What is 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 come now to ask what sin at bottom is. Widely different answers have been given to this question, and with these different answers have gone different views of the world and of God and of human life. The true answer is to be obtained very clearly in the Bible; but before I present that true answer to you, I want to speak to you about one or two wrong answers, in order that by contrast with them the true answer may be the more clearly understood.

In the first place, many men have notions of sin which really deprive sin of all its distinctiveness, or, rather, many men simply deny the existence of anything that can properly be called sin at all. According to a very widespread way of thinking in the unbelief of the present day, what we popularly call morality is simply the accumulated experience of the race as to the kind of conduct that leads to racial preservation and well-being. Tribes in which every man sought his own pleasure without regard to the welfare of his neighbors failed, it is said, in the struggle for existence, whereas those tribes that restrained the impulses of their members for the good of the whole prospered and multiplied. By a process of natural selection, therefore, according to this theory, it came more and more to be true that among the races of mankind those that cultivated solidarity were the ones that survived.

In the course of time — so the theory runs — the lowly origin of these social restraints was altogether lost from view, and they were felt to be rooted in something distinctive that came to be called morality or virtue. It is only in modern times that we have got behind the scenes and have discovered the ultimate identity between what we call “morality” and the self-interest of society. Such is a very widespread theory. According to that theory “sin” is only another name — and a very unsatisfactory name too — for anti-social conduct.

What shall we say of that notion of sin from the Christian point of view? The answer is surely quite plain. We must reject it very emphatically. “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned,” says the Psalmist (Psalm 51:4). That is at the very heart of the Bible from beginning to end. Sin, according to the Bible, is not just conduct that is contrary to the accumulated experience of the race; it is not just anti-social conduct: but it is an offence primarily against God.

Equally destructive of any true idea of sin is the error of those who say that the end of all human conduct is, or (as some of them say) ought to be, pleasure. Sometimes the pleasure which is regarded as the goal to be set before men is the pleasure of the individual — refined and thoroughly respectable pleasure no doubt, but still pleasure. Such a view has sometimes produced lives superficially decent. But even such superficial decency is not apt to be very lasting, and the degrading character of the philosophy underlying it is certain to make itself felt even on the surface sooner or later. Certainly that philosophy can never have a place for any notion that with any propriety at all could be called a true notion of sin.

Sometimes, it is true, the pleasure which is made the goal of human conduct is thought of as the pleasure, or (to use a more high-sounding word) the happiness, not of the individual but of the race. According to that view, altruism — namely, regard for the greatest happiness of the greatest number — is thought to be the sum-total of morality.

Thus we have seen in the newspapers recently a good deal of discussion about “mercy-killing” or “euthanasia”. Certain physicians say very frankly that they think hopeless invalids, who never by any chance can be of use either to themselves or to anyone else, ought to be put painlessly out of the way. The modern advocates of euthanasia are arguing the thing out on an entirely different basis from the basis on which the Christian argues it. They are arguing the question on the basis of what is useful — what produces happiness and avoids pain for the human race. The Christian argues it on the basis of a definite divine command. “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13) settles the matter for the Christian. From the Christian point of view the physician who engages in a mercy-killing is just a murderer. It may also turn out that his mercy-killing is not really merciful in the long run. But that is not the point. The real point is that be it never so merciful, it is murder, and murder is sin.

The views of sin that we have considered so far are obviously opposed to Christianity. No Christian can hold that morality is just the accumulated self-interest of the race, and that sin is merely conduct opposed to such self-interest. The Christian obviously must hold that righteousness is something quite distinct from happiness and that sin is something quite distinct from folly.

What, then, is sin? We have said what it is not. Now we ought to say what it is. Fortunately we do not have to search very long in the Bible to find the answer to that question. The Bible gives the answer right at the beginning in the account that it gives of the very first sin of man. What was that first sin of man, according to the Bible? Is not the answer perfectly clear? Why, it was disobedience to a command of God. God said, “Ye shall not eat of the fruit of the tree”; man ate of the fruit of the tree: and that was sin. There we have our definition of sin at last.

“Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” Those are the words of the Shorter Catechism, not of the Bible; but they are true to what the Bible teaches from Genesis to Revelation. The most elementary thing about sin is that it is that which is contrary to God’s law. You cannot believe in the existence of sin unless you believe in the existence of the law of God. The idea of sin and the idea of law go together.

That being so, I ask you just to run through the Bible in your mind and consider how very pervasive in the Bible is the Bible’s teaching about the law of God. We have already observed how clear that teaching is in the account which the Bible gives of the first sin of man. God said, “Ye shall not eat of the fruit of the tree”. That was God’s law; it was a definite command. Man disobeyed that command; man did what God told him not to do: and that was sin. But the law of God runs all through the Bible. It is not found just in this passage or that, but it is the background of everything that the Bible says regarding the relations between God and man.

