The ancient Egyptian, so I have read somewhere, did not think of sin as rebellion against God, but simply as an understandable aberration, The ancient Greeks had no idea of the wrath of God, but conceived of their various deities as passionless beings, above being concerned with what man does. The modern Australian accepts both heresies.
The position taken up by the Egyptians is one which seems to correspond to something deep down within man, and so it is not surprising that it has been held by all sorts of men at all sorts of times. None of us likes to think of himself as a failure in the moral or for that matter in any other sphere. Rather than own up to such a thing we conceal the truth from ourselves and imagine that in some way we have then disposed of the problem. Driven into a corner we confess that we are not perfect, that we have not reached the highest and best that we know we could reach. But to label ourselves —“sinners” is another matter. And to be deeply concerned about it is also another matter. Since everybody else is in much the same boat, it doesn’t occur to us that the ship can be sinking.
The Ancient Israelites
But the men of the Old Testament had a deeper insight. Their vocabulary included many words for sin, and the study of them is very profitable. One big group of words includes the Egyptian idea, for it thinks of sin as a missing of the mark, a falling short. It reminds us that men often have the right idea, and seek to do the thing that is good. But in the process how easily we become discouraged, so that our well-meant efforts fail to achieve their objects. The old saying has it that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and this whole group of sin-words reminds us forcefully of that.
Another group of words draws attention to the characteristic of the wrong deed. In the words of Wheeler Robinson, “Some salient aspect of sin or its consequences is brought to view, namely, its badness, violence, destructiveness, trouble, worthlessness, vanity, folly, senselessness.” This way of looking at our deeds puts a serious purpose into life. It reminds us that we cannot be indifferent to the consequences of our actions, and that everything we do bears upon it the marks of its quality. In particular, our bad deeds are really bad, and all our glossing over of the fact cannot alter it.
Guilty Men and Rebels.
A third group of words stresses the changed status of the man who sins. He is now a sinner, and guilty before God. He bears the blame for his deeds. Sin is not something that can be shrugged off as a mere peccadillo of no consequence. The man who sins is different. In one sense we can see this; the selfish man for example, is affected by his sin in that he is a selfish man. He is cut off from the fuller and freer life of unselfishness. In a deeper sense he is changed in that he no longer stands before God as anything other than a selfish man.
Probably the most profound view of sin is that which sees it as rebellion. It is first and foremost rebellion against the God we should serve, and only secondarily a transgression of art ethical code. That is why David can pray “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned” although his sin comprised adultery and murder. The sin against God was so heinous that the very great sin against man paled into insignificance against it.
These two ways of looking at sin remind us that God has His plan for us to walk in, and that though He is so high and holy, yet He is interested in all that we do. Thus it is, that our sins, which we seek to minimise, are important to Him. They change our whole status in His eyes, and we become nothing more than rebels against the Lord of the universe.
Now it is important that we recognize the seriousness of sin. If we are not concerned about our position it is obvious that we will do nothing about improving it, and if we feel that we are good fellows we will not be concerned to advance in good works.
It is probably true that men can become Christians in some sense without a deep sense of their sin, but they will never become profound Christians without such a sense. None of the great Christian doctrines can be really appreciated until we see ourselves for what we are in God’s sight—sinners. The incarnation was that Christ might call, not the righteous, but sinners to repentance. His death was not simply an example, but the means of dealing with the problem of sin. The Holy Spirit empowers men, and His work is not superfluous, but a veritable necessity, for left to ourselves we do persist in going astray. It is only by a miracle of divine grace that we may be kept on the right way.
So when we say at every Morning and Evening Prayer that we are “miserable offenders” we are not indulging in the language of pious exaggeration, but facing the facts, and adopting the only attitude that can lead to progress in the Christian faith.
From the Vault of the Australian Church Record, originally published under the title ‘Good Fellows, January 19, 1956.