Friday, March 21, 2008

The deceitfulness of sin

Some may not see the usefulness of being prepared theologically before sharing our experiences with practical sanctification. I completely disagree with such a view. I will imitate Elihu (in the book of Job) who waited that the elders have spoken before he should give his opinion. Bishop Ryle's book on holiness is a classic and a very good book. Let him speak first. Then we will share our experiences!

One point only remains to be considered on the subject of sin, which I dare not pass over. That point is its deceitfulness. It is a point of most serious importance and I venture to think it does not receive the attention which it deserves. You may see this deceitfulness in the wonderful proneness of men to regard sin as less sinful and dangerous than it is in the sight of God and in their readiness to extenuate it, make excuses for it and minimize its guilt. "It is but a little one! God is merciful! God is not extreme to mark what is done amiss! We mean well! One cannot be so particular! Where is the mighty harm? We only do as others!". Who is not familiar with this kind of language? You may see it in the long string of smooth words and phrases which men have coined in order to designate things which God calls downright wicked and ruinous to the soul.

What do such expressions as "fast", "gay", "wild", "unsteady", "thoughtless", "loose" mean? They show that men try to cheat themselves into the belief that sin is not quite sinful as God says it is, and that they are not so bad as they really are. You may see it in the tendency even of believers to indulge their children in questionable practices, and to blind their own eyes to the inevitable result of the love of money, of tampering with temptation and sanctioning a low standard of family religion. I fear we do not sufficiently realize the extreme subtlety of our soul's disease. We are too apt to forget that temptation to sin will rarely present itself to us in its true colors, saying, "I am your deadly enemy and I want to ruin you forever in hell".

Oh, no! Sin come to us, like Judas, with a kiss, and like Joab, with and outstretched hand and flattering words. The forbidden fruit seemed good and desirable to Eve, yet it cast her out of Eden. The walking idly on his palace roof seemed harmless enough to David, yet it ended in adultery and murder. Sin rarely seems sin at its first beginnings. Let us then watch and pray, lest we fall into temptation.

We may give wickedness smooth names, but we cannot alter its nature and character in the sight of God. Let us remember St. Paul's words: "Exhort one another daily...lest any be hardened through the deceitfullness of sin" (Heb. 3:13). It is a wise prayer in our litany: "From the deceits of the world, the flesh and the devil, good Lord, deliver us." And now, before I go further, let me briefly mention two thoughts which appear to me to rise with irresistible force out of the subject.

On the one hand, I ask my readers to observe what deep reasons we all have for humiliation and self-abasement. Let us sit down before the picture of sin displayed to us in the Bible and consider what guilty, vile, corrupt creatures we all are in the sight of God. What need we all have of that entire change of heart called regeneration, new birth or conversion! What a mass of infirmity and imperfection cleaves to the very best of us at our very best! What a solemn thought it is that "without holiness no man shall see the Lord"! (Heb. 12:14). What cause we have to cry with the tax-collector every night in our lives we think of our sins of omission as well as commission, "God be merciful to me a sinner!" (Luke 18:13). How admirably suited are the general and communion confessions of the Prayer Book to the actual condition of all professing Christians! How well that language suits God's children which the Prayer Book puts in the mouth of every churchman before he goes up to the communion table: "The remembrance of our misdoings is grievous unto us; the burden is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; for Your Son our Lord Jesus Christ's sake, forgive us all that is past." How true it is that the holiest saint is in himself a miserable sinner and a debtor to mercy and grace to the last moment of his existence!

With my whole heart I subscribe to that passage in Hooker’s sermon on "Justification," which begins: "Let the holiest and best things we do be considered. We are never better affected unto God than when we pray, how are our affections many times distracted! How little reverence do we show unto the grand majesty of God unto whom we speak! How little remorse of our own miseries! How little taste of the sweet influence of His tender mercies do we feel! Are we not unwilling many times to begin, and as glad to make an end, as if in saying, "Call upon Me", He had set us a very burdensome task? It may seem somewhat extreme, which I will speak; therefore, let every one judge of it, even as his own heart shall tell him, and not otherwise; I will but only make a demand! If God should yield unto us, not as unto Abraham-- if fifty, forty, thirty, twenty, yes, or if ten good persons could be found in a city, for their sakes this city should not be destroyed but, and if He should make us an offer thus large: "Search all the generations of men since the Fall of our father Adam, find one man that has done one action which has passed from him pure, without any stain or blemish at all, and for that one man's only action neither man nor angel should feel the torments which are prepared for both, do you think that this ransom to deliver men and angels could be found to be among the sons of men? The best things which we do have somewhat in them to be pardoned".

I am persuaded that the more light we have, the more we see our own sinfulness; the nearer we get to heaven, the more we are clothed with humility. In the very age of the church you will find it true, if you will study biographies, that the most eminent saints -- men like Bradford, Rutherford and Mc'Cheyne-- have always been the humblest men.

On the other hand, I ask my readers to observe how deeply thankful we ought to be for the glorious gospel of the grace of God. There is a remedy revealed for man's need, as wide and broad and deep as man's disease. We need not be afraid to look at sin and study its nature, origin, power, extent and vileness, if we only look at the time at the almighty medicine provided for us in the salvation that is in Jesus Christ. Though sin has abounded, grace has much more abounded. Yes: in the everlasting covenant of redemption, to which Father, Son and Holy Spirit are parties; in the Mediator of that covenant, Jesus Christ the righteous, perfect God and perfect Man in one Person; in the work that He did by dying for our sins and rising again for our justification; in the offices that He fills as our Priest, Substitute, Physician, Shepherd and Advocate; in the precious blood He shed which can cleanse from all sin; in the everlasting righteousness that He brought in; in the perpetual intercession that He carries on as our Representative at God's right hand; in His power to save to the uttermost the chief of sinners, His willingness to receive and pardon the vilest, His readiness to bear with the weakest; in the grace of the Holy Spirit which He plants in the hearts of all His people, renewing, sanctifying and
causing old things to pass away and all things to become new -- in all this (and oh, what a brief sketch it is!) -- in all this. I say, there is a full, perfect and complete medicine for the hideous disease of sin. No wonder that old Flavel ends many a chapter of his admirable Fountain of Life with the touching words: "Blessed be God for Jesus Christ.".

In bringing this mighty subject to a close, I feel that I have only touched the surface of it. It is one which cannot be thoroughly handled in a message like this. He who would see it treated fully and exhaustively must turn to such masters of experimental theology as Owen and Burgess and Manton and Charnock and the other giants of the Puritan school.

On subjects like this there are no writers to be compared to the Puritans. It only remains for me to point out some practical uses to which the whole doctrine of sin may be profitably turned in the present day.

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