Consider for a moment how large a part of the Old Testament is occupied with the law of God — the law as it was given through Moses. Do you think that came by chance? Not at all. It came because the law is truly fundamental in what the Bible has to say. All through the Old Testament there is held up a great central thought — God the lawgiver, man owing obedience to Him. How it is, then, with the New Testament? Does the New Testament obscure that thought; does the New Testament depreciate in any way the law of God? “Think not,” said Jesus, “that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17).

Consider for a moment, my friends, the majesty of the law of God as the Bible sets it forth. One law over all — valid for Christians, valid for non-Christians, valid now and valid to all eternity. How grandly that law is promulgated amid the thunderings of Sinai! How much more grandly still and much more terribly it is set forth in the teaching of Jesus — in His teaching and in His example! With what terror we are fain to say, with Peter, in the presence of that dazzling purity: “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8) Nowhere in the Bible, in the teaching of Jesus our Savior, do we escape from the awful majesty of the law of God — written in the constitution of the universe, searching the innermost recesses of the soul, embracing every idle word and every action and every secret thought of the heart, inescapable, all-inclusive, holy, terrible. God the lawgiver, man the subject; God the ruler, man the ruled! The service of God is a service that is perfect freedom, a duty that is the highest of all joys; yet it is a service still. Let us never forget that. God was always and is forever the sovereign King; the whole universe is beneath His holy law.

This law is grounded in the infinite perfection of the being of God Himself. “Be ye therefore perfect,” said Jesus, “even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). That is the standard. It is a holy law, as God Himself is holy. If that be the law of God, how awful a thing is sin! Not an offence against some rule proceeding from temporal authority or enforced by temporal penalties, but an offence against the infinite and eternal God!

I know that some of my hearers regard what I have been saying as being no more worthy of consideration than the hobgoblins and bogies with which nurses used to frighten naughty children. An outstanding characteristic of the age in which we are living is a disbelief in anything that can be called a law of God and in particular a disbelief in anything that can properly be called sin. The plain fact is that the men of our day are living for the most part in an entirely different world of thought and feeling and life from the world in which the Christian lives. The difference does not just concern this detail or that: it concerns the entire basis of life; it concerns the entire atmosphere in which men live and move and have their being. At the heart of everything that the Bible says are two great truths, which belong inseparably together — the majesty of the law of God, and sin as an offence against that law. Both these basic truths are denied in modern society, and in the denial of them is found the central characteristic of the age in which we are living.

Well, what sort of age is that; what sort of age is this in which the law of God is regarded as obsolete and in which there is no consciousness of sin? I will tell you. It is an age in which the disintegration of society is proceeding on a gigantic scale. Look about you, and what do you see? Everywhere the throwing off of restraint, the abandonment of standards.

The consciousness of sin alone leads men to turn to the Savior from sin, and the consciousness of sin comes only when men are brought face to face with the law of God. But men have no consciousness of sin today, and what are we going to do? I remember that that problem was presented very poignantly in my hearing some time ago by a preacher who was sadly puzzled. Here we are, said he. We are living in the twentieth century. We have to take things as we find them; and as a matter of fact, whether we like it or not, if we talk to the young people of the present day about sin and guilt they will not know what we are talking about; they will simply turn away from us in utter boredom, and they will turn from the Christ whom we preach. Is not that really too bad? he continued. Is it not really too bad for them to miss the blessing that Christ has for them if only they would come to Him? If, therefore, they will not come to Christ in our way, ought we not to invite them to come in their way? If they will not come to Christ through the consciousness of sin induced by the terror of the law of God, may we not get them to come through the attraction of the amiable ethics of Jesus and the usefulness of His teaching in solving the problems of society?

I am afraid that in response to such questions we shall just have to answer, “No.” I am afraid we shall just have to say that being a Christian is a much more tragic thing than these people suppose. I am afraid we shall just have to tell them that they cannot clamber over the wall into the Christian way. I am afraid we shall just have to point them to the little wicket gate, and tell them to seek their Savior while yet He may be found, in order that He may rescue them from the day of wrath.

But is that not utterly hopeless? Is it not utterly hopeless to try to get the people of the twentieth century to take the law of God with any seriousness or to be the slightest bit frightened about their sins? I answer, Certainly it is hopeless. Absolutely hopeless. As hopeless as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. But, you see, there is One who can do hopeless things. That is, the Spirit of the living God.

The Spirit of God has not lost His power. In His own good time, He will send His messengers even to a wicked and adulterous and careless generation. He will convict men of sin; He will break down men’s pride; He will melt their stony hearts. Then He will lead them to the Savior of their souls.

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