Great Texts of the Bible
Sin the Detective
Be sure your sin will find you out.—Numbers 32:23.
1. When the children of Israel arrived at the kingdom of Moab, on the eastern bank of the Jordan, they found large tracts of pasture-land especially suited to the tribes who were rich in flocks, like the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and Manasseh. These tribes begged Eleazar the priest to obtain from Moses permission for them to settle there permanently. But Moses answered with indignation, “Shall your brethren go to war, and shall ye sit here?” He reminded them how the cowardice of the spies had before brought down on the nation the anger of the Lord. The men of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh told him that they had no intention of deserting their brethren. They only wanted to settle their wives and daughters in the land, and then the men of war would go and fight the battles of the other tribes. Moses was content with the answer, and assigned them the land they wanted; but he gave them a warning to keep their promise: to abandon their brethren was to sin against God. And he added the words of the text—words which go to the heart of every reader as direct as any in the Bible—“Be sure your sin will find you out.”
This is one of those passages in the inspired writings which, though introduced on a particular occasion and with a limited meaning, express a general truth, such as we seem at once to feel as being far greater than the context requires, and which we use apart from it. Moses warned the Reubenites and the Gadites, that if they, who had already been allotted their inheritance, did not assist their brethren in gaining theirs, their sin would find them out, or be visited on them. And, while he so spoke, He who spoke through him, God, the Holy Spirit, conveyed, as we believe, a deeper meaning under his words, for the edification of His Church to the end; viz. he intimated that great law of God’s governance, to which all who study that governance will bear witness, that sin is ever followed by punishment. Day and night follow each other not more surely than punishment comes upon sin. Whether the sin be great or little, momentary or habitual, wilful or through infirmity, its own peculiar punishment seems, according to the law of nature, to follow, as far as our experience of that law carries us,—sooner or later, lighter or heavier, as the case may be.1 [Note: J. H. Newman.]
2. The truth of the text is that our sin will not be done with us when we are done with it; that, however short a time we give to sin, however hastily we flee from it, however skilfully cover our retreat by plunging into a thicket of engagements and good deeds, our sin will track and dog us through every turn of life until it finds us out and pulls us down and compels us to understand that every evil done is evil to him who did it.
It is strange, at first sight, that those texts which warn men that their sins will be punished in this life are just the most unpleasant texts in the whole Bible; that men shrink from them more, and shut their eyes to them more than they do to those texts which threaten them with hell-fire and everlasting death. Strange! that men should be more afraid of being punished in this life for a few years than in the life to come for ever and ever;—and yet not strange if we consider; for to worldly and sinful souls, that life after death and the flames of hell seem quite distant and dim—things of which they know little and believe less, while this world they do know, and are quite certain that its good things are pleasant and its bad things unpleasant, and they are thoroughly afraid of losing them.2 [Note: C. Kingsley.]
The Detection of Sin
Every sin brings its punishment. This is a matter of Divine law. It is inflexible. There has never been any deviation from it, and it was scepticism respecting this law that ruined the world. Satan circumvented our first parents—he caused Eve to doubt the reality of this fact: “Ye shall not surely die.” He denied the inflexible law, that he who sins must suffer.
1. The text does not say when our sin will be detected. It does not say, “Be sure your sin will find you out at once.” It says, “Be sure your sin will find you out”—if not in life, yet ultimately. It is only a question of time, nothing else. When travelling in Switzerland one is often interested in observing what a space of time frequently elapses between the shout you raise and the echo which comes back from the distant mountain-tops. You cry, “Ho!” There is a dead silence, and you think your voice is lost in the space. Oh no. Those waves of sound are travelling, and, if you wait, the voice will come back again, and by and by the mountain-heads fling back, “Ho! Ho!” and you find that, after all, it was only a question of time. Your own voice was bound to return to you.
“My Lord Cardinal,” said the unhappy French queen to Richelieu, “God does not pay at the end of every week; but at the last He pays.”
In 1693, Louis xiv. of France destroyed the tombs of the emperors at Spiers by the hand of an officer named Hentz; and on the very same day in 1793—exactly one hundred years afterwards—by one Hentz, the representative of the people, the tombs of the French kings at St. Denis were broken open, and the ashes of Louis xiv. were the first to be scattered to the winds.1 [Note: J. Wells.]
