The Sinfulness Of Sin And Its Blessed Remedy
By J. C. Ryle
"...Sin is the transgression of the law" (1 John 3:4).
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 "hath shined in our hearts" (2 Cor. 4:6) by the work of the Holy Ghost, and then spiritual life begins.
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 needs of the contemporary church has been, and is, clearer, fuller teaching about sin.
The 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.
"Sin," speaking generally, is "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 always 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" (1 John 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 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 (Matt. 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 Matthew place this point also beyond dispute. It is there written: "Depart from Me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire…for I was an hungered, and ye gave Me no meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave Me no drink" (Matt. 25:41-42).
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 (Num. 15:25-29; Lev. 4:1-35; 5:14-19). And I find our Lord expressly teaching that the servant, which knew not his lord’s will and did it not, was not excused on account of his ignorance, but was beaten or punished (Luke 12:47-48). 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.
The Origin and Source of Sin
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! Created "in the image of God," innocent and righteous at first, our parents fell from original righteousness and became sinful and corrupt. And from that day to this, all men and women are born in the image of fallen Adam and Eve, and inherit a heart and nature inclined to evil. "By one man sin entered into the world..." (Rom. 5:12). "That which is born of the flesh is flesh..." (John 3:6). We are"by nature children of wrath..." (Eph. 2:3). "The carnal mind is enmity against God..." (Rom. 8:7). "Out of the heart of men (naturally as out of a fountain), proceed evil thoughts, adulteries..." (Mark 7:21) and the like.
The fairest babe that has entered life this year and become the sunbeam of a family, is not, as his mother perhaps fondly calls him, a little "angel" or a little "innocent," but a little "sinner." Alas! As that boy or girl 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 do 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! The first cause of all sin lies in the natural corruption of the child’s own heart.
The Extent of Sin
The only safe ground is that which is laid for us in Scripture. "Every imagination of the thoughts of his heart" (Gen. 6:5) is by nature "only evil continually." "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked" (Jer. 17:9). 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. Even the conscience is so blinded that it cannot be depended on as a sure guide, and is as likely to lead men wrong as right, unless it is enlightened by the Holy Ghost. In short, "from the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness" about us (Isa. 1:6). The disease may be veiled under a thin covering of courtesy, politeness, good manners and outward decorum; but it lies deep down in the constitution!
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 base; so grand in his conception and execution of material things, and yet so groveling and debased in his affections; 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" and scoff at us as Bible believers. 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 climate 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 and money; 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! Everywhere the human heart is naturally "deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked" (Jer. 17:9).
For my part, I know no stronger proof of the inspiration of Genesis and the Mosaic account of the origin of man than the power, extent and universality of sin.
The Guilt, Offensiveness and Vileness of Sin in the Sight of God
My words shall be few. I say "few" advisedly. I do not think, in the nature of things, that mortal man can at all realize the exceeding sinfulness of sin in the sight of that holy and perfect One with whom we have to do. On the one hand, God is that eternal Being who charged His angels with folly (Job 4:18) and in whose sight the very "heavens are not clean" (Job 15:15). He is One who reads thoughts and motives as well as actions, and requires "truth in the inward parts" (Psa. 51:6).
We, on the other hand – poor blind creatures, here today and gone tomorrow, 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 sin. We have no line to fathom it, and no measure by which to gauge it. The deaf man cannot distinguish between a penny whistle and a cathedral organ. The very animals whose smell is most offensive to us have no idea that they are offensive, and are not offensive to one another.
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 – perfect whether we look through telescope or microscope; perfect in the formation of a mighty planet like Jupiter, with its satellites, keeping time to a second as it rolls round the sun; perfect in the formation of the smallest insect that crawls over a foot of ground. But let us nevertheless settle it firmly in our minds that sin is the abominable thing that God hates (Jer. 44:4); that God is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity, and cannot look upon that which is evil (Hab. 1:13); that the least transgression of God’s law makes us guilty of all (Jas. 2:10); that the soul that sins shall die (Ezek. 18:4); that the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23); that God will judge the secrets of men (Rom. 2:16); that there is a worm that never dies and a fire that is not quenched (Mark 9:44); that the wicked shall be turned into hell (Psa. 9:17) and shall go away into everlasting punishment (Matt. 25:46); and that nothing that defiles shall in any wise enter heaven (Rev. 21:27).
These are indeed tremendous words, when we consider that they are written in the Book of a most merciful God!
