A Sermon by Jonathan R Anderson
Psalm 19:12a. Who can understand his errors?
The course of David’s meditations in this Psalm is very remarkable. He begins by contemplating the manifestations of divine glory in the works of creation: in the lofty arch of heaven, in the regular succession of day and night and the universal testimony which they silently bear to the great Creator, in the position of the sun in the heavens, its regular rising and setting and its widely-extended and benign influence.
He then passes to the glories of another and more wonderful sphere of divine operation, even the Word of revealed truth, and dwells with evident delight on its varied properties and excellencies and uses. But his near approach to this clear and powerful mirror led to discoveries that were as humiliating and painful as former experiences had been elevating and refreshing. He sees his own deformity in the light of the beauty of the Word, his own depravity in the light of its holiness and his own shortcomings in the light of its perfection. He shrinks not, however, from the disclosures of his sinfulness which are thus made but dwells upon them till he is strongly impressed with the conviction that the subject is too immense and too weighty for him to comprehend. He felt he was unable to grasp even the discoveries which he made, and he knew that there was much which still lay concealed from his observation. He therefore exclaimed, “Who can understand his errors? Cleanse Thou me from secret faults.”
We have a question, “Who can understand his errors?” The meaning of this evidently is that no man can understand his errors, but this must be taken with some limitation.
1. A knowledge of one’s errors is indispensably necessary to salvation. It is not a slight knowledge which is thus required.
First, a man must have such a knowledge as will awaken the soul from the deep and delusive sleep into which it is lulled. The great majority of men, even of those who attend upon the preaching of the Word, appear to be quite at ease with regard to the concerns of the soul and the interests of an eternal world. A man might live with them from one end of the year to the other without discovering that they had such weighty matters to attend to. He could not be a single hour in their company without learning much about this world and its affairs and hearing the anxious enquiry, “What shall we eat and what shall we drink?”, but never would he hear the momentous question, “What must I do to be saved?”.
And why is this? It is because men do not see the errors into which they have fallen and into which they are falling every moment. They do not see the guilt and danger which attend them, nor the degradation and misery which flow from them. We do not mean to say that they think themselves infallible or free from sin, for they will readily admit they have their faults; nor will they scruple sometimes to make use of the strong language of Scripture and own that they are sinners, great sinners. But these are mere words which have, in their mouths, little or no meaning, for they never see their errors so as to be greatly disturbed by them or troubled about them. No sight of errors will shake men out of their false security and self-sufficiency but that which is imparted by the Spirit of God when He exhibits to their minds the pure and holy law of God and quickens and enlightens their conscience to raise its voice in awful and irresistible convictions. The subject then becomes too serious to be trifled with. The truth is too plain to be denied. The light is too powerful to be resisted. The convictions of guilt are too strong to be stifled. The man is pricked in the heart and cries out, “What must I do?”
Second, a man must have such a knowledge of his errors as will drive him out of all the refuges of lies to which he may betake himself for salvation. To be awakened to a sense of guilt and to a discovery of sin is not enough. Though no man is saved without this, many have it and yet perish. While, therefore, all who are living in ease and security are openly and undeniably in the gall of bitterness and the bonds of iniquity, peacefully gliding down the stream that terminates in the regions of woe, it is not every one that is awakened to a sense of sin who is travelling to heaven. A man may awfully miscarry in this point and, instead of escaping from his sins, have them more closely rivetted upon him. He may lay violent hands upon his convictions and stifle them in the very birth by plunging into the vortex of business, of folly, or of dissipation, or by saying with Felix, “Go thy way for this time, when I have a convenient season, I will call for thee”.