2. The text says that, whether late or soon, detection is sure. There is something about these words which we cannot get away from. We know, of course, that in highly civilized countries, with the most complete police machinery, a large amount of crime escapes detection. In less civilized earlier times, when communication was difficult, the amount of undetected crime must have been infinitely greater. If we leave our crimes and think of lesser sins and offences—such as thieving, untruth, sins of the flesh—there must be a large amount in every community which the eye of man fails to detect and his hand to punish. For one forgery which is discovered and punished there are thousands of cases of adulteration and trade deceptions which are not only unpunished but unsuspected. And indeed it is obvious, from a cursory glance at life, that God did not intend all our offences and shortcomings to be detected and punished by mankind. There would be no freedom of action, no freedom of development, no independence of character, if it were not so. But we cannot on that account escape from the consequences of sinning. Moses does not say that the sin of these tribes would be detected. There was no reason to say so. It would be clear and palpable enough. Men could not settle down in selfish comfort and refuse to fight their country’s battles in secret. They must do it openly and before all eyes. But their conduct would not escape punishment, even if it were not revenged by their fellow-tribes. It would find them out, and work its consequences. It would cut them off from sympathy and union with their nation. They would cease to be Israelites and part of a great people.
The difference between the committal of a crime and the punishment which the community inflicts through its judges and its courts, and the committal of a sin and the punishment which follows, is both great and deep. A crime is not necessarily the same thing as a sin; it often is, because God is revealing Himself in the progressive life of humanity; and accordingly the laws which govern the community and which are therefore expressions of its life, may also be partial expressions of the nature and the will of God; but in committing a crime a man puts himself over against the community; in committing a sin, he puts himself over against God. A man may break the law of the community without breaking also the law of God. There is another difference. A crime may be undetected, and therefore unpunished; all the vigilance and the machinery of the law may be unable to bring a criminal to justice. But even those of us who do not understand how it works out, have an unerring instinct of the truth that all sin is and must be punished, somehow, somewhere, and somewhen. Because we have thought that such punishment for sin does not follow in this life, we have got into the way of postulating a future hell in which those punishments shall be exacted, measure for measure, and from which none shall come forth until he has paid the last farthing.1 [Note: E. W. Lewis.]
In Greek history we read of a man named Ibycus who lived five centuries before the birth of Christ, and was a popular poet in his own generation. While travelling through an unfrequented region near Corinth, he was set upon by a band of robbers and mortally wounded. As he was on the point of expiring he saw a flock of cranes that happened just then to be flying overhead, and in the absence of any human helper, he called aloud with his last breath upon those birds of the air to avenge his cruel death. Not long afterwards there was a great gathering in the theatre of Corinth, which, like all the theatres of ancient Greece, stood open to the sky. Among the crowd sat one of the murderers of Ibycus. The drama was going on, when suddenly a flock of cranes appeared on the horizon. They drew nearer and nearer until at last they seemed to stop and hover in the air above the heads of the audience. The conscience-stricken murderer, seized with terror, instinctively exclaimed, “Behold the avengers of Ibycus!” His words were overheard, and he was seized and put on trial. He confessed the guilt of himself and his accomplices, and all of them were sentenced to death.1 [Note: J. C. Lambert.]
The ancients said that Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance, was slow in her movements, being lame of her feet; but though she was slow, she never failed to catch her victim, for while he was sleeping she was still pursuing. And they believed that nature herself—the very birds of the air, the very waves of the sea, the very trees of the wood, the very stones of the street—would cry aloud to prevent a crime from being concealed. In Hood’s powerful ballad, “The Dream of Eugene Aram,” which is founded on an actual case, we have a kind of allegory of this very truth. Eugene Aram had murdered a man and cast his body into the river—“A sluggish water, black as ink, the depth was so extreme.” Next morning he visited the place, and this was what he saw—
I sought the black accursèd pool
With a wild misgiving eye;
And I saw the Dead in the river-bed,
For the faithless stream was dry!
Upon this he covered the corpse with heaps of leaves; but now a mighty wind swept through the wood, and once more laid his secret bare before the eyes of the sun.
Then down I cast me on my face,
And first began to weep;
For I knew my secret then was one
That earth refused to keep!
Or land, or sea, though he should be
Ten thousand fathoms deep.
In the year 1800, France being then at war with us, a Danish vessel, suspected of being in the French service, was captured at Kingston, West Indies. But the charge could not be proved. The sailors of the warship Abergavenny, then at the same station, were amusing themselves with catching sharks. On opening a shark, they found in its maw a pocket-book containing bills of lading which proved that the captured vessel belonged to the enemy. The captain when pursued had thrown his pocket-book into the sea, and the shark had devoured it. The captain’s sin found him out through the maw of the shark, and his ship became a British prize.1 [Note: J. Wells.]
There is a coal mine in England where there is a limestone formation continually going on. The water that trickles through the rock is fully charged with lime, and then, as the water drains off, it leaves a slab of pure white limestone; but as the miners are at work the black coal dust rises, and then falls again on this limestone, and forms a black layer. But during the night when they are not at work, the dust does not fall and there comes a white layer. Then the next day, of course, there is a black layer. And if the men keep the Lord’s Day, and do not work, it can be seen, because there is a white layer three times as thick as any other. There is the whole of the Saturday night and there is the whole of the Sunday. The miners call that limestone the “Sunday rock,” because you have only to look at that to tell whether they have been at work on Sunday or not. As their work goes on there is the record in the limestone.2 [Note: A. G. Brown.]
