Nothing is more characteristic of Christianity than its estimate of human sin. Historically, no doubt, this is due to the fact that the Lord and Master of Christians died "on account of sins." His death was due, as we have seen, both to the actual, definite sins of His contemporaries, and also to the irreconcilable opposition between His sinless life and the universal presence of sin in the world into which He came. But it is with the Christian estimate of sin, and with the facts which justify it, that we are now concerned.
Briefly put, Christianity regards sin as the one thing in the world which is radically and hopelessly evil. Pain, physical and mental, is evil no doubt, but in a different sense. Without going deeply into the intensely difficult problem of animal and human suffering, we may at least say this: that he would be a bold man who would undertake to say, viewing the moral results of suffering in human lives, that all, or the majority of the instances of pain which we observe, come under the head of those things "which ought not to be," that is, are, without qualification or extenuation, evil. But this is precisely the statement which Christianity makes with regard to sin. Of one thing only in the universe can we say that it "ought not to be," and that one thing is moral evil. Perhaps then, broadly and roughly, the Christian standpoint may be summed up in four words, "sin worse than pain."
Of old, St. John wrote that "if any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him." In its outward aspect, the world has greatly changed since these words were written. And yet they are as true in the twentieth century as they were in the first. The world has adopted Christian language and manners and modes of thought. But always and everywhere it is to be detected by its antagonism to the Christian estimate of sin. The spirit which accuses Christianity of gross exaggeration in this respect, is the very spirit of the world. Now, as in days of long ago, when torture and death hung on the refusal to scatter a few grains of incense before the statue of Caesar, the same eternal choice is presented to a man, Christ or the world? Which estimate of sin are you going to make your own, the world's, as a lamentable mistake, or failure, or necessity; or the Christian, "worse than any conceivable pain"? It is not a matter of academic interest, but an intensely vital and practical one, affecting a man's whole outlook upon life. Which is right -- there is the clear and definite issue raised -- the Christian estimate, or the world's estimate of sin? Is it worse than a blunder, a misfortune, a fault? Is it something interwoven into the very structure of our present stage of existence? Or, is it an alien and flagrant intruder into a world where it has no business, which is so constructed that, sooner or later, wilful transgression meets with the direst penalties? There is no question as to what is the Christian estimate of sin. Christ or Caesar? is the issue still presented. But, we wish to ask, is there any reason for believing that the Christian estimate is true? I bring forward three reasons, based respectively on experience, on conscience, on the ultimately similar views of the origin and nature of sin given by science and in the Bible.
1. First, then, consider the argument from experience. It is very easy and tempting to use the language of exaggeration. But probably we are not saying more than would be admitted by nearly every one, when we make the assertion that a very large part of the misery and suffering which exists in the world is traceable, directly or indirectly, to human sin. We are not dealing with the results of their own sins upon offenders, though these are in some cases conspicuous enough. But that the world is full of human lives, often wrecked, more often partially stunted and spoiled, in most cases falling short of the full measure of vitality and happiness to which they might have attained, is a statement not admitting of denial. And I think we are still on secure ground when we say that at the root of a very large proportion of these failures is some one of the myriad forms of sin and selfishness. The strange thing, the bewildering and baffling, although, as I believe, not wholly inexplicable thing, is that men in a very large number of cases suffer on account of sins for which they are in no sense responsible. But the fact remains of the close connexion which experience shows to exist between human sin and human suffering. It is impossible to prove wide assertions, but a strong case could undoubtedly be made out for the statement that sin is a more prolific source of misery and failure in human life than all other factors put together.
2. Next, we turn to the witness of conscience, of our moral reason. The main point here is that so often brought forward, of the uniqueness of remorse. I may make a foolish blunder. I may do some hasty and ill-considered act, and in consequence suffer some measure of inconvenience, or perhaps experience a veritable disaster and overthrow of my hopes. But in either case, though I may feel poignant regret, I am as far as possible from the experience of remorse, save in so far as my blunder may have involved neglect of some duty, or a carelessness morally culpable. But when I have committed a sin, then it would be a most inadequate description of my state of mind to call it regret. I suffer from that intense mental pain which we have learnt to call remorse, the constant and relentless avenger which waits upon every transgression of the moral law. And when, leaving my own experience, I interrogate the experience of men better than myself, above all, that of the saints of God, I meet with the same phenomenon a thousandfold intensified. And I have a right in such a matter to accept the witness of the experts. A saint is an expert in spiritual things, and his evidence in spiritual matters is as cogent and trustworthy as that of the biologist or geologist in his special field of experience.