No proof of the fulness of sin, after all, is so overwhelming and unanswerable as the Cross and passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the whole doctrine of His substitution and atonement. Terribly black must that guilt be for which nothing but the blood of the Son of God could make satisfaction. Heavy must that weight of human sin be which made Jesus groan and sweat "as it were great drops of blood" in agony at Gethsemane (Luke 22:44), and cry at Golgotha, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" (Matt. 27:46).
Nothing, I am convinced, will astonish us so much, when we awake in the resurrection day, as the view we will have of sin, and the retrospect we will take of our own countless shortcomings and defects. Never till the hour when Christ comes the second time shall we fully realize the "sinfulness of sin." Well might George Whitefield say, "The anthem of heaven will be, What hath God wrought!"
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 astonishing 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 minimize 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? You may see it in the long string of smooth words and phrases which men have coined in order to designate things which God calls downright wicked and ruinous to the soul. What do such expressions as "fast," "mirthful," "wild," "unsteady," "thoughtless," "loose" mean? They show that men try to cheat themselves into the belief that sin is not quite so sinful as God says it is, and that they are not so bad as they really are.
You may see it in the tendency even of believers to indulge their children in questionable practices, and to blind their own eyes to the inevitable result of the love of money, of tampering with temptation, and sanctioning a low standard of family religion. I fear we do not sufficiently realize the extreme subtlety of our soul’s disease. We are too apt to forget that temptation to sin will rarely present itself to us in its true colors, saying, "I am your deadly enemy, and I want to ruin you forever in hell." Oh, no! Sin comes to us, like Judas, with a kiss; and like Joab, with an outstretched hand and flattering words.
The forbidden fruit seemed good and desirable to Eve; yet it cast her out of Eden. The walking idly on his palace roof seemed harmless enough to David; yet it ended in adultery and murder. Sin rarely seems sin at first beginnings. Let us then watch and pray, lest we fall into temptation. We may give wickedness smooth names, but we cannot alter its nature and character in the sight of God. Let us remember Paul’s words: "Exhort one another daily…lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin" (Heb. 3:13). It is a wise prayer in our Litany, "From the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil, good Lord, deliver us!"
A Humble and Contrite Heart
And now, let me briefly mention two thoughts which appear to me to rise with irresistible force out of the subject.
On the one hand, I ask my readers to observe what deep reasons we all have for humiliation and self-abasement. Let us sit down before the picture of sin displayed to us in the Bible and consider what guilty, vile, corrupt creatures we all are in the sight of God. What need we all have of that entire change of heart called regeneration, new birth or conversion! What a mass of infirmity and imperfection cleaves to the very best of us at our very best! What a solemn thought it is that without holiness no man shall see the Lord! (Heb. 12:14). What cause we have to cry with the tax-collector, every night in our lives, when we think of our sins of omission as well as commission, "God be merciful to me a sinner"! (Luke 18:13).
I am persuaded the more light we have, the more we see our own sinfulness; the nearer we get to heaven, the more we are clothed with humility. In every age of the church you will find it true, if you will study biographies, that the most eminent saints have always been the humblest men.
The Glorious Gospel of Grace
On the other hand, I ask my readers to observe how deeply thankful we ought to be for the glorious Gospel of the grace of God. There is a remedy revealed for man’s need, as wide and broad and deep as man’s disease! We need not be afraid to look at sin and study its nature, origin, power, extent and vileness, if we only look at the same time at the Almighty medicine provided for us in the salvation that is in Jesus Christ. Though sin has abounded, grace has much more abounded. Yes, in the everlasting covenant of redemption, to which Father, Son and Holy Spirit are parties; in the Mediator of that covenant, Jesus Christ the righteous, perfect God and perfect Man in one Person; in the work that He did by dying for our sins and rising again for our justification; in the offices that He fills as our Priest, Substitute, Physician, Shepherd and Advocate; in the precious blood He shed which can cleanse from all sin; in the everlasting righteousness that He brought in; in the perpetual intercession that He carries on as our Representative at God’s right hand; in His power to save to the uttermost the chief of sinners, His willingness to receive and pardon the vilest, His readiness to bear with the weakest; in the grace of the Holy Spirit which He plants in the hearts of all His people, renewing, sanctifying and causing old things to pass away and all things to become new; in all this (and oh, what a brief sketch it is!) – in all this, I say, there is a full, perfect and complete medicine for the hideous disease of sin! Awful and tremendous as the right view of sin undoubtedly is, no one need faint and despair if he will take a right view of Jesus Christ at the same time. No wonder that old Flavel ends many a chapter of his admirable The Fountain of Life Opened Up with the touching words: "Blessed be God, for Jesus Christ!"
– Taken from the book Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots by J.C. Ryle.