The floods arise—O God! the floods arise,
And wash my slain from out their burial sands;
O hide me from the onslaught of their eyes,
The frightful siege of their unhallowed hands.3 [Note: Anna Bunston.]
Sin Itself the Detective
1. The text does not teach simply that every sin will be found out. It is no mere general expression about the discovery of sin. Its meaning is particular and personal. It is, “Be sure your sin will find you out.” That is a very singular expression. There is the idea of the detective. The sin is following the man—tracking him year after year; and then there comes a moment when it puts its hand on the man’s shoulder, and says, “Now I have caught you.” Be sure your sin will find you out. It is not a man arresting his sin: it is his sin arresting him. It is not a man discovering his crime: it is his crime discovering him. Here is a very successful sinner, who throws everybody off the track. He goes in and out among Christian communities, and nobody suspects him. He moves in a good circle of society, and manages so to talk and so to act that no one entertains a suspicion of his being a hypocrite. Yet there is one who has followed the man like his shadow: there is one who has turned with every turning, and kept the track like a bloodhound of keenest scent. It is the man’s own sin. It has tracked him everywhere, and at last lays hold of him with a shout of triumph, and says, “Now I have found you out.”
Hindered by opposing circumstances, counterworked by happy influences, delayed by time, retarded by distance, sin is an influence that works its way towards a man, moving on after him unseen, till it finds him, till it finds him out. In some shape it yet confronts him, and he recognizes it. He and it parted company in boyhood, in youth, a lifetime ago; and he thought it neutralized, dead and buried and forgotten; but it still lives, and will rise like a spectre beside him—it will find him out. It may not interfere with affection, with trade, with prosperity; it may stand beside all these in abeyance. And it may be just through these that it will find him out, as Jacob’s did. Even individual sins, like Jacob’s or like David’s, avenge themselves; and, much more, a course of sin. Sin finds a man out in the usual recognized penalty; or it finds him out in the fear that it is going to find him out, in the unquiet, foreboding conscience; or it finds him out in the bitter compunction and sorrow for the wrong he has done, and the loathing of himself when he thinks of it; or—and this is the way to be dreaded most of all—it will find him out in the hardening of his mind, and the deterioration of his character. For it is vain to think that you can do evil, and reap no consequences from it; that you may commit sin, and have done with it. The hand of the dyer is not more certainly imbued with the colours in which he works than the soul takes on the complexion of the thoughts in which it indulges.1 [Note: A. B. Davidson.]
A man goes on, for years perhaps, and no one ever discovers his particular failings, nor does he know them himself; till at length he is brought into certain circumstances which bring them out. Hence men turn out so very differently from what was expected; and we are seldom able to tell beforehand of another, and scarcely ever dare we promise for ourselves, as regards the future. The proverb, for instance, says, Power tries a man; so do riches, so do various changes of life. We find that, after all, we do not know him, though we have been acquainted with him for years. We are disappointed, nay, sometimes startled, as if he had almost lost his identity; whereas, perchance, it is but the coming to light of sins committed long before we knew him.1 [Note: J. H. Newman.]
George Eliot has taught this lesson more powerfully perhaps than any other writer of modern times. Again and again she shows how a single sin, committed long years ago, not merely bears its appointed fruit, but comes back at last to the author of it laden with these accumulated results, and casts them down at his feet, saying, “These fruits of sin are yours.” The poor, shivering soul would like to disown them then; but he cannot. They are all his. His own iniquities have taken him, and he is holden with the cords of his own sin. He set the stone rolling, and now it has returned upon him. He broke through the hedge of the Divine law, and the serpent that was lurking there has bitten him.2 [Note: J. C. Lambert.]
2. The name that is usually given to this detective power of sin is Conscience. Some sinners are never found out in the world around, they are not openly punished; but for all that they don’t escape. They carry a detective within from whom they might escape if they could tear out their very nature. Conscience finds them out. And how conscience does worry the sinner with remorse! A fox was once caught in a trap, but in the morning was found only one of his legs. The wise creature when caught concluded that it would be better to limp back to his den with three legs than, having four legs, to perish in pain. He turned upon his leg and gnawed it through. That fox teaches us the exact meaning of remorse; for the word means to bite backwards, to gnaw oneself. Sin finds the sinner out when conscience devours the soul. That heathen New Zealander understood this, who gave back a shilling he had stolen from the white man, because of the “quarrelling going on inside him,” as he said, “between the good man and the bad man.”
And now I can recall the time gone by,
The pure fresh sky
Of spring, ’neath which we first met, he and I,
The smell of rainy fields in early spring,
The song of thrushes, and the glimmering
Of rain-drenched leaves by sudden sun made bright,
The tender light
Of peaceful evening, and the saintly night.
Sweet still the scent of roses; only this,
They had a perfume then which now I miss.
