THE SINFULNESS OF ORIGINAL SIN
(the sin of omission)
William G.T. Shedd
MATTHEW xix. 20.—”The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?”
In the preceding discourse from these words, we discussed that form and aspect of sin which consists in “coming short” of the Divine Law; or, as the Westminster Creed states it, in a “want of conformity” unto it. The deep and fundamental sin of the young ruler, we found, lay in what he lacked. When our Lord tested him, he proved to be utterly destitute of love to God. His soul was a complete vacuum, in reference to that great holy affection which fills the hearts of all the good beings before the throne of God, and without which no creature can stand, or will wish to stand, in the Divine presence. The young ruler, though outwardly moral and amiable, when searched in the inward parts was found wanting in the sum and substance of religion. He did not love God; and he did love himself and his possessions.
What man has omitted to do, what man is destitute of,—this is a species of sin which he does not sufficiently consider, and which is weighing him down to perdition. The unregenerate person when pressed to repent of his sins, and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, often beats back the kind effort, by a question like that which Pilate put to the infuriated Jews: “Why, what evil have I done?” It is the subject of his actual and overt transgressions that comes first into his thoughts, and, like the young ruler, he tells his spiritual friend and adviser that he has kept all the commandments from his youth up. The conviction of sin would be more common if the natural man would consider his failures; if he would look into his heart and perceive what he is destitute of, and into his conduct and see what he has left undone.
In pursuing this subject, we propose to show, still further, the guiltiness of every man, from the fact that he lacks the original righteousness that once belonged to him. We shall endeavor to prove that every child of Adam is under condemnation, or, in the words of Christ, that “the wrath of God abides upon him” (John iii. 36), because he is not possessed of that pure and perfect character which, his Maker gave him in the beginning. Man is culpable for not continuing to stand upon the high and sinless position, in which he was originally placed. When the young ruler’s question is put to the natural man, and the inquiry is made as to his defects and deficiency, it is invariably discovered that he lacks the image of God in which he was created. And for a rational being to be destitute of the image of God is sin, guilt, and condemnation, because every rational being has once received this image.
God has the right to demand from every one of his responsible creatures, all that the creature might be, had he retained possession of the endowments which he received at creation, and had he employed them with fidelity. The perfect gifts and capacities originally bestowed upon man, and not the mutilated and damaged powers subsequently arising from a destructive act of self-will, furnish the proper rule of measurement, in estimating human merit or demerit. The faculties of intelligence and will as unfallen, and not as fallen, determine the amount of holiness and of service that may be demanded, upon principles of strict justice, from every individual. All that man “comes short” of this is so much sin, guilt, and condemnation.
When the great Sovereign and Judge looks down from His throne of righteousness and equity, upon any one of the children of men, He considers what that creature was by creation, and compares his present character and conduct with the character with which he was originally endowed, and the conduct that would naturally have flowed therefrom. God made man holy and perfect. God created man in his own image (Gen. i. 26), “endued with knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness, having the law of God written in his heart, and power to fulfill it.” This is the statement of the Creed which we accept as a fair and accurate digest of the teachings of Revelation, respecting the primitive character of man, and his original righteousness. And all evangelical creeds, however they may differ from each other in their definitions of original righteousness, and their estimate of the perfections and powers granted to man by creation, do yet agree that he stood higher when he came from the hand of God than he now stands; that man’s actual character and conduct do not come up to man’s created power and capacities. Solemn and condemning as it is, it is yet a fact, that inasmuch as every man was originally made in the holy image of God, he ought, this very instant to be perfectly holy. He ought to be standing upon a position that is as high above his actual position, as the heavens are high above the earth. He ought to be possessed of a moral perfection without spot or wrinkle, or any such thing. He ought to be as he was, when created in righteousness and true holiness. He ought to be dwelling high up on those lofty and glorious heights where he was stationed by the benevolent hand of his Maker, instead of wallowing in those low depths where he has fallen by an act of apostasy and rebellion. Nothing short of this satisfies the obligations that are resting upon him. An imperfect holiness, such as the Christian is possessed of while here upon earth, does not come up to the righteous requirement of the moral law; and certainly that kind of moral character which belongs to the natural man is still farther off from the sum-total that is demanded.
