The Necessity of Acknowledging Sin
If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar — 1Jn_1:10
This text is just a little difficult to understand, and the difficulty is of a peculiar kind because it is not quite so easy to see what is the connection between the conclusion and the premises. “If we say that we have not sinned,” that is premise; and “we make God a liar,” that is the conclusion. There are some texts in Scripture a little difficult to understand because the phraseology is difficult, and there are some texts hard to understand because they seem to contradict our highest moral sense; but this is one of those numerous texts where it is a little hard to see the connection between the conclusion and the premises. If John had said, for instance, “If we say we have not sinned, we are fools,” or “If we say we have not sinned, we know nothing whatever about ourselves,” you would have understood that at once. But John says, “If we say we have not sinned, we make God—not ourselves—a liar,” and to the thoughtful mind there is just a little difficulty in gathering the connection.
But before we face that difficulty there is one question I have got to ask and answer, and that is, How is it that people say, “We have not sinned”? It is not just saying it with our lips; but I want to ask in what peculiar ways do common people like you and me say in their hearts, “We have not sinned”? Well, of course, everybody does it in the first place who conceives that he is perfect, but that is such an extraordinary state of mind and so uncommonly rare that I do not imagine I need touch on it except for a moment. In the course of my long pastoral experience, meeting with all types of men and women, I do not remember a single sane person who ever thought he was perfect. I remember one poor man, but then he was insane, and he also thought that he was Christ. Remember, perfection is your ideal and mine—”Be ye perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect”; and I have never put any limits to what the Spirit of God can do for any man who constantly yields himself up to it. I have never put any limits, no matter what a man’s past is, no matter how hard his heart is, no matter what his circumstances are, to what the Spirit of God can do for anybody who opens his heart to Him every morning; but at the same time this is the universal Christian experience. The more you yield yourself, the more you hitch your wagon to that star, the more you wrestle on toward heaven against storm and wind and tide—the more you feel and know you are a sinner. Paul began by saying about himself that he was less than the least of saints. When he got to know Christ a great deal better he called himself “the chief of sinners.” Therefore I do not think one need say anything about that, for who is the fool who for one moment conceives that he is perfect. If there is, may God have mercy, not upon your soul, may God have mercy on your mind. But then a far more common way than that is for people to deny that what they have done is sin; that is to say, to make excuses for themselves that they would never dream of making for anybody else. Of course, I am not talking about you, I am talking about myself as well, for there is no man or woman, no matter how God’s grace has gripped him, who is not always prone to make excuses for his own conduct that he would never dream of making for anybody else.
For instance, sometimes you read of a man stealing money. Well now, if his neighbor did it, of course he would be a thief, but the man is so earnest he is going to pay, but he wanted time, that in him it is not sin; or perhaps he gets such a starvation wage that he says he is just taking what he has a right to, and then he says, “I have not sinned.” Many of you are tempted to tell lies just because the truth would cause such pain or discomfort to somebody you love, and you say you have not sinned because you have done it out of human kindness. You would never admit that in anybody else. Of course today, when people on every hand are breaking the seventh commandment, dashing in pieces the covenant of honor and purity, of course they all say that it is love; love is such a beautiful thing it justifies anything, does it not? Or perhaps they say it is necessity, and necessity knows no law. In a thousand ways like that today people are juggling with their conscience, and just saying, Whatever be the case with others, of course I have not sinned. Perhaps equally common among people who are led by the cold light of intellect rather than by the flaming light of passion, is the thought that sin does not exist; it is only a dream of fussy theologians, there is no such thing. What is sin? Now sin, if it is anything, of course, is a transgression of the law of God; sin is the free act of a free man. Sin is something for which you—nobody else—are responsible; therefore if you are liable, the punishment, that is the guilt, is a reality, and always with guilt there comes fear. Now when anybody takes up a view of life that just denies the reality of these things, robs them of what is essential in their meaning, don’t you see he says, “I have not sinned”? If sin is a necessity, a necessary negative if you have got to get a positive, if sin is only imperfection, not a fall down but a fall up, letting the ape and tiger die, only a necessary stage in evolution, if everything is determined by heredity, well, of course, you say you have not sinned; whatever you have done, that does not exist. These things seem very modem, but they were all present, mark you, with John at Ephesus, and John says, “If any man says he has not sinned, he makes God a liar.” Now don’t you see what it means? You know if I called a man a liar, what I imply is that that man has been speaking, and probably speaking to me, and when you call God a liar you imply that God has been speaking to you. And John’s point is that whenever and in whatsoever way God speaks, the basis of His speech is the fact of sin. In every voice God uses he talks on the understanding, implied or asserted, that sin is a reality, and therefore our duty is to try and examine the various voices of God and see whether that is true or not.
