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The most appalling fact of this universe is sin. So far as this race is concerned, it is the most universal and momentous, the most stubborn and overwhelming. It is that round which ceaselessly circles thought, action, character, destiny. It haunts us like our shadow, mocks us in our pleasures, sits with us when we sit at meat, enters into our most secret thoughts. It is present with us even when we would do good, stirring within us a fearful looking-for of fiery indignation and judgment. It reaches every thing: our joys, our treasures, our fondest ambitions-alas! "the trail of the serpent is over them all."
It seems to the writer that one of our chiefest needs at present is a profounder doctrine, a more radical and heart-searching teaching concerning this matter of sin. We are drifting away from the old landmarks. Conviction is dying out. Conscience, so to speak, is becoming atrophied. A subtle rationalism is imperceptibly pervading the community, foiling the arrows of truth, and rendering much of the preaching of none effect.
WHAT IS SIN !—It is no mere infirmity, or misfortune, or physical distemper. Social science can never medicine to
Were it a mere weakness, and, as such, amenable to treatment at the hands of the humane, conscience would its never bear witness against it. There is a radical distinction between mere physical frailty, or a mere physical misdemeanor, and a moral one. The former ends with ourself';' the latter stands related to a higher tribunal. Concerning the former, Conscience utters no voice. Concerning the latter, whatever the extenuating circumstances, she thunders of a broken law and an offended God. The offender, whatever the pretext under which the act was performed, is convicted, not of any mere indiscretion, or of an imprudence, but of sin-of positive guilt—of downright turpitude. The materialism, therefore, that can see in “sin” only one of the “ills that flesh is heir to;" the rationalism that fain would see in it a negative good, an evil in appearance only,
but really and in itself the necessary means to a good end, and, therefore, a good, do violence to the universal and unequivocal testimony of conscience.
1. The first distinctive feature of sin is, it is an offense against God. The only way to determine the essential character of sin is to discuss it as a fact of individual experience, to inquire what is known concerning it within the sphere of every man's consciousness. And the testimony of the conscience of the race, as such, is to the effect that sin consists in an offense against, or a want of conformity to, the known will of God. “ Whosoever committeth sin," says the Apostle John,
transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.” What law? Any mere arbitrary law, a simple rule of action prescribing the appropriate means for the attainment of a given end? No. It is a law revealing and affirming itself in our consciousness, and carrying with it the seal of divine authority; a law asserting itself as an ultimate and unconditional law of rectitude, and hence, in itself, essentially and absolutely good; a law inseparable from our very idea or conception of God as the supreme good, prescribing for all rational beings, not immediately rules of ontward conduct, but ends—rather, the rightful and ultimate ends at which they are to aim. To transgress the requirements of this law, revealed, as we have seen, and more or less clearly according to the heed we give to it, in our consciences, and taking cognizance, as it were, and determining the character of our purposes and the ends we propose to ourselves, or to aim at ends opposed to those which this law proposes as absolutely good—this is sin; that evil and bitter thing which the soul recognizes in the oppressive sense of guilt and remorse.
