What Is Sin?
As to what sin is, it seems to be a question more easily asked than answered. The Bible, not being a formal system of theology, does not give a full or specific, or philosophical definition of sin, in a few words, and we have to take what it says and make our own definition. I John 3:4, states, “Every one that doeth sin doeth also lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness,” and in the fifth chapter and seventeenth verse, it is stated that “All unrighteousness is sin.
“The first quotation refers to the verb or the outward act of sin and perhaps the second includes also the noun or the state of sin. In the first chapter of the same epistle, verses eight to ten, it is stated, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.”
This is clearly a reference to the state of sin, or depravity, which is a moral disease inherent in mankind, and also to the act of sinning, and we are warned against the folly of denying either the one or the other, and are further told that God can heal the disease of sin and forgive the sinner. I will consider in the first place what the act of sin is.
The act of sin or sinning. Protestants in their teaching, so far as I have been able to observe, have a tendency to make but little or no distinction, between the moral turpitude of different kinds of sins, and yet it is of vital importance that this distinction should be observed, as in blameworthiness sins vary all the way from slight breaches of the law deserving but little censure, up to mortal sins for which in the nature of things there is no forgiveness. The Bible in many instances refers to sinning a great sin as distinguished from, a slight or a venial sin. John says (1 John 5:16,17), “If any man see his brother sinning a sin not unto death, he shall ask, and God will give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death : not concerning this do I say that he should make request.”
Bearing in mind then that there are sins and sins, we will pursue our investigation. Perhaps for the purpose of this discussion, we had better confine ourselves to the consideration of Willful Sins and Involuntary Sins.
Willful Sins. In examining willful sins, we see at once that such sins are not necessarily constituted by outward actions. Moral values are determined by motives and not by actions, for there is no necessary moral quality in any action. This is such a simple proposition that it seems unnecessary to argue it and yet it may be well to illustrate the truth of the statement.
For example, a lie is not necessarily constituted by telling that which is not according to the facts; for if one tells that which is not according to facts, but believes it is so, he is truthful; while if one tells that which is according to fact, and thinks he is misrepresenting the fact, he is a liar. It is the motive, in this and in every case, which gives moral value to actions. Then again, many outward actions are wrong under one circumstance and right under another. To kill a man may be highly meritorious, or it may be a foul murder, the moral quality of the action being differentiated according to the circumstances. The act which constitutes one of the vilest sins under certain conditions is under other conditions free from all blame, being both highly honorable and quite necessary. It follows from these observations that in order to be guilty of a willful sin, there must be plan and purpose to sin, for in the absence of the intent to sin the act would either be a result of ignorance or be involuntary, and hence deserving of no blame, unless the ignorance itself were a guilty ignorance.
But even when a willful sin has been committed by a number of persons through the very same act, the degree of guilt incurred may vary with each individual. There are several factors which may tend to bring about this varying result. There is that mysterious power known as heredity, which enters into the problem. There comes down the ages in each family peculiar tendencies to particular actions and habits. Parents receive these tendencies from their parents and then transmit them in turn to their children. Just as surely as children resemble their parents or forefathers in physical appearance, so surely do they take on their mental, moral and spiritual tendencies. This resemblance and these transmitted tendencies vary and are modified by environment, and especially by the miraculous power of the grace of God; but there is not one of us whose life and habits and tendencies, have not been modified by the qualities which we were born with, and for which, whether for weal or for woe, we are in no way responsible.
Suppose it is the sin of drunkenness, which we are considering; we can easily see that more blame must be rented out to some drunkards than to others. Some have been born with the poisonous virus in their veins; have nursed it in their mother’s milk, and have had early and easy access to the drink, and as a natural result are inebriates. They are afflicted with an hereditary disease—a disease just as real as the smallpox, and as such they should be treated by the community. God surely metes out the blame to such, according to His unerring justice, and it seems to me He cannot put them in the same class as other drunkards who have become so by their own deliberate choice.
As we shall see more fully later, heredity in the case of a great many sinners, is a factor in the temptations which result in willful sin, and necessarily must be taken into account by God when He pronounces on the degree of guilt to be accorded to such sinners.
