How To Detect Sin
I will now proceed to discuss the question, how to detect sin; how to pronounce upon our actions, as to whether they are pleasing or displeasing to God, how to distinguish right from wrong, and to be certain of the right way, so as to please God in all things.
In the first place, I must say that God cannot look on sin with any degree of allowance. Sin is that thing which God hates. God is a jealous God, and will have all the heart or none. He will not, in my opinion, wink even at ONE sin. Christians should be clean, pure, good, true, honest, upright men, having a conscience void of offence toward God and man. Yet, while this is so, no merely human being can be an infallible judge of what is right and what is wrong, because we cannot properly weigh motives. We may see what the actions of men are, but as a rule, we cannot judge of motives, nor see the conscience of the man who performs the actions. To judge of motives, is God’s prerogative, and he who impugns any man’s motives without getting the mind of God usurps the authority of God.
Now, while this remark will be readily admitted concerning the motives of other men, I go a step further and say that a man cannot even be a sure judge of his own thoughts or motives nor in certain cases of his actions. Such is the subtlety of our feelings, and the seductiveness of our reasoning, that under different states of mind and feeling, we change our opinions of our own acts. Certain thoughts and propensities when we are in certain states of mind, seem to be right; while under other states of mind, they are doubtful; and then again they look entirely wrong. This process is often reversed, starting first with an adverse verdict and finishing up with one of approval. The great question is: “How can a man infallibly judge, so that on the one hand he will not call right what God calls wrong, and on the other hand, call wrong what God calls right?”
I certainly believe that many conscientious people pronounce judgment against themselves, when God does not pronounce against them. It must not be overlooked in this connection that “The Devil is the accuser of the brethren,” and if a conscientious person is in doubt concerning any thought or motive, the wicked one will not be slow in using his influence along the line of condemnation.
Now does it seem reasonable that God intends to leave us in such a doubtful position as this? Surely, there must be some way by which a Christian can get authoritative judgment at such times; and I am glad to know that there is a way. The Bible says, “If any man lacks wisdom let him ask of God,” and at such a stage as here contemplated, “Wisdom is the principal thing”; but it should be clear to all, that whatever wisdom is necessary can be had for the asking.
Our temptations are permitted doubtless for a wise purpose, and as before remarked, they are educative, but we should be careful not to pronounce sin against ourselves, when we are going through this process of training in the Providence of God. Our feelings and motives are seductive, and cannot be trusted either to approve or condemn, and certainly when we are conscious that we have honesty of purpose to serve God, we should go to a higher tribunal than our own doubting hearts or an enemy before we take condemnation.
But it certainly takes more than human wisdom for a Christian to understand some of the temptations and experiences which beset him in life. It cannot be that God will ever lead His child to do that which is wrong, but He may cause him to do that which to his finite reasoning may look like it, and yet after all not be so.
Take for example the case of Abraham: he was distinctly told by God to offer up his son Isaac as a sacrifice. If Abraham had been governed by the creed even of the age in which He lived, he would have seen that to slay his son was murder, and to commit murder was sinful: but he realized that God distinctly told him to do that thing, and so proceeded to carry it out, notwithstanding it could not be harmonized with his ideas of right and wrong. He simply knew that to obey God was safe, and I believe expected that God would stay his hand before the actual deed was done, just as it turned out.
If Abraham is an example of the way God allows His children to be tempted, we cannot always tell, with certainty, by any reasoning process or by any creed, whether temptations are right or wrong: and the only thing we can do, is to be sure that we are obeying the voice of God, and though that may seem to be taking us along a line which may not be approved of by our own ideas, or those of the best people, we may be sure that it is only seeming, for God will not permit us to do anything that is morally wrong. Hence, our attitude in all such times of temptation is to look to God, and to do His bidding, and not be governed by our own merely human notion of things, and we may be sure that the sequel will be well pleasing to God, to good men and the angels, as in the case of Abraham.
But how may we know the voice of God? Precisely the same way as we know the voice of our most familiar friend, and how that is I cannot explain, except to say that, the knowledge comes by experience. Any man who takes the position that God cannot, or will not, make Himself understood to one of His children in the matter of duty, is a practical infidel. God speaks to the Christian all along the journey of life the same
There is no doubt danger in this teaching, to persons who are not really spiritual or acquainted with God, or right in their minds; just as a road may be very dangerous for the blind and yet be the best road for the seeing, or just as sharp-edge tools, and powerful explosives, are dangerous to lunatics, children and careless persons, but are absolutely essential for the highest good of humanity under modern conditions. In fact there is danger in all privilege, and in all duty-doing, and the more exalted the privilege, or the duty, the greater the danger. But in the finality of things, our only safety is to obey God and be true to the light He gives; and the dangers of this course are only incidental and generally, if not always, avoidable. as He did at the beginning when He told him his sins were forgiven. Jesus said, the sheep hear his voice, and a stranger will they not follow, for they know not the voice of strangers.
Take the case of Peter in his vision while tarrying at the city of Joppa. In that vision, God bade him to do what his creed told him was sinful; the voice said, “Arise, Peter, slay and eat;” and he said, “Not so, Lord, for nothing common or unclean, hath at any time entered into my mouth;” but the voice answered him again, “Fear not, what God hath cleansed, call thou not common.” Here we have it clearly set forth, that the voice of God must be obeyed, and not creed or our human opinion; for creeds and human opinions may be wrong, but God is never wrong. Sin is a deadly thing, and God hates it, but God alone can absolutely determine what sin is, and when we commit it. Hence, God alone must approve or condemn the thoughts or actions of the individual Christian.
