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§ 7. Protestant Doctrine of Sin.

The Protestant Churches at the time of the Reformation did not attempt to determine the nature of sin philosophically. They regarded it neither as a necessary limitation; not as a negation of being; nor as the indispensable condition of virtue; nor as having its seat in man’s sensuous nature; nor as consisting in selfishness alone; nor as being, like pain, a mere state of consciousness, and not an evil in the sight of God. Founding their doctrine on their moral and religious consciousness and upon the Word of God, they declared sin to be the transgression of, or want of conformity to the divine law. In this definition all classes of theologians, Lutheran and Reformed, agree. According to Melancthon, “Peccatum recte definitur ἀνομία, seu discrepantia a lege Dei, h. e., defectus naturæ et actionum pugnans cum lege Dei, easdemque ex ordine justitiæ divinæ ad pœnam obligans.” Gerhard says:198198Loci Theologici, XI. i. 3; edit Tübingen, 1766, vol. v. p. 2, b. “Peccatum” seu “ἀνομία” est “aberratio a lege, sive non congruentia cum lege, sive ea in ipsa natura hærat, sive in dictis, factis ac concupiscentiæ motibus, inveniatur.” Baier says:199199Compendium Theologiæ, edit. Frankfort, 1739, p. 346.Carentia conformitatis cum lege.” Vitringa says:200200Doctrina Christianæ Religionis, x. 7; edit. Lyons, 1762, vol. ii. pp. 285, 286.Forma peccati est disconvenientia actus habitus, aut status hominis cum divina lege.

It is included in these definitions, (1.) That sin is a specific evil, differing from all other forms of evil. (2.) That sin stands 181related to law. The two are correlative, so that where there is no law, there can be no sin. (3.) That the law to which sin is thus related, is not merely the law of reason, or of conscience, or of expediency, but the law of God. (4.) That sin consists essentially in the want of conformity on the part of a rational creature, to the nature or law of God. (5.) That it includes guilt and moral pollution.

Sin is a Specific Evil.

Sin is a specific evil. This we know from our own consciousness. None but a sentient being can know what feeling is. We can neither determine à priori what the nature of a sensation is, nor can we convey the idea to any one destitute of the organs of sense. Unless we had felt pain or pleasure, we should not be able to understand what those words mean. If born blind, we cannot know light. If born deaf, we can have no idea of what hearing is. None but a rational creature can know what is meant by folly. Only creatures with an æsthetic nature can have the perception of beauty or of deformity. In like manner only moral beings can know what sin or holiness is. Knowledge in all these cases is given immediately in the consciousness. It would be in vain to attempt to determine à priori, what pain, pleasure, sight, and hearing are; much less to prove that there are no such sensations; or that they do not differ from each other and from every other form of our experience. Every man in virtue of his being a moral creature, and because he is a sinner, has therefore in his own consciousness the knowledge of sin, he knows that when he is not what he ought to be, when he does what he ought not to do, or omits what he ought to do, he is chargeable with sin. He knows that sin is not simply limitation of his nature; not merely a subjective state of his own mind, having no character in the sight of God; that it is not only something which is unwise, or derogatory to his own dignity; or simply inexpedient because hurtful to his own interests, or injurious to the welfare of others. He knows that it has a specific character of its own, and that it includes both guilt and pollution.

Sin has Relation to Law.

A second truth included in our consciousness of sin is, that it has relation to law. As moral and rational beings we are of necessity subject to the law of right. This is included in the consciousness of obligation. The word ought would otherwise have no meaning. 182To say we ought, is to say we are bound; that we are under authority of some kind. The word law, in relation to moral and religious subjects, is used in two senses. First, it sometimes means a controlling power, as when the Apostle says that he had a law in his members warring against the law of his mind. Secondly, it means, that which binds, a command of one in authority. This is the common sense of the term in the New Testament. As the rule which binds the conscience of men, and prescribes what they are to do and not to do, has been variously revealed in the constitution of our nature, in the Decalogue, in the Mosaic institutions, and in the whole Scriptures, the word is sometimes used in a sense to include all these forms of revelation; sometimes in reference exclusively to one of them, and sometimes exclusively in reference to another. In all cases the general idea is retained. The law is that which binds the conscience.