Let us press this truth, that we may feel its convicting and condemning energy. When our Maker speaks to us upon the subject of His claims and our obligations, He tells us that when we came forth from nonentity into existence, from His hand, we were well endowed, and well furnished. He tells us distinctly, that He did not create us the depraved and sinful beings that we now are. He tells us that these earthly affections, this carnal mind, this enmity towards the Divine law, this disinclination towards religion and spiritual concerns, this absorbing love of the world and this supreme love of self,—that these were not implanted or infused into the soul by our wise, holy, and good Creator. This is not His work. This is no part of the furniture with which mankind were set up for an everlasting existence. “God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good.” (Gen. i. 31). We acknowledge the mystery that overhangs the union and connection of all men with the first man. We know that this corruption of man’s nature, and this sinfulness of his heart, does indeed, appear at the very beginning of his individual life. He is conceived in sin, and shapen in iniquity (Ps. li. 5). This selfish disposition, and this alienation of the heart from God, is native depravity, is inborn corruption. This we know both from Revelation, and observation. But we also know, from the same infallible Revelation, that though man is born a sinner from the sinful Adam, he was created a saint in the holy Adam. By origin he is holy, and by descent he is sinful; because there has intervened, between his creation and his birth, that “offence of one man whereby all men were made sinners” (Rom. v. 18, 19). Though we cannot unravel the whole mystery of this subject, yet if we accept the revealed fact, and concede that God did originally make man in His own image, in righteousness and true holiness, and that man has since unmade himself, by the act of apostasy and rebellion,—if we take this as the true and correct statement of the facts in the case, then we can see how and why it is, that God has claims upon His creature, man, that extend to what this creature originally was and was capable of becoming, and not merely to what he now is, and is able to perform.
When, therefore, the young ruler’s question, “What lack I?” is asked and answered upon a broad scale, each and every man must say: “I lack original righteousness; I lack the holiness with which God created man; I lack that perfection of character which belonged to my rational and immortal nature coming fresh from the hand of God in the person of Adam; I lack all that I should now be possessed of, had that nature not apostatized from its Maker and its Sovereign.” And when God forms His estimate of man’s obligations; when He lays judgment to the line, and righteousness to the plummet; He goes back to the beginning, He goes back to creation, and demands from His rational and immortal creature that perfect service which, he was capable of rendering by creation, but which now he is unable to render because of subsequent apostasy. For, God cannot adjust His demands to the alterations which sinful man makes in himself. This would be to annihilate all demands and obligations. A sliding-scale would be introduced, by this method, that would reduce human duty by degrees to a minimum, where it would disappear. For, the more sinful a creature becomes, the less inclined, and consequently the less able does he become to obey the law of God. If, now, the Eternal Judge shapes His requisitions in accordance with the shifting character of His creature, and lowers His law down just as fast as the sinner enslaves himself to lust and sin, it is plain that sooner or later all moral obligation will run out; and whenever the creature becomes totally enslaved to self and flesh, there will no longer be any claims resting upon him. But this cannot be so. “For the kingdom of heaven,”—says our Lord,—”is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants and delivered unto them his goods. And unto one he gave five talents, and to another two, and to another one; and straightway took his journey.” When the settlement was made. Each and every one of the parties was righteously summoned to account for all that had originally been intrusted to him, and to show a faithful improvement of the same. If any one of the servants had been found to have “lacked” a part, or the whole, of the original treasure, because he had culpably lost it, think you that the fact that it was now gone from his possession, and was past recovery, would have been accepted as a valid excuse from the original obligations imposed upon him? In like manner, the fact, that man cannot reinstate himself in his original condition of holiness and blessedness, from which he has fallen by apostasy, will not suffice to justify him before God for being in a helpless state of sin and misery, or to give him any claims upon God for deliverance from it. God can and does pity him, in his ruined and lost estate, and if the creature will cast himself upon His mercy, acknowledging the righteousness of the entire claims of God upon him for a sinless perfection and a perfect service, he will meet and find mercy. But if he takes the ground that he does not owe such an immense debt as this, and that God has no right to demand from him, in his apostate and helpless condition, the same perfection of character and obedience which holy Adam possessed and rendered, and which the unfallen angels possess and render, God will leave him to the workings of conscience, and the operations of stark unmitigated law and justice. “The kingdom of heaven,”—says our Lord,—”is likened unto a certain king which would take account of his servants. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him which owed him ten thousand talents; but forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt” (Matt, xviii. 28-27). But suppose that that servant had disputed the claim, and had put in an appeal to justice instead of an appeal to mercy, upon the ground that inasmuch as he had lost his property and had nothing to pay with, therefore he was not obligated to pay, think you that the king would have conceded the equity of the claim? On the contrary, he would have entered into no argument in so plain a case, but would have “delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him.” So likewise shall the heavenly Father do also unto you, and to every man, who attempts to diminish the original claim of God to a perfect obedience and service, by pleading the fall of man, the corruption of human nature, the strength of sinful inclination and affections, and the power of earthly temptation. All these are man’s work, and not that of the Creator. This helplessness and bondage grows directly out of the nature of sin. “Whosoever committeth sin is the slave of sin. Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves slaves to obey, his slaves ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?” (John viii. 34; Rom. vi. 16).
