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THE THREE FACTS OF SIN
“Who forgiveth all thine iniquities;
Who healeth all thy diseases;
Who redeemeth thy life from destruction.”—Ps. ciii. 3, 4.
THERE is one theological word which has found its way lately into nearly all the newer and finer literature of our country. It is not only one of the words of the literary world at present, it is perhaps the word. Its reality, its certain influence, its universality, have at last been recognised, and in spite of its theological name have forced it into a place which nothing but its felt relation to the wider theology of human life could ever have earned for a religious word. That word, it need scarcely be said, is Sin.
Even in the lighter literature of our country, and this is altogether remarkable, the ruling word just now is Sin. Years ago it was the gay term Chivalry which held the foreground in poem and ballad and song. Later still, the word which held court, in novel and romance, was Love. But now a deeper word heads the chapters and begins the cantos. A more exciting thing than chivalry is descried in the arena, and love itself fades in interest before this small word, which has wandered out of theology, and changed the face of literature, and made many a new book preach.
It is not for religion to complain that her vocabulary is being borrowed by the world. There may be pulpits where there are not churches; and it is a valuable discovery for religion that the world has not only a mind to be amused but a conscience to be satisfied. But religion has one duty in the matter—when her words are borrowed, to see that they are borrowed whole. Truth which is to pass into such common circulation must not be mutilated truth; it must be strong, ringing, decided, whole; it must be standard truth; in a word. it must be Bible truth.
Now the Bible truth about this word is in itself interesting and very striking. In David especially, where the delineations are most perfect and masterly, the reiteration and classification of the great facts and varieties of sin form one of the most instructive and impressive features of the sacred writings. The Psalms will ever be the standard work on Sin—the most ample analysis of its nature, its effects, its shades of difference, and its cure.
And yet, though it is such a common thing, I daresay many of us, perhaps, do not know anything about it. Somehow, it is just the common things we are apt not to think about. Take the commonest of all things—air. What do we know about it? What do we know about water?—that great mysterious sea, on which some of you spend your lives, which moans all the long winter at your very doors. Sin is a commoner thing than them all; deeper than the sea, more subtle than the air; mysterious indeed, moaning in all our lives, through all the winter and summer of our past—that shall last, in the undying soul of man, when there shall be no more sea. To say the least of it, it is unreasonable that a man should live in sin all his life without knowing in some measure what he is about.
And as regards the higher bearings of the case, it is clear that without the fullest information about sin no man can ever have the fullest information about himself, which he ought to have; and what is of more importance, without understanding sin no man can ever understand God. Even the Christian who has only the ordinary notions of sin in the general, can neither be making very much of himself nor of his theology; for as a rule, a man’s experience of religion and of grace is in pretty exact proportion to his experience of sin.
No doubt, the intimate knowledge of themselves which the Old Testament writers possessed, had everything to do with their intimate knowledge of God. David, for instance, who had the deepest knowledge of God, had also the deepest knowledge of his own heart; and if there is one thing more conspicuous than another in the writings he has left us, it is the ceaseless reiteration of the outstanding facts of Sin—the cause, the effects, the shades of difference, and the cure of Sin.
In the clause which forms our text to-day, David has given us in a nutshell the whole of the main facts of Sin. And for any one who wishes to become acquainted with the great pivots on which human life turns, and on which his own life turns; for any one who wishes to understand the working of God’s grace; for any one who wishes to examine himself on the great facts of human Sin; there is no more admirable summary than these words:
“Who forgiveth all thine iniquities; Who healeth all thy diseases; Who redeemeth thy life from destruction.”
These facts of Sin, when we pass it through the prism of the text, may be said to be three in number: the Guilt of Sin, the Stain of Sin, the Power of Sin.
And these three correspond roughly with the natural divisions of the text:
Who forgiveth all thine iniquities = the Guilt of Sin.
Who healeth all thy diseases = the Stain of Sin.
Who redeemeth thy life from destruction = the Power of Sin.
The best fact to start with will perhaps be the last of these; and for this reason the word Life is in it. “Who redeemeth thy Life from destruction.” We have all a personal interest in anything that concerns life. We can understand things—even things in theology—if they will only bear upon our life. And to anything which in any way comes home to life, in influencing it, or bettering it, or telling upon it in any way whatever, we are always ready, for our life’s sake, to give a patient hearing. We feel prepared to take kindly to almost any doctrine if it will only bear upon our life. And surely in the whole range of truth none has more points of contact with the heart of man than the doctrine of the Power of Sin.