God in Nature
For instance, for I never like to leave this out, I suppose most of us would say that God talked to them in nature. In this beautiful world, I hope you have all got enough of a receiving set within you to hear God talk to you in nature. Of course, without that we never would have any science. If I can take up a book and read it and understand it, it means that behind that book there is a mind kindred to my own. And if science can read the book of nature—that is exactly what it does, we dwell not in a chaos but in a cosmos—if science can read the book of nature, then there is a mind behind it cognate and kindred to our own. I wonder why it is, if you were out in a great storm and in peril of shipwreck, you would immediately feel you were a sinner. I wonder why it is when you walk over the moors of Arran every bird and every beast flies from you in dread; the game birds and the rabbits and the deer fly from you in dread. Is not something wrong? Has not some harmony been broken? Do you think God ever intended that? Now I do not say anything about the pain you feel when you are confronted with perfect beauty. I do not say anything of the song of birds that, as Burns says, “Ye’ll brak my heart”; but what I do say is, even in the dim voices of nature God does not only say, “Child, am not I beautiful?” but God says, “Child, you have broken something, you are a sinner.”
God in Conscience
Then does not God talk to you in conscience? Don’t you believe that in the still small voice of conscience God is talking to you? I beg of you never to give up that faith. If your conscience is not dead, and it is dead in some people, seared with a hot iron, what does it say to you? Does it say, “Child, your temptation was too strong for you, therefore you are not guilty”? Does it say, “Child, these are dreadful circumstances you live in, therefore you are not guilty”? Does it say, “Child, it is all heredity, and the blame rests on your grandfather”? It says, “Child, you are guilty.” It says to you, “Whatever your temptation or heredity, you are guilty; nobody else.” And if you say you have not sinned, that you could not help it, that things were too strong for you, that you were in the hands of a determined fate, don’t you see you make God a liar whenever He talks to you in conscience?
God in the Bible
Then I hope everybody agrees with me that God speaks to us in the Old Testament. Well now, if you do, that whole utterance is based upon the reality of sin and nothing else, except God Himself willing to forgive it. Take the story of the fall: what is at the back of it? That sin is real, that guilt is real, that the fear that follows guilt is real, and that is the very meaning. Then you have the sacrifices of smoke at the Jewish altars, the forty years’ wandering in the wilderness, the seventy years’ exile in Babylon, and the anguish of the Psalmist, and you have the trumpet cry of the Prophet that he is the Lord God who forgiveth sin. Then you say sin is not a reality; it does not exist; it is only a negative. You make God a liar in the whole utterance of the Old Testament. Don’t you see?
Then far above the Old Testament, we have the New Testament, and I who know a little about Plato and Dante and Shakespeare never hesitate a moment to call the New Testament the most wonderful book in the world. Written by men of strong individuality, each of them with his own angle and his own outlook, each with his own aspect of the Lord, and yet all of them banded together as with a band of steel in this one conviction, that man needs redemption and that God in His mercy is willing to give it now. You get so tired of books whose only parrot-cry is, Educate, educate, educate; books that tell you that give time to our human race and it will evolve into a kind of superman. The New Testament comes to you and me and says, “Child, first of all there is a barrier between you and God, and that barrier has got to be taken out of the way.” In other words, you do not want to be reformed, you need to be born again and then you can start educating and evolving. The whole New Testament is based on this, that you and I are guilty sinful creatures, and if you come along and say, “We have not sinned,” you are making God a liar as He speaks to us in the new Testament.
God in Christ Jesus
And then, of course, the whole argument comes