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Now one There is no
be endless in its perpetuity; but according to the other, its nature is finite and its duration will be temporary. or the other of these hypotheses must be true. middle ground to occupy. Every object in the physical and moral world is either infinite or finite, endless or temporary. No simple existence is composed partly of finity and partly of infinity; nor can the duration of such an existence be partly temporary and partly endless. Expand finity to any possible dimensions, and the difference between this and infinity will still be precisely infinite. It is the same with respect to time and eternity. Let the existence of a temporary object be extended to any conceivable, or even possible period of time, and still between the duration of this and of one strictly endless, there will necessarily be an infinite difference. I can conceive of no way to avoid these conclusions.
Now sin is a simple existence. It is not composed partly of good and partly of evil; no, but of unmixed moral evil. All its legitimate consequences are also evil. If, under the superintendence of infinite wisdom and goodness, it be made to subserve a valuable purpose, it will be not a direct but an indirect result. So far therefore as any act or event can be properly called sinful, it is a subject of solemn deprecation. Its tendency must be disorganizing and injurious. Every sinner, then, and every being exposed to the power and temptations of sin, is intimately and deeply interested in the subject under examination. Whether sin be infinite and will exist eternally, or whether it be finite and will eventually be destroyed, are inquiries about the result of which no one, it would seem, can feel indifferent. In the present discussion therefore, however imperfect it may be, I may safely rely upon the attention and candor of the reader. To give them something like form, and to render them more easy of apprehension, my remraks will relate to three things respecting sin, viz. its nature, its magnitude, and its duration.
What then is the nature of sin? In attempting an answer to this question it may be well to observe, that, in common language, and also in the Scriptures, the terms sin, wickedness, iniquity, and several others which I shall not notice, are used in the same acceptation. The sacred writers certainly employ them interchangeably in speaking of the moral depravity and criminal conduct of mankind. To express the aggre
gate of moral evil in the world, Moses says, 'God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.' Gen. vi. 5. By wickedness, in this place, Moses plainly means sin.
The Apostle Peter, in order to induce the Jews to embrace the method provided by the God of their fathers to put away the wickedness of the world, addressed them in the following language: 'God having raised up his Son Jesus, sent him to bless you in turning away every one of you from his iniquities.' Acts iii. 26. St. Paul, in his letter to Titus, employs this term in the singular number: Looking for that blessed hope and the glorious appearing of the great God, and our Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us that he might redeem. us from all iniquity and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.' Tit. ii. 13, 14. What Peter, however, denominates iniquities, the angel which announced the birth of the Saviour, and also the apostles in several instances, call sins: Thou shalt call his name Jesus; for he shall save his people from their sins. Matt. i. 21. Ye know that he was manifested to take away our sins; and in him is no sin.' 1 John iii. 5. What Paul also in his charge to Titus denominates iniquity, John the Baptist calls sin. 'Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. St. John i. 29.
From the foregoing scriptures it is plain that wickedness, iniquity and sin are the same thing. Nothing can be more obvious than that they are terms which the sacred writers use interchangeably. Hence, to redeem from iniquity, to put away sin, and to bring the wickedness of the wicked to an end,' is the same operation. The accomplishment of one is the accomplishment of the others. Either of these phrases expresses, in a sufficiently forcible manner, deliverance from the dominion and misery of moral evil. That man is under such a dominion no believer in revelation will dispute. The Scriptures uniformly speak of him as a sinner; and that he really sustains this character is fully evinced by experience and observation. So far as experience extends, its testimony is decisive. Every man is, at times, conscious of having violated the law of his God and of his own conscience; and where pride and self-interest are out of sight, he will readily acknowledge it.
Observation also produces the same conviction with respect to those around us. What we know with regard to ourselves, we have reason to believe with regard to all with whom we associate. On the most candid survey of the busy throngs who crowd the theatre of active life, we can discover no one, in any department, who does not appear to deviate, occasionally at least, from the path of duty. In this respect some appear to be more fortunate than others; but the most discreet seem now and then to go out of the way; to omit what they ought to do, or to do what they ought not. Observation, then, corroborates the testimony of revelation and experience with respect to the sinfulness and misery of our race. They unitedly assure us, and in the most unequivocal manner, that 'all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.' It must therefore be a matter of absorbing interest with every man to have a clear understanding of the nature and extent of his moral defection. Is it of endless, or is it of temporary duration? Is the condition into which it has brought him a hopeful, or is it a hopeless one? If he may reasonably hope for a melioration in his moral condition, is he able to effect it himself? If he is incapable of doing this himself, is there any one, competent to the task, who will interpose in his behalf? Such questions as these, and many others of a similar character, will naturally obtrude themselves upon every reflecting mind; and they are certainly questions of unspeakable moment. Their importance can be equalled by nothing of a purely secular nature.