Yea, too, I can recall the night wherein
Did first begin
The joy of that intoxicating sin.
Late was the day in April, gray and still,
Too faint to gladden, and too mild to chill;
Hot lay upon my lips the last night’s kiss,
The first of his;
I wandered blindly between shame and bliss;
And, yearning, hung all day about the lane,
Where, in the evening, he should come again.1 [Note: Philip Bourke Marston.]
Some of you may, like myself, have seen Vesuvius. Sometimes it looks the quietest mountain you can imagine. There are green slopes. There are people dwelling at its foot. The vine festoons its flanks, and all is loveliness. Yes, but wait a little. It opens its red mouth, and its crater vomits forth smoke and fire and ashes, and now down its flanks there comes the burning, glowing tide of molten lava. Hell seems let loose from its deep caverns. So it is with a man’s conscience. It may for years be quiet and still, with perhaps an occasional murmur, faint and fleeting; but there comes a day when the sinner’s sins confront him. Then does conscience do her work.2 [Note: A. G. Brown.]
3. What are the methods which sin the detective uses?
(1) Sin finds out the sinner, first, with shameful memories. The sinner may flee from the past, but he cannot alter it, and the waters of Lethe are fabulous. “Teach me,” bitterly exclaimed Themistocles to the man who offered to improve his memory, “teach me to forget.” Here there is no forgetting. The past always stands as you have made it. There are men who from the first have resisted temptation and refused to stoop to folly, who have lived a wise, honourable, aspiring life; but you are not one of these and never can be. If you have spent your youth in a shameful, low, animal, selfish, misguided fashion, no power on earth or in heaven can alter that. You can never live your youth over again. You know what it might have been, you know also what it is. However much you repent, however thoroughly you reform, you cannot undo that piece of your life and replace it with conduct you could now look back upon with pleasure. The shuttle you once so recklessly and eagerly shot across your life has woven into it a pattern which shall now for ever characterize your early life.
Psychologists tell us that memory never really loses anything. Things pass from our consciousness and seem to be utterly forgotten; but they are only lying below the surface of the mind, ready to rise again into vivid life in their own time. Now and then we get slight hints of these mysterious potentialities of our being. Events long buried in the abyss of our forgotten years suddenly come back to us like half-remembered dreams. Some unwonted circumstance serves as the key to a secret spring, and straightway the locked chambers of the soul fly open.
What worse torment could be imagined than to be compelled to remember all one’s past sins, to be compelled to see them in their naked hideousness, to be compelled to acknowledge them in their far-stretching consequences as one’s very own? Mediæval theologians pictured the abode of the lost as a vast furnace filled with leaping tongues of flame. Dante pictured it, no less awfully, as a realm of thick-ribbed everlasting ice, the breath of which was sufficient to freeze both body and spirit. But think of the state of a man whose sins have found him out, who has to say, “Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell.”1 [Note: J. C. Lambert.]
A fine scholar once told me that he had done plenty of things to regret at school; but one only was a real burden to him. “Once,” he said, “myself and some others had been doing something wrong, and the thing had awakened suspicion, and was likely to be discovered. I went boldly to the headmaster and asked him to put it in my hands, as I thought I could find it out if anybody could. He said, ‘I willingly put it into your hands.’ I need not say that it never was found out; but it is the only thing for which I was really punished. I am ashamed of myself whenever I think of it—and I think of it incessantly, and would give anything if I could tell the whole business to the world and be flogged for it.” His sin was not found out, but it found him out, and stuck to him through life.2 [Note: A. W. Potts.]
What shall blot
The memories of bitter years,
Of joys which have been, but are not,
And floods of unforgotten tears?
The painful records graven clear
On carven rock or deathless page;
The long unceasing reign of fear,
The weary tale of lust and rage;
The ills whose dark sum baffles thought,
Done day by day beneath the sun?
“That which is done,” the old sage taught,
“Not God Himself can make undone.”
For that which has been, still must live,
And ’neath the shallow Present last.
Oh, who will sweet oblivion give,
Who free us from the dreadful Past?1 [Note: Sir Lewis Morris, Poems, 102.]
(2) Sin finds out the sinner not only by bitter memories of the past but also by an unhappy and ineffective present. It cripples and incapacitates us for present duty and enjoyment. In our past our present is rooted, and from it we are wholly derived. Let no doctrine of regeneration delude us into the belief that at any moment we please we can leap into a wise, virtuous, refined, godly character. It is not so. If we give entertainment to evil thoughts now, they will not be forbidden entrance when we would exclude them. If we accustom ourselves to look at things from a worldly, frivolous, impure point of view, that attitude will continue when we would fain be heavenly-minded. The child is allowed to become self-willed, indolent, sensual, passionate, crafty, and all the spiritual strength of the man is consumed in repressing these pitiful vices.
When the drunken comrade mutters and the great guard-lantern gutters
And the horror of our fail is written plain,
Every secret, self-revealing on the aching whitewashed ceiling,
Do you wonder that we drug ourselves from pain?
