in stature and its mind develops, and you will soon detect in it an incessant tendency to that which is bad, and a backwardness to that which is good. You will see in it the buds and germs of deceit, evil temper, selfishness, self-will, obstinacy, greediness, envy, jealousy, passion – which, if indulged and let alone, will shoot up with painful rapidity. Who taught the child these things? Where did he learn them? The Bible alone can answer these questions!
(3) Concerning the EXTENT of this vast moral disease of man called sin, let us beware that we make no mistake. The only safe ground is that which is laid for us in Scripture. “Every imagination of the thoughts of his heart” is by nature “evil, and that continually”. Sin is a disease which pervades and runs through every part of our moral constitution and every faculty of our minds. The understanding, the affections, the reasoning powers, the will, are all more or less infected. I admit fully that man has many grand and noble faculties left about him, and that in arts and sciences and literature he shows immense capacity. But the fact still remains that in spiritual things he is utterly “dead”, and has no natural knowledge, or love, or fear of God. His best things are so interwoven and intermingled with corruption, that the contrast only brings out into sharper relief the truth and extent of the fall. That one and the same creature should be in some things so high and in others so low – so great and yet so little – so noble and yet so mean – so grand in his conception and execution of material things and yet be a slave to abominable vices like those described in the first chapter of the Epistle to the Romans – all this is a sore puzzle to those who sneer at “God’s Word written”, and scoff at us as Bibliolaters. But it is a knot that we can untie with the Bible in our hands. Let us remember, besides this, that every part of the world bears testimony to the fact that sin is the universal disease of all mankind. Search the globe from east to west and from pole to pole – search every nation of every clime in the four quarters of the earth – search every rank and class in our own country from the highest to the lowest – and under every circumstance and condition, the report will be always the same. The remotest islands in the Pacific Ocean, completely separate from Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, beyond the reach alike of Oriental luxury and Western arts and literature – islands inhabited by people ignorant of books, money, steam, and gunpowder – uncontaminated by the vices of modern civilization – these very islands have always been found, when first discovered, the abode of the vilest forms of lust, cruelty, deceit, and superstition. If the inhabitants have known nothing else, they have always known how to sin! So deeply planted are the roots of human corruption, that even after we are born again, renewed, “washed, sanctified, justified”, and made living hearts, and, like the leprosy in the walls of the house, we never get rid of them until the earthly house of this tabernacle is dissolved. Sin, no doubt, in the believer’s ear, has no longer dominion. It is checked, controlled, mortified, and crucified by the explosive power of the new principle of grace. The life of a believer is a life of victory, and not of failure. But the very struggles which go on within his bosom, the fight that he finds it needful to fight daily, the watchful jealousy which he is obliged to exercise over his inner man, the contest between the flesh and the spirit, the inward “groanings” which no one knows but he who has experienced them – all, all testify to the same great truth, all show the enormous power and vitality of sin. Mighty indeed must that foe be who even when crucified is still alive!
(4) Concerning the GUILT, VILENESS, and OFFENSIVENESS of sin in the sight of God, my words shall be few. I say “few” advisedly. On the one hand, God is that eternal Being who “chargeth His angels with folly”. We, on the other hand – poor blind creatures, here to-day and gone to-morrow, born in sin, surrounded by sinners, living in a constant atmosphere of weakness, infirmity, and imperfection – can form none but the most inadequate conceptions of the hideousness of evil. The deaf man cannot distinguish between a penny whistle and a cathedral organ. And man, fallen man, I believe, can have no just idea what a vile thing sin is in the sight of that God whose handiwork is absolutely perfect. But let us nevertheless settle it firmly in our minds that sin is “abominable thing that God hateth” – that God “is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity, and cannot look upon that which is evil” – that the least transgression of God’s law makes us “guilty of all” – that “the soul that sinneth shall die” – that “the wages of sin is death” – that God shall “judge the secrets of men” – that there is a worm that never dies, and a fire that is not quenched – that “the wicked shall be turned into hell” – and “shall go away into everlasting punishment”: – and that “nothing that defiles shall in any wise enter heaven”. These are indeed tremendous words, when we consider that they are written in the Book of a most merciful God!
(5) One point only remains to be considered on the subject of sin, which I dare not pass over. That point is its DECEITFULNESS. It is a point of most serious importance, and I venture to think it does not receive the attention which it deserves. You may see this deceitfulness in the wonderful proneness of men to regard sin as less sinful and dangerous than it is in the sight of God; and in their readiness to extenuate it, make excuses for it, and minimise its guilt. – “It is but a little one! God is merciful! God is not extreme to mark what is done amiss! We mean well! One cannot be so particular! Where is the mighty harm? We only do as others!” Who is not familiar with this kind of language? We are too apt to forget that temptation to sin will rarely present itself to us in its true colours, saying, “I am your deadly enemy, and I want to ruin you for ever in hell.” Oh, no! sin comes to us, like Judas, with a kiss; and like Joab, with an outstretched hand and flattering words. We may give wickedness smooth names, but we cannot alter its nature and character in the sight of God. Let us remember St Paul’s words: “Exhort one another daily, lest any be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.” (Heb3.13) It is a wise prayer in our Litany, “From world, the flesh, and the devil, good Lord, deliver us.”