These are also questions which cannot be understandingly answered without correct and definite views of sin itself. We must have distinct and rational conceptions of its nature and magnitude. It surely can amount to nothing to attempt to answer questions respecting subjects which we have examined but superficially, and on which we have formed no definite opinion. It is like wasting time upon a dream which has left too faint an impression upon the mind to be distinctly recollected, and if it were recollected would, perhaps, be of no conceivable benefit. It is indeed like chasing about a spectre, a mere phantom of the imagination. Under such circumstances the opinions formed upon any subject must be vague and uncertain, and at best exceedingly liable to be visionary and false. These, however, are the circumstances under which, it is to be feared, people generally think and talk about sin.
They have never called to their aid the light of reason and revelation, and subjected it to a critical and thorough investigation. They use the popular language of the age, and speak of it as they have been accustomed to hear it spoken of, as an unspeakably evil thing, one fraught with infinite and everlasting ruin. They often and publicly deprecate it. They acknowledge themselves to be its victims. They make verbal confessions of the number and aggravation of their own sins, and solemnly avow their resolution to forsake them; but all this is merely fashionable pretence, a sort of thoughtless, religious mockery.
At the very moment of these confessions and protestations, they consider themselves to be of the number who have been born again; to be regenerated christians; and cherish not one rational and serious purpose of future amendment of heart and life. They merely follow the fashionable way of showing off their goodness to greater advantage. With respect, however, to the nature of sin, there is not, among those who reason at all upon the subject, so great a diversity of opinion as on its magnitude and duration.
But there is one definition of sin to the truth of which there has been for ages, and still is, a very general assent, which I deem false. It is found in the Assembly's Shorter Catechism. There it is said, 'Sin is any want of conformity to, or violation of, the law of God.' This definition is warranted neither by Scripture nor common sense. Any want of conformity to the law of God, is not sin. There are two classes of human beings, at least, who have no proper conformity to the law of God, and who still are not sinners. Infants form one class of this kind. They have certainly some want of conformity to the divine law; but who will pretend that on this account they are chargeable with sin? No one, it is presumed. They are as incapable of conformity to moral requisitions, as they are of the violation of them. The law of God requires positive, practical duties; but not of infants. Its requirements are binding upon those only who have reached the period of discretion and moral accountability; but this period infants have not reached; and of course, a want of conformity in them to the divine law is not sin. It is the necessary result of their nature, and of the unavoidable circumstances of their being, during this stage of their existence. Idiots form another class in whom there is obviously a want
of conformity to the law of God; but who are not on this account justly chargeable with criminality. They are constitutionally incapable of moral conformity to the divine law. They are destitute of the powers of natural conscience. They cannot distinguish between right and wrong. Morally speaking, they can neither do right nor wrong; and it would be the height of absurdity to attribute to such beings a moral conformity to the law of God. Such a character might with equal propriety be ascribed to irrational animals and inanimate objects. Any want of conformity, therefore, to the law of God is not
Those to whom the divine law has never been revealed, form another class of human beings who are in a condition similar to those already enumerated. In any proper sense of the phrase, they are destitute of conformity to the law of God; but this is their misfortune, not their crime. I repeat, then, that sin is not any want of conformity to the law of God.
The latter member of the definition comes nearer the truth; but still it is defective. It does not express the whole truth with respect to the subject under examination. It runs thus: 'Sin is any violation of the law of God.' Is this true? I apprehend it is not. Some violations of the law of God are sin, but not all. The divine law may be violated through unavoidable ignorance or inadvertency, and will any one pretend that such acts are sinful? It is presumed not. They are misfortunes, not sins. But any known violation of God's law is sin. This definition is in accordance with that given in the Scriptures: Whosoever committeth sin, transgresseth also the law; for sin is the transgression of the law. 1 John. iii. 4. But where there is no law, there is no transgression. Rom. iv. 15.' From these scriptures it is plain, that, in order for a transgression of the law to constitute sin, its moral obligations must have been previously made known to the transgressor. 'Where there is no law, there is no transgression.' By this, the apostle could not have meant that there was ever a time when the divine law did not really exist, or that there was ever a place beyond the sphere of its dominion. This law was resident in the mind of Jehovah from eternity, and its authority always extended, prospectively at least, throughout the intellectual and moral world; but before mankind could be actually amenable to it, its requisitions must be distinctly made known to them. The meaning, therefore, of the pas