We have done with Hope and Honour, we are lost to Love and Truth,
We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung,
And the measure of our torment is the measure of our youth.
God help us, for we knew the worst too young.2 [Note: Kipling, Barrack-Room Ballads, 64.]
4. There are two lines along which sins follow us from the past. Their consequences appear in our life or in our character. They bring misery or they bring moral degradation. Sins which involve transgression of the laws of bodily health bring visible retribution.
(1) In our life.—If there are any who think lightly of sin and who are encouraged in sin by an implicit understanding that no great harm will come of it, let them be assured that their sin will find them out. Higher thoughts will one day visit them, higher aims will one day win their spirit, a nobler view of life will present itself to them; and how are they to respond to those new and higher calls if their nature is debased by sin? “You do yourself incredible wrong. There are duties in life, social domestic, personal, which you will despise yourself if you cannot discharge, and you will not be able to discharge them if in youth you do not act your part well and keep yourself unsullied by the contamination of sin. There are enjoyments in life for which sin unfits you. I do not speak of the highest enjoyments, but of natural enjoyments, in the same kind as those you now crave, and which are possible only to those whose conscience is laden with no evil remembrances, whose nature is contracted and withered by no familiarity with sin, who can give themselves to enjoyment with the freedom, fearlessness, and abandonment which are reserved for the innocent only. In vain will you strive to leave your past behind you. If you sin, then no more at all can you have that fineness of feeling which only ignorance of evil can preserve, no more that high and great conscientiousness which once broken is never repaired, no more that courage and wisdom which accompany an upright and steady career, no more that respect from other men which instinctively departs from those who have lost self-respect.”1 [Note: Marcus Dods.]
One of the shortest and most telling sermons I ever heard, was by a friend who had charge of an hospital. Going round his wards with him one Sunday morning, we came to a young man, whose secret sins had found him out. As the young doctor laid bare his hideous sores, he said in a slow and solemn tone, “Be not deceived; God is not mocked; for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” I felt as if I had been present at the last judgment.2 [Note: J. Wells.]
(2) In our character.—Some men’s sins, as St. Paul says, go before to judgment, and some follow after; and these latter are the sins which we should dread, and which are the most baneful in their results. Such sins eat into the character. They necessitate duplicity. There is no real brightness in the life—no openness, no straightforward look, no real manliness. “O what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive.” The incessant dread of detection falls like a pall over the life. The incessant necessity of concealment involves ever fresh deception, and makes the life a prolonged lie. The mind cannot be at ease; the thoughts are never free and disengaged; and this makes secret sins so injurious intellectually. Men of mark in literature have led dissolute lives, have been intemperate and immoral. No doubt this has had a baneful effect upon their work. It has made, perhaps must make, the highest work beyond their reach. He that would write an heroic poem, says Milton, must live an heroic life; but I question very much if any good intellectual work has ever been produced by the author of an undetected crime or the perpetrator of an undiscovered fraud.1 [Note: A. W. Potts.]
A well-known theologian has argued against the identity of consequence and punishment in the following words: “Two men are equally guilty of drunkenness and profligacy. But one of them is a man of robust constitution: he has wealth and leisure. He sins and sins flagrantly; but he shoots in the autumn, hunts in the winter, and spends his summer in his yacht on the coast of Scotland or of Norway. The other has weak health, and is compelled by his circumstances to lead a sedentary life. The one, notwithstanding his vices, lives till he is seventy, and is vigorous to the last; the other is the victim of miserable diseases, and dies an ignominious death long before he is fifty. Where is the equality in the ‘visible’ penalties of sin? The eternal laws appear to receive the bribes of the rich and to trample on the helplessness of poverty.” Such an argument is specious, but misleading. The consequences of sins against bodily health are of course counteracted by attention to the laws of bodily health. And if the sinner does not transgress these laws he will not suffer in his body. But this merely brings out more conspicuously the much-neglected fact that the chief punishment and consequences of sin must be looked for in the character. All outward disaster, all disease and wretchedness that sin works in the life, are but the outward sign of the ruin it works within. It is there the gravest consequences are found; there, in the callousness, the carnality, the cruel selfishness, the wholly degraded nature of the sinner that the true character and the lasting consequence of sin are to be seen.2 [Note: Marcus Dods.]
Single sins indulged or neglected are often the cause of other defects of character, which seem to have no connection with them, but which after all are rather symptomatic of the former, than themselves at the bottom of the mischief. This is generally acknowledged as regards a sceptical temper of mind, which commonly is assailed by argument in vain, the root of the evil lying deeper, viz. in habits of vice, which, however, the guilty parties strenuously maintain to be quite a distinct matter, to relate to their conduct, and to have no influence whatever upon their reason or their opinions.1 [Note: J. H. Newman.]