So far, then, as the witness of the moral consciousness goes, both in myself and in those who have in an especial degree cultivated their moral faculties, it bears out the contention that sin is the only thing which can be described as absolutely, without qualification, evil.
3. The same result follows from the consideration of the origin and nature of sin.
Here we have two sources of information -- modern science, and the account given in the Book of Genesis. To my mind, the enormously impressive thing is that these two sources, approaching the same subject from entirely different points of view, find themselves at last in agreement on the main issue.
(a) According to the teaching of science, then, man is the result, the finished product, of aeons of animal development. He is, in fact, the crown and so far ultimate achievement of an age-long evolution. He falls into his natural place in zoological classification as the highest of the vertebrates. But also, in man we find moral faculties developed to an immeasurably greater extent than in those animals which stand nearest to him in physical development. It is the possession of these, above all, which constitutes the differentia of man. And it is this possession which makes man, alone of all animals, capable of sin. For sin is simply the following out of the instincts and desires of the animal, when these are felt to be in opposition to the dictates of the peculiarly human, the moral nature. Men have said that the only Fall of Man was a fall upwards. They have given an entirely new meaning to the medieval description of the first transgression as the "felix culpa." But this would seem to involve confusion of thought. The first emergence of man as man, the appearance on this planet of a moral being, at once involved the possibility of sin. That, the rise of man did necessarily include. An animal follows the bent and inclination of its own nature. For it, sin is for ever impossible. For it, there can be no defeat, no fall, for the conditions of conflict are absent. But the actual occurrence of sin is quite a different thing from the appearance of a being so highly exalted as to be capable of sinning; so constituted as to experience the dread reality of the internal strife between flesh and spirit, the battle between the lower and the higher within the same personal experience. I can never act as the animal does, because I possess what the animal does not -- a moral nature, which I can, if I will, outrage and defy. No animal can be either innocent or guilty. Moral attributes cannot be assigned to it.
This result follows. When I sin, I am indeed doing what I alone can do, because I am a man. But also, I am, by that very act, contradicting my nature, violating the law of my well-being. The possession of a moral nature makes me man. Sin is just to act in defiance of and in opposition to that nature. Sin, then, is the only possible case in the universe, falling under our observation, in which a creature can contradict the law of its being. Science has at least given the final refutation of the devil's lie that sin is natural to man. It is the only unnatural thing in the world. It is not non-human, like the actions of animals. The age- long history of the race can never be reversed. I cannot undo the process which has made me man, and act as the non-moral animal. My sinful actions, my transgressions, are just because they are, and just in proportion as they are, immoral, for that very reason, and in that very measure, inhuman, not non-human.
Much more might be shown to follow from this most important consideration. But here we adduce it for this sole reason, that science may be allowed to bear its witness, a most just and passionless, and an unconscious and tacit witness, to the truth of the Christian estimate of sin.
(b) Nothing, at first sight, could be more different from the scientific account of the origin of sin, than that account of it which is given in the third chapter of the Book of Genesis.
There we have, to put it shortly, the most profound spiritual teaching in the form of a story, a piece of primitive Hebrew folk-lore. The Divine Wisdom made choice of this channel to communicate to man certain great truths about his nature, realities of the highest plane of his experience, where he moves in the presence of God and realities unseen, unheard. And we can discern at least some of the reasons for the choice of these methods.
The most adequate revelation of the origin of sin which has ever been made to man, must (we are almost justified in saying) have been made to us in some such form as this for the following reasons.
(i) Truth expressed in the form of a story is thereby made comprehensible to men of every stage of culture. "Truth embodied in a tale, shall enter in at lowly doors." At the door of no man's mind, who is spiritually receptive, will it knock in vain. To simple and to wise, to the unlearned and the learned, to the young and to the old, it appeals alike. This form of instruction alone is of universal application.
(ii) Truth thus conveyed can never become obsolete. Scientific treatises in the course of a few years become out of date, left far behind by the rapidly advancing tide of knowledge. Moreover, if we can imagine it possible that in the ninth century B.C., an account could have been composed, under some supernatural influence, in the terms of modern thought, it would have had to wait nearly three thousand years before it became intelligible, and then, in a few decades, or centuries at most, it would in all probability have become once more incomprehensible or, if not that, then at least hopelessly behind the times.
