[Abridged and slightly edited: an article by Rev JS Sinclair, written around the turn of the 20th century.]
Many are the fundamental defects of the popular religion of the present day. Some of these are to be seen in the outward practice of its professors; others, in the inner frame of mind which characterises them and which does not fail to show itself. One of the latter defects is the absence of the sense of sin. There are no “sinners” nowadays, in the felt sense of the word, among the general class of supposed Christians. The explanation is that a generation of people have arisen who are “pure in their own eyes and yet are not washed from their filthiness.”
1. Let us observe, in the first place, that there is the greatest possible difference between the committal of sin and the sense of sin.
Sin itself is of the creature, but the sense of it is of God. Indulgence in sin, instead of awakening the sense of it, has entirely the opposite effect. Criminal indulgence has the direct tendency to stupefy and deaden the conscience. Thus it frequently happens that hardened sinners are in their own opinion the most innocent people in the world.
On the other hand, where the true sense of sin is, there is a sense of its constant presence in thought and action, its evil and its guilt, and there is the disposition to hate it and forsake it. Let it be clearly marked, then, that sin is of man and the devil, but the sense of it is the work of God in the soul.
2. It is to be noted more fully that the sense of sin is produced by the Holy Spirit in conversion, and is sustained by the same Spirit in sanctification.
- As to the sense of sin in conversion, Christ himself speaks in the sixteenth chapter of John, when he intimates that after he departs he will send forth the Spirit of truth, who will “reprove the world of sin and of righteousness and of judgement: of sin, because they believe not on me.” And this is illustrated by frequent examples in the Acts of the apostles. Witness the thousands on the day of Pentecost, Saul of Tarsus, and the Philippian jailor. Similar has been the experience of Christians in subsequent times. Take the eminent examples of Augustine, Luther, John Bunyan, Owen, Halyburton and others. True, cases can be found where the first stroke of the Spirit’s power was the manifestation of love – the love of God – but the stroke left a sense of sin behind it. It is a sense of sin and unworthiness that makes the love of God in Christ so inexpressibly wonderful and precious in the eyes of the soul. The one is the complement of the other in saving experience
- As to the sense of sin in sanctification, the psalmist in the Old Testament and the apostle Paul in the New are outstanding inspired witnesses. The psalms bear striking testimony to the sense of sin in the process of sanctification. The writers are constantly conscious of being still sinners in heart and life. They confess their shortcomings and provocations with plaintive sorrow, and they seek with persevering earnestness that will not take denial, the forgiveness of their iniquities and the light of God’s favourable countenance. The apostle Paul in the seventh chapter of the epistle to the Romans describes his own experience in and after conversion, and his testimony clearly is that the living soul finds evil present with him. Here an inward conflict is described which undoubtedly involves a sense of indwelling sin.
- Further, we remark that regeneration is not perfect sanctification. Regeneration is the creation of a new man – “a new heart and a right spirit” – but it is not the complete casting out of the “old man”. The “old man” is cast down but not cast out. He is still alive and active, and though dethroned, seeks to regain the ascendancy that he has lost. Where the new creation reigns, there must, of necessity, be a sense of the sin that remains, a consciousness of its depravity and guilt, a conflict with its workings, and intense longings for deliverance from it, root and branch. How conspicuous by its absence is such as sense of sin in the popular religion of the times in which we live! The sinner who has religious convictions of a kind, and is not humbled before God by a sense of his sins, is beset with grave spiritual dangers.
3. The sense of sin is absent from many areas of contemporary religious life.
- It is absent from the general preaching of the time. The theology which is popular takes little account of the fact of sin. The inspired account of the Fall is treated by many more as myth or poetry than as simple truth, while the doctrine of the total depravity of the race in relation to any thing spiritually good is practically, often emphatically, denied. Thus it has come to pass that the average preacher of the day is a man who does not seem to have any sense of sin himself, and makes no effort to impress his hearers with the necessity of having it. Sin, if it is handled at all, is chiefly treated in its bearing on one’s neighbour or fellow-creature. Moral evil, as between man and man, is at times largely descanted on and strongly denounced, but sin, as committed against God and incurring his holy displeasure and righteous curse, is not discussed or proclaimed. The Bible doctrines of sin and its consequent punishment – hell – are regarded by many preachers as the gloomy notions of an unenlightened past, in no wise fit for the ears of the cultured people of today.
- The sense of sin is also conspicuously absent from public prayer. The Lord Jesus taught his disciples to pray: “Forgive us our sins…” And the apostle John declares, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” These testimonies clearly prove both that a sense of sin is an important element of Christian experience, and that sin should be a matter of confession and supplication unto God. But this feature is very seldom to be observed in the general prayers of the present day. What is generally to be heard is a series of thanksgivings for blessings received. Let us not be understood as decrying the spirit of true thankfulness. This is admirable and necessary in its own place, but when no sense of sin or need is expressed, questions must arise about how capable one can be of rendering spiritual thankfulness to God.
- The sense of sin is, further, absent from many supposed conversions. This important change is now generally reduced to one category, decision for Christ. All that the convert is expected to say is that he believes in and intends to follow Christ. 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. True it is that a decision to follow Christ is part of a true conversion to God, but it is not the whole: it belongs to the fruit rather than the root of the matter.
The absence of this consciousness of sin is clearly connected with the lack of those gracious dispositions which evidence the “new creation”, as may be seen in the following particulars.
(i) There is an absence of “the fear of the Lord” from modern religious life. The fear of the Lord is an essential feature of true piety. Where this gracious fear is, there is a view of the infinite majesty and holiness of God, as seen both on Mount Sinai and Mount Calvary, and not less on the latter – a view which fills the soul with a sense of its inexpressible vileness and unworthiness. “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.” But today, unhallowed familiarity and presumptuous boldness have taken the place of “reverence and godly fear”.
(ii) There is the presence of a great deal of “confidence in the flesh”. The apostle Paul describes true believers as those who “… have no confidence in the flesh.” Fleshly confidence is an outstanding feature of present-day religion – a fitting accompaniment of the lack of the sense of sin. When people’s eyes are not opened to see their fallen and lost condition as sinners before God, and when there is no perception of the sin that cleaves to every thought, word and action, there must necessarily be a great deal of esteem for the energies and works of the creature, self-complacency and self-confidence hold the field, and people walk on well-contented with themselves, their doings and their attainments. If people knew in reality the deceitfulness and wickedness of their own hearts, how differently they would act in this matter!
(iii) There is the absence of a real life of faith upon the Son of God as the divine Saviour and Mediator of the new covenant. There is no real life of God in their souls; they rest in in a natural faith, and are not needy sinners entirely dependent upon the Lord Jesus Christ for righteousness, strength and all covenant blessings. Where there is genuine faith, there is a constant realisation of soul need, and a daily seeking the face of the Lord – an inability to live without some communion at a throne of grace with the Father, through the Son and by the Holy Ghost. What a lack of this vital godliness is to be seen today.
4. The fourth and last general point is the serious results of the lack of the sense of sin. Some of these results are that the preacher makes little or no distinction in his sermons between nature and grace, between a state of condemnation and a state of salvation. Unconverted sinners are not warned of their sin and guilt and danger, or directed to the way of escape through Jesus Christ and him crucified. Nominal professors are allowed to sleep on in their self-complacency and carnal security. Can anything more delusive or soul-destroying be imagined? How many must pass into eternity with a lie in their right hand.