In view of the subject as thus discussed, we invite attention to some practical conclusions that flow directly out of it. For, though we have been speaking upon one of the most difficult themes in Christian theology, namely man’s creation in holiness and his loss of holiness by the apostasy in Adam, yet we have at the same time been speaking of one of the most humbling, and practically profitable, doctrines in the whole circle of revealed truth. We never shall arrive at any profound sense of sin, unless we know and feel our guilt and corruption by nature; and we shall never arrive at any profound sense of our guilt and corruption by nature, unless we know and understand the original righteousness and innocence in which we were first created. We can measure the great depth of the abyss into which, we have fallen, only by looking up to those great heights in the garden of Eden, upon which our nature once stood beautiful and glorious, the very image and likeness of our Creator.
1. We remark then, in the first place, that it is the duty of every man to humble himself on account of his lack of original righteousness, and to repent of it as sin before God.
One of the articles of the Presbyterian Confession of Faith reads thus: Every sin, both original and actual, being a transgression of the righteous law of God, and contrary thereunto, doth, in its own nature, bring guilt upon the sinner, whereby he is “bound over to the wrath of God, and curse of the law, and so made subject to death, with all miseries spiritual, temporal, and eternal.” The Creed which we accept summons us to repent of original as well as actual sin; and it defines original sin to be “the want of original righteousness, together with the corruption of the whole nature.” The want of original righteousness, then, is a ground of condemnation, and therefore a reason for shame, and godly sorrow. It is something which man once had, ought still to have, but now lacks; and therefore is ill-deserving, for the very same reason that the young ruler’s lack of supreme love to God was ill-deserving.
If we acknowledge the validity of the distinction between a sin of omission and a sin of commission, and concede that each alike is culpable, we shall find no difficulty with this demand of the Creed. Why should not you and I mourn over the total want of the image of God in our hearts, as much as over any other form and species of sin? This image of God consists in holy reverence. When we look into our hearts, and find no holy reverence there, ought we not to be filled with shame and sorrow? This image of God consists in filial and supreme affection for God, such as the young ruler lacked; and when we look into our hearts, and find not a particle of supreme love to God in them, ought we not to repent of this original, this deep-seated, this innate depravity? This image of God, again, which was lost in our apostasy, consisted in humble constant trust in God; and when we search our souls, and perceive that there is nothing of this spirit in them, but on the contrary a strong and overmastering disposition to trust in ourselves, and to distrust our Maker, ought not this discovery to waken in us the very same feeling that Isaiah gave expression to, when he said that the whole head is sick, and the whole heart is faint; the very same feeling that David gave expression to, when he cried: “Behold I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me?”
This is to repent of original sin, and there is no mystery or absurdity about it. It is to turn the eye inward, and see what is lacking in our heart and affections; and not merely what of outward and actual transgressions we have committed. Those whose idea of moral excellence is like that of the young ruler; those who suppose holiness to consist merely in the outward observance of the commandments of the second table; those who do not look into the depths of their nature, and contrast the total corruption that is there, with the perfect and positive righteousness that ought to be there, and that was there by creation,—all such will find the call of the Creed to repent of original sin as well as of actual, a perplexity and an impossibility. But every man who knows that the substance of piety consists in positive and holy affections,—in holy reverence, love and trust,—and who discovers that these are wanting in him by nature, though belonging to him by creation, will mourn in deep contrition and self-abasement over that act of apostasy by which this great change in human character, this great lack was brought about.
2. In the second place, it follows from the subject we have discussed, that every man must, by some method, recover his original righteousness, or be ruined forever. “Without holiness no man shall see the Lord.” No rational creature is fit to appear in the presence of his Maker, unless he is as pure and perfect as he was originally made. Holy Adam was prepared by his creation in the image of God, to hold blessed communion with God, and if he and his posterity had never lost this image, they would forever be in fellowship with their Creator and Sovereign. Holiness, and holiness alone, enables the creature to stand with angelic tranquillity, in the presence of Him before whom the heavens and the earth flee away. The loss of original righteousness, therefore, was the loss of the wedding garment; it was the loss of the only robe in which the creature could appear at the banquet of God. Suppose that one of the posterity of sinful Adam, destitute of holy love reverence and faith, lacking positive and perfect righteousness, should be introduced into the seventh heavens, and there behold the infinite Jehovah. Would he not feel, with a misery and a shame that could not be expressed, that he was naked? that he was utterly unfit to appear in such a Presence? No wonder that our first parents, after their apostasy, felt that they were unclothed. They were indeed stripped of their character, and had not a rag of righteousness to cover them. No wonder that they hid themselves from the intolerable purity and brightness of the Most High. Previously, they had felt no such emotion. They were “not ashamed,” we are told. And the reason lay in the fact that, before their apostasy, they were precisely as they were made. They were endowed with the image of God; and their original righteousness and perfect holiness qualified them to stand before their Maker, and to hold blessed intercourse with Him. But the instant they lost their created endowment of holiness, they were conscious that they lacked that indispensable something wherewith to appear before God.