Sin is Related to the Law of God.

The great question is, What is that law which prescribes to man what he ought to be and to do? (1.) Some say it is our own reason, or the higher powers of the soul. Those powers have the prerogative to rule. Man is autonomic. He is responsible to himself. He is bound to subject his life, and especially his lower powers, to his reason and conscience. Regard to his own dignity is the comprehensive obligation under which he lies, and he fulfills all his duties when he lives worthily of himself. To this theory it is obvious to object, (a.) That law is something outside of ourselves and over us; entirely independent of our will or reason. We can neither make nor alter it. If our reason and conscience are perverted, and determine that to be right which is in its nature wrong, it does not alter the case. The law remains unchanged in its demands and in its authority. (b.) On this theory there could be no sense of guilt. When a man acts against the dictates of his reason, or in a manner derogatory to the dignity of his nature, he may feel ashamed, or degraded, but not guilty. There can be no conviction that he is amenable to justice, nor any of that fearful looking for of judgment, which the Apostle says is inseparable from the commission of sin. (2.) Others say the law is to be found in the moral order of the universe, or in the eternal fitness of things. These however are mere abstractions. They can impose no obligation, and inflict no penalty on transgression. This theory again leaves out of view, and entirely unaccounted for, some of the plainest facts of the universal consciousness of men. (3.) Others 183again say that an enlightened regard to the happiness of the universe is the only law to which rational creatures are subject. (4.) Others take a still lower view, and say that it is an enlightened regard to our own happiness which alone has authority over men. It is evident, however, that these theories deny the specific character of moral obligation. There is no such thing as sin, as distinguished from the unwise or the inexpedient. There can be no sense of guilt, no responsibility to justice, except for violations of rules of expediency. (5.) It is clear from the very constitution of our nature that we are subject to the authority of a rational and moral being, a Spirit, whom we know to be infinite, eternal, and immutable in his being and perfections. All men, in every age and in every part of time world, under all forms of religion, and of every degree of culture, have felt and acknowledged that they were subject to a personal being higher than themselves. No forms of speculative philosophy, however plausible or however widely diffused or confidently held in the schools or in the closet, have ever availed to invalidate this instinctive or intuitive judgment of the mind. Men ignorant of the true God have fashioned for themselves imaginary gods, whose wrath they have deprecated and whose favour they have endeavoured to propitiate. But when the Scriptural idea of God, as an infinitely perfect personal Being, has been once presented to the mind, it can never be discarded. It commends itself to the reason and the conscience. It solves all the enigmas of our nature. It satisfies all our desires and aspirations; and to this Being, to him and to his will, we feel ourselves bound to be conformed, and know ourselves to be responsible for our character and conduct. This allegiance we cannot possibly throw off. The law of gravitation no more inexorably binds the earth to its orbit than our moral nature binds us to our allegiance and responsibility to God. It would be as unreasonable to deny the one as the other, and as useless to argue against the one as against the other. This is clearly the doctrine of the Apostle in the passage just referred to. He was speaking of the most debased and vicious of the heathen world, men whom God had given up to a reprobate mind; and yet he asserts that they not only knew God, but knew his righteous judgment; that they who commit sin were worthy of death; that is, that they were rightfully subject to the authority, and inevitably exposed to the wrath and indignation, of moral ruler. This is a fact therefore given in the universal consciousness of men. Sin is related to law, and that law is not one of our own enacting, it is not a mere idea or abstraction, 184it is not mere truth or reason, or the fitness of things, but the nature and will of God. Law, as it reveals itself in the conscience, implies a law-giver, a being of whose will it is the expression, and who has the power and the purpose to enforce all its demands. And not only this, but one who, from the very perfection of his nature, must enforce them. He can no more pass by transgression than he can love evil. It is in vain to argue against these convictions. It is in vain to say, There is no God, no Being on whom we are dependent, and to whom we are responsible for our character and conduct.

The Extent of the Law’s Demands.