(1) In the first place, then, let us notice that Sin is a Power, and a power which concerns Life.
There is an old poem which bears the curious title of “Strife in Heaven,” the idea of which is something like this. The poet supposes himself to be walking in the streets of the New Jerusalem, when he comes to a crowd of saints engaged in a very earnest discussion. He draws near, and listens. The question they are discussing is, Which of them is the greatest monument of God’s saving grace. After a long debate, in which each states his case separately, and each claims to have been by far the most wonderful trophy of God’s love in all the multitude of the redeemed, it is finally agreed to settle the matter by a vote. Vote after vote is taken, and the list of competition is gradually reduced until only two remain. These are allowed to state their case again, and the company stand ready to join in the final vote. The first to speak is a very old man. He begins by saying that it is a mere waste of time to go any further; it is absolutely impossible that God’s grace could have done more for any man in heaven than for him. He tells again how he had led a most wicked and vicious life—a life filled up with every conceivable indulgence, and marred with every crime. He has been a thief, a liar, a blasphemer, a drunkard, and a murderer. On his deathbed, at the eleventh hour, Christ came to him and he was forgiven. The other is also an old man who says, in a few words, that he was brought to Christ when he was a boy. He had led a quiet and uneventful life, and had looked forward to heaven as long as he could remember.
The vote is taken; and, of course, you would say it results in favour of the first. But no, the votes are all given to the last. We might have thought, perhaps, that the one who led the reckless, godless life—he who had lied, thieved, blasphemed, murdered; he who was saved by the skin of his teeth, just a moment before it might have been too late—had the most to thank God for. But the old poet knew the deeper truth. It required great grace verily to pluck that withered brand from the burning. It required depths, absolutely fathomless depths, of mercy to forgive that veteran in sin at the close of all those guilty years. But it required more grace to keep that other life from guilt through all those tempted years. It required more grace to save him from the sins of his youth, and keep his Christian boyhood pure, to steer him scathless through the tempted years of riper manhood, to crown his days with usefulness and his old age with patience and hope. Both started in life together; to one grace came at the end, to the other at the beginning. The first was saved from the guilt of sin, the second from the power of sin as well. The first was saved from dying in sin. But he who became a Christian in his boyhood was saved from living in sin. The one required just one great act of love at the close of life; the other had a life full of love,—it was a greater salvation by far. His soul was forgiven like the other, but his life was redeemed from destruction.
The lesson to be gathered from the old poet’s parable is that sin is a question of power as much as a question of guilt,—that salvation is a question of Life perhaps far more than a question of Death. There is something in every man’s life which he needs saving from, something which would spoil his life and run off with it into destruction if let alone. This principle of destruction is the first great fact of Sin—its power.
Now any man who watches his life from day to day, and especially if he is trying to steer it towards a certain moral mark which he has made in his mind, has abundant and humiliating evidence that this Power is busily working in his life. He finds that this Power is working against him in his life, defeating him at every turn, and persistently opposing all the good he tries to do. He finds that his natural bias is to break away from God and good. Then he is clearly conscious that there is an acting ingredient in his soul which not only neutralizes the inclination to follow the path which he knows to be straightest and best, but works continually and consistently against his better self, and urges his life onwards towards a broader path which leads to destruction.
Now it was this road which David had in his mind when he thanked God that his life had been redeemed, or kept back from destruction. It was a beaten track we may be sure in those times, as it is to-day, and David knew perfectly well when he penned these words that God’s hand had veritably saved him from ending his life along that road. It was not enough in summing up his life in his old age, and calling upon his soul to bless the Lord for all His benefits, to thank Him simply for the forgiveness of his sins. God has done far more for him than forgive him his sins. He has redeemed his life from destruction. He has saved him from the all but omnipotent power of Sin. What that power was, what that power might have become, how it might have broken loose and wrecked his life a thousand times, let those who remember the times when it did break loose in David’s life, recall. How little might we have guessed that there was anything in the psalmist’s life to make him thank God at its close for keeping it back from destruction. Brought up in the secluded plains of Bethlehem, and reared in the pure atmosphere of country innocence, where could the shepherd lad get any taint of sin which could develop in after years to a great destroying power? And yet he got it—somehow, he got it. And even in his innocent boyhood, the fatal power lurked there, able enough, willing enough, vicious enough, to burst through the boundaries of his life and wreck it ere it reached its prime. All the time he was walking with God; all the time he was planning God’s temple; all the time he was writing his holy Psalms—which make all men wonder at the psalmist’s grace; while he was playing their grave sweet melody upon his harp in the ear of God, the power of sin was seething and raging in his breast, ready to quench the very inspiration God was giving him, and ruin his religion and his soul for evermore. God kept His hand, we may be sure, through David’s life, on the springs of David’s sin; and there was nothing so much to thank God for, in taking the retrospect of his eventful course, than that his life had been redeemed from this first great fact of Sin.