2. Because thus an offense against, and in the sight of, an infinitely pure and holy God, sin, in the next place, as a fact of experience interpreted in the light of our own consciences, and independent of speculative theories, appears to be truly and unconditionally evil. That is to say, it is evil in itself, is inherently evil, and only evil, no conceivable circumstances or relations being able to convert it into any thing else. It is on this account that, whatever its accompaniments or consequences, unlike mere physical evil, or that evil whose character depends wholly on outward relations, moral evil is ever the
occasion of self-reproach and remorse, simply as evil. The
3. Another essential, characteristic element of sin is, the
of the agent. Considered apart from the purpose of the agent, the motive or design of an intelligent, responsible being, acts have no moral, but only an outward and physical, character. They cannot be said properly to be either right or wrong. Thus, the killing of a man becomes murder only upon the imputation of a malice prepense. And our Saviour, meantime, goes so far as to affirm, that if we but cherish the malicious purpose, and Jack only the outward occasion or opportunity to carry it into effect, we are already, in the sight of conscience and of God, guilty of murder. Except, then, as contemplated in a living union with our own moral being, and grounded in our own purposes and inward principles as good or evil, we have no concern with any act in regard to a supposed moral character. Indeed, unless we can impute it wholly to our own causative agency, and recognize it as truly and properly our own, how can we hold ourselves responsible for, or condemn ourselves for, the commission of any given
evil act? A sense of guilt and of condemnation necessarily implies, in regard to our conduct, that we condemn what was truly our act and performed under the condition of a responsibility for the deed. It is utterly incompatible with any proper sense of guilt to refer our conduct to whatever cause we may conceive, out of ourselves, as efficiently producing it. "I ordained their freedom,” says man's Maker in the "Paradise Lost,” “they themselves ordained their fall.” When conscience speaks at all, it tells us not only that we have transgressed the law of righteousness, but that we ought not to have done so, might not have done so, and hence are personally and wholly accountable for the evil. If it were possible wholly to divest ourselves of the sense of responsibility for our evil purposes and deeds by any speculative notions which we may form in respect to the nature of our moral agency, such an effect must necessarily be produced by every system which refers our moral principles and acts to the agency of any cause or motive out of ourselves. Divesting us of our free agency, in the eminent sense of that term, according to which our moral purposes and acts have their true and proper origin in our own being, such systems, of course, divest us at the same time of all real accountability, and make the sense of guilt contradictory and delusive. Sin, in that case, instead of a positive evil originating in ourselves and opposed to God, ceases at once, and of necessity, to be the evil thing which, in the simplicity of our conscientious convictions, we had taken it to be, and becomes simply an outward and incidental affection, or, at ,
best, only a means to an end. Only, then, by the assumption of an absolutely free and responsible will can the true character of sin be interpreted and understood.
Finally, our sense of sin-of that inward moral evil for which we find ourselves responsible—is not limited to our immediate and distinctly conscious purposes, but extends to the secret and, it may be, unconscious principle from which they spring. We talk a great deal about motives. No matter what the outward motive or occasion, it is always by virtue of the moral state of the heart that these external considerationa have the power to become motives, prompting the thief to his midnight plunder, or the murderer to the assassination of his victim. But, says one, I had supposed that, whatever the
FOURTH SERIES, Vol. XXIV.–37
inward drift of character, we were responsible only for our immediate and conscious purposes; or, if you please, for such tendencies, impulses, intentions springing from that inward principle as we voluntarily approved or adopted, or consciously refused to resist. Be not deceived. However we may imagine ourselves irresponsible, or infer from a course of reasoning, however plausible or well intended, that our minds are swayed and our purposes controlled, either by the force of motives acting from without as a necessary cause, or by an inward and almost, if not quite, unconscious drift of being, a fully-awakened conscience will promptly break through all these sophistries, sweep away all these hollow devices and refuges of lies, and tell the deluded soul, in terms which it cannot gainsay, that it is out of his own evil heart that has originated and come forth this guilty purpose and this wicked act. The votary of a lawless ambition is responsible not merely for the particular acts which he purposes and commits, but for the ambition, the wrong principle itself. But he may be insensible of it. No matter; it is his business to be sensible of it. Whatever principle of action manifests itself within iis as directing and controlling our purposes, if in opposition to that law which prescribes the ultimate and absolute end at which we ought to aim, we instinctively, on perceiving, recognize it as wrong, and impute the same to ourselves as sin; nor do we feel our responsibility or guilt the less when we find such wrong principles so deeply seated that, though they have acquired entire control over us, our minds, in consequence, have become quite blinded to all right views of truth and duty. Look at that man of business, with his whole mind occupied and all his thoughts absorbed in the accumulation of wealth. His ordinary consciousness extends only to the immediate purposes and occupations of the day. Of the deeper principle characterizing these, working in him and shaping all his ends, he is, perhaps, for the time wholly unconscious. Shall we say that, therefore, this man is excusable for his blindness and insensibility? Can his unconsciousness of that worldly, selfish principle that thus, by its pervading, controlling influence, distinctly marks the whole character of that man, be plead in extenuation of his guilt? Would it not be a more natural thing to say, that man ought not to be thus