This certainly is Christ’s teaching, for He said, when the Holy Spirit came, that He would convince of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment. That is, I take it, He will convince us when we do wrong; He will show the world and the individual what sin is, and will convince us when we do right, and give us clear judgment to discern between the evil and the good. The Holy Spirit, Jesus said, would teach us all things, and His teaching must be pre-eminently on matters of right and wrong, on acts which please God, and on those acts which displease Him. Hence, the Christian who recognizes the Holy Spirit in his life, and is convinced of the Spirit’s personality and abiding presence, and leans upon His teaching and follows His guiding hand, will in all cases have Him, and no other person, pronounce upon the character of his actions and the quality of his thoughts.
The Scriptures are, I believe, a sufficient rule of faith and practice, inasmuch as they refer us to God, the only absolute rule. The Scriptures are not to take the place of God, but to lead us to God; they are not the guide, though they are a good guide-book. The Scriptures themselves are not the Physician, they are the prescription, they are not in themselves even the medicine, but they tell where the medicine can be procured. The Scriptures are neither God nor guide, but they point out the only God and reveal the only True Guide; but he who expects to find in the letter of the Scriptures full directions for every emergency in life, dishonors the teaching of the good book, practically dethrones God, and will die a disappointed man.
The Scriptures contain the history of the Church of God, and hand down to us the record of the various dispensations and the laws that God made to govern such dispensations. But as we all know, the Scriptures of necessity approve of some actions in one place, and disapprove of them in another, and are consistent in so doing. He who obeys God’s commands is holy, while he who disobeys is a sinner; but God’s commands must necessarily vary with varying circumstances. Bible principles never change, but the application of them must change of necessity. Jesus gave the only two commandments that never change, and they are always binding: namely, love to God and love to man; but no man can carry out even these without the wisdom and power of God.
A change of orders or commands is seen even in the short history of Jesus upon the earth. At one period, he wisely forbade his disciples to take staff or scrip or make any provision for their journey, or take anything to defend themselves with; and at another period and under different circumstances, he said to them, “When I sent you without purse, and scrip, and shoes, lacked ye anything?” And they said, “Nothing.” Then said He unto them, “But now he that hath a purse, let him take it and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword let him sell his garment and buy one,” and both commands were doubtless wise under the different circumstances. He, however, who would now attempt to keep one of these commands as he goes on a journey for God must disobey the other; but he who takes the Bible as a history of the way in which God has guided in the past, and is governed by the same principles as holy men of God were then governed, will find that the Scriptures are of exceeding great value, for he will, as these holy men did, take God as his guide, and permit Him to direct in all the emergencies of life.
The Bible, as I have said, is not a book of rules, but a book of principles which are applicable, I believe, to all the varying conditions of human life, but no mere man can always apply these principles. God Himself must interpret the Book of God. The New Testament for instance is full of Jesus, His wonderful sayings, and mighty works; and yet no man can possibly know Jesus from the letter of the Bible. No man can know Jesus as the Christ, or even understand His teaching, from reading the records in the same sense as a man may know Napoleon from reading his history, for “No man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost.” Renan and Strauss, and other philosophers, who have written so beautifully, and in such an appreciative way about the life of Jesus, but were not themselves Christians, knew no more about the Christ of God, than a blind man does about colors, or a deaf man about music. It takes the cathode rays of the Holy Ghost to penetrate through the flesh of the historic Christ in order to reveal the Christ of God.
Peter’s knowledge of Christ, was not obtained by observation or experience in the company of Jesus, or by any human method; for when he confessed that Jesus was the Christ, Jesus said, “Flesh and blood hath not revealed this unto thee, but my Father which is in Heaven.” The reason most men did not know Him, was because they did not know God, for God is the only Being, who can reveal Him. Jesus said, “If ye had known Me, ye should have known My Father also,” and when He was foretelling to the Apostles the persecutions and martyrdoms which they should meet with, He said, “All these things will they do unto thee, because they have neither known Me, or My Father.”
Spiritual truth is revealed only by the Holy Spirit. Sin and holiness are disobedience or obedience to spiritual law, and God the Holy Spirit must pronounce upon the one and upon the other, before we can be infallibly sure of their character. Taking it for granted that he will not deliberately sin, no conscientious Christian therefore has a right to record sin against himself, without the witness of the Spirit that he has sinned. And on the other hand no man has a right to count on God’s approval without the witness of the Spirit to that effect.
It will be readily seen that this reasoning and its application is only for conscientious Christians, persons who hate sin, and will not, and do not deliberately commit it; and while all others know when they sin, yet even these do not realize the exceeding sin-fullness of sin, until the Holy Spirit reveals them to themselves.
We cannot be too strict with ourselves even if we are sure that we have the mind of God; but we must avoid calling common and unclean what God has cleansed, as we must avoid calling that clean, which he pronounces unclean. God promises to keep His children from falling, and the presumption is that He will do so, which remark leads me to the discussion of another important question.