“Almost no one in Britain acts nowadays as if original sin were a reality. We get things wrong, we treat people badly, we behave grossly and over-excitedly, and from time to time we acknowledge those failures, but we treat them all as mistakes, not symptoms of a fallen condition.” So began a recent column in The Daily Telegraph, written by Adam Nicolson, a frequent visitor to the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, who goes on to claim that in these islands the “Calvinist emphasis on the fallen condition of man has an extraordinarily powerful effect”.There may not seem to be much of a difference between sin and “treating people badly”. But there is. The word sin directs attention to the fact that we are behaving badly before God who, as our Creator, has a right to our perfect obedience. The Shorter Catechism definition pinpoints what ought to be fundamental to our entire thinking about ourselves and the whole of human existence: “Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God”. The God who made us has directed us how we should live; He has given us a law. And every transgression of that law is sin.
Where has sin come from? What is the source of that tendency to treat people badly or to behave grossly? If we leave God out of account, the only explanation must be the incompleteness of a hypothetical evolutionary process, unsupported by evidence and opposed by Scripture. But then we will never be able to find a physician who can provide an accurate diagnosis of the human condition. What is more, we can have no hope of finding a cure.
Yet there is a Physician. He has not only given a perfect description of the symptoms; He has pointed us to the real source of the problem. Although man was created perfect, he fell into sin, and all his descendants “sinned in him, and fell with him in his first transgression”. In particular, original sin manifests itself in the corruption of our whole nature. As Thomas Boston points out, by this corruption “our nature is utterly disabled for, and opposite to, all spiritual good”. We should love our Creator with our whole heart; we should trust Him absolutely. But why does no human being have this love and trust as they begin life? Quite simply, because of original sin. It affects us all. “One may know his own nature to be corrupted”, adds Boston, “by the backwardness to good and forwardness to evil he may find in himself.” (1) This corruption is the real explanation for individual acts of unkindness, as well as for the grossest crimes which have stained the history of humanity. All sins have their root in the first sin of our first parents. This ought to be fundamental to any diagnosis of the human condition. And only by accepting the diagnosis of original sin are we prepared to receive the remedy for the human condition, and for our own sin in particular: “the blood of Jesus Christ [God’s] Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
But it is much easier to accept that we are capable of individual wrongdoings than to believe that our whole nature is fundamentally corrupt. And by dismissing the doctrine of original sin, people find it easier to avoid the necessity of facing up to the fact that there is a God to whom they are responsible, a God before whom they must appear, to be judged according to how they have lived in this world. But, as they reject the unwelcome fact of a future judgement, sinners are also turning away from the means whereby they may be made ready to appear safely before the great Judge on the last day. Almost universally, mankind have demonstrated their natural corruption by forsaking the true God and going after false gods; “they did not like to retain God in their knowledge” (Rom 1:28). But nowadays, basking in the imagined sophistication of Western civilisation, multitudes do not like to retain the idea of any supreme being. For the most part, their questions do not rise above the level of: “What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?” And, following the godless line of thinking that is almost universally prevalent, their motto no longer is, “Tomorrow we die”, but, “Tomorrow we pass out of existence”. No wonder so many in this generation lack a sense of responsibility; they are brainwashed into thinking that there is no God to whom they must answer, and that original sin – if the concept means anything to them at all – ought long ago to have been consigned to some museum of outmoded ideas.
Original sin, our columnist tells us, is a part of the “Calvinist emphasis” of Presbyterian preaching in the Western Isles. Too often, Calvinist is a word employed by newspaper columnists and others as a shorthand for something unreasonable or incredible in religion, something to be instantly rejected without the tedium of giving it serious consideration. In fact, Calvinist is equivalent in meaning to biblical; in the words of Princeton theologian B B Warfield, “Calvinism is just religion in its purity”. And this is what the Protestant parts of Western Isles have not yet altogether lost. Here there remain some of the visible manifestations of true religion – in particular, a degree of outward Sabbath observance. Yet it was not always so.