And precisely so is it, with their posterity. Whatever a man’s theory of the future life may be, he must be insane, if he supposes that he is fit to appear before God, and to enter the society of heaven, if destitute of holiness, and wanting the Divine image. When the spirit of man returns to God who gave it, it must return as good as it came from His hands, or it will be banished from the Divine presence. Every human soul, when it goes back to its Maker, must carry with it a righteousness, to say the very least, equal to that in which it was originally created, or it will be cast out as an unprofitable and wicked servant. All the talents entrusted must be returned; and returned with usury. A modern philosopher and poet represents the suicide as justifying the taking of his own life, upon the ground that he was not asked in the beginning, whether he wanted life. He had no choice whether he would come into existence or not; existence was forced upon him; and therefore he had a right to put an end to it, if he so pleased. To this, the reply is made, that he ought to return his powers and faculties to the Creator in as good condition as he received them; that he had no right to mutilate and spoil them by abuse, and then fling the miserable relics of what was originally a noble creation, in the face of the Creator. In answer to the suicide’s proposition to give back his spirit to God who gave it, the poet represents God as saying to him:
“Is’t returned as ’twas sent? Is’t no worse for the wear?
Think first what you are! Call to mind what you were!
I gave you innocence, I gave you hope,
Gave health, and genius, and an ample scope.
Return you me guilt, lethargy, despair?
Make out the invent’ry; inspect, compare!
Then die,—if die you dare!”
Yes, this is true and solemn reasoning. You and I, and every man, must by some method, or other, go back to God as good as we came forth from Him. We must regain our original righteousness; we must be reinstated in our primal relation to God, and our created condition; or there is nothing in store for us, but the blackness of darkness. We certainly cannot stand in the judgment clothed with original sin, instead of original righteousness; full of carnal and selfish affections, instead of pure and heavenly affections. This great lack, this great vacuum, in our character, must by some method be filled up with solid, and everlasting excellencies, or the same finger that wrote, in letters of fire, upon the wall of the Babylonian monarch, the awful legend: “Thou art weighed in the balance, and art found wanting,” will write it in letters of fire upon our own rational spirit.
There is but one method, by which man’s original righteousness and innocency can be regained; and this method you well know. The blood of Jesus Christ sprinkled by the Holy Ghost, upon your guilty conscience, reinstates you in innocency. When that is applied, there is no more guilt upon you, than there was upon Adam the instant he came from the creative hand. “There is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.” Who is he that condemneth, when it is Christ that died, and God that justifies? And when the same Holy Spirit enters your soul with renewing power, and carries forward His work of sanctification to its final completion, your original righteousness returns again, and you are again clothed in that spotless robe with which your nature was invested, on that sixth day of creation, when the Lord God said, “Let us make man in our image, and after our likeness.” Ponder these truths, and what is yet more imperative, act upon them. Remember that you must, by some method, become a perfect creature, in order to become a blessed creature in heaven. Without holiness you cannot see the Lord. You must recover the character which you have lost, and the peace with God in which you were created. Your spirit, when it returns to God, must by some method be made equal to what it was when it came forth from Him. And there is no method, but the method of redemption by the blood and righteousness of Christ. Men are running to and fro after other methods. The memories of a golden age, a better humanity than they now know of, haunt them; and they sigh for the elysium that is gone. One sends you to letters, and culture, for your redemption. Another tells you that morality, or philosophy, will lift you again to those paradisaical heights that tower high above your straining vision. But miserable comforters are they all. No golden age returns; no peace with God or self is the result of such instrumentality. The conscience is still perturbed, the forebodings still overhang the soul like a black cloud, and the heart is as throbbing and restless as ever. With resoluteness, then, turn away from these inadequate, these feeble methods, and adopt the method of God Almighty. Turn away with contempt from human culture, and finite forces, as the instrumentality for the redemption of the soul which is precious, and which ceaseth forever if it is unredeemed. Go with confidence, and courage, and a rational faith, to God Almighty, to God the Redeemer. He hath power. He is no feeble and finite creature. He waves a mighty weapon, and sweats great drops of blood; travelling in the greatness of His strength. Hear His words of calm confidence and power: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”