I’m posting as a separate page a copy of an article written by Rev JS Sinclair titled ‘The absence of the sense of sin in present day religion.’ It’s here, abridged and ever so slightly edited from its original version.*
My copy is in the format of a stand-alone tract, which somebody gave to me thinking it could do with being publicised even now (- it must have been written at least 90 years ago).
The main point of the article is to expose the shallowness of the religious life of presumably British or Scottish Christianity. To Mr Sinclair, this was mainly demonstrated by a relative lack of “the sense of sin”. A consciousness of personal sinnership has been a marked feature of the piety characteristic of traditional Highland Christianity (for example) – bearing in mind that Christ is primarily proclaimed in the gospel as a saviour from sin, it is highly congruous that those who follow him should do so as sinners – he came to call, not the righteous, but sinners, to repentance. And not just at the outset of their Christian lives either – repentance should be a prominent exercise in the practical day-to-day experience of any believer for the rest of their lives. (Easy enough to say.)
But even comparing the present situation with the picture a couple of generations ago, as a rule, collectively we tend (i) to no longer treat as sinful some things that our grandparents and great-grandparents in the faith would have unhesitatingly condemned, and (ii) not to share their loathing of the sinfulness of things that we do still see as sinful. Our sense of what counts as sin, and of how sinful sin is, has been very markedly diluted relative to the consciousness of our spiritual forebears.
And this is to our detriment. As Sinclair mentions in the article, our appreciation of the greatness of the salvation which God provides is to a very large extent determined by how sensitive we are to our own sin. If we only need a little forgiveness, for some little amount of sin, then a small salvation will suffice. But our spiritual health can only suffer when our insensitivity to the desperateness, deceitfulness, and vileness of sin leaves us with views of ourselves that are too high, and views of the Saviour that are too low.
It’s also (hard to say without hypocrisy) dishonouring to God. Never mind our spiritual health and perceived spiritual wellbeing. Our sin is an affront to his majesty and authority – it is against his law which is holy, and just, and good. Although this is true without qualification in the case of people who have never believed, it’s also true even for believers – sin in believers is still sin, if not in fact aggravated by being against grace and light that other people haven’t had. Our sense of the holiness of God is surely much fainter than it should be. Our concern to avoid displeasing him much weaker. Our longing for renewed pardon so desultory. ‘I have gone astray like a lost sheep; pardon mine iniquity, for it is great; against thee, thee only, have I sinned…’ – every believer understands what these petitions mean to some degree, but as to depth, we lag a long way behind examples of very recent times, and to our shame.
It is, finally, perhaps worth adding a note of apology to the article. The writer is very critical. It could almost sound as if the diagnosis of the ills of the age is an end in itself. There may almost be a feeling that the sections of the religious scene who are the target of the article are already a lost cause. In mitigation, I can only suggest that Mr Sinclair must have belonged to an environment where all the truths of the gospel and experiences of the godly were hard-won privileges (the truths were fought for, often at great personal expense, in a tradition where the Reformers, Covenanters, and Disruption fathers were salient, heroic figures – and spiritual experience, as gracious operations of the sovereign Holy Spirit in an atmosphere saturated by these truths, was something precious to be treasured). Any trends which would undermine these things should be fiercely resisted – and the lightness and frivolity of what people like Sinclair perceived around them would not only have been largely incomprehensible but also highly offensive. If their rhetoric is one mainly of warning and censure, this is more likely to reflect their real fear of the slippery slope and the grave responsibility of those seeming to lead the plunge down it, rather than calling into doubt their real concern for souls.
* JS Sinclair (1868-1921) was a student for the ministry at the time when the Free Presbyterian Church separated from the Free Church and firmly resisted the trends towards weakening confessional subscription in the ecclesiastical scene of his time. (He refused to enter New College in 1892 after the passing of the rather infamous Declaratory Act, going off to train in Belfast instead.) He was one of the several students who associated themselves with MacFarlane and MacDonald in the first presbytery of the Free Presbyterian Church, and was ordained in 1896. He pastored in the second FP congregation in Glasgow, the one which had previously had Jonathan Rankin Anderson as its minister and joined the FPs after Anderson’s death. Sinclair was the first editor of the FP magazine, taking the chance right from the start to expose, in great detail, the flaws of the 1892 Act, in a series which extended over a good few of the earliest issues (1896 onwards). This article was most likely first published in the Free Presbyterian Magazine.