David’s salvation, to round off the point with an analogy from the old poet, was a much more wonderful thing than, say, the dying thief’s salvation. David cost grace far more than the dying thief. The dying thief only needed dying grace. David needed living grace. The thief only needed forgiving grace; David needed forgiving grace and restraining grace. He needed grace to keep in his life, to keep it from running away. But the thief needed no restraining grace. The time for that was past. His life had run away. His wild oats were sown, and the harvest was heavy and bitter. Destruction had come upon him already in a hundred forms. He had had no antidote to the power of sin, which runs so fiercely in every vein of every man, and he had destroyed himself. His character was ruined, his soul was honey-combed through and through with sin. He could not have joined in David’s psalm that his life was saved from destruction. His death was, and the wreck of his soul was, but his life was lost to God, to the world, and to himself. His life had never been redeemed as David’s was; so David was the greater debtor to God’s grace, and few men have had greater reason than he to praise God in old age for redeeming their life from destruction.
Yes, there is more in salvation than forgiveness. And why? Because there is more in sin than guilt. “If I were to be forgiven to-day,” men who do not know this say, “I should be as bad as ever to-morrow.” No, that is based on the fallacy, it is based on the heresy, that there is no more for a man in religion than forgiveness of sins. If there were not, I say it with all solemnity, it would be very little use to me. It would have been little use to a man like David. And David’s life would have been incomplete, and David’s psalm would have been impossible, had he not been able to add to the record of God’s pardon the record of God’s power in redeeming his life from destruction. We have all thanked God for the dying thief—have we ever thanked God for redeeming our life from destruction? Destruction is the natural destination of every human soul. It is as natural for our soul to go downward as for a stone to fall to the ground. Do we ever thank God for redeeming our soul from that? And when we thank God we are saved, do we mean we are saved from hell, or do we think sometimes how He has rescued our life from the destroying power of sin?
(2) The Stain of Sin.
The power of sin could never run through a man’s life without leaving its mark behind. Nothing in the world ever works without friction. A mountain torrent digs a glen in the mountain side; the sea cuts a beach along the shore; the hurricane leaves a thousand fallen witnesses behind to mark its track. And the great river of sin, as it rolls through a human life, leaves a pile of ruins here and there as melancholy monuments to show where it has been. Nature, with all its strength, is a wonderfully delicate machine, and everything has its reaction somewhere and some time. Nothing is allowed to pass, and nothing has so appalling a reaction upon every one and everything as sin.
History is an undying monument of human sin. The most prominent thing on its pages are the stains—the stains of sin which time has not rubbed out. The history of the world, for the most part, has been written in the world’s blood; and all the reigns of all its emperors and kings will one day be lost in one absorbing record of one great reign—the one long reign of sin. As it has been with history so it is in the world to-day. The surface of society is white with leprosy. Take away the power of sin to-morrow, the stain of sin remains. Whatever the world may suffer from want of conviction of the guilt of sin, it will never be without conviction of its stain. We see it in one another’s lives. We see it in one another’s faces. It is the stain of the world’s sin that troubles the world’s conscience. It is the stain of the world’s sin that troubles philanthropy; that troubles the Parliament of the country; that troubles the Press of the country. It is the stain of the world’s sin especially that is making a place in literature for this word sin. It is this side of sin that is absorbing the finest writing of the day; that is filling our modern poetry; that is making a thousand modern books preach the doctrine of Retribution, which simply means the doctrine of the stain of sin. Society is not wise enough to see the power of sin, or religious enough to see the guilt of sin; but it cannot fail to see the stain of sin. It does not care for the power or the guilt of sin; it cares for the stain of sin, because it must. That troubles society. That lies down at its doors, and is an eyesore to it. It is a loathsome thing to be lying there, and society must do something. So this is what it does with it: on one corner it builds a prison—this will rid the world of its annoyance. In another corner it plants a madhouse—the sore may fester there unseen. In another it raises an hospital; in a fourth it lays out a grave-yard. Prisons, mad-houses, hospitals —these are just so much roofing which society has put on to hide the stain of sin. It is a good thing in some ways that sin has always its stain. Just as pain is a good thing to tell that something is wrong, so the stain of sin may be a good thing to tell that the power has broken loose. Society might never trouble itself if it were not for the stain. And in dealing with the stain of sin it sometimes may do a very little to maim its power. But it is a poor, poor remedy. If it could only see the power and try to deal with that—try to get God’s grace to act on that, the world might be redeemed from destruction after all. But it only sees the stain when it is too late—the stain which has dropped from the wound after the throat of virtue has been cut. Surely, when the deed is done, it is the least it can do to remove the traces of the crime.