The next question is, What does this law demand? This is the point on which there has been most diversity of opinion, and systems of theology as well as of morals are founded on the different answers which it has received. The answer given by the unsophisticated and enlightened conscience of men, and by the word of God, is that the law demands complete perfection, or the entire conformity of the moral nature and conduct of a rational creature with the nature and will of God. We are commanded to love God with all the heart, with all the soul, with all the strength, and with all the mind, and our neighbour as ourselves. This implies entire congeniality with God; the unreserved consecration of all our powers to his service, and absolute submission to his will. Nothing more than this can be required of any creature. No angel or glorified saint can be or do more than this, and this is what the law demands of every rational creature, at all times, and in every state of his being. In one sense this obligation is limited by the capacity (not the ability, in the modern theological sense of that term) of the creature. The capacity of a child is less than that of an adult Christian or of an angel. He can know less. He can contain less. He is on a lower stage of being. But it is the absolute moral perfection of the child, of the adult, or of the angel that the law demands. And this perfection includes the entire absence of all sin, and the entire conformity of nature to the image and will of God. As this is the doctrine of the Bible. so also it is the teaching of conscience. Every man, at least every Christian, feels that he sins or is sinful whenever and howsoever he comes short of full conformity to the image of God. He feels that languor, coldness of affection, defect of zeal, and the want of due humility, gratitude, meekness, forbearance, and benevolence are in him of the nature of sin. The old maxim, omne minus bonum 185habet rationem mali, authenticates itself in the conscience of every unsophistical believer. This was the doctrine of Augustine, who in his letter to Jerome,201201Epistola, CLXVII. iv. 15; Works, edit. Benedictines, vol. ii. p. 897, a. says: “Plenissima (caritas) quæ jam non possit augeri, quamdiu hic homo vivit, est in nemine; quamdiu autem augeri potest, profecto illud, quod minus est quam debet, ex vitio est.” The Lutheran and Reformed theologians assert the same principle.202202See Chemnitz, Examen Concilii Tridentini, I. De Justificatione, edit. Frankfort, 1674, p. 165, f. De Bonis Operibus, qu. 3, p. 205, a. Gerhard, Loci Theologici, XI. x. 42-45, v. p. 21-24. Quenstedt, Theologia, P. II. cap. ii. § 2, q. 3, edit. Leipzig, 1715, p. 967. If this principle be correct, if the law demands entire conformity to the nature and will of God, it follows: —

1. That there can be no perfection in this life. Every form of perfectionism which has ever prevailed in the Church is founded either on the assumption that the law does not demand entire freedom from moral evil, or upon the denial that anything is of the nature of sin, but acts of the will. But if the law is so extensive in its demands as to pronounce all defect in any duty, all coming short in the purity, ardour, or constancy of holy affections, sinful, then there is an end to the presumption that any mere maim since the fall has ever attained perfection.

2. It follows also from this principle that there can never be any merit of good works attributable to men in this world. By merit, according to the Scriptural sense of that word, is meant the claim upon reward as a matter of justice, founded on the complete satisfaction of the demands of the law. But if those demands never have been perfectly fulfilled by any fallen man, no such man can either be justified for his works, or have, as the Apostle expresses it, any καύχημα, any claim founded on merit in the sight of God. He must always depend on mercy and expect eternal life as a free gift of God.

3. Still more obviously does it follow from the principle in question that there can be no such thing as works of supererogation. If no man in this life can perfectly keep the commandments of God, it is very plain that no man can do more than the law demands. The Romanists regard the law as a series of specific enactments. Besides these commands which bind all men there are certain things which they call precepts, which are not thus universally binding, such as celibacy, poverty, and monastic obedience, and the like. These go beyond the law. By adding to the fulfilment of the commands of God, the observance of these precepts, a man may do more than required of him, and thus acquire an amount of merit greater than he needs for himself, and which in virtue of the communion 186of saints, belongs to the Church, and may be dispensed, through the power of the keys, for the benefit of others. The whole foundation of this theory is of course removed, if the law demands absolute perfection, to which, even according to their doctrine, no man evem attains in this life. He always is burdened with venial sins, which God in mercy does not impute as real sins, but which nevertheless are imperfections.

Sin not Confined to Acts of the Will.

