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ON THE UNIVERSAL SINFULNESS OF MANKIND.
1 JOHN I. 8.
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the
truth is not in us.
IN nothing do we more hate the light, and shut our eyes against it, than in regard to our own sins : and yet, in nothing is it of greater importance to us, that we should come to the knowledge of the truth. Not only must the unregenerate be effectual. ly convinced of sin, before they will in earnest attend to the gospel of their salvation; but it is very neces. sary that the renewed, and even the holiest saints on earth, should have an abiding sense of their remaining imperfections ; and should see that sin still dwel. leth in them, and often easily besets them. This is necessary to awaken them to constant watchfulness, and exertion in the spiritual warfare ; to excite them to walk humbly with God, and to make them see their need of daily pardoning mercy, and of further sanctifying grace. Great care is therefore taken in the holy scriptures, to guard persons of all characters against trusting in themselves that they are righteous, or thinking more highly of their innocence than they ought to think.
Whether any in the days of the apostles, carried this self-fattery so far as to imagine themselves whol. ly free from sin, which gave occasion for the caution in our text, I am not able to say. Some such, how, ever, it is said, there now are, I understand it is y the professed opinion of one sect among us, who
have compassed sea and land. to make proselytes, that sinless perfection is attainable in this life, and that many of them vainly boast of being themselves already thus perfect.
But it is not merely with a view to them, or to the refutation of this tenet of theirs, that I have now made choice of these words. There are many other erroneous opinions, too common at all times and in all places, the tendency of which is to make sinners flatter themselves in their own eyes, and not see that their iniquity is hateful. And many who are not much erroneous in speculation, from mere careless. ness and stupidity, often feel as if they were whole, rich and increased with goods, and had need of nothing. This short passage of scripture, given by inspiration of God, if duly attended to, may lead to a detection of all such delusions; and, it is hoped, may be profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness, to all these sorts of persons.
That the truth of what the apostle here asserts may be more fully illustrated, I shall begin with a particular inquiry into what things are sinful, in a moral agent: Shall then show that it is a gross self-deception, for any of mankind in this world, to think they have no sin: and lastly, shall consider, how it is to be understood that the truth is not in us, if we say thus.
Our first inquiry, is concerning the things which ought to be accounted sinful, in a moral agent : or, to answer the question, What is sin ?.
On this question we have been taught, and some of us still teach our children to answer : “ Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” But the apostle John, in another chapter of this epistle, according to our translation at least, seems to have given a more limited definition of sin. He says, “Whosoever committeth sin, transgresseth the law : for sin is the transgression of the law.” It is however to be observed, that his word, [anomia,] which our translators have rendered, "the transgression of the law,” properly signifies, a deviation from law ; whether by going beyond it, or not coming up to it. Want of conformity, as well as transgression, may therefore be comprehended in his meaning.
But we will consider sins of commission, in the first place; and then inquire whether there must not be sin in the heart, prior to these ; and also whether we may not be guilty of sins of omission, besides these.
Respecting sins of commission, or transgression, it is to be observed,
1. That whenever our external actions are wrong, and such as God hath forbidden, we transgress the law, and commit sin.
Under this particular are comprehended all idolatry; all worshipping of false gods, or making graven images, and bowing down before them : all profanation of the Lord's day, by spending any part of it in unnecessary secular labors, or idle diversions : all disobedience to parents, and undue disrespect to superiors, or any others : all murders, and unjust wars and contentions : all suicide, and intemperance : all lewd and lacivious conduct : and all robbery, theft, cheating, extortion and oppression in our dealings. Doing any of these things, is evidently transgressing, and committing sin. The wrath of God is plainly revealed from heaven, against all such ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.
2. All wicked words, whether profane, or false, or slanderous, or obscene, are sins of commission. It was the resolution of David, “I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue." It is a prov, erb of Solomon, " In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin.” Our Saviour says, “ Every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment: for by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.” And the apostle James tells us, “ The tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity : it set. teth on fire the whole course of nature, and it is set on fire of hell."
3. We may transgress, and commit sin, in only the secret thoughts of our hearts. To these, the divine law extends; though human laws cannot take cognizance of them. The tenth commandment is express to this purpose ; “ Thou shalt not covet." And the sixth and seventh, according to our Saviour's exposition, implicitly forbid, all unreasonable anger, and every libidinous desire. The unrighteous man is required to forsake his thoughts; and it is said, “ The thought of foolishness is sin.” Not, indeed, all thinking of folly or wickedness. We ought often to think of our own sins, that we may repent of them; and sometimes of the sins of others, that we may reprove them. And we may have evil thoughts suggested to us, by wicked men or evil spirits, without being able to avoid it, and without being faulty. But that sin may be committed in the thoughts, in. tents, or desires of the heart, when it proceeds no
further, is an undoubted truth. To devise evil, to ( meditate revenge, or to think of any wickedness,
with a wish to perpetrate it, or with complacency in · it, is certainly sinful.
That men may commit sin in the thought, word, and deed, will not be much disputed.
We will now inquire, whether nothing faulty is imputable to us, besides sins of commission : or, whether there may not be, what is truly of the nature of sin, prior to, or distinct from, actual transgressions. On this, I observe,
1. The Bible appears to speak of positive sin in the heart of man, antecedently to sinful actions, or words, or even thoughts; and as being the cause of all these. . I do not suppose indeed, that there are any evil principles or instincts in us, so radical, that they must have been created, by the immediate power of God. The corruption of our whole nature, I believe, primarily consists in the want of original righteousness, or of a good disposition. From self-love, and those appetites and passions which are not in themselves sinful, when one is destitute of virtue, that is, of the governing love of God and his neighbor, I conceive, will naturally be formed, all those roots of bitterness which springing up trouble us.
That there are, however, propensities to evil actions in depraved human nature, seems plainly taught in the holy scriptures; and this appears ne. cessary to be supposed, in order to account for the sinful volitions of men, and their wicked external conduct. Our Saviour says, “From within, out of the heart, proceed evil thoughts, blasphemies, murders,” &c. The apostle James speaks of the lusts of men, which war in their members, whence come wars and fightings : and he says, " Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit which dwelleth in us, lusteth to envy ?" And the apostle Paul complains of a law in his members, warring against the law of his mind : a law of sin, working death : a law that when he would do good, evil was present