By J.C. Ryle
“Sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4).
Whoever wishes to attain right views about Christianity must begin by examining the vast and solemn subject of sin. We must dig down very low if we would build high. A mistake here is most harmful. Wrong views about Christianity are generally traceable to wrong views about human corruption.
A right knowledge of sin lies as the root of all saving Christianity. Without it such doctrines as justification, conversion, sanctification, are “words and names” which convey no meaning. 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. 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, then it is no wonder if he is content with false or imperfect remedies. I believe that one of the chief wants of the church has been, and is, clearer, fuller teaching about sin.
We are all, or course, familiar with the terms “sin” and “sinners.” But what do we mean by these terms? 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 alway against the spirit; and, therefore, in every person born into the world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation.
Sin 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?
“A sin,” consists in doing, saying, thinking or imagining anything that is not in perfect conformity with the mind and law of God. “Sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4). The slightest outward or inward departure from absolute math-ematical parallelism with God’s revealed will and character constitutes a sin, and at once makes us guilty in God’s sight.
Concerning the origin of sin, Adam and Eve were created “in the image of God,” innocent and righteous at first, but 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 since entered into the world.” – “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 (Rom. 5:12; John 3:6; Eph. 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! 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.
Concerning the extent of this vast moral disease of man called “sin,” let us 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.” – “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Gen. 6:5; 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 sin lies deep down in our constitution.
Let us remember 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! Everywhere the human heart is naturally “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9).
I am convinced that the greatest proof of the extent and power of sin is the pertinacity with which it cleaves to man, even after he is converted and has become the subject of the Holy Ghost’s operations.
Concerning the guilt, vileness and offensiveness of sin in the sight of God, I do not think 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 “chargeth His angels with folly,” and in whose sight the very “heavens are not clean.” He is One who reads thoughts and motives as well as actions and required “truth in the inward parts” (Job 4:18; 15:15; Ps. 51:6 sees sin clearly).
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 evil. We have no line to fathom it and no measure by which to gauge it. The blind man can see no difference between a masterpiece of Titian or Raphael and the queen’s head on a village signboard. The deaf man cannot distinguish between a penny whistle and a cathedral organ. And man, fallen man, I believe, can have not just idea what a vile thing sin is in the sigh of that God whose handiwork is absolutely perfect.
No proof of the fullness 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. Heavy must that weight of human sin be which made Jesus groan and sweat drops of blood in agony at Gethsemane 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 shall have of sin and the retrospect we shall take of our own countless defects. Never till the hour when Christ comes the second time shall we fully realize the “sinfulness of sin.”
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 make excuses 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,” “wild,” “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.
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 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. 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 its first beginnings. We may give wickedness smooth names, but we cannot alter its nature in the sight of God.
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.
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 Ghost 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.
It only remains to point out some practical uses to which the whole doctrine of sin may be profitably turned in the present day:
1. A scriptural view of sin is one of the best antidotes to that vague, dim, misty, hazy kind of theology which is so painfully current in the present age. It is vain to shut our eyes to the fact that there is a vast quantity of so-called Christianity nowadays, which you cannot declare positively unsound, but which, nevertheless, is not full measure, good weight and sixteen ounces to the pound. It is a Christianity in which there is undeniably “something about Christ and something about grace and something about faith and something about repentance and something about holiness,” but it is not the “real thing” as taught in the Bible.
2. A scriptural view of sin is one of the best antidotes to the extravagantly broad and liberal theology which is so much in vogue at the present time. The tendency of modern thought is to reject dogmas, creeds and every kind of bounds in religion. It is thought grand and wise to condemn no opinion whatsoever, and to pronounce all earnest and clever teachers to be trustworthy, however heterogeneous and mutually destructive their opinions may be.
Everything is true and nothing is false! Everybody is right and nobody is wrong! Everybody is likely to be saved and nobody is to be lost! The atonement and substitution of Christ, the personality of the devil, the miraculous element in Scripture, the reality and eternity of future punishment, all these mighty foundation stones are coolly tossed overboard, like lumber, in order to lighten the ship of Christianity and enable it to keep pace with modern science.
Stand up for these great verities, and you are called narrow, illiberal, old-fashioned and a theological fossil! Quote a text, and you are told that all truth is not confined to the pages of an ancient Jewish book, and that free inquiry has found out many things since the book was completed! Now, I know nothing so likely to counteract this modern plague as constant clear statements about the nature, reality, vileness, power and guilt of sin. We must tell them that nothing will ever make them feel rest, but submission to the old doctrines of man’s ruin and Christ’s redemption and simple childlike faith in Jesus.
3. A scriptural view of sin will prove an admirable antidote to the low views of personal holiness. I am afraid that Christ-like love, kindness, good temper, unselfishness, meekness, gentleness, good nature, self-denial, zeal to do good and separation from the world are far less appreciated than they ought to be and than they used to be in the days of our fathers.
Once we see that sin is far viler and far nearer to us, and sticks more closely to us than we supposed, and we shall be led to get nearer to Christ. Once drawn nearer to Christ, we shall drink more deeply out of His fullness, and learn more thoroughly to “live the life of faith” in Him, as Paul did. Once taught to live the life of faith in Jesus, and abiding in Him, we shall bear more fruit, shall find ourselves more strong for duty, more patient in trial, more watchful over our poor weak hearts, and more like our Master in all our little daily ways. Just in proportion as we realize how much Christ has done for us, shall we labor to do much for Christ.
As I said in the beginning, we must begin low, if we would build high. I am convinced that the first step towards attaining a higher standard of holiness is to realize more fully the amazing sinfulness of sin.