4. Another conclusion drawn from the Scriptural doctrine as to the extent of the divine law, as held by all Augustinians, is that sin is not confined to acts of the will. There are three senses in which the word voluntary is used in connection with this subject. The first and strictest sense makes nothing an act of the will but an act of deliberate self-determination, something that is performed, sciente et volente. Secondly, all spontaneous, impulsive exercises of the feelings and affections are in a sense voluntary. And, thirdly, whatever inheres in the will as a habit or disposition, is called voluntary as belonging to the will. The doctrine of the Romish Church on these points, as shown in the preceding section, is a matter of dispute among Romanists themselves. The majority of the schoolmen and of the Roman theologians deny that anything is of the nature of sin, but voluntary acts in the first sense of the word voluntary above mentioned. How they endeavour to reconcile the doctrine of hereditary, inherent corruption, or original sin, with that principle has already been stated. Holding that principle, however, they strenuously deny that mere impulses, the motus primo primi, as they are called, of evil dispositions are of the nature of sin. To this doctrine they are forced by their view of baptism. In that ordinance, according to their theory, everything of the nature of sin is removed. But concupiscence with its motions remains. These, however, if not deliberately assented to and indulged, are not sinful. Whether they are or not, of course depends on the extent of the law. Nothing is sinful but what is contrary to the divine law. If that law demands perfect conformity to the image of God, then these impulses of evil are clearly sinful. But if the law takes cognizance only of deliberate acts they are not. The Protestant doctrine which pronounces these impulsive acts to be of the nature of sin is confirmed by the consciousness of the believer. He recognizes as evil in their own nature the first risings of malice, envy, pride, or cupidity. He knows that they spring from an evil or imperfectly sanctified nature They constitute part 187of the burden of corruption which he hopes to lay down in the grave; and he knows that as he shall be free from them in heaven, they never disturbed the perfectly holy soul of his blessed Lord, to whose image he is even now bound to be conformed.

5. It follows from the principle that the law condemns all want of conformity to the nature of God, that it condemns evil dispositions or habits, as well as all voluntary sins, whether deliberate or impulsive. According to the Bible and the dictates of conscience there is a sinfulness as well as sins; there is such a thing as character as distinguished from transient acts by which it is revealed; that is, a sinful state, abiding, inherent, immanent forms of evil, which are truly and properly of the nature of sin. All sin, therefore, is not an agency, activity, or act; it may be and is also a condition or state of the mind. This distinction between habitual and actual sin has been recognized and admitted in the Church from the beginning. Our Lord teaches us this distinction when He speaks of an evil heart as distinguished from evil exercises, which are as distinct as a tree and its fruits. The Apostle speaks of sin as a law, or controlling principle regulating or determining his acts even in despite of his better nature. He says sin dwells in him. He complains of it as a burden too heavy to be borne, from which he groans to be delivered. And his experience in this matter is the experience (we do not say the theory) of all the people of God. They know there is more in them of the nature of sin than mere acts and exercises; that their heart is not right in the sight of God; that the fountain from which the waters flow is itself bitter; that the tree is known by its fruits.

Sin is Want of Conformity to the Law of God.