Some time ago a man came to see me whose nobler spirit had been awakened. He told me that he realized the beauty and the truth of the ideal; that a great longing had been born within him to reach to it, and to follow its gleam; but that the more he tried, the more was he conscious of an incapacity, which seemed to clog his feet, and fetter him to low things. He wanted to run the race and gain the prize, and he was trying to break himself free from the past, and lay aside every weight; but there seemed to be a weight which he could not lay aside; which clung to him; hampered his feet; tripped him up; baffled him; until he was almost despairing. What is the explanation of this experience? I found as we talked together that my friend had been in past years guilty of consistent sin; not gross sin in our worldly sense, but consistent sin; he had gradually formed a habit of choosing the lower; he never seemed to be any the worse for it; nobody ever found him out; but all the time, in the silence and in secret, his sin had been finding him out; and now it had found him.2 [Note: E. W. Lewis.]
Soon, the broken law avenged itself;
For, oh, the pity of it! to feel the fire
Grow colder daily, and the soaring soul
Sunk deep in grosser mire.3 [Note: Sir Lewis Morris, Poems, 48.]
5. But it is always possible to evade the lash of conscience and ignore the loss of character as long as sin is spoken of generally. It is necessary to have the memory fixed on some particular sin, to have the attention drawn to some particular habit.
I’m willin’ a man should go tollable strong
Agin wrong in the abstract, fer thet kind o’ wrong
Is ollers unpop’lar an’ never gits pitied,
Because it’s a crime no one never committed;
But he mus’n’t be hard on partickler sins,
Coz then he’ll be kickin’ the people’s own shins.4 [Note: Russell Lowell.]
(1) Take drunkenness. This sin always finds the man out. He may take never such pains at the commencement to be unnoticed and unseen. I believe all drunkards commence with very quiet tippling. Ah yes, but it is a sin that will find him out. It brings its own punishment. The sin looks out of his bloodshot eye, and grasps his hands until they tremble as with palsy.
Of all the evils that oppress, and outrage, and destroy mankind, are there many, are there any, greater than intemperance? For proof turn to our gaols, asylums, police courts, lodging-houses, newspapers, streets, and our churches—yes, and our churches. It is an evil very great, very common, very real, very ruinous. It is an individual, a social, a national evil. It is an evil which produces an amount of misery, and poverty, and wretchedness, which no figures can possibly set forth. It injures the body, it blunts the finer feelings of the soul, it clouds the intellect, it ruins the health, it unfits for daily life. It brings poverty, it blights the home. It destroys peace of mind and the prospects of heaven. It dishonours our national name, it wastes our national wealth, it cripples our trade, it feeds our gaols and asylums. It kills directly 60,000 and indirectly 120,000 every year. It transmits its evil influence to succeeding generations, for the children of drinkers are injured in health. It is the chief highway into “darkest England.”1 [Note: J. H. Atkinson.]
(2) Take a less obvious sin. Take Resentfulness. Suppose that a man is naturally resentful and unforgiving. He may, in spite of this, have a great number of excellences, very high views, great self-devotion to God’s service, great faith, great sanctity. I can fancy such a person almost arguing himself out of his own conviction, that he is fostering the secret sin in question, from his consciousness of his own integrity, and his devotional spirit in the general round of his duties. His sin may have ten thousand palliations; it may be disguised by fair names; it affects the conscience only now and then, for a moment, and that is all; the pang is soon over. The pang is momentary, but the ease and satisfaction and harmony of mind, arising from the person’s exact performance of his general duties, are abiding guests within him. He forgets, that in spite of this harmony between all within and all without for twenty-three hours of the day, there is one subject, now and then recurring, which jars with his mind,—there is just one string out of tune. Some particular person has injured him or dishonoured him, and a few minutes of each day, or of each week, are given to the indulgence of harsh, unforgiving thoughts, which at first he suspected were what they really are, sinful, but which he has gradually learned to palliate, or rather account for, on other principles, to refer to other motives, to justify on religious or other grounds. Solomon says, “Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour; so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour.”
(3) Take that sin which is specially referred to in the text. It is the sin of omission, the sin of not doing. The children of Reuben, of Gad, and of Manasseh, are warned that their sin will find them out if they do not cross the Jordan in company with their kinsfolk, if they simply sit still in their own fields and vineyards on its eastern bank. And let us not forget what the Lord has said concerning the judgment in the day when He shall come in His glory. He tells us that in that day He will separate men as a shepherd separateth the sheep from the goats; that He will set the one on His right hand and the other on His left; and that to those on His left hand He will say—“Depart from me, ye cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels. These shall go away into eternal punishment.” But who are “these” upon whom such a doom is pronounced? What had they done? They had done nothing. And that was their sin, and for that they are punished. Christ, identifying Himself with a suffering and needy humanity, says—“I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me not in; naked, and ye clothed me not; sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Inasmuch as ye did it not unto one of these least, ye did it not unto me.”