In some cases, however, the convictions are too strong to be thus disposed of and the man can find neither peace nor rest till he does something in the way of amendment. He may have been a flagrant transgressor. Now he abandons the high road of iniquity and turns into the by-paths of sobriety and industry. In his own eyes and in the eyes of his neighbours he is a changed man. But with others this is not enough. They must get some knowledge of Christ. They must have some lively affections towards Him. They must engage in secret and, it may be also, in social prayer. They must make a public profession of faith in Christ. By these means they quiet their consciences and keep their hearts in peace. The flood of errors does indeed burst forth at intervals in spite of the barriers they have thrown up to restrain it. Their troubles thus return and their peace is fled. But by a greater attention to duties, by a new flash of feeling and resolutions to be more careful in time to come, the breach is repaired and all is well. In all this, however, they are framing a refuge of lies which will not bear the scrutiny of eternal truth and righteousness. The man who is brought to see his errors in the light of the Word and the Spirit of Christ is driven out of every one of these expedients. Though he may try them one after another and at last all of them put together, he cannot find rest. His wounds are still open, his heart is still disquieted and he is ready to conclude there is no salvation for him. “In vain is salvation looked for from the hills and the multitude of mountains.”
Third, a man must so know his errors as to be convinced that he is utterly helpless and righteously deserves to perish. We can conceive of an individual so enlightened and so wrought upon by the common operations of the Holy Spirit as to see that the self-righteous devices to which we have referred are fallacious and dangerous and yet secretly cherish the imagination that, at all events, he can believe in Christ and repent of his sins, and thus obtain eternal salvation. To tell such a man that in and of himself he is as little able to believe as he is to purchase redemption, and that he is as justly exposed to condemnation for his carnal faith and selfish repentance as for his flagrant sins, is to utter a hard saying which he cannot bear. What! Do you mean to say that a man who rejects the self-righteousness of the Pharisee and who protests that he cannot be saved but by the faith of the gospel may yet be sent to hell? Who then can be saved? In answer to all this we say that one of the errors of which a man who comes to Christ must be convinced is the error of unbelief, an error which consists not only in a natural inability to believe but in a deep-rooted dislike to believing. He that discovers this error will see that he is utterly undone and that he cannot put in the least claim for salvation. He cannot, by anything he pretends to do by faith or works, make God his debtor. Therefore, if justice take its course he must perish. The language of all who are brought to Christ for salvation is, “Lord, save me; I perish”.
Fourth, a man must so understand his errors as to come to Christ and embrace Him as He is offered in the gospel. A man may even be convinced that “there is no other name given under heaven among men whereby we must be saved” than the name of Jesus, and yet his sense of guilt may be such as will allow him quietly to sit down in the speculative belief of this truth without seeking to apply it to himself for his peace and salvation. But when the Spirit of the Lord has been at work with the soul, the burden is felt to be so heavy that it cannot be borne. Christ is seen to be so excellent and desirable that the man cannot live without Him. When the Spirit brings an individual thus far, He never leaves him till a vital and indissoluble union is effected between Christ and the soul. By this means, he obtains an interest in Him through whom sin is taken away and righteousness imputed, and he who before was a child of wrath is made an heir of God. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
2. It is the man who is brought into this happy state who feels that he cannot understand his errors in the sense in which the Psalmist speaks.
First, he cannot fully comprehend the errors which he knows. He is habitually occupied with the word of Christ, for it dwells richly in him in all wisdom, but there are seasons when he engages in more solemn and regular meditations upon it. The effect which these meditations frequently have is to reveal to him more and more of the errors into which he has fallen.
This is especially the case when his meditations are directed to the glory of the divine character as it shines forth from His works and Word and most of all from the person of Christ, who is the beginning of the creation, the eternal Word of God. The patriarch Abraham had a vivid impression of the glory of the Lord as the judge of all the earth and the governor among the nations, when he pleaded before Him for the preservation of the cities of the plain. Mark the feelings which he had regarding himself: “Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes”. The prophet Isaiah was favoured with a most sublime vision of the glory of Christ, the immediate effect of which was to remind him of his vows and to cause him to exclaim: “Woe is me, for I am undone, because I am a man of unclean lips; and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.” And what does the Apostle Paul say of the influence which the law had upon him, when it came to him with divine power and demonstration? “When the commandment came, sin revived and I died.” But there is this peculiarity attending the revelation of errors thus made to a true believer: he is impressed with the conviction that he does not comprehend them.