Protestants teach not only that sin is a specific evil, that it has relation to law, that that law is the nature and will of God, and that it takes cognizance of and condemns all forms and degrees of moral evil or want of moral excellence, but also that the formal nature of sin is the want of conformity to the divine law or standard of excellence. This want of conformity is not a mere negation, such as may be predicated of a stone or of a brute, of whom it may be said they are not conformed to the image of God. The want of conformity to the divine law which constitutes sin is the want of congeniality of one moral nature with another; of the dependent and created nature with the infinitely holy nature, which of necessity is not only the sum but the standard of all excellence. Herein is sin that we are not like God. As the opposite of reason is 188unreason, the opposite of wisdom is folly, and the opposite of good is evil; so the opposite of the divine holiness is sin. It matters not of what exercises or states in the nature of a moral being this opposition may be predicated; of deliberate acts, of merely impulsive acts, or of dispositions or habits; if opposed to the divine nature it is sin, hateful in itself and worthy of condemnation. There is a positive element, therefore, in all sin. That is, it is not merely the privation of righteousness, but it is positive unrighteousness. Because the absence of the one in a moral nature is the other. The want of congeniality with God is alienation from God, and, as the Scriptures say, enmity towards Him. The Protestant symbols and theologians, therefore, in defining sin, not merely as selfishness or the love of the creature or the love of the world, which are only modes of its manifestation, but as the want of conformity of an act, habit, or state of a man with the divine law, which is the revelation of the divine nature, have in their support both reason and conscience. This doctrine of the nature of sin is fully sustained by the authority of Scripture. The Apostle John says that all want of conformity to law is sin. The two ideas ἁμαρτία and ἀνομία are coextensive. Whatever is the one, is the other. It seems that some in the Apostle’s day were disposed to limit the demands of the divine law, and regard certain things not specifically forbidden as lawful. In opposition to this, the Apostle tells them that everything evil is unlawful; for the very nature of evil is want of conformity to law: πᾶς ὁ ποιῶν τὴν ἁμαρτίαν καὶ τὴν ἀνομίαν ποιεῖ, he who commits sin commits anomia, for ἡ ἁμαρτία ἐστὶν ἡ ἀνομία, for all want of conformity to law is sin. (1 John iii. 4.) With this agree also all the representations of Scripture. The words there used for sin in all its forms, express the idea of non-conformity to a standard. And besides this the Bible everywhere teaches that God is the source and standard of all good. His favour is the life of the soul. Congeniality with Him, conformity to his will and nature, is the idea and perfection of all excellence; and the opposite state, the want of this congeniality and conformity, is the sum and essence of all evil.

Sin includes Guilt and Pollution.

Sin includes guilt and pollution; the one expresses its relation to the justice, the other to the holiness of God. These two elements of sin are revealed in the conscience of every sinner. He knows himself to be amenable to the justice of God and offensive in his holy eyes. He is to himself even, hateful and degraded and self-condemned. There are, however, two things included in guilt. 189The one we express by the words criminality, demerit, and blame worthiness; the other is the obligation to suffer the punishment due to our offences. These are evidently distinct, although expressed by the same word. The guilt of our sins is said to have been laid upon Christ, that is, the obligation to satisfy the demands of justice on account of them. But He did not assume the criminality, the demerit, or blameworthiness of our transgressions. When the believer is justified, his guilt, but not his demerit, is removed. He remains in fact, and in his own eyes, the same unworthy, hell-deserving creature, in himself considered, that he was before. A man condemned at a human tribunal for any offence against the community, when he has endured the penalty which the law prescribes, is no less unworthy, his demerit as much exists as it did from the beginning; but his liability to justice or obligation to the penalty of the law, in other words, his guilt in that sense of the word, is removed. It would be unjust to punish him a second time for that offence. This distinction theologians are accustomed to express by the terms reatus culpæ and reatus pœnæ. Culpa is (strafwürdiger Zustand) blameworthiness; and reatus culpæ is guilt in the form of inherent ill-desert: whereas the reatus pœnæ is the debt we owe to justice. That guilt, in the comprehensive sense of the word, and pollution enter into the nature of sin, or are inseparable from it, is not only revealed in our own consciousness, but is everywhere assumed in Scripture. The Bible constantly declares that sin and all sin, everything which bears its nature, is not only hateful in the sight of a holy God, but is the object of his wrath and indignation, the just ground for the infliction of punishment.

This is admitted, and cannot be denied. The only question is, What is necessary in order to the sense of guilt as it exists in the conscience? Or, What is required to constitute anything a just ground of punishment in the sight of God? Is it sufficient that the thing itself should be sinful? Or, Is it necessary that it should be due to our own voluntary act? This latter ground is taken not only by Pelagians, and by all who define sin to be the voluntary transgression of known law, but also by many who hold to habitual, as distinguished from actual sin, and who even acknowledge that men are born in sin. They still insist that even evil innate, inherent sin, must be referrible to our own voluntary agency, or it cannot be guilt in us. But this is, —

1. Contrary to our own consciousness. The existence of sin in the heart, the presence of evil dispositions, without regard to their 190origin, is unavoidably attended by a sense of pollution an guilt. These dispositions being evil in their own nature must include whatever is essential to that nature. And, as has been acknowledged, guilt is essential to the nature of sin. Nothing is sinful which does not involve guilt. The consciousness, or the conviction of sin, must therefore include the conviction of guilt. And consequently if we are convinced from the declarations of Scripture and from the state of our nature that we are born in sin we must be convinced that guilt attaches to innate corruption of nature. Besides this, habitual or indwelling sin is not voluntary in the sense of being designed or intended, or in the sense of being under the power of the will, and yet all Christians admit that such indwelling sin is a dreadful load of guilt; a load more burdensome to the heart and conscience than all our actual transgressions.