The Entrance of the Gospel
1. We are under a Dispensation of grace, and are blessed with a certain suspension of this awful law of natural religion. The blood of Christ, as St. John says, is of such wonderful efficacy as to “cleanse us from all sin”; to interpose between our sin and its punishment, and to wipe out the former before the latter has overtaken us.
The past is not, in any effective sense, irrevocable. We may yet make it, in large measure, what we will. For detached experiences are in themselves mere unintelligible fragments. It is when they are taken as parts of a whole that they have their meaning. And what is the whole of which our past is a part? Is that irrevocably fixed beyond our control? Nay, our past as well as our future shall be what we shall make it. It is a fragment that awaits interpretation, nay, awaits its full being, its true creation, from the whole.1 [Note: P. H. Wicksteed.]
2. We are very apt to compare the laws of the material world and the laws of the spiritual world; and, when we detach some analogies, we are ready to identify the two. Happily, the laws of the one are not the laws of the other. If the laws of the spiritual world were the same as those of the natural world, we should all inevitably perish. Our sin would be beyond remedy, and infallibly find us out to its bitterest conclusions. If you touch fire, you will invariably be burned. If you cast yourself from a precipice, you will certainly be broken to pieces. The laws of the natural world operate inexorably. And, no doubt, just because we have a mental constitution, there are there also laws which operate regularly. But because one of the laws of our mind is that we are free and can will, and because we are in the hands of a great God who is also free and merciful, and can introduce a higher law than even the law of our constitution, we have hope. It is one of the laws of our nature, that that in us which we may call our self can be detached, as it were, from our nature, and set up against it, so as to resist it in its evil, and command it. And if this, which we call the self in us, be enfeebled through evil, and unable of itself to rise up against sin, the influence of God operating through the life and history of Christ can awaken it, and animate it with a Divine power—Christ dwelling in our hearts.
3. If it is a fact that sin has its punishment—if it be true that, go wherever I may, my sin follows me and will find me out—“How am I to be saved?” I will tell you. You have, first of all, to find your sin out instead of waiting for sin to find you. You say, “How can I do that?” Discover it by the law. If you have any doubt whether you are a sinner or not, run through the Ten Commandments, and then look at them in a spiritual light, remembering that he who sins in desire virtually sins in action. Then turn to the third chapter of Romans, and see whether it condemns you or not. Do not spare yourself. Drag your sins out of their hiding-places. Call them by their right names. Say to the iniquity of your heart, “Come, sin, if I do not find you out you will find me out. If I do not drag you from your lurking-place you will drag me into perdition.” Out with your sin and judge yourself as in the sight of God. And then, when you have settled the question that you are a sinner, and a sinner who deserves punishment, go and take all the hideous load to Christ. This is the only way a man can be saved. Get your sins found out; and when you have seen them, though they appear like a very mountain of guilt, say, in the language of the hymn—
I lay my sins on Jesus,
The spotless Lamb of God.
The punishment of sin is inevitable. As sins against natural laws are invariably punished, as fire burns, no matter whose be the hand that is in it, so sin uniformly and in every case brings spiritual degradation. The laws of our spiritual nature are “self-acting,” as are the other laws with which we have to do. No sin is committed without leaving its mark. But you say, “There is repentance.” You know little of the power of sin if you thus glibly promise yourself repentance. Listen to the confession of one who has a foremost place in English literature, and who was not judged by his contemporaries to have sinned to any dangerous extent. “Of a change in my condition there is no hope. The waters have gone over me. But out of the black depths I would cry out to all those who have but set a foot in the perilous flood. Could the youth, to whom the flavour of his first sinful enjoyment is delicious as the opening scenes of life, or the entering upon some newly discovered paradise, look into my desolation, and be made to understand what a dreary thing it is when a man shall feel himself going down a precipice with open eyes and a passive will—to see this destruction and have no power to stop it, and yet to feel it all the way emanating from himself; to perceive all goodness emptied out of him and yet not to be able to forget a time when it was otherwise, to bear about the piteous spectacle of his own self-ruins; could he feel the body of the death out of which I cry hourly with feebler and feebler outcry to be delivered—it were enough to make him dash aside the most pressing or subtle temptation.” What can such a man make of repentance? Is he not more likely to class himself with those who seek it when the door is shut; who know that others have abandoned sin and have entered into life, but that they are shut out in outer darkness? Repentance is not at our beck; and to sin for a little longer in the expectation that you can repent at pleasure is a complete misunderstanding of the surest laws of your nature. Repentance is never easy, and every day becomes more difficult.1 [Note: Marcus Dods.]
Thy mercy greater is than any sin,
Thy greatness none can ever comprehend:
Wherefore, O Lord, let me Thy mercy win,
Whose glorious name no time can ever end:
Wherefore I say all praise belongs to Thee,
Whom I beseech be merciful to me.
