Needless to say we have been considering some of the most vital problems relative to human existence. Moreover these problems are not only vital but related to the deepest movings of the human spirit. Definitions are difficult and explanations frequently misleading. Human language at its best is inadequate as it faces the riches of God’s grace. We have referred previously to God’s choice of the Greek vernacular as the common language of the times when Jesus lived and taught. The Greek, usually conceded to be the best that human ingenuity has produced, falls far short in its interpretation of divine revelation. Even Paul the apostle was sometimes compelled to coin a word to express the spiritual revelation given him.
Not only are languages limited in their power to interpret the messages God has intended for man, but human figures and analogies fall short of the high horizons of truth revelation has for man. Added to these human limitations there is the inevitable inability to make our minds fully clear to each other even at the best. How easy to misunderstand what another intended to say. Therefore we must be cautious and refuse to take too much for granted when discussing problems and relationships which may seem to be debatable. In no field should we use more discretion and greater caution than in the field which we have been discussing in these preceding pages. A definition of the word sin is an example. To some, sin means a willful known violation of the will of God. To others it means any failure to obey the full will of God, known or unknown. How difficult it is then to express oneself clearly.
It is extremely difficult, if not humanly impossible, to define carnality with satisfying accuracy. For here we are dealing with the most subtle and mysterious part of man’s moral makeup. Indeed it would be presumptuous even to attempt to speak with sufficient clarity that all might understand our meaning concerning this matter which for centuries has been the controversial field of theological investigation. But we do believe that there are some simple cautions we may cite that will help the reader to understand the viewpoint of the writer.
Speaking of carnality, or the sin natural to the human heart, brings us to a delicate but fundamentally important point. I say it reverently, even God himself, because of the limitations of human speech and thought, was handicapped in telling man all the truth. The word of God refers to the sin of man’s heart as “the body of sin” (Rom. 6:6); “the body of this death” (Rom. 8:24). Such figures fall short of a literal understanding of what sin actually is. These, after all, are but symbols descriptive of a moral condition. Sin is not a SOMETHING. It is not an actual SUBSTANCE. Sin is a moral quality. Too often even those who have personally experienced heart purity have been puzzled as to what the sin of the heart actually is. Sin is a virus in the bloodstream of the moral nature; it is a virulence, a malignancy moving within the moral nature of man. But we must again caution ourselves to remember the fact that it is not an actual substance.
The reason we raise this question of the nature of sin is that too many have either rejected the possibility of purity or found themselves seriously perplexed as to how sin can be removed from the heart, and when once removed ever return once more to pollute the heart which has been cleansed. Most of the difficulties at this point readily resolve themselves when we realize that sin is NOT a substance. God CAN by supernatural power remove the malignancy of sin just as He can remove the guilt of sins committed. And likewise, through failure to obey and by careless exposure of oneself to sin, sin can again enter the human heart just as disease can infect the human body.
There is one other caution we wish to emphasize. It revolves around the closely drawn lines of conduct. It must be admitted frankly that the line between mere human conduct and carnal action is very finely drawn. This is by no means begging the question. On the basis of the most discriminating scriptural definition of sin what may constitute sin to one is not necessarily sin to another. This discrimination is affected by motive, and motive is affected by training and moral perception. Natural mannerisms are repugnant in some people but they may be nonetheless without moral meaning. Temperamental peculiarities, heredity, human crudities, all these distort the picture and often confuse us. But we still insist that on the basis of observation and scripture one may have a clean heart even though his conduct may sometime bring criticism. Merely to brush aside the entire question with the hasty remark that no one has ever known one who has lived a life free from sin is extremely superficial.
“Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come. . . .” (I Cor 4:5). Why did Paul say this? In part at least for the very reason we have suggested. The motives of men’s hearts are of basic importance in God’s sight. A pure heart with the clearest of motives has sometimes resulted in conduct that is clumsy and confusing. Therefore, do not judge now. Paul elaborates upon this important subject at length in the fourteenth chapter of Romans. He pleads with us not to judge our brother, but rather to be sure that we ourselves do not put stumbling blocks in the paths of others. And Peter assures us that genuine charity and love will hide many things in the lives of others that seem perilously close to the line of ethical propriety. (I Pet. 4:8.)
And thus we submit these cautions to both the doubtful and believing heart. Remember, sin is not an actual substance which can be removed as with a surgeon’s knife, nor is it a quality easy to define. Likewise in view of human infirmities, charity and confidence must not give way to skepticism and doubt. As one old writer puts it: Paul admonished to rebuke sin but bear with infirmities. And in spite of the frequent inability of the human mind fully to understand and discriminate, the wonderful fact remains — God can cleanse the heart of man in this present life. Since this is so let us give the benefit of the doubt to the one who consistently professes that his heart is clean. Sometime, perhaps, some bungling conduct might seem to belie the profession, but we repeat, let us give him the benefit of the doubt and rejoice in the salvation of our God.
And thus we conclude our consideration of the greatest problem of the ages — the sin problem. Herein is no pretense of a thorough treatise for such is impossible in this Short book. Yet we have tried to face some important aspects of this greatest of all human problems.
How our hearts Should respond to God when His love and grace has found an adequate solution to this greatest of all human problems. God can pardon, cleanse, and balance our lives. The power of God can so fully possess us that we will learn how to bring our humanity into moral alignment with the demands of life, revealing through our spirit and conduct a growing consistency with the life of Christ. And then if we will but continue faithful in adding to our faith virtue and to virtue knowledge; and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; and to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness love, we shall through the power of perfect love be neither barren nor unfruitful in this present world. And, in the end, find that an abundant entrance will be ministered unto us into His everlasting kingdom.
1 Since this was first written several prominent religious philosophers have swung to the opposite position. They now admit universal depravity but leave the reader with little hope of deliverance.