Less than 200 years ago, in 1824, Alexander Macleod crossed the Minch to become minister of the parish of Uig, on the west side of Lewis. He found that the people “with very few exceptions were grossly ignorant of the truth of Christianity”. But before long he was able to tell his diary: “A considerable number are so affected that it is with difficulty that I can go on sometimes with the sermon”. And some months later: “O how much have I to praise the Lord for His goodness to my people since I came among them, especially of late! They now come to me from every corner crying, ‘What shall we do to be saved?’ It is manifest that many of them are the subjects of deep conviction, and others enjoy some of the consolations of the gospel by faith.” In the middle of the following year, he was calling on himself to “meditate upon the gradual steps by which the Lord is approaching and manifesting Himself to not a few of this people, and muse with delight upon the progressive growth which so conspicuously appears among the subjects of grace in this parish”.
This is the heritage which God in His kindness granted to Lewis and Harris in particular. There are still those who value that heritage, but they are becoming fewer. Yet Nicolson himself can see, even from his secular perspective, a positive side to the islands’ people and culture which flows from their religion: “I know elders in churches here who are among the most generous and profoundly good people I have ever met. The ability of these communities to look after the old and the weak and the troubled is an aspect of Scottish Presbyterianism which one almost never hears about.”
But the people of these islands are subject to the same secularising forces as everywhere else, particularly through the media. And under these forces, the worship of God is increasingly forsaken, the Sabbath despised and true religion losing its influence. These same forces are affecting families and congregations – and particularly their young people – throughout the western world, with serious results. But all is not yet lost. While the truths of God’s Word are faithfully preached, there is hope. When sinners are confronted with the solemn doctrine of original sin and its consequences for time, and particularly for eternity, there is hope that they will be awakened to a sense of reality – the solemn reality that they are going on provoking God to come out against them in anger, and that they must perish unless they repent. These doctrines are not to be assessed on the question of their attractiveness or otherwise; if we are wise, the only point we will consider is: Are they true?
And they are unquestionably true. The God with whom we have to do is the God of perfect justice. Yet the wonder of the gospel is that this God, in perfect consistency with His unchangeable justice, has made provision for the salvation of sinners. This was the gospel which Alexander Macleod proclaimed with such effect, and many other preachers since then, in the Western Isles. They made clear the urgent need for sinners to go to the Great Physician. And they delighted to proclaim His healing virtue.
But we must look beyond these human means, however suitable for pointing sinners to their need and to the altogether suitable provision that God made for such as they in the Son of His love, whom He sent into the world to deal with the fearful disease of sin. We cannot ignore the fact of divine sovereignty. It pleased God to show mercy to a significant number of sinners in these islands in the 1820s. It pleased God to send a faithful ambassador, though some schoolteachers had already begun to prepare the ground. Above all, it pleased the Holy Spirit to apply the truth to the hearts of these sinners. In the early Church, Paul planted, Apollos watered, but it was God who gave the increase. In nineteenth-century Uig, Alexander Macleod planted, and others also watered, but the most significant fact is that God gave the increase. Today, as we ponder the limited impact the gospel is making on the multitudes in the Western Isles and beyond, we must be specially conscious of the fact that God has largely withdrawn the Holy Spirit – whatever other factors we may take into account on the human level, particularly godlessness and materialism.
But what of years to come? Will we see further days of revival, or is true religion in these islands to dwindle away to nothing? Will the Lord, “for the wickedness of them that dwell therein”, turn what was once “a fruitful land into barrenness”, or will He turn “into watersprings” what is rapidly becoming “dry ground”? Here is matter for earnest prayer.
Nicolson draws towards a conclusion with the comment: “Even now, I think, one can make out a future in which this curious and unique corner of the British Isles will have lost its uniqueness and become part of the homogenised main”. And he ends with a question which suggests he realises that the Outer Hebrides without the outward benefits of true religion would be less attractive after all: “Will that, I wonder, be a triumph for liberty?” No doubt, he focuses on the outward benefits of true religion: the kindness he has experienced, for instance, and the care for old people. From today’s perspective almost everywhere, an island where the Sabbath is just like every other day of the week would certainly be more normal. But, however few really notice the fact, the relative quiet of a Sabbath in the Western Isles is a reminder that there is a higher authority than that of the most powerful government in the world – the authority of God, who has said, “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy”, and who has said so for our good.
And an island where no one hints at the doctrine of original sin would likewise be more normal, from today’s perspective. But original sin is a fact. To ignore it, or to deny it, is to refuse to accept reality in this fallen world.
1. Works, vol 7, p 33.