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ON ACTUAL SINS
RESPONDENT, CASPER WILTENS
I. As divines and philosophers are often compelled, on account of a penury of words, to distinguish those which are synonymous, and to receive others in a stricter or more ample signification than their nature and etymology will allow; so in this matter of actual sin, although the term applies also to the first sin of Adam, yet, for the sake of a more accurate distinction, they commonly take it for that sin which man commits, through the corruption of his nature, from the time where he knows how to use reason; and they define it thus: "Something thought, spoken or done against the law of God; or the omission of something which has been commanded by that law to be thought, spoken or done." Or, with more brevity, "Sin is the transgression of the law;" which St. John has explained in this compound word anomia "anomy." (1 John iii. 4.)
II. For as the law is perceptive of good and prohibitory of evil, it is necessary not only that an action, but that the neglect of an action, be accounted a sin. Hence arises the first distinction of sin into that of commission, when a prohibited act is perpetrated, as theft, murder, adultery, &c. And into that of omission, when a man abstains from [the performance of] an act that has been commanded; as if any one does not render due honour to a magistrate, or bestows on the poor nothing in proportion to the amplitude of his means. And since the Law is two-fold, one "the Law of works," properly called, "the Law," the other "the Law of faith," (Rom. iii. 27,) which is the gospel of the grace of God; therefore sin is either that which is committed against the Law, or against the gospel of Christ. (Heb. ii. 2, 3.) That which is committed against the Law, provokes the wrath of God against sinners; that against the gospel, causes the wrath of God to abide upon us; the former, by deserving punishment; the latter, by preventing the remission of punishment.
III. One is a sin per se, "of itself;" another, per accidens, "accidentally." (1.) A sin per se is every external or internal action which is prohibited by the law, or every neglect of an action commanded by the law. (2.) A sin is per accidens either in things necessary and restricted by law, or in things indifferent. In things necessary, either when an act prescribed by law is performed without its due circumstances, such as to bestow alms that you obtain praise from men; (Matt. vi. 2;) or when an act prohibited by law is omitted, not from a due cause and for a just end; as when any one represses his anger at the moment, that he may afterwards exact more cruel vengeance. In things indifferent, when any one uses them to the offense of the weak. (Rom. xiv. 15, 21.)
IV. Sin is likewise divided in reference to the personal object against whom the offense is committed; and it is either against God, against our neighbour, or against ourselves, according to what the Apostle says: "The grace of God that bringeth salvation, hath appeared to all men, teaching us, that denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously and godly, in this present world." (Tit. ii. 11.) Where soberness is appropriately referred to the man himself; righteousness to our neighbour; and godliness to God: These, we affirm, are likewise contained in the two grand precepts, "Love God above all things," and "Love thy neighbour as thyself." For howsoever it may seem, that the ten commandments prescribe only what is due to God and to our neighbour; yet this very requirement is of such a nature that it cannot be performed by a man without fulfilling at the same time his duty to himself.
V. It is further distinguished, from its cause, into sins of ignorance, infirmity, malignity and negligence. (1.) A sin of ignorance is, when a man does any thing which he does not know to be a sin; thus, Paul persecuted Christ in his Church. (1 Tim. i. 13.) (2.) A sin of infirmity is, when, through fear, which may befall even a brave man, or through any other more vehement passion and perturbation of mind, he commits any offense; thus, Peter denied Christ, (Matt. xxvi, 70,) and thus David, being offended by Nabal, was proceeding to destroy him and his domestics. (1 Sam. xxv. 13, 21.) (3.) A sin of dignity or malice, when any thing is committed with a determined purpose of mind, and with deliberate counsel; thus Judas denied Christ, (Matt. xxvi. 14, 15.) and thus David caused Uriah to be killed. (2 Sam. xi. 15.) (4.) A sin of negligence is, when a man is overtaken by a sin, (Gal. vi, l.) which encircles and besets him before he can reflect within himself about the deed. (Heb. xii. 1.) In this description will be classed that of St. Paul against Ananias the High Priest, if indeed he may be said to have sinned in that matter. (Acts xxiii. 3.)
VI. Nearly allied to this is the distribution of sin into that which is contrary to conscience, and that which is not contrary to conscience. (1.) A sin against conscience is one that is perpetrated through malice and deliberate purpose, laying waste the conscience, and (if committed by holy persons) grieving the Holy Spirit so much as to cause Him to desist from his usual functions of leading them into the right way, and of making them glad in their consciences by his inward testimony. (Psalm li. 10, 13.) This is called, by way of eminence, "a sin against conscience;" though, when this phrase is taken in a wide acceptation, a sin which is committed through infirmity, but which has a previous sure knowledge that is applied to the deed, might also be said to be against conscience. (2.) A sin not against conscience is either that which is by no means such, and which is not committed through a willful and wished-for ignorance of the law, as the man who neglects to know what he is capable of knowing: or it is that which at least is not such in a primary degree, but is precipitated through precipitancy, the cause of which is a vehement and unforeseen temptation. Of this kind, was the too hasty judgment of David against Mephibosheth, produced by the grievous accusation of Ziba, which happened at the very time when David fled. This bore a strong resemblance to a falsehood. (2 Sam. xvi. 3, 4.) Yet that which, when once committed, is not contrary to conscience, becomes contrary to it when more frequently repeated, and when the man neglects self-correction.