But one need not go to society or history to see the stains of sin. We see it in one another’s lives and in our own lives. Our conscience, for instance, is not so quick as it might have been—the stains of sin are there, between us and the light. We have ignored conscience many a time when it spoke, and its voice has grown husky and indistinct. Our intellectual life is not so true as it might have been—our intellectual sins have stained it and spoilt our memory, and taken the edge off our sympathy, and filled us with suspicion and one-sided truths, and destroyed the delicate power of faith.
There are few more touching sights than to see a man in mature life trying to recover himself from the stains of a neglected past. The past itself is gone; but it remains in dark accumulated stains upon his life, and he tries to take them off in vain. There was a time once, when his robe was white and clean. “Keep your garment unspotted from the world,” they said to him, the kind home-voices, as he went out into life. He remembers well the first spot on that robe. Even the laden years that lie between have no day so dark—no spot now lies so lurid red upon his soul as that first sin. Then the companion stain came, for sins are mostly twins. Then another, and another, and many more, till count was lost, and the whole robe was patterned over with sin-stains. The power of God has come to make a new man of him, but the stains are sunk so deeply in his soul that they are living parts of him still. It is hard for him to give up the world. It is hard for him to be pure. It is hard for him to forget the pictures which have been hanging in the galleries of his imagination all his life—to forget them when he comes to think of God; to forget them when he kneels down to pray; to forget them even when he comes to sit in church. The past of his life has been all against him; and even if his future is religious, it can never be altogether unaffected by the stain of what has been. It is the stain of sin which makes repentance so hard in adult life, which yields the most impressive argument to the young to remember their Creator in their youth. For even “the angels,” says Ruskin, “who rejoice over repentance, cannot but feel an uncomprehended pain as they try and try again in vain whether they may not warm hard hearts with the brooding of their kind wings.”
But if the stain of sin is invisible in moral and intellectual life, no one can possibly be blind to it in bodily life. We see it in one another’s lives, but more than that, we see it in one another’s faces. Vice writes in plain characters, and all the world is its copybook. We can read it everywhere and on everything around, from pole to pole. The drunkard, to take the conspicuous example, so stains his bodily life with his sin that the seeds of disease are sown which, long after he has reformed, will germinate in his death. If all the drunkards in the world were to be changed to-morrow, the stains of sin in their bodies even would doubtless bring a large majority—in a few years, less or more—to what was after all really a drunkard’s grave.
There is a physical demonstration of sin as well as a religious; and no sin can come in among the delicate faculties of the mind, or among the coarser fibres of the body, without leaving a stain, either as a positive injury to the life, or, what is equally fatal, as a predisposition to commit the same sin again. This predisposition is always one of the most real and appalling accompaniments of the stain of sin. There is scarcely such a thing as an isolated sin in a man’s life. Most sins can be accounted for by what has gone before. Every sin, so to speak, has its own pedigree, and is the result of the accumulated force, which means the accumulated stain of many a preparatory sin.
Thus when Peter began to swear in the High Priest’s palace it was probably not the first time Peter swore. A man does not suddenly acquire the habit of uttering oaths; and when it is said of Peter, “Then began he to curse and to swear, it does not at all mean by “then” and “began” that he had not begun it long ago. The legitimate inference is, that in the rough days of his fisherman’s life, when the nets got entangled perhaps, or the right wind would not blow, Peter had come out many a time with an oath to keep his passion cool. And now, after years of devoted fellowship with Christ, the stain is still so black upon his soul that he curses in the very presence of his Lord. An outbreak which meets the public eye is generally the climax of a series of sins, which discretion has been able, till then, to keep out of sight. The doctrine of the stain of sin, has no exceptions; and few men, we may be sure, can do a suddenly notorious wrong without knowing something in private of the series to which it belongs.