Environment is another powerful factor in inciting to willful sin, and it also modifies the guilt of the same sinful acts in different persons. Many a sin is committed through the evil influence of a strong and wicked will in another, or by other evil influences, that never would have been committed in the absence of such temptations. For example, Herod Antipas was of course verily guilty of the murder of John the Baptist, but a deeper degree of guilt would attach to that crime if he had not been trapped into making a blind promise to the daughter of Herodias, the keeping of which involved the beheading of John much against the king’s personal Mash. Herodias was the more guilty of the two, in this cold-blooded transaction. Over against this event, we may put as a crime without any extenuating circumstances, the murder of the innocents, in Bethlehem by Herod the Great. This was a wholesale slaughter of innocent children to which he was impelled by no person but his own cruel jealous self.
The least imaginative of us can without difficulty, recall events which illustrate how environment modifies to a greater or less degree, the guilt of the bad deeds to which men have been incited. Many a wrecked life would have been a saved and a successful life but for evil influences and associations. On the other hand, many a good man is indebted for his character to the influence of good people and other favorable surroundings.
But, as just stated in case of Herod the Great, many sin deliberately, and of malice aforethought, and these incur the deepest degree of guilt that attaches to willful sin.
Involuntary Sins. I take it that converted people do not commit willful sins. John says (1 John 3:9), “Whosoever is begotten of God doeth no sin, because His seed abideth in him: and he cannot sin because he is begotten of God. In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil.” I see no difficulty in this statement as some do, for it simply affirms a self-evident proposition. It is a moral statement of the same nature as the geometrical statements would be, that a triangle cannot be a square, and a circle cannot be an ellipse. Or it is like another moral statement, that an honest man cannot be a thief, nor can a truthful man be a liar. If indeed a man who always had been honest, should steal, he would then cease to be honest, as it is impossible to be an honest man and a thief at the same time. And it is possible for one who had been noted for his truthfulness to cease to be truthful; but it is impossible to be truthful and a liar at one and the same time.
To speak of a sinning saint, is as absurd as to speak of a round square, or hot ice, or to use any other naturally contradictory term.
People who willfully sin either never have been born again or else, like Lucifer, they have fallen from their heaven of holiness and light. But while it is impossible for the children of God to willfully sin, except they fall from grace; yet all of us who are the children of God know from sad experience, that we have often been overtaken with faults and have done involuntarily many things which we wish we had not done. Without the consent of our wills we think things, say things, and sometimes do things, that fall very far short of the standard we have set ourselves of holy living, and high thinking. Animal passion to which all healthy persons are subject, comes in for a large share of these apparent lapses from pure thoughts and holy desires which we believe should fill the heart and mind of a child of God. Bad health in some over clouds the sunshine of the soul and produces feelings out of harmony with our thoughts of a holy life.
Overwrought nerves, worry and excitement, business troubles, family cares, the temptations of life, to all of which are generally added the temptations of the Devil, combine to produce what may be called involuntary sin for which the child of God often repents in sackcloth and ashes and in the agony of his soul cries out with Paul, “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me out of the body of this death?”
It is difficult to give to this condition or experience its true moral value, for while on the one hand, I would not like to say that none who go through this experience ever do grieve God by the involuntary acts I have pictured, yet on the other hand, for the most part, I cannot believe that such acts in themselves are any offence to God whatsoever, and if so they ought not to be called sins. The large majority, however, of these devout souls take to themselves condemnation, when God does not condemn them and thus lose their grip of faith on God.
In so far as Christians are worldly and allow the altar fires of love in their hearts to burn low, and thus actually sin and fall from grace, and live a life of sinning and repenting, then of course they are guilty for the acts which we call, for the want of a better name, involuntary sin. But when God is in all a man’s thoughts, when the great desire of his heart is to please God, when he not only never plans to sin but the very thought of sin is repugnant to him, then all such involuntary acts, as I have attempted to describe, are never sinful acts, and God takes no more notice of them in the way of blame, than does the mother blame her little child who with arms around her mother’s neck, can only lisp, “mudder, I love you,” when she ought to have said to be strictly correct, “mother, I love you.” She tried to speak correctly but failed, but the mother enjoyed the caress and drank in the sweet nectar of the child’s love, just as much as if it had been spoken in the most faultless Buglish. I think the Heavenly Father does the same, for if He knows we love Him truly and delight to please Him, then all the rest of our acts are a delight to Him because they all spring from love.