sinclair on sin

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 sinclaireven 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.
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* 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.

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9 thoughts on “sinclair on sin

  1. Thanks for posting this, it’s an excellent article.

    It seems to me that the things Rev Sinclair is warning about – the lack of a sense of sin; must have been a state that was very widespread through the churches during his day, and I suppose it goes some way to explaining how we’ve ended up our the current sorry situation in Scotland.

    I was reading a local history book of the Eskdale area published around the 1890’s which was written by one of the parish ministers, who evidently was very firmly in the Moderate camp (and who I take as being an example in my unscholarly way, of ‘the moderate’ thinking). At one point in the book he complains in very strong terms about lots of people attending the communion services who were not normally present – and worse, some from neighbouring parishes. He felt it was very distracting and interfered with the dignity of the sacrament for the normal communicants, or something like that. What struck me reading the book was how amazingly irreligious the man seemed to be, yet he still had a large number of the local population turn up for sermon on Sabbath.

    I suppose I’m not making my point very well, but one thing I find hard to understand about the Church of Scotland is how it has managed to change so radically how it operates and what it believes over the course of just a few generations. The communion season being a particular example of change. It was once normal, now it is unheard of.

    At some point the congregations generally, must have conciously started to accept preaching that did not make much of sin. There must have been plenty of men happy to preach that way too. Perhaps Mr Sinclair really did feel that much of the religious scene of his day was a lost cause.

    Thankfully down the years we’ve been granted a few preachers from the Evangelical side of things as well. But sadly our self-righteousness makes it hard to sit long hearing the gospel in it’s purity.

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  2. Well i’m glad you made some sense of it. I hummed and hawed a lot before posting it. I’m not sure really what the key contrasts really are. Is it “then” vs “now”? but it’s not always helpful to compare the present with the past spiritually, and if we did look back to earlier times as golden ages we barely aspire to, concerns like Sinclair expresses suggest the problem has always existed to some degree or another.

    So is it always a question of the degree of variation within a broadly-ish defined Christian community? But then, a Christian can vary personally in how much of a sense of sin they have at any particular time – someone could have a very profound sense of sin at one point but the sense of it could lessen, or perhaps change in its expression/consequences through time. So is Sinclair then exhorting weak, relatively undevoted Christians to deepen a true but shallow sense of sin?

    Or is he making a sharp distinction between the particular sense of sin which Christians ought to have and the sense of sin which by definition non-Christians cannot have (even if they’re religious and outwardly Christianlike)? Not to deny that non-Christians can be conscious of sin, but it’s in a different way from someone who has experience of how the power and pollution of it can be dealt with, divinely, in the gospel way. (John Colquhoun’s little book on Repentance is extremely helpful on this point.)

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  3. Though I’m sure he had both kinds of people’s unbelief in mind, I think, this article is particulary aimed at the unbelief of the unconverted folk in the professing churches, which brings about all sorts of havoc in religion; the fruit of which he attempts to mention. I suppose the Christians have exactly the same kind of unbelief and sin as everyone else, so there are important things for everyone to consider in his address. But rather than trying to make believers consider degrees, I think he is writing against the light views of sin which are the common experience of everyone and which preachers have a duty to speak against by pointing out truths which are good for us to hear, that is, if by grace they produce faith and not the unbelief which tends to harden us against believing in Christ.

    So I don’t think I’ve really made much of an answer to your questions. For me, getting into discussions about the different senses of sin relative to believers / unbelievers seems waaaaaay out of my depth, but I shall try and borrow J Colquhoun’s book on Repentance, as it sounds very worthwhile. Though looking at the large pile of books I’ve borrowed and never returned, I should say people probably have more sense now than to lend to me. They’d probably find it more realistic to just straightly give me books these days! :)

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  4. Right. I think that’s got to the nub of it. The absence of the sense of sin in people professing to be Christians.

    I’ve recently been re-reading a wee book on Psalm 130 by John Owen. (Don’t be impressed that I’m reading John Owen btw, this must be one of the easiest-to-read things he wrote :) )
    He spends a lot of time discussing how saving faith, and assurance, are perfectly consistent with deep consciousness of sin and mourning for sin.
    There are of course people who have a deep sense of sin without taking the right course of action to deal with it. Uneasy consciences which the old writers would say often only drive people to take refuge in the arms of the Law. A pitiful situation, to be aware of sin but not of the remedy provided.
    But I think you’re exactly right to say that the point of the article is an expose of people who claim to be saved but show no signs of concern about their sin. Conversions where “…there is no word of conviction of sin, and ruin, and helplessness. A lost sinner, crying to the Lord for mercy and pardon and faith through Jesus Christ, is not the newer Christian at the beginnings.” And the end of the article very sobering, “Nominal professors are allowed to sleep on in their self-complacency and carnal security. Can anything more delusive or soul-destroying be imagined?”

    I wish i had my own copy of Colquhoun’s Repentance :) it was written i think sometime around the first half of the nineteenth century. V useful, very gospel-oriented if i may say so.

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  5. Great article. One I would agree with. Sin is underestimated everywhere. And the thing about sin is that the effects ripple across the human soul and society in general. In the same way a wee wave in the mid atlantic is a surfers dream by the time it reaches Islay.

    You know…well maybe you do not!…but..its only a wee sin….before you know it..gulp!

    What do you think though.

    “faith alone”

    Has it removed personal responsibility?

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  6. by the way. Ive provided a link for your site on me blog along with the much esteemed and popular Rev I. D Campbell. Under the sidebar title “Calvinistas”.

    Any others out there I should be liniking to?

    God bless Cath.

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  7. Well, i’m honoured – most august company :)

    Faith alone – yes in a sense i suppose it does remove personal responsibility? A renouncing of yourself wholly into the care of another, abandoning your own autonomy and all recourse to any aspect/product of ‘self’.

    Otoh not if you mean it removes the (sense of) obligation to be personally holy. God forbid. How shall we that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? He gave himself for us, so that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.

    What thinkest thou?

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  8. Lots of other FC bloggers btw as well as Iain D – James E, Colin Dow, Gordon Matheson, Sheena and David Strain …

    FPs not so many, but see Matthew (the Holdfast) and Rachel and the Reynolds already linked in my sidebar (some others but tend to be more personal not so theological, FP bloggers please link yourselves below if you feel unjustly overlooked :) )

    FCC don’t know so many … actually maybe i should just write a new post!

    not too keen on vast lists of links, but obviously i read loads … a wee collection of denominationally organised blogs might be quite interesting ? but man, how much clicking around would i have to do, will think about it :)

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