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BY ENOCH POND,
PROFESSOR OF THEOLOGY IN THE THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY AT BANGOR, MAINE.
CONVICTION OF SIN BY THE LAW.
Rom. iii. 20.
By the law is the knowledge of sin.
* No branch of knowledge can be more important to us than a knowledge of ourselves; and no part of self-knowledge is so important, and at the same time so difficult, as a knowledge of our sins. This kind of knowledge is difficult, because it is humiliating, mortifying, alarming, painful, and men turn away from it with aversion and dread. There are but a few, comparatively, who dare to look their sins in the face—who have courage to search them out, and trace them in their inevitable and interminable consequences. But this knowledge, of which so many are afraid, and to which they are so much averse, allow me to say, is of the utmost importance. A degree of it is as important, indeed, as is the conversion and salvation of the soul.
It is a common sentiment, that, in order to be converted, men must be first convicted; or that conviction, in the order of nature, precedes the turning of the heart to God. But what is conviction, but a full knowledge of our sins ? The convicted person sees that he is a great sinner, a guilty lost creature, and justly exposed to be cast off for ever.
It is a common sentiment, that, in order to receive forgiveness and salvation, we must repent of our sins. But whoever repented of his sins before he came to a knowledge of them? We must first see ourselves to be vile, odious, ungrateful creatures, who have broken the best of laws, and unreasonably offended the best of beings; and under impressions such as these, the tear of penitence is made to flow.
It is a common sentiment, that, in order to be saved, we must be willing to accept mercy, and even to beg for it. We must be willing to pray as the publican did, "God be merciful to me a sinner.” But mercy and justice are very different things, and we shall never be willing to ask for the one, until we have ceased to depend on the other. Would you go to your neighbor, and ask him to relieve your necessities by giving you a small sum of money, while you held in your hand a just
demand against him, the payment of which you might at any time enforce ? No more will the sinner go to God and beg for mercy, until he sees—in the number and aggravation of his offences—that if justice takes its course with him, he is undone for eve
It is the universal belief of Christians, that, in order to be saved by Christ, the sinner must be willing to come to him and embrace him as his Savior. But no person ever yet came to Christ, or was willing to come, until he felt that he needed him, and was undone without him ; and no person ever felt this, or could feel it, until he saw himself to be a great sinner. “ The whole
need not a physician, but they that are sick ;" and while we fancy ourselves comparatively whole, in a hopeful state, in a good moral condition, we never shall apply to the great Physician of the soul for help.
These remarks are intended to show, that a knowledge of our sins (to a certain extent at least) is indispensable to our conversion and salvation ; because without it, we shall never repent, never believe, and never seek or find that mercy which is promised in the gospel.
And it is important, not only for the unrenewed sinner to come to a knowledge and sense of his sins, but for the Christian also, who has been renewed, to cherish and retain a sense of his. He must not satisfy himself with reflecting that he has been once convicted, and once felt the burthen of his sins; he must feel this burthen daily, and the more deeply the better: for it is a truth, my brethren, and one worthy to be remembered, that according as we cherish daily a sense of personal unworthiness and guilt, just in that proportion will every Christian grace rise and flourish in the soul.
Who is that Christian, whose love to God will be the most ardent and constant ? He, our Savior teaches us, to whom most has been forgiven. In other words, he who has the deepest sense of sin, and still hopes that his sins are forgiven-he will “ love most.”. And who is the most humble Christian? Who lies lowest at the feet of the Savior ? And from whose eye does the tear of penitence most easily flow? From his, undoubtedly, who has the greatest sense of sin--who feels most deeply that he is a vile, unworthy creature, whose only dependence and hope are in the mercy of his Savior. And who is that believer whose faith is strongest--who clings most closely to Christ, and to whoni his name is the most endearing and precious ? He, undoubtedly, who is most sensible of his need of Christ--who feels most deeply that he is lost and undone without him. To such a one the Savior will indeed be precious. He will throw around him the arms of his faith, and nothing can separate him from his love. And who is that Christian who will feel most deeply, and pray most fervently, and labor most cheerfully and successfully for the salvation of others ? He who has seen most of the plague and depravity of his own heart; who has been led to regard himself as guilty and undone, and to tremble in prospect of the coming wrath. With such views in relation to his own case, he looks abroad on the world around him, and sees it filled with creatures apostate and perishing, as he once was, but slumbering over the abyss of ruin, and taking no measures to effect their escape; and he feels for them,—he prays for them. Can he help it ? He knows their situation, though they do not; and his “ spirits yearn o'er dying men.” He is ready to do any thing, and to make any sacrifice, for their conversion and salvation.