VII. To this may be added, the division of sin from its causes, with regard to the real object about which the sin is perpetrated. This object is either "the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, or the pride of life," that is, either pleasure specially so called, or avarice, or arrogant haughtiness; all of which, proceeding from the single fountain of self love or inordinate affection, tend distinctly towards the good things of the present life, haughtiness towards its honours, avarice towards its riches, and pleasure towards those things by which the external senses may experience self-gratification. From these arise those works of the flesh which are enumerated by the apostle in Gal. v. 19-21, perhaps with the exception of idolatry. Yet it may be made a legitimate subject of discussion, whether idolatry may not be referred to one of these three causes.
VIII. Sin is also divided into venial and mortal: but this distribution is not deduced from the nature of sin itself, but accidentally from the gracious estimation of God. For every sin is in its own nature mortal, that is, it is that which merits death; because it is declared universally concerning sin, that "its wages is death," (Rom. vi. 23,) which might in truth be brought instantly down upon the offenders, were God wishful to enter into judgment with his servants. But that which denominates sin venial, or capable of being forgiven, is this circumstance, God is not willing to impute sin to believers, or to place sin against them, but is desirous to pardon it; although with this difference, that it requires express penitence from some, while concerning others it is content with this expression: "Who can understand his errors? Cleanse thou me, O Lord, from secret faults." (Psalm xix. 12.) In this case, the ground of fear is not so much, lest, from the aggravation of sin, men should fall into despair, as, lest, from its extenuation, they should relapse into negligence and security; not only because man has a greater propensity to the latter than to the former, but likewise because that declaration is always at hand: have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth," that is, of the sinner who has merited death by his transgressions, "but that he be converted and live." (Ezek. xviii. 32.)
IX. Because we say that the wages of every sin is death," we do not, on this account, with the Stoics, make them all equal. For, beside the refutation of such an opinion by many passages of Scripture, it is likewise opposed to the diversity of objects against which sin is perpetrated, to the causes from which it arises, and to the law against which the offense is committed. Besides, the disparity of punishments in the death that is eternal, proves the falsehood of this sentiment: For a crime against God is more grievous than one against man; (1 Sam. ii. 25;) one that is perpetrated with a high hand, than one through error; one against a prohibitory law, than one against a mandatory law. And far more severe will be the punishment inflicted on the inhabitants of Chorazin and Bethsaida, than on those of Tyre and Sidon. (Matt. xi. 23.) By means of this dogma, the Stoics have endeavoured to turn men aside from the commission of crimes; but their attempt has not only been fruitless, but also injurious, as will be seen when we institute a serious deliberation about bringing man back from sin into the way of righteousness.
X. Mention is likewise made, in the Scriptures, of "a sin unto death;" (1 John v. 16;) which is specially so called, because it in fact, brings certain death on all by whom it has been committed. Mention is made in the same passage of "a sin which is not unto death," and which is opposed to the former. In a parallel column with these, marches the division of sin into pardonable and unpardonable. (1.) A sin which is "not unto death" and pardonable, is so called, because it is capable of having subsequent repentance, and thus of being pardoned, and because to many persons it is actually pardoned through succeeding penitence-such as that which is said to be committed against "the Son of Man." (2.) The "sin unto death" or unpardonable, is that which never has subsequent repentance, or the author of which cannot be recalled to penitence—such as that which is called "the sin" or "blasphemy against the Holy Ghost," (Matt. xii. 32; Luke xii. 10,) of which it is said, "it shall not be forgiven, either in this world, or in the world to come." For this reason, St. John says, we must not pray for that sin.
XI. But, though the proper meaning and nature of the sin against the Holy Ghost are with the utmost difficulty to be ascertained, yet we prefer to follow those who have furnished the most weighty and grievous definition of it, rather than those who, in maintaining six species of it, have been compelled to explain "unpardonable" in some of those species, for that which is with difficulty or is rarely remitted, or which of itself deserves not to be pardoned. With the former class of persons, therefore, we say that the sin against the Holy Ghost is committed when any man, with determined malice, resists divine, and in fact, evangelical truth, for the sake of resistance, though he is so overpowered with the refulgence of it, as to be rendered incapable of pleading ignorance in excuse. This is therefore called "the sin against the Holy Ghost, not because it is not perpetrated against the Father and the Son; (for how can it be that he does not sin against the Father and the Son, who sins against the Spirit of both?) but because it is committed against the operation of the Holy Spirit, that is, against the conviction of the truth through miracles, and against the illumination of the mind.
XII. But the cause why this sin is called "irremissible," and why he who has committed it, cannot be renewed to repentance, is not the impotency of God, as though by his most absolute omnipotence, he cannot grant to this man repentance unto life, and thus cannot pardon this blasphemy; but since it is necessary, that the mercy of God should stop at some point, being circumscribed by the limits of his justice and equity according to the prescript of his wisdom, this sin is said to be "unpardonable," because God accounts the man who has perpetrated so horrid a crime, and has done despite to the Spirit of grace, to be altogether unworthy of having the divine benignity and the operation of the Holy Spirit occupied in his conversion, lest he should himself appear to esteem this sacred operation and kindness at a low rate, and to stand in need of a sinful man, especially of one who is such a monstrous sinner!
XIII. The efficient cause of actual sins is, man through his own free will. The inwardly working cause is the original propensity of our nature towards that which is contrary to the divine law, which propensity we have contracted from our first parents, through carnal generation. The outwardly working causes are the objects and occasions which solicit men to sin. The substance or material cause, is an act which, according to its nature, has reference to good. The form or formal cause of it is a transgression of the law, or an anomy. It is destitute of an end; because sin is amartia a transgression which wanders from its aim. The object of it is a variable good; to which, when man is inclined, after having deserted the unchangeable good, he commits an offense.
XIV. The effect of actual sins are all the calamities and miseries of the present life, then death temporal, and afterwards death eternal. But in those who are hardened and blinded, even the effects of preceding sins become cousequent sins themselves.
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