HOLINESS AND SIN
HE fundamental attribute of God is holi-
ness. Holiness is self-affirming purity.
In virtue of this attribute God eternally wills and maintains his own moral excellence. Justice and righteousness are only forms in which holiness manifests itself.
Holiness is not self-communicating love, but rather self-affirming righteousness. Holiness limits and conditions love; for love can will happiness, only as happiness results from, or consists with righteousness, that is, with conformity to God.
All non-conformity to God in moral relations is sin; and sin is hateful in God's sight, for it is not only the enemy and destroyer of all purity and peace, but it is in itself the opposite of the right, the true and the good. God therefore attaches suffering to sin, as its proper penalty, even though he himself shares in that suffering, as the Creator and Life of the sinner.
Holiness Absolute in its Requirement To prefer any subordinate good to God, the source and standard of all good, is sin. It is sin because it worships the creature rather than the Creator.
Even truth, beauty and goodness are not to be sought apart from him who is himself truth, beauty and goodness. The real aim of one who prides himself upon making Truth his supreme object is such a rearrangement of the universe as will enable him to escape the restraints of God's holiness and to fancy himself a thinker greater than God. This is once more the rotten philosophy of self-interest, which explains Christianity by its own principle of supreme regard for happiness.
To this philosophy Christianity is a protest. The book of Job is a demonstration that man may serve God without regard to his own interest (" Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him," Job 13: 15). Jesus is our highest example of right doing, when right doing leads to death (" Not my will, but thine, be done," Luke 22:42).
And I, myself, at my conversion, found no peace until I had given up all desire for peace. I had sought the Lord apparently in vain. I was going back to College unconverted. My father came to the train, disconsolate because I was going back to my ungodly companions with no evidence that I was a Christian. I clambered into the car with the words ringing in my ears, "The harvest is past, the summer is ended and my soul is not saved." The conductor said, "All aboard," and the train left the station. I said to myself, "This train is taking me to hell!" I leaned my head on top of the seat in front of me and began to think: "Why have I failed? It must be because I have been making an experiment of this thing. God wants a finality. I have been thinking that if I did not succeed, I could go back. God wants my service, not because it will bring me peace or happiness, but because that service is my bounden duty, and because he is my rightful Lord." Then I resolved to serve God only, whether I lived or died, even if I never heard a word from his lips of pardon or comfort.
And that is my protest against the Epicurean doctrine that Christianity is simply a choice of God for the sake of happiness. There is no virtue in seeking truth apart from God: it is idolatry rather, like the sin that esteems the works of God's hands as objects of greater devotion than is God himself; nor can such seekers of truth claim any merit in their socalled independence. However noble may be the stoical character, and however prolonged the quest, it is like the electric lamp held against the sun,—through the smoked glass of the astronomer it becomes a black spot upon that blazing disk. The law of God makes all our self-righteousness to be sin, and puts the whole world under condemnation, "for through the law cometh the knowledge of sin" (Rom. 3:20).
Sin's Nature Seen in its Consequences
Years ago I stood on the deck of an ocean steamer, listening to the talk of the captain. A steward came suddenly forward and told the captain that a hostler, in charge of horses in the hold, had thrown a lighted match into the straw, and that the men near found difficulty in putting out the blaze. The captain turned pale, rushed to the gangway, seized the offender by the collar, dragged him from the stall, and put him in irons for the rest of the voyage. And all for throwing away a lighted match? Yes, because that lighted match might have meant the loss of the ship a thousand miles from land, and the drowning of all her passengers and crew. The captain hated fire.
The fire that God hates is sin. The least sin is self-multiplying. Left to itself, it will set on fire the whole course of nature, and it is itself set on fire by hell (James 3:6).
God has permitted sin to begin in so small a way, in order that its evil may be the more manifest. How small a thing seemed the first transgression—the eating of the fruit of the forbidden tree!
"'Twas but a little drop of sin
We saw this morning enter in;
And lo, at eventide, the world is drowned!"
A single flesh-fly, with its progeny in the tropics, will devour a sheep's carcass as quickly as will a lion. Sin is a principle in course of development. Do not judge it by what it is now, but by what it may become. Its small beginnings hide an infinity of evil.