(a) He does not fully understand their nature. To many their errors appear but slight inadvertencies, the result of a little negligence or forgetfulness or, at most, the momentary outbursts of passion and the effects merely of thoughtlessness. Be their conduct what it may, it is rarely that they charge themselves with an intention to do what is evil. Therefore their errors are soon forgotten and easily corrected. But very different is the estimate of a true believer, especially in the seasons of solemn meditation to which we have just alluded. Then his errors rise before him in something of their real magnitude and, whatever be the form which they have assumed in thought, word, or deed, he traces them to the principles of a deeply corrupted nature. From the testimony of the Word of God and by his own bitter experience, he knows that this nature is directly opposed to the will of God and most bitterly hostile to His being and perfections. Whether he looks to the immensity of glory that belongs to the divine nature, to the holiness, justice and goodness of the divine law, or to the wonderful discoveries of the gospel of Christ, he feels that his errors, being opposed to God in each and all of these views, have in them an extent of impiety and baseness which he cannot comprehend. “The carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.” “But now they have seen and hated both Me and My Father.”
(b) He does not understand the variety of his errors. The source being incomprehensible it follows that the streams must be so too. It ought never to be forgotten that the dark and baleful elements which pertain to corrupt human nature diffuse their influence throughout all the errors into which men are plunged. It is this which fills the exercised soul with so much grief and shame because of errors which others pass over as comparatively trivial. For he knows something of the dishonour which is cast upon the Divine name, the contempt that is shown to the blessed Redeemer, and the despite that is done to the Spirit of grace. He indeed commits sins of ignorance and these to many appear undeserving of punishment. But a true believer asks, Whence comes this ignorance? For was not man made in the image of God and possessed of a knowledge of His holy will? And besides, is there not presented in the holy Scriptures a perfect rule of righteousness?
He thus discovers that ignorance is his sin, and so also is every error that flows from it. He may fall into errors through rashness or passion. This to some would be a sufficient excuse for their conduct but to him it is rather an aggravation of his offence, and he mourns over the sinful deed and the corrupt passion from which it proceeded. He is, however, drawn into presumptuous sin and, against light and conviction and reproof, runs greedily in the way of iniquity. These are the most painful and troublesome of his errors. He may go lame and sorrowful many days because of a presumptuous sin.
Beside these, other varieties of errors might be mentioned, each of which is, to the believer’s mind, a great deep which he cannot fathom. For errors are as various as the faculties of the mind and the members of the body, the ordinances of God’s house and the means of grace, the relations of human life and the business of the world, the sources of enjoyment and the opportunities of improvement. We might instance the capital error of practical atheism which so much abounds in our day and by which the very being of God is denied, in thought and wish. Though it be in Him we live and move and have our being, men habitually forget Him. We might refer to the kindred error of idolatry or the setting of the affections on any object in preference to the one living and true God, like Israel at Horeb under the immediate inspection of the all-seeing eye. As the glory of the Divine being is infinite, the offence thus offered to His Majesty is one which no finite mind can comprehend. We might adduce the foul sin of hypocrisy, in which a systematic attempt is made to deceive the omniscient God and to present a vain and hollow profession instead of the spiritual service which He requires. We might speak of the heinous error of formality in religion, in which men substitute for the grand realities of divine worship the empty shadow of the means by which it ought to be maintained and rendered.
But, passing from these, we call your attention to the sin of unbelief as the reigning sin of the Church and the damning sin of our nature, which may be said to concentrate in itself the malignity and force of every other error. For this sin is levelled at the person of the Son of God incarnate, who is the image of the invisible God and in whom, therefore, the divine character is to be seen and known by the children of men. His is the only righteousness by which sinners can be justified before God, and in Him the law appears in all its beauty and authority. He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by whom men are to be brought nigh unto God and be blessed with His favour, conformed to His image and made meet for His glory. In a word, He is the Head of all things to His Church, in whom alone men are to find the wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption which they need. He is, however, the mystery of godliness; in His riches He is unsearchable and in His love past finding out. Who then can understand the error of rejecting Him? And yet this is the error which is justly chargeable on vast multitudes that throng the courts of the Lord’s house and observe His ordinances. This too is the error which the people of God have to mourn over and confess. The Apostle warns the Hebrews to take heed “lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God”.