Here, undoubtedly, was the secret of Paul's great engagedness and his untiring exertions. Paul learned, in his own heart, the hearts of others. He saw, in his own exposedness to ruin, the fearful exposure to which the world around him was subjected. With his eyes open upon this affecting subject, he felt his “spirit stirred within him;" and he hasted from city to city, and from land to land, proclaiming the gospel of the grace of God, that he “ might by any means save some.".
In illustration of the remarks here made, on the connexion between a deep and abiding sense of sin, and a lively exercise of grace in the heart of the Christian, it will aceur to you, that the most eminent saints, in all periods of
the church, have had the most humbling, abasing views of their own characters. Look at Job: “Behold I am vile; what shall I answer thee? I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now mine eye seeth thee; wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” Look at David: “I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only have I sinned, and done evil in thy sight.” Look at Isaiah : “ Wo is me, for I am undone; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips : for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” Look also at Paul, that great exemplar of Christian attainment and experience: “I find,” says he, “a law in my members warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death." “ This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief." And from the days of Paul down to the present, the facts on this subject have been the same.
Read the humbling confessions of Augustine, and you will see, in the abasing views which he entertained of himself, the living spring of his eminent piety. Read Bunyan's account of himself, appropriately entitled “ Grace abounding to the chief of sinners ;" and you will see how this holy man rose to that eminence in knowledge and grace, which fitted him to write his “ Pilgrim's Progress.” Read the lives of such men as Brainerd, and Cowper, and John Newton, and Fuller, and Henry Martyn, and Samuel J. Mills; and you will find that they were not more distinguished for their piety, and zeal, and usefulness in the church, than they were for their deep, and often painful, and ever-abiding convictions of sin.
The immortal Edwards, whose spiritual attainments, probably, have not been exceeded upon earth, since the days of the apostle Paul, thus expresses the views which he entertained of himself years after his conversion : “My wickedness, as I am in myself, has long appeared to me perfectly ineffable, and swallowing up all thought and imagination, like an infinite deluge, or mountains over my head. I know not how to express better what my sins appear to me to be, than by heaping infinite upon infinite, and multiplying infinite by infinite." If this seems to any of you to be extravagant language, you will remember that it was used by one who, so far as the eyes of men could follow him, was a pattern of all the graces and virtues of the gospel. President Edwards was led to use this language respecting himself, not because he was more wicked than other men, but because he had seen farther into his depraved and deceitful heart than most other men ; and the result of his deep humiliation was a proportionate exaltation, in every thing pertaining to the Christian character and life.
And if we look, my brethren, into our own churches, and investigate the religious history of those members who are the most uniformly devoted and engaged, those whose piety is perennial, we shall find, perhaps in every instance, that they are the persons who have had, and still have, the deepest sense of their own unworthiness and sinfulness. And this is precisely what we might expect to find. For, with these convictions of unworthiness and sinfulness, the Christian must be humble; he must be penitent; he must feel his need of Christ, and will cling to him; he will see that he has much to be forgiven, and will love much; he will see the odious nature of sin, and will watch and pray, and strive against it ; and seeing the dangers to which
others around him are exposed, he will be willing to labor earnestly and perseveringly for their conversion and salvation. It is in this way that he who humbleth himself shall be exalted,—and that deep convictions of sin, after the heart is sanctified, are sure to result in eminent, distinguished piety and usefulness.
The preceding remarks are designed to show, first, to the unconverted sinner, and, secondly, to the believer, the great importance of coming to a thorough knowledge of their characters, and especially of their sins. To the sinner, a degree of this knowledge is as important as is the salvation of his soul; and 10 the believer, high and increasing degrees of it are indispensable to his growth in grace, and his spiritual improvement.
How, then, shall this knowledge be obtained ? A most interesting question this, and one to which the language of the text is a direct and complete answer :-“ BY THE LAW IS THE KNOWLEDGE OF SIN."
We are bound to believe this declaration of the apostle, not only because, like all other Scripture, it was given by inspiration of God, but because it was the language of his own experience. Paul could remember the time when, in his own estimation, he was morally whole and alive—when he was a boastful, self-righteous Pharisee. He thought himself as good as anybody, and better than most persons. His “ hopes of heaven were firm and bright;" for he thought himself so nearly perfect, and God so merciful, that he was gure he had nothing to fear.