We can stamp out tuberculosis only at the start; when it is developed, there is no cure, and no staying of its ravages. And sin is plausible and deceitful at the beginning; it even comes to us as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11: 14) ; but, " when it is full-grown, it bringeth forth death" (James 1: 15). Therefore, God, who sees the future in the present, cries to us, with most pathetic voice: "O, do not this abominable thing, that I hate!" (Jer. Sin's Consequences to Christ
And Christ was "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world" (Rev. 13:8), because even from the beginning he suffered for human sin.
Can a father see his daughter the victim of a betrayer, lost to purity, and going down to death, without shame and agony that blanch the hair and paralyze the heart? Christ saw ten thousand cases like that; aye, the whole mass and weight of the world's sin and sorrow fell on him, till not only beads of sweat stood upon his brow, but the very blood was forced through the pores and fell in great drops upon the ground. All this, with the darkened heavens and the broken heart of the cross—these were not simply Christ's sufferings,—they were God's also; and the apostle does not hesitate to speak of the church of God which he purchased with his own blood" (Acts 20:28), for Christ's blood was the blood of God (Miscellanies, 2:340-359).
Sin the Negation of God
And yet the dreadful consequences of sin are not the main reason why God hates it. He hates it because it is the opposite of his nature. In itself, and apart from its consequences, it is condemnable.
As you abhor dirt, filth, lust, cruelty, hypocrisy, so God abhors sin. It is rebellion over against his sovereignty; darkness, over against his light; impurity, over against his purity; selfishness, over against his love.
Sin is his antagonist and would-be destroyer. Sin would dethrone God, and set up its own rule upon the ruins of God's empire. Sin is the effort of the creature to take the place of the Creator; of the planet to make itself the centre of the solar system; of finite man to "oppose and exalt himself against all that is called God or that is worshipped; so that he sits in the temple of God, setting himself forth as God" (2 Thess. 2:4). All sin is the attempt, consciously or unconsciously, to secure what Satan promised in his first temptation, namely, "Ye shall be as God" (Gen. 3:5).
Sin the Background of Grace
But God aims to show, not only the greatness of sin, but the greatness of Christ. If sin abounds, grace abounds much more (Rom. 5:20). As the ship captain starts to extinguish the blaze, so Christ leaves his throne, and endures the cross, that he may put down sin in this revolted province of his empire. It is a revelation to principalities and powers in heavenly places, as well as to mortal man. So he may preserve other worlds from falling, and the sad experience of our planet may work out the lasting good of the entire universe. This little sphere, though it is not the material centre, may yet be the spiritual centre, of God's whole system of worlds. Here is enacted the greatest drama of the ages. And the most important thing in history is the Cross,
"Where Christ, the mighty Maker, died
For man, the creature's, sin."
Let us estimate our own sins by God's standard. Let us see in the least of them the beginnings of infinite evil. Let us fly to Christ as our refuge from their guilt and power.
Sin and God's Plan of Recovery
The one object of God's self-revelation in creation is to restore in man the image and likeness of God by making him a son, in union with Christ's sonship, and by giving him experience of his own greatness, in the reception of Christ's Spirit.
For man, as we have seen, is essentially, not matter, but spirit. Like God himself, he can exist without body, and freed from the limitations of space and time. But being a finite, and not an infinite spirit, he can enter into this rest and dominion, only through growth and education.
He must learn the alphabet before he can read, and must master the multiplicationtable before he can use the calculus. Space and time, with the limitations of a material body, are the necessary conditions of this education.
And especially, the possession and exercise of free-will are necessary for moral development and progress. Without freedom man's obedience to law would be merely automatic and mechanical. Power to do evil must exist, if there is to be any virtue in doing good. And God submits to the sorrow and suffering, which are the penalty of disobedience in his creatures, only because he can share that sorrow and suffering with them, and can make these evils the means of their restoration. The holiness of God, which punishes sin by its consequences of misery, has for its first effect his own suffering, so that God himself is the greatest sufferer of the universe (Gen. 6:6; Jer. 44:4; Is. The End Foreseen front the Beginning
God's plan, from the very beginning and before the beginning, included the permission of man's fall, together with the provision for his recovery.