2. The principle in question is no less opposed to the common judgments of men. All men instinctively judge a man for what he is. If he is good they so regard him. If he is bad, they pronounce him to be bad. This judgment is just as inevitable or necessary as that he is tall or short, learned or unlearned. The question as to the origin of the man’s character does not enter into the grounds of this judgment. If born good, if he made himself good, or if he received his goodness as a gift from God, does not materially affect the case. He is good, and must be so regarded and treated. In like manner all that is necessary in order to justify and necessitate the judgment that a man is bad is that he should be so. This is the principle on which we judge ourselves, and on which men universally judge each other. The principle, therefore, must be sound.

3. The doctrine that sin in order to include guilt must be referrible to our own voluntary action, is contrary to analogy. It is not so with holiness. Adam was created holy. His holiness as truly constituted his character as though it had been self-acquired, and had it been retained, it would have continued to be, and so long as it was retained it was an object of complacency and the ground of reward in the sight of God. Habitual grace, as it is called, or the new principle of spiritual life, imparted to the soul in regeneration, is not self-produced. It is due to the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit, nevertheless it constitutes the believer’s character. The only reason why it is not meritorious, is that it is so imperfect, and because it cannot cancel the debt we already owe to the justice of God. The soul, however, if perfectly sanctified by the Holy Ghost is just as pure, just as much an object of approbation and delight in the sight of God as an unfallen angel.


4. The doctrine in question contradicts the faith of the Church Universal. A distinction must be made between the faith of the Church and the speculations (or even the doctrines) of theologians. These are often divergent. The former is determined by the Scriptures and the inward teachings of the Spirit; the latter are greatly modified by the current philosophy of the age in which those theologians lived, and by the idiosyncrasies of their own minds. During the Middle Ages, for example, the speculations of the schoolmen and the faith of the Church, had very little in common. The faith of the Church is to be found in its creeds, prayers, and forms of devotion generally. In all these, through every age, the Church has shown that she regards all men as burdened with original sin, as belonging to a polluted and guilty race, polluted and guilty from the first moment of existence. It cannot be said that the Church believed original sin to be due to the agency of each individual man, or to the act of generic humanity. These are thoughts foreign to the minds of common believers. The conviction therefore must have existed in the Church always and everywhere that guilt may be present which does not attach to the voluntary agency of the guilty. Infants have always been baptized for the remission of sin, and men have ever been regarded by the Church as born in sin.

5. The explanation given of the undeniable fact of innate pollution and guilt, by those who admit the fact, and yet maintain that this original sin is referrible to our own agency, is altogether unsatisfactory. That explanation is that we acted thousands of years before we existed, that is, that the substance which constitutes our individual souls, committed, in the person of Adam, the sin of disobeying God in paradise. This explanation of course presupposes the fact to be explained. The fact remains whatever becomes of the explanation. Men are born in a state of guilt and pollution All that follows from the rejection of the explanation is, that sin may exist, which is not referrible to the voluntary agency of those in whom it inheres. This consequence is far easier of admission, in the judgment of the vast majority of men, than the doctrine that we are personally chargeable with eating the forbidden fruit as our own act.

6. The Bible in everywhere teaching that men are born in sin, that they come into the world the children of wrath, does thereby teach that there can be, and that there is sin (pollution and guilt) which is inherited and derived, which is inherent and innate, and therefore not referrible to our own agency. As the Scriptures nowhere 192teach that we actually sinned before we existed, they assert the fact which enters into the common faith of the Church, that guilt attaches to all sin however that sin originates.

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