But the most solemn fact about this stain of sin is that so little can be done for it. It is almost indelible. There is a very solemn fact about this stain of sin—it can never be altogether blotted out. The guilt of sin may be forgiven, the power of sin may be broken, but the stains of sin abide. When it is said, “He healeth our diseases,” it means indeed that we may be healed; but the ravages which sin has left must still remain. Small-pox may be healed, but it leaves its mark behind. A cut limb may be cured, but the scar remains for ever. An earthquake is over in three minutes, but centuries after the ground is still rent into gulfs and chasms which ages will never close. So the scars of sin on body and mind and soul live with us in silent retribution upon our past, and go with us to our graves.
And the stain does not stop with our lives. Every action of every man has an ancestry and a posterity in other lives. The stains of life have power to spread. The stains of other lives have crossed over into our lives, stains from our lives into theirs. “I am a part,” says Tennyson, “of all that I have met.” A hundred years hence we all must live again—in thoughts, in tendencies, in influences, perhaps in sins and stains in other lives. The sins of the father shall be visited on the children. The blight on the vicious parent shall be visited on the insane offspring. The stain on the intemperate mother shall reappear in the blasted lives of her drunken family. Finer forms of sin reappear in the same way—of companion on companion, of brother on sister, of teacher on pupil. For God Himself has made the law, that the curse must follow the breach; and even He who healeth our diseases may never interfere with the necessary stain of a sinful life.
“Take my influence,” cried a sinful man, who was dying; “take my influence, and bury it with me.” He was going to be with Christ, his influence had been against Him; he was leaving it behind. As a conspirator called by some act of grace to his sovereign’s table remembers with unspeakable remorse the assassin whom he left in ambuscade at his king’s palace gate, so he recalls the traitorous years and the influences which will plot against his Lord when he is in eternity. Oh, it were worth being washed from sin, were it only to escape the possibility of a treachery like that. It were worth living a holy and self-denying life, were it only to “join the choir invisible of those immortal dead who live again in lives made better by their presence.”
(3) But now, lastly, we come to the third great fact of Sin, its Guilt. And we find ourselves face to face with the greatest question of all, “What has God to say to all this mass of Sin?”
Probably every one will acknowledge that his life bears witness to the two first facts of Sin. Starting with this admission, a moment’s thought lands us in a greater admission. We all acknowledge sin. Therefore we must all acknowledge ourselves to be guilty. Whether we feel it or no, Guilt is inseparable from Sin. Physical evil may make a man sorry, but moral evil makes him guilty. It may not make him feel guilty —we are speaking of facts—he is guilty. So we are guilty for our past lives. We may be sorry for the past. But it is not enough that we are sorry, we are guilty for the past. We are more than sinners, we are criminals. This is where the literary conception of Sin is altogether defective and must be supplemented. It knows nothing, and can teach nothing, of the guilt of a sinner’s soul. It is when we come to God that we learn this. God is our Father, but God is our Judge. And when we know that, our sin takes on a darker colouring. It grows larger than our life, and suddenly seems to be infinite. The whole world, the whole universe, is concerned in it. Sin only made us recoil from ourselves before; now it makes God recoil from us. We are out of harmony with God. Our iniquities have separated us from God, and in some mysterious way we have come to be answerable to Him. We feel that the Lord has turned and looked upon us as He looked at Peter, and we can only go out and weep bitterly.
If these experiences are foreign to our souls, we must feel our sense of guilt when we come to look at Christ. Christ could not move through the world without the mere spectacle of His life stirring to their very depths the hearts of every one whose path He crossed. And Christ cannot move through the chambers of our thoughts without the dazzling contrast to ourselves startling into motion the sense of burning shame and sin. But, above all, Christ could not die upon the cross without witnessing to all eternity of the appalling greatness of human guilt. And it is the true climax of conviction which the prophet speaks of: “They shall look on Me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn.”
This conviction of Sin, in this the deepest sense, is not a thing to talk about, but to feel. And when it is felt, it cannot be talked about. It is too deep for words. It comes as an unutterable woe upon the life, and rests there, in dark sorrow and heaviness, till Christ speaks Peace.
Such, in outline, are the three facts of Sin. They are useful in two ways: they teach us ourselves, and they teach us God. It is along these three lines that you will find salvation. Run your eye along the first—the power of Sin—and you will understand Jesus. “Thou shalt call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins.” Look at the second—the stain of Sin—and you will understand the righteousness of Christ. You will see the need of the One pure life. You will be glad that there has been One who has kept His garment unspotted from the world.
Look at the third, and you will see the Lamb of God taking away the Sin of the world. You will understand the Atonement. You will pray:—
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Cleanse me from its guilt and power.
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