The first man was a child, but he was not a savage. He was undeveloped, but he had right intuitions and inclinations, and he was free to choose between good and evil.
In the exercise of freedom, he might have chosen the path of upward progress; but he chose to take the downward road; and evolution may be downward toward hell, instead of upward toward heaven.
We have numberless instances of animal species which have deteriorated and have finally gone out of existence; indeed, those which have perished outnumber the survivors a hundred to one. Herbert Spencer tells us that "retrogression has been as frequent as progression." And Tennyson contrasts the two tendencies in his couplet:
"Evolution, ever climbing after some ideal good, And Reversion, ever dragging Evolution in the mud."
Is the world growing better? Yes, but it is also growing worse. Every increase of goodness makes evil more intense in its opposition. The free-will of man counteracts his upward growth in the arts, in science, and even in civilization, though these are proofs that the Spirit of Christ is still working in him.
A very high artistic and poetic development may coexist with great moral degradation; as in the days of Raphael and the Borgias, when a pope could have his paramour painted for an altar-piece representing the Virgin.
In my essay on "Degeneration" (Miscellanies, 2:110-128), I have quoted the conclusions to which men of broad understanding have come with regard to the beginnings of the human race. "Cannibalism and infanticide," says Gulick, "are unknown among the anthropoid apes. These must be the results of degradation. Pirates and slaveholders are not men of low and abortive intelligence, but men of education, who deliberately throw off all restraint, and who use their powers for the destruction of society." "There is no cruel treatment of females among animals," says Mark Hopkins. "If man came from the lower animals, then he cannot have been originally savage, for you find the most of this cruel treatment among savages," and not among the lower animals.
The apostle Paul, in the first chapter of his Epistle to the Romans, has given us the key to history, when he declares that primitive man knew God, but glorified him not as God; that he exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and in consequence was given up to a reprobate mind (Rom. 1: 18-32) ; and John declares that this degeneration can be counteracted only by regeneration from above (John 3:3).
Holiness Vanquishing Sin
If what I have said thus far is true, we should regard human history as God's evolution of his plan for man's redemption through the work of Christ and of the Holy Spirit, which culminated in the suffering of the cross and the founding of the church. Little by little God has revealed himself, as the world has been able to bear it. Only in the fullness of time could the incarnation take place (Gal. 4:4); for, until man knew himself to be a lost sinner, there was no propriety in proclaiming to him salvation.
Only to a chosen nation and to a prepared people could the clear prophecy of a Redeemer be given, while other peoples had only scattered rays of the true light (Rom. 3:1). Yet God did not leave himself without a witness in any land (Acts 14:17). Confucius and Buddha and Zoroaster were his partial agents, doing a little to reform evil systems and to improve moral conditions. Mixed with error as their teachings were, the coin they furnished had more of lead in it than silver; and the washing of silver that gave it currency did not prevent it from being a counterfeit of the true, nor from making its authors "thieves and robbers," when their doctrine stole the hearts of men away from Christ (John 10:8).
When Christ himself comes in human form, he sums up all the truth of these partial revelations, and adds his personal testimony and example, to show that in him man may come to union and fellowship with the infinite God.
The Holy Spirit who has put eternity into our heart (Eccl. 3:11; Miscellanies, 1:313331), lifts us up at times to see things from God's point of view, sub specie aeternitatis. Inspiration, indeed, may be only the reinforcement of a faculty normal to sinless man, but which he has lost by transgression; and the prophets were men who "searched what time or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glories that should follow them" (1 Pet.
So we have in human history a downward evolution caused by man's sin, side by side with an upward evolution due to the presence in humanity of the life-giving Christ. The tares and the wheat grow together till the time of the harvest (Matt. 13:30). Then the tares shall be cast into the furnace of fire, but the wheat shall be gathered into God's storehouses. The holiness of God shall at last be vindicated. The Cross of Christ on the one hand, and on the other hand the heaven or hell which follow its acceptance or rejection, show God's estimate of sin.