A True Understanding of Sin

by J. C. Ryle

“Sin is the transgression of the law.”—1 John 3:4

The plain truth is that a right understanding of sin lies at the root of all saving Christianity. Without it such doctrines as justification, conversion, sanctification, are “words and names” that convey no meaning to the mind. The first thing, therefore, that God does when He makes anyone a new creature in Christ is to send light into his heart and show him that he is a guilty sinner...I believe that one of the chief wants of the contemporary church has been, and is, clearer, fuller teaching about sin.

1. I will begin the subject by supplying some definition of sin.

We are all, of course, familiar with the terms “sin” and “sinners.” We talk frequently of “sin” being in the world and of men committing “sins.” But what do we mean by these terms and phrases? Do we really know? I fear there is much mental confusion and haziness on this point. Let me try, as briefly as possible, to supply an answer.

“Sin,” speaking generally is...“the fault and corruption of the nature of every man that is naturally engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always against the spirit; and, therefore, in every person born into the world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation.”Sin is that vast moral disease that affects the whole human race of every rank, class, name, nation, people, and tongue—a disease from which there never was but one born of woman that was free. Need I say that One was Christ Jesus the Lord?

I say, furthermore, that “a sin,” to speak more particularly, consists in doing, saying, thinking, or imagining anything that is not in perfect conformity with the mind and Law of God. “Sin,” in short as the Scripture says, is “the transgression of the law” (1Jo 3:4). The slightest outward or inward departure from absolute mathematical parallelism with God’s revealed will and character constitutes a sin, and at once makes us guilty in God’s sight.

Of course, I need not tell anyone who reads his Bible with attention that a man may break God’s Law in heart and thought when there is no overt and visible act of wickedness. Our Lord has settled

that point beyond dispute in the Sermon on the Mount (Mat 5:21–28)...Again, I need not tell a careful student of the New Testament, that there are sins of omission as well as commission, and that we sin, as our Prayer Book justly reminds us, by “leaving undone the things we ought to do,” as really as by “doing the things we ought not to do”...I do think it necessary in these times to remind my readers that a man may commit sin and yet be ignorant of it and fancy himself innocent when he is guilty...I find our Lord expressly teaching that “the servant who knew not his master’s will and did it not,” was not excused on account of his ignorance but was “beaten” or punished (Luk 12:48). We will do well to remember that, when we make our own miserably imperfect knowledge and consciousness the measure of our sinfulness, we are on very dangerous ground...

2. Concerning the origin and source of this vast moral disease called “sin,” I am afraid that the views of many professing Christians on this point are sadly defective and unsound.

I dare not pass it by. Let us, then, have it fixed down in our minds that the sinfulness of man does not begin from without, but from within. It is not the result of bad training in early years. It is not picked up from bad companions and bad examples, as some weak Christians are too fond of saying. No! It is a family disease, which we all inherit from our first parents, Adam and Eve, and with which we are born. Created “in the image of God,” innocent and righteous at first, our parents fell from original righteousness and became sinful and corrupt. And from that day to this, all men and women are born in the image of fallen Adam and Eve and inherit a heart and nature inclined to evil. “By one man sin entered into the world.” “That which is born of the flesh is flesh.” “We are by nature children of wrath.” “The carnal mind is enmity against God.” “Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, adulteries” and the like (Rom 5:12; Joh 3:6; Eph 2:3; Rom 8:7; Mar 7:21).

The fairest child, who has entered life this year and become the sunbeam of a family, is not, as his mother perhaps fondly calls him, a little “angel” or a little “innocent,” but a little “sinner.” Alas! As that infant boy or girl lies smiling and crowing in its cradle, that little creature carries in its heart the seeds of every kind of wickedness! Only watch it carefully, as it grows in stature and its mind develops, and you will soon detect in it an incessant tendency to that which is bad, and a backwardness to that which is good. You will see in it the buds and germs of deceit, evil temper, selfishness, self–will, obstinacy, greediness, envy, jealousy, passion, which, if indulged and let alone, will shoot up with painful rapidity. Who taught the child these things? Where did he learn them? The Bible alone can answer these questions!...

