Tolstoy, in describing what life was to him, told the story of an oriental adventurer who was attacked by a tiger. Fleeing before his foe, the man came to a dry well into the mouth of which he instantly leaped. The man’s hand grasped the stock of a small shrub that grew from the wall of the well and there he held fast. Looking down toward the bottom of the well, the man saw a mad dragon with mouth ajar to snatch and devour him as soon as he fell. With the tiger at the top of the well, and the mad dragon at the bottom, the man determined to hold on to the shrub as long as possible. But just then he saw two mice approach, one black and the other white; they joined labor to begin gnawing at the root of the shrub, and the man could not release his grasp to drive them away. There are many besides Tolstoy whose estimate of life is just as discouraging as this picture indicates.
When we say, “All things are possible with God,” we mean only that there are no limits to His power. For we instantly acknowledge that “it is impossible for God to lie,” and by full and happy intimation we say that it is impossible for God to do wrong in any way. It is not the will of God that is the basis of right and wrong, so much as it is the nature of God to will as He does. The demand is not that we should be holy because God wills it, but “Be ye holy for I am holy.” All this means that it is not within the province of power to alter basic morality. Right is what it is because God is what He is.
Accustomed to force as we are, we are inclined to think of the sinner’s separation from God as being physical. We may even think of a sinner’s attempt to battle his way to heaven in spite of God’s restraining orders. But this is not a valid picture. Here again the impossibility is a moral one; for no sinner could ever find heaven in the presence of God. From such a presence the sinner must ever flee, preferring the weight of rocks and mountains to the face of a sinless and sin-hating God.
Crossing an open square in New York City, I came to a crowd of men and boys gathered about two policemen and two employees of the health department, and a poor, old, dilapidated specimen of the species homo whom some one had discovered on a park bench. The policemen were asking the men from the health department to take the man to the hospital. The health men, on the other hand, were saying the man was not sick, and that the police should take him to jail. As I looked upon the man, my pity went out to him and I longed to do something for his comfort and salvation. But as I mused, it occurred to me that the man’s situation was the worse for being of his own making. He was thin of flesh, red of eyes, drawn in face, filthy of person, and unkempt in appearance. I imagined myself as taking this man on my shoulder, bearing him to the nice home of a friend, giving him a bath and a change of raiment, and putting him down to a nice table spread with fine food, asking him to listen to fine music and to elevating conversation, and expecting him to be happy. But although I could not put such an experiment into effect, it was evident to me that such a course within itself would be ineffective. A service like that might be an occasion in saving the man, but it could not be a cause. The real basis of such a change must be within the man himself, and unless that basis could be reached, the man would still be a tramp in the mansion, would not be happy there, and would escape to his former haunts at his first opportunity.
Joseph Webber was a tramp. He stood on the fringe of a crowd in a Cincinnati park and heard a preacher talk of life and death, of heaven and hell, of sin and holiness. The tramp made no outward motion, but within himself he lifted his heart to God in the first prayer he could ever remember praying. The sentiment was as simple as the unexpressed words. In later times, Webber thought his prayer was, “O God, if Thou wilt help me, I will not go to hell.” That simple resolve was a beginning, and Webber followed it up with genuine reformation and true repentance, and he became a great Christian and successful soul winner.
It is sin, and sin only, that separates us from God. We may be sick, poor, unpopular with our fellows, ignorant, dependent, and unfortunate by every standard by which men are measured. But none of these nor all of these can keep us out of the favor of God either now or at the end of life’s way. Sin is the only bar to God’s favor, the only separative we need to dread, and sin to be sin, must involve responsibility. That is to say, the separative is there because we ourselves permit it.
In the old Hebrew theocracy there were more than twenty crimes the punishment for which was death for the offender. The reason for this seeming harshness is that all sin is crime against God, and takes on the character of treason against Him. The deed was not therefore measured alone by its bearing upon society, but by its character with reference to the Lawgiver. To sin against God is to rebel against the government of the universe. Sin is therefore a million times more far reaching in its destructive force than any atomic bomb which men have or may yet invent.
We are dependent upon deeds to indicate inner thoughts, and must therefore limit our condemnations to words and deeds. But in reality, sin is a malady of the heart, and the psalmist spoke for all of us when he said, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me” (Psalms 66:18). Regarding iniquity quite evidently means excusing it, making allowance for it, looking upon it with toleration.
We may count on God’s being patient with our weaknesses, but we must not assume that He will be tolerant of our sins. In this matter His own purity is involved, so that His defenders must say, “If we say we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth” (I John 1:6). If the claim that God approves and fellowships a man while that man yet lives in sin were valid, that would make our holy God a party to sin. The prophet Amos asks, “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3). We know without a doubt that the answer is, “No, they cannot.” If a man would walk with God, he must agree with God, not only as to words and deeds, but also as to motives and purposes.
Of all that we have thus far said, this is the summation: God made man with the purpose that he might live in happy companionship with him forever. Man, by reason of sin, broke that fellowship, and is alien, but is still capable of renewing and making permanent that happy relationship for which he was designed. God is even now close to every man; not only in that He is man’s Creator and Preserver, but in that He loves and longs for the love of every man. The bar to this re-established estate is man’s sin, and nothing else.
Now sin is not an abstraction, and is found only in the attitudes and purposes of persons — never in things or conditions. Sin cannot enter any heart through closed doors. Sin may lie at the door, but it cannot get in unless we ourselves lift the latch. Once sin is inside, if we “regard” it, it will guard the door against the entrance of any person or force that would cast it out until we ourselves repudiate it. Thus the whole scope of human unhappiness may be summed up as “the sin problem.”