Is Mankind Lost in Sin?
J. Gresham Machen
Machen (1881-1937) was Professor of New Testament, first at Princeton Theological Seminary, and afterwards at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia. Excerpts from The Christian View of Man (1937).
We have spoken of the first sin of man, and we have spoken of the question, “What is sin?” The question now arises what consequences that first sin of man has had for us and for all men. Some people think it had very slight consequences — if indeed these people think that there ever was a first sin of man at all, in the sense in which it is described in the third chapter of Genesis.
I remember that some years ago, when I was driving home in my car after a summer vacation, I stayed over Sunday in a certain city without any particular reason except that I do not like to travel on that day. Being without any acquaintance with the city, I dropped into what seemed perhaps to be the leading church in the central part of the town.
What I heard in that church was typical of what one hears in a great many churches today. It was the Sunday on which new teachers were being inducted into office. The pastor preached a sermon appropriate to the occasion. There are two notions about the teaching of children in the Church, he said. According to one notion, the children are to be told that they are sinners and need a Savior. That is the old notion, he said; it has been abandoned in the modern Church. According to the other notion, he said, which is of course the notion that we moderns hold, the business of the teacher is to nurture the tender plant of the religious nature of the child in order that it may bear fruit in a normal and healthy religious life.
Was that preacher right, or was what he designated as the old notion right? Are children born good, or are they born bad? Do they need, in order that they may grow up into Christian manhood, merely the use of the resources planted in them at birth, or do they need a new birth and a divine Savior?
That is certainly a momentous question. We may answer the question in this way or in that, but about the importance of the question I do not see how there can well be any doubt. That preacher, in the church of which I have spoken, recognized the importance of the question. He answered the question that he raised quite wrongly, but at least he was right in looking the question fairly in the face. I propose that we should imitate that preacher in facing the question fairly, even though our conclusion may turn out to be different from his. Is each man the captain of his own soul, and a pretty capable captain too, or is all mankind lost in sin? Does the Bible teach that children are born into the world good (or at least evenly balanced between badness and goodness), or does it teach that all save one child are born in sin?
When we approach the Bible with that question in our minds, one thing is at once perfectly clear. It is that the Bible from Genesis to Revelation teaches that all men (with the one exception of Jesus Christ) are as a matter of fact sinners in the sight of God. In one great passage, particularly, that truth, that all men are sinners, is made the subject of definite exposition and proof. That passage is found in Romans 1:18 – 3:20. There the Apostle Paul, before he goes on to set forth the gospel, sets forth the universal need of the gospel. All have need of the gospel, he says, because all without exception are sinners. The Gentiles are sinners. They have disobeyed God’s law, even though they have not that law in the particularly clear form in which it was presented to God’s chosen people through Moses. Because they have disobeyed God’s law, and as a punishment for their disobedience of it, they have sunk deeper and deeper into the mire of sin. The Jews also, says Paul, are sinners. They have great advantages; they have a special revelation from God; in particular they have a supernatural revelation of God’s law. But it is not the hearing of the law that causes a man to be righteous but the doing of it; and the Jews, alas, though they have heard it, have not done it. They too are transgressors.
So all have sinned, according to Paul. He drives that truth home by a series of Old Testament Scripture quotations beginning with the words: “There is none righteous, no, not one: there is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.” (Romans 3:10-12)
I think it is hardly too much to say that if this Pauline teaching about the universal sinfulness of mankind is untrue, the whole of the rest of that glorious Epistle, the Epistle to the Romans, falls to the ground. Imagine Paul as admitting that a single mere man since the fall ever was righteous in the sight of God, not needing, therefore, redemption through the precious blood of Christ; and you see at once that such a Paul would be a totally different Paul from the one who speaks in every page of the Epistle to the Romans and in every one of the other Pauline Epistles that the New Testament contains. The light of the gospel, in the teaching of Paul, stands out always against the dark background of a race universally lost in sin.
Is the case any different in the rest of the Bible? I care not at this point whether you turn to the Old Testament or to the New Testament. Everywhere there is the same terrible diagnosis of the ill of mankind.
“Two men,” said Jesus, “went up into the temple to pray, the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.” (Luk 18:10-13)
Which of these two men received a blessing from God when he prayed there in the temple — the man who thought he was an exception to God’s call to repentance or the one who beat upon his breast and confessed himself a sinner? Jesus tells us very plainly. The publican went down to his house justified rather than the other. Ah, my friends, how terrible is the rebuke of Jesus again and again and again for those who think that they form exceptions to the universal sinfulness of mankind!
A rich young ruler came running to Jesus one day, and asked him, “Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” Jesus repeated to him a number of the commandments. The man said, “All these have I observed from my youth.” Jesus said, “One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor.” The young man went away sorrowful. (Mark 10:17-22) He lacked something; he was not good as God regards goodness. The point is that every man always lacks something. No man comes up to God’s standard; no man can inherit the kingdom of God if he stands upon his own obedience to God’s law.
Did you ever observe what incident comes just before this incident of the rich young ruler in all three of the Synoptic Gospels — in Matthew and in Mark and in Luke? It is the incident of the bringing of little children to Jesus, when Jesus said to the disciples, as reported in Mark and similarly in Luke: “Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein” (Mark 10:15). There is a profound connection between these two incidents, as there is also a connection of both of them with the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican which in Luke immediately precedes.
Some years ago I heard a sermon on the incident of the Rich Young Ruler. What are the sermons that we are apt to remember? I think they are the sermons where the preacher does not preach himself but where he truly unfolds the meaning of some great passage of the Word of God.
The sermon of which I am now thinking is one which was preached some time ago in a Philadelphia church by my colleague, Professor R. B. Kuiper. He took the incident of the Rich Young Ruler together with the incident of the bringing of the little children to Jesus, and he showed how both incidents teach the same great lesson — the lesson of the utter helplessness of man the sinner and the absolute necessity of the free grace of God. You cannot depend for your entrance into the kingdom of God upon anything that you have or anything that you are. You must be as helpless as a little child. Your reliance cannot be on your own goodness, for you have none. It can only be upon the grace of God.
God has told us that we are sinners; He has told us in His own holy Word from beginning to end. Well may the Apostle John say, in view of the whole of the Bible: “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar” (I John 1:10). God is not a liar, my friends. This world is lost in sin.