4. What, then, has Christ accomplished for us? Does He stand between the sinner and the natural consequences of his sin? To answer this question we have but to look to the first sinner saved after His death, the thief who hung beside Him on the cross. What this sinner received from Christ was not immunity from the consequences of sin, but assurance of God’s favour and of Christ’s friendship. Of the natural results of his life of crime there was no reversal, no mitigation. Christ’s power was not put forth to unfasten the criminal from the cross he had earned. There are cases in which this inevitable law is obscured. For in life much is sown besides our sin of which we reap the fruit, and sometimes by the foresight of friends or by the providence of God we are saved from the results of our own deeds. What others do for our good has its result. But the one thing we can calculate on is that we must reap as we have sown, and that Christ’s work does not interfere with this law.
The work of Christ does mainly these two things for us. It secures us the pardon of God, and it creates a new spirit within us.
(1) It secures the pardon of God.—The pardon of God, though it does not check consequences or reverse natural law, gives us very different thoughts about the consequences of our sins, and sets us in a new relation to them. The pardon of God carries with it restoration to His favour, but not exemption from punishment. A lad takes out his father’s favourite horse and in trying to leap a fence breaks the horse’s neck and his own collar-bone. Pained as he is while lying in the field he fears his father’s anger more than the setting of the bone. And when he is taken home he is delighted to be assured that his father is filled with pity and readily accepts his contrite apologies. And the restored sense of his father’s love, which his fault had clouded, knits the bond between father and son more firmly than ever. But this happy sense of pardon does not lessen the actual pain of his broken bone, though it may help him to bear it. So is it when we return from sin to God. His pardon does not shield us from the consequences of our sin, but it makes our whole being different.
In the days of Cæsar Augustus there lived a great pirate, for whose head a large reward was offered. He said to himself, “I shall surely be caught, now that a hue and cry has been raised against me; Cæsar’s warships are scouring the seas, and will hunt me down.” He disguised himself, and got into Cæsar’s presence, and claimed the reward for the pirate’s head. “But where is it?” Cæsar asked. “Here it is,” he said, “I am the pirate.” He threw himself at Cæsar’s feet, implored mercy, and offered to serve in the imperial navy. And he was pardoned. Be like him, except in one point. Do not disguise yourself, but tear off every disguise, and, confessing your sin, make the name of Jesus your only plea. Find out your sin, before it finds you out. Like the Prodigal inform against yourself before God.1 [Note: J. Wells.]
(2) It creates a new spirit within us.—We find in ourselves new forces arrayed against sin, and these forces at once set in motion a new series of consequences and results which counterwork the results of sin. At every point the penitent sees traces of his sin, but every day the new life which Christ gives him is sowing for him seeds which will spring up in happiness, in service, in all that blesses human life. The new life which Christ gives does not at once abolish sinful tendencies, but it gives us power to fight against them; it does not on the spot emancipate us from all the bonds we have formed by sin, but it communicates a hope and a strength which, we feel, will one day effectually deliver us.
O my Saviour Christ, Christ my Saviour! who will grant that I may die rather than again offend Thee! Christ my Saviour, O my Saviour! Lord, let a new manner of life prove that a new spirit hath descended on me; for true penitence is new life, and true praise unremitted penitence, and the observation of a perpetual Sabbath from sin, its occasions, fuel, and danger. For as penitence destroys old sins, so do new sins destroy penitence.1 [Note: Bishop Andrewes.]
What shall I do? Make vows and break them still?
’Twill be but labour lost.
My good cannot prevail against mine ill;
The business will be crossed.
Oh, say not so! thou canst not tell what strength
Thy God may give thee at the length;
Renew thy vows, and if thou keep the last,
Thy God will pardon all that’s past.
Then once again
I vow to mend my ways;
Lord, say Amen,
And Thine be all the praise!
Atkinson (J. H.), The Sin of Doing Nothing.
Boston (T.), Sermons, 232, 239, 246
Brandt (J. L.), Soul Saving, 187.
Brown (A. G.), In the Valley of Decision, 61.
Dods (M.), Christ and Man, 188.
Kemble (C), Memorials of a Closed Ministry, i. 103.
Kingsley (C), Village, Town, and Country Sermons, 52.
Lambert (J. C), in Great Texts of the Old Testament, 237,
Lewis (E. W.), Some Views of Modern Theology, 217.
Macleod (A.), The Child Jesus, 196.
Matheson (G.), Moments on the Mount, 43.
Newman (J. H.), Parochial and Plain Sermons, iv. 37.
Newton (R.), Bible Warnings, 138.
Potts (A. W.), School Sermons, 56.
Smellie (A.), In the Secret Place, 296.
Trench (R. C), Brief Thoughts and Meditations, 1.
Wells (J.), Bible Echoes, 79.
Christian World Pulpit, xix. 333 (Hammond).
Preacher’s Magazine, xvi. (1905) 429 (Cowl).