(c) A believer does not fully understand the number of his errors. We speak of those of which he has some knowledge, not of those that are buried in oblivion. In our day, these appear not only in awful magnitude and great variety but also in overwhelming numbers. It is impossible to reckon up even the errors into which he sees he has fallen. For, though the actions themselves may have been right in the main, yet what corruption is detected in the motive by which they were dictated and what deficiency in the manner in which they are performed! The errors of speech, too, are as numerous as are the words the believer has uttered. For whether he has preached or prayed, talked of spiritual subjects or of worldly affairs, sought for information, or communicated intelligence, he sees that he has grievously erred. Moreover, when he looks into the chambers of imagery and reviews the thoughts and feelings and affections that have there appeared, he is confounded and ashamed, and wonders at the forbearance of God in not sending him quick to hell. Besides a world of vain and sinful thoughts, he sees that his spiritual exercises have been stained with pride, vain glory, self-sufficiency, self-seeking and a thousand elements that cause him to be even ashamed of them. “For innumerable evils have compassed me about, and mine iniquities have taken hold upon me, so that I cannot look up.”
(d) He cannot fully understand the aggravations of his errors. The natural man is ever prone to seek after and lay hold of circumstances which may palliate the offences he has committed. He labours to put the best possible face on his conduct, both before himself and others. But a man who is taught of God desires to know the worst of his errors and therefore meditates chiefly on those points in which they appear most heinous and offensive. Yet, after the utmost he discovers, he is forced to admit that the aggravating circumstances surpass his knowledge. He cannot, for instance, tell the value of the redemption which has been purchased by Christ and yet his sins do frequently involve a slighting of His precious blood. He cannot measure the worth of the grace of the Holy Spirit and yet he has often to confess that he has grieved that blessed agent. He cannot estimate the importance of his own soul’s health and prosperity and yet his errors are aggravated by the injury they do to his own best interests. He cannot calculate the evil he may do to others and yet his errors do frequently exert a most pernicious influence in the way of example. A similar train of illustration might be pursued as to every circumstance which goes to aggravate the errors of a true believer, whether it be light or privileges, means or judgements, comforts or afflictions, eminent gifts or distinguished attainments. For each of these presents a subject of thought too great for his mind to grasp. Therefore, with respect to them and their connection with his sin he may say, “Who can understand his errors?”
(e) He cannot fully understand the demerit of his errors. He cannot comprehend the glory of the Divine name. He cannot estimate the dishonour which sin casts upon it. Therefore he cannot conceive the punishment that is due to him. The Lord has, indeed, filled His Word with the most awful denunciations of wrath against the transgressors, and these He has confirmed by instances of the most tremendous inflictions. But when a believer has the liveliest perception of their meaning and the most vivid impression of their nature, he is most sensibly convinced there is in sin a depth of demerit which he cannot sound. If an act of idolatry cost Israel 3000 men, if an act of rebellion cost them 24 000, if one act of perverseness subjected the whole nation to 40 years wandering in the wilderness, we may well exclaim, “Who can stand before the holy Lord God?” But it is when meditating on the mysterious agonies of the Man of Sorrows that the believer is most strongly convinced that he is unable to estimate the demerit of sin. For every particular in that memorable scene reads to him, with a voice most penetrating and melting, the lesson that it is an evil and a bitter thing to sin against God. “Who knoweth the power of Thy anger? Even according to Thy fear, so is Thy wrath.”
1. Reprinted from The Free Church Pulpit, vol 2. When he preached this sermon, around 1845, Anderson (1803-1859) was minister of John Knox’s Free Church, Glasgow.