By Ninos Hadjirousou
J.C. Ryle wrote in his book ‘Holiness’ that “Wrong views about holiness are generally traceable to wrong views about human corruption.” The less you are taught or warned or made familiar with the dangers of sin, the more you remain unaware of its deceitfulness; unaware of its seriousness before a Holy God;
Uunaware of how vile and shameful and irrational sin is.
Back in Ryle’s times the great need, he believed, for the church has been, “and is, a clearer, fuller teaching about sin.” He lived in the 19th Century, we are in the 21st century. The need is still the same today. That is why I am giving a summary of J.C Ryle’s book on ‘Holiness’, dealing with the subject of sin.
He begins to explain to us the readers, some important information about sin.
First, the definition of sin. When we use the word sin, we often use it without actually understanding what it really is. So what is sin? Bishop Ryle wrote “Sin in short, is that vast moral disease which affects the whole human race, of every rank, and class, and name”. He furthermore adds that sin, in a practical sense, can be our thought, our doing, our imagining, anything that is contrary to the Word of God.
Therefore, sin takes place when someone does not do what he ought to do, or does what he must not do. These are known respectively as sins of omission and of commission. The sin of omission is taught in Matthew 24:41-42 when our Lord said “Depart, ye cursed, into everlasting fire: for I was an hungered, and ye gave Me no meat; I was thirsty and ye gave Me no drink.” The sin of commission is when we don’t do the things we ought not to do.
There were some in Ryle’s day, and I am sure there are in our day also, who would teach that sin is not sin if we can’t discern it or are not conscious of it. In other words, ‘God can’t tell me I am wrong, unless I first know that I am wrong‘. But this does not excuse anyone who does sin. Ryle points out that Israel were taught that there were sins of ignorance that made the people unclean before God and they needed an atonement (Number 15:25-29). Our Lord’s teaching in Luke 14:48 that “the servant who knew not his master’s will and did it not,” had no excuse, because of his ignorance. And so he was punished.
Others may call us good and nice people to be around with. Yes, but if we consider all our sinful thoughts and all our evil doings, we must be honest and admit that we are not as morally good as we thought we were. ‘Ah but everyone does wrong’ someone will say. True, but what real comfort is that; if we are still sinners?.
In fact, Ryle writes “The slightest outward or inward departure from absolute mathematical parallelism with God’s revealed will and character constitutes a sin, and at once makes us guilty in God’s sight.” The Scriptures tell us (1 John 3:4) “Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.”
In other words, even if we were 99% good and we only had 1% of evil, we still would be driven into Hell. So, in order for us to be not guilty in God’s sight, we must be more than humanly perfect, we must be as right and holy as God is. Who can do this? Ask yourselves this question, and you will find the answer to be in the four Gospel’s of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John when they give testimony of only one truly perfect life. There has only been one who never sinned. Ever. And that one is Christ Jesus our Lord.
But why can’t we be right before God, when we have done so many good deeds that show our goodness?
The answer is found in our second point; the origins of sin. Many psychologists answer that human beings are sometimes evil because of their upbringing. They would look to find fault with tradition, or parents, or education. This is also the response that Ryle witnessed in the 19th century Britain. He wrote “the sinfulness of man does not begin from without, but from within. It is not the result of bad training in early years. It is not picked up from bad companions and bad examples, as some weak Christians are too fond of saying. No! It is a family disease, which we all inherit from our first parents, Adam and Eve, and with which we are born.”
In Genesis 1:27 God created man and woman in His own image and He ordered them to have dominion over the earth. They were also warned not to eat from the forbidden tree in Genesis 2:15-18. Then we see the Devil, in the form of a serpent, lying to them about what God said. Eve believed the snake, she was tempted and ate the forbidden fruit. Then she gave it to Adam. By this our first parents, as Ryle rightly wrote, “fell from original righteousness and have become sinful and corrupt”. Romans 5:7 says “By one man sin entered into the world”. What Adam did was passed on to the next generation and to all following.
People find it hard to believe the Genesis account of man’s sinful nature because today we are taught that people can sometimes be good and sometimes bad. Ryle saw the same teaching even in his day. He wrote “Of all the foolish things that parents say about their children there is none worse than the common saying, ‘ My son has a good heart at the bottom. He is not what he ought to be; but he has fallen into bad hands. Public schools are bad places. The tutors neglect the boys. Yet he has a good heart at the bottom.‘”.