The reason of this delusion Paul has himself explained. He was "without the law.” Not that he had no knowledge of the law of God, or did not consider himself as bound to obey it. He must have been well acquainted with the ten commandments, could probably repeat them as familiarly as the alphabet, and, like the other Pharisees, might have worn parts of them on his forehead, and wrists, and on the borders of his garments. But he was without any proper spiritual understanding of the Divine law. He had never seen it in its great extent, strictness, and purity, and consequently had no idea of the number, magnitude, and turpitude of his transgressions of it. He was, in this sense, “ alive without the law."
But Paul could also remember a season—the most interesting one in his whole moral existence—in which his views of himself were suddenly and totally changed. A sense of sin revived within him, and he found himself morally, spiritually dead. His good opinion of himself in a moment vanished; he awoke as from a delusive dream; his eyes were opened ; and he saw himself to be in a state of complete moral death and ruin. The occasion of this surprising change, Paul has also himself explained. “ The commandment came.” When the commandment came home with light and power to his slumbering conscience ; when the law of God was apprehended in its great extent, strictness, and purity; he saw at once how it was with him-he could be deceived no longer--he waked up to the dreadful reality of his condition -and the self-righteous Pharisee becomes, of a sudden, a mourning, weeping, trembling, and almost despairing penitent. Having experienced the effects of the law upon his own heart, in bringing him to a sense of his true character and condition, Paul was now prepared to guide and instruct others. He was able to tell awakened sinners how they might become convicted. He
* See Matt. xxiii. 5.
could say with an emphasis to inquirers of this sort, “ By the law is the knowledge of sin."
This declaration of the apostle is true to the letter. What is sin? “Sin," we are told, “ is a transgression of the law.” Consequently, if there was no law, there could be no transgression ; and if we had no knowledge of any law, we could never know how much we had transgressed it, or whether we had transgressed at all. And it is also true, that the judgment which persons form respecting their own characters will always correspond to the ideas which they entertain of the law of God.
Here is one man, who thinks that the sum of what God requires of him is to be just and honest in his intercourse with others; to discharge his outward, relative duties; to be a good neighbor, citizen, and friend ; and so to conform to what may be called the decencies of social life, that those with whom he is connected may have no occasion to reproach him. Such are his ideas of the law of God; such his rule of life; and he endeavors to live up to it. And in a good degree, perhaps, he does. He is just in his intercourse with others; he does discharge his outward, relative duties ; he is a good neighbor, citizen, and friend; and he so conforms to the decencies of life, that those associated with him have no great reason to find fault. He may not do all this constantly; he may come short in particular instances; but his failures are rather occasional than habitual, and not of a nature to give him trouble or alarm. Now, it is not possible for this man to be convicted, or to come to a knowledge of his sins, till he first learns that he has totally mistaken the law of God. With his present views of the law, how can he think himself a great sinner? He has a standard ; he measures himself by it; and he almost, or altogether, comes up to it; and how can he be troubled respecting his sins ? How can he but be whole and alive in his own opinion? How can he but consider himself as almost a perfect man? Alas! how many among us and around us are blinding and deceiving themselves, and dreaming away their probationary existence, under this fatal delusion! Ignorant of the law of God, and consequently and necessarily ignorant of their own characters and wants !
We may suppose another man, who has somewhat higher conceptions of the Divine law. He believes that, in addition to what has been stated, God requires of him a decent attention to the subject of religion : he must have a Bible, and must occasionally read it: he must pay some regard to the Sabbath; he must have a seat in the sanctuary, must assist in supporting some religious teacher, and (as often as is convenient) must go and listen to his instructions. On special occasions, or when he feels in a mood for it, he must even pray. Such are his ideas of the law of God; and he endeavors to live up to it, and he flatters himself, perhaps, that he does live up to it: for, in addition to relative and social duties, he does pay a decent outward respect to the services of religion; he does read his Bible, and attend public worship, more or less; he does pay some regard to the Sabbath ; at times he does attempt to pray; and he thinks himself, not only a moral, but a religious man : he does his duty, as he understands it; is alive in his own opinion, and cannot think that he has any thing to fear. Now it is not possible that this man, more than the one last supposed, should be convinced of sin, or come to any just conceptions of his own character, until he opens his eyes upon the law of God. The difficulty with him may be, not that he does not measure himself by the standard he has adopted, but he has a wrong standard ; and