3. Concerning the extent of this vast moral disease called “sin,” let us beware that we make no mistake.

The only safe ground is that which is laid for us in Scripture. “Every imagination of the thoughts of his heart” is by nature “evil” and that “continually” (Gen 6:5). “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer 17:9). Sin is a disease that pervades and runs through every part of our moral constitution and every faculty of our minds. The understanding, the affections, the reasoning powers, the will are all more or less infected. Even the conscience is so blinded that it cannot be depended on as a sure guide, and is as likely to lead men wrong as right, unless it is enlightened by the Holy Spirit. In short, “from the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness” about us (Isa 1:6). The disease may be veiled under a thin covering of courtesy, politeness, good manners, and outward decorum, but it lies deep down in the constitution...in spiritual things he is utterly “dead” and has no natural knowledge, or love, or fear of God. His best things are so interwoven and intermingled with corruption that the contrast only brings out into sharper relief the truth and extent of the Fall. That one and the same creature should be in some things so high and in others so low; so great and yet so little; so noble and yet so mean; so grand in his conception and execution of material things and yet so groveling and debased in his affections...all this is a sore puzzle to those who sneer at “God’s Word written” and scoff at us as bibliolaters. But it is a knot that we can untie with the Bible in our hands...

Let us remember, beside this, that every part of the world bears testimony to the fact that sin is the universal disease of all mankind. Search the globe from east to west and from pole to pole; search every nation of every clime in the four quarters of the earth; search every rank and class in our own country from the highest to the lowest—and under every circumstance and condition, the report will be always the same...Everywhere the human heart is naturally “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer 17:9). For my part, I know no stronger proof of the inspiration of Genesis and the Mosaic account of the origin of man, than the power, extent, and universality of sin...

4. Concerning the guilt, vileness, and offensiveness of sin in the sight of God, my words will be few..

I do not think, in the nature of things, that mortal man can at all realize the exceeding sinfulness of sin in the sight of that holy and perfect One with Whom we have to do. On the one hand, God is that eternal Being Who charged His angels with “folly” and in whose sight the very “heavens are not clean.” He is One Who reads thoughts and motives as well as actions, and requires “truth in the inward parts” (Job 4:18; 15:15; Psa 51:6). We, on the other hand—poor, blind creatures, here today and gone tomorrow, born in sin, surrounded by sinners, living in a constant atmosphere of weakness, infirmity, and imperfection—can form none but the most inadequate conceptions of the

hideousness of evil. We have no line to fathom it and no measure by which to gauge it...But let us nevertheless settle it firmly in our minds that sin is “the abominable thing that God hateth”; that God “is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity, and cannot look upon that which is evil”; that the least transgression of God’s Law makes us “guilty of all”; that “the soul that sinneth shall die”; that “the wages of sin is death”; that God will “judge the secrets of men”; that there is a worm that never dies and a fire that is not quenched; that “the wicked shall be turned into hell” and “shall go away into everlasting punishment”; and that “nothing that defiles shall in any wise enter” heaven (Jer 44:4; Hab 1:13; Jam 2:10; Eze 18:4; Rom 6:23; 2:16; Mar 9:44; Psa 9:17; Mat 25:46; Rev 21:27). These are indeed tremendous words, when we consider that they are written in the book of a most merciful God!

No proof of the fullness of sin, after all, is so overwhelming and unanswerable as the Cross and passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the whole doctrine of His substitution and atonement. Terribly black must that guilt be for which nothing but the blood of the Son of God could make satisfaction. Heavy must that weight of human sin be which made Jesus groan and sweat drops of blood in agony at Gethsemane and cry at Golgotha, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mat 27:46). Nothing, I am convinced, will astonish us so much, when we awake in the resurrection day, as the view we will have of sin and the retrospect we will take of our own countless shortcomings and defects. Never until the hour when Christ comes the second time will we fully realize the “sinfulness of sin.”

5. One point only remains to be considered on the subject of sin...its deceitfulness.

It is a point of most serious importance, and I venture to think it does not receive the attention that it deserves. You may see this deceitfulness in 1) 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 that men have coined in order to designate things that 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 so 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!

And now...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!...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 same time at the almighty medicine provided for us in the salvation that is in Jesus Christ.

From Holiness by J. C. Ryle

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