It is natural for fallen humanity to make light of sin. The doctrine of sin is not a comfortable one; it implies the duty of turning away from what is offensive to God but attractive to ourselves. In Jeremiah’s time, both prophets and priests were making light of sin. They were saying, “Peace, peace; when there is no peace” (Jer 6:14). It is because the Church as a whole has for so long been treating sin lightly that most people today ignore the concept of sin, and with it the concept of their responsibility to God.
Even in the Evangelical world the doctrine of sin does not receive the attention it should. A theology professor in Oxford University, who in print “claims to defend orthodox Christianity”, was asked how the particular issue he was discussing related to the Fall. His reply was: “No respectable theologian today believes in a literal Fall, and if you want to be a theologian you had better leave these ideas in Sunday School”. (1) A derisive enough answer to be sure! Clearly no one is going to advance through the ranks of academic theologians if he sticks too closely to the clear doctrines of Scripture, notwithstanding the claims heard in some quarters of the increasing representation of evangelicals in university theological faculties, especially in the USA.
But the doctrine of sin cries out to be taken seriously. God has revealed the solemn fact that “all have sinned”. The Church in a degenerate condition may say, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. But the Scriptures declare in emphatic terms: “There is no peace . . . to the wicked” (Is 57:21). The Church therefore dare not encourage any sinner to be complacent about his state before God. There is peace only in fleeing for refuge to Christ as God’s appointed Saviour. Otherwise the individual is still in his sins, unpardoned, guilty; he is on his way to a lost eternity.
The Church dare not treat the doctrine of sin lightly; indeed it is commanded to emphasise sin’s seriousness. The Church’s duty is the same as Isaiah’s when he was instructed, “Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and shew My people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins” (Is 58:1). No doubt such a robust declaration was resented by many in Isaiah’s time, as much as today. But why speak so emphatically about sin? Why disturb the peace of those who want to ignore it? A number of reasons may be given.
1. Sin is offensive to God. His mind toward sin is expressed in the words: “Do not this abominable thing that I hate” (Jer 44:4). God is perfectly holy; He loves holiness; to condone sin would be a contradiction of His nature. He must therefore hate every sin intensely. And we His creatures are to be made aware of this – forcefully. It is something we dare not ignore. Our duty is to look on sin as God does; we are to think of it as altogether evil.
2. Sin is rebellion against God. It began with Eve, then Adam, taking the side of Satan against God. And their fallen, rebellious nature is passed on to all their descendants. What is more, each of them, unless subdued by divine power, will hold out in rebellion even against God’s offers of mercy. He proclaimed in Isaiah’s time: “I have spread out My hands all the day unto a rebellious people, which walketh in a way that was not good, after their own thoughts” (Is 65:2). To think our own thoughts, in opposition to God’s thoughts revealed to us in Scripture, is the essence of rebellion. To think our own thoughts, in opposition to God’s offers of mercy, is a specially clear demonstration of rebellion.
3. Sin has dreadful consequences. It separates the creature from the Creator. It cuts us off from the blessing of God. And sin will bring us down to a lost eternity if we do not forsake it. We must bear in mind that God is perfectly righteous; He cannot ignore sin. He must punish it. Serious consequences often follow sin in this world, but how unspeakably awful is the punishment of sin in a lost eternity. And the awfulness of the punishment is only heightened by the fact that it is perfectly just.
4. Sin is extremely harmful. Apart from the consequences already referred to, sin does damage to the individual. It has a hardening effect; it makes the sinner more resistant to the authority of God. Each transgression makes it more likely that the sinner will go further in sin. This is specially true of unbelief, which makes the sinner under the gospel more resistant to the next call to believe in Christ. Sinners need to be warned, in tones loud and clear, of the damage they are doing to themselves by continuing in a course of sin.
5. Sin is deceitful. It was by deceit that Satan brought Adam and Eve down from their state of innocence in Eden. He has been a deceiver ever since. Someone has written: “Many have yielded to go a mile with Satan who never intended to go with him twain. But, when once on the way with him, have been inveigled further and further until they knew not how to leave him. Thus he leads poor creatures down into the depths of sin, by winding stairs, so that they see not the bottom and end of that to which they are going.” But the sinful heart is itself deceitful; “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer 17:9).
When all this is so, the Church is not only unfaithful to its Master if it does not “cry aloud” in bearing testimony against sin but it is also unfaithful to sinners within its reach. It is the Church’s responsibility to make known the mind of God against sin – to make known its offensiveness to God as well as its danger to the sinner. The Church is to make known God’s claims on every human being. On God’s behalf the Church is to demand perfect obedience from His creatures. Although perfect obedience is impossible in this sinful world, the Church cannot lower the standard set by our Creator. That standard, when we measure our conduct against it, serves to indicate how far short we come in every way.
But the Church has a further responsibility: to call sinners to repentance. Were it not that a way of reconciliation has been revealed, it would be inconceivable that fallen human beings could have any hope of acceptance in returning to God from their sins. But a way of reconciliation has been revealed in Christ, who came into the world to save sinners. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
It may be argued that it is sufficient for the Church to proclaim the gospel, to make Christ known as a Saviour. But if the Church lacks a sound doctrine of sin, it will also lack a sound doctrine of salvation. The nature of the remedy depends on the nature of the need. In Scripture the doctrine of sin is perfectly consistent with the doctrine of salvation. And it is the duty of the Church to conform its doctrines – both of sin and salvation – to Scripture.
On the basis of a scriptural doctrine of sin, the Church is to make known the mind of God to sinners. The Church is to make known that God commands us to stop sinning: “Put away the evil of your doings from before Mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well” (Is 1:16f). But, in view of how steeped we are in sin, the Church is to make known the divine provision for taking away both the power and the guilt of sin. A complete provision has been made. It is our duty to receive it. It is the Church’s duty to proclaim it. But, let us repeat, a pure gospel demands an accurate doctrine of sin based on a literal Fall. Isaiah’s duty is still the duty of the Church today: “Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and shew My people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins”.
1. The student who asked the question quotes the exchange between himself and the professor in an article in the June issue of The Banner of Truth magazine (p 22).