The form of a story, as in the case of our Lord's parables, alone ensures that truth thus conveyed shall be intelligible to all men at all times. To object to the form, to scoff at or deride it, is as unintelligent as it would be, for example, to disparage the sublime teaching of the parable of the Prodigal Son on the ground that we have no evidence for the historical truth of the incidents.
Moreover, when we place this and the similar stories we find in the early chapters of Genesis side by side with the Babylonian myths with which they stand in some sort of historical relationship, we can trace in the lofty moral and spiritual teachings of the former, as contrasted with the grotesque and polytheistic representations of the latter, the veritable action of the Spirit of God upon the minds of men. Modern research has, in fact, raised the doctrine of inspiration from a vague and conventional belief to the level of an ascertained fact, evidenced by observation. Just as a scientific man can watch his facts under his microscope or in his test tubes, so such comparison as has been suggested, between Genesis and the cuneiform tablets, enables us to watch the very fact, to detect the Divine Spirit at work, not superseding, but illuminating and uplifting the natural faculties of the sacred writers. But we now turn to the spiritual teaching enshrined in this particular story.
(i) First, we have the fundamental truth that man is made capable of hearing the Divine Voice. Not once in the distant past, but to-day, and day by day, the Voice of God is heard speaking within the depths of consciousness as clearly and as decisively as of old it sounded among the trees of the garden.
(ii) But, secondly, other voices make themselves heard by us, and woe to us if we listen to them.
There is the voice which bids us gratify our animal appetite. The woman "saw that the tree was good for food." I am conscious of the strength of bodily desires. Let me seek nothing, from moment to moment, but the satisfaction of my inclinations. There is the voice which bids us gratify the desire of the eyes. She "saw that the tree was pleasant to the eyes." The world is full of beauty. Let me make that my end, the satisfaction of the aesthetic sense; let me rest in the contemplation of that beauty, which was made for me, and I for it, precisely in order that I might not find repose there, but might be led thereby to Him Who made this scene so fair that His dear children might be drawn to Himself, Who is the eternal and uncreated loveliness.
There is, lastly, the voice which bids us gratify the desire of the mind. Eve "saw that the tree was to be desired to make one wise." I desire to know. Let me indulge this desire at any cost, even if it mean the filling of my mind with all manner of foul and loathsome images. It is all "knowing the world." We forget, poor fools, that mere knowledge is not wisdom, and that there is a knowledge which brings death.
The desires of the body, the eyes, the mind, are good and healthful and holy in their proper place and sphere. Through these we reach out to the life and love and knowledge of God. And yet, if gratified against the dictates of that clear-sounding, inner, Divine Voice, they are precisely the materials of sin and death. To gratify them against the dictates of the moral and spiritual nature is to exclude oneself from the garden of God's delight, from the health and joy of the Divine Presence. We know it. We have learnt it by saddest experience of our own. To sin against the voice within is to find oneself separated from God; the ears of the soul have become deaf to the warnings of conscience, the eyes of the soul blind to the vision of the glory and holiness of God.
Is it wrong to say that such teaching as this can never be outgrown? That, as time goes on, as the spiritual experience of the race and of the individual grows and broadens, still new lessons may be found to be contained in it?
The Bible adds to the teaching of science that without which that teaching is incomplete. It bids us know and feel and recognise the Divine Presence within us and, in the light of that ultimate truth of ourselves, realise something of the appalling grandeur of the issues of common life. But, different as are the forms in which their respective lessons are conveyed, science and the Bible unite their testimony to that of experience and conscience, that the Christian estimate of sin, and not the world's estimate of it, is the right one.
And the teaching of experience, conscience, science, and the Bible receives its final confirmation in the Cross of Jesus Christ. Henceforth sin, all sins, our sins, are to be estimated and measured in the light of the fact that sin brought about the death of the sinless Son of Man. Sin is the real enemy of ourselves and of the race. It is the destruction of the true self, the Divine Man in every son of man.
We need, for ourselves, to strive to attain to the genuinely Christian estimate of sin. "Had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory." But we have the Cross lifted up before our eyes and when, in the light of that, we begin to hate and dread sin worse than pain, then we shall have begun to make some real advance towards becoming that which we long to be, and all the time mean and aspire to be -- Christians, disciples of the Crucified.