In psychology they even reject the fact that human beings are born with a sinful nature and are evil.
But let us ask, how did the child know how to lie? His parents (I am sure) never taught him to lie to them. What about his disobedience to them and anger against them? Why would his own father and mother teach him these things? Is it education then? Well who created education? We did. The educational system is of our making, so anything out of that results in corruption. Blame the parents then? The parents were once children also. And they also did the same things as their child now does. A mere little child lies, disobeys and does evil, even if his parent’s try to discipline him.
The Bible has the answers: Jesus Christ said “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries,…” (Matthew 15:19). “We are by nature children of wrath”(Ephesians 2:3). The sinful mind is hostile to God. This is the reason why we have wars, from the sinful nature that began as a newborn child.
Ryle points us thirdly to the extent of sin. Sin corrupts the mind, the emotions and the intentions of human beings. All understanding and reasoning can only lead to more and more wickedness. We must accept that man has achieved many excellent discoveries, from science to art and from art to architecture and mechanics. But nevertheless, Bishop Ryle pointed that the best things that we do, that any man does “are so interwoven and intermingled with corruption, that the contrast only brings out into sharper relief the truth and extent of the fall”.
We can be honest and realize that we all have inherited a conscience that sounds an alarm to warn us between right and wrong. Romans 2:14 says that we all have a moral code in us that judges whether someone or some situation is just or unjust. But even our moral standards are corrupted too. We are unable to follow our own moral code and we judge others for not following ours. We also suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18).
For example, what Stalin, Mao, Saddam, Hitler and the ISIS movement did and are doing is evil. And we are no different from them because we also are born with evil hearts. All these point us to the fact that we all have a corrupt nature. Someone may say ‘well, western culture has made a bad influence on us. So you can’t say that someone who has never been affected by western culture is born evil;’. But the list above shows that it is not just about western or eastern culture.
Bishop Ryle’s response was “Sin is the universal disease of all mankind”.
“The remotest islands in the Pacific Ocean, completely separate from Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, beyond the reach alike of Oriental luxury and Western art’s and literature, islands inhabited by people ignorant of books, money, steam, and gunpowder, uncontaminated by the vices of modern civilization, these very islands have always been found, when first discovered, the abode of the vilest forms of lust, cruelty, deceit, and superstition. If the inhabitants have known nothing else, they have always known how to sin!”.
Ryle is showing by empirical evidence that the Bible’s doctrine of total depravity universally is true. As is it written “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9).
The power of sin is still so strong that even after a sinner becomes a Christian, sin still will remain in his mortal flesh. Ryle cites the ninth article of the Church of England that “this infection of nature doth remain, yea, even in them that are regenerate”. However, Ryle wrote that sin “no doubt, in the believer’s heart has no longer dominion”. When a sinner becomes a Christian, he is set free from the great and powerful influence of sin that dominated his former life. Sure, Christians sin and fall, but their behaviour towards sin is different from someone who is not a Christian. A Christian is one that hates sin and desires to kill it. Not by his own power, but by the power that raised Christ Jesus from the dead. This leads to another theological discussion, into which it is not right to enter at this time.
But J.C Ryle in bringing these truths is trying to teach us that “all testify to the same great truth, all show the enormous power and vitality of sin. Mighty indeed must that foe be who even when crucified is still alive!”. Bishop Ryle does well to remind us how serious sin really is and how much we need a right understanding of it. It will change our behaviour towards it, it will change our evangelism and our thinking of it. In fact, the more you realize how lowly you are and how vile sin really is, the more you come close to Christ, because He is Holy and Perfect and Merciful. An understanding of sin helps us to value the Gospel of Jesus Christ more; to rejoice that we have been justified by faith alone through grace alone, through Christ alone and not from our works; and to thank God that we are set free from the dominion of sin and now belong to Him. This also drives us to depend more on His Word that cleanses us from our sins.
Sin may well be strong still in our bodies, but sin is not ultimate. The Devil is not sovereign; God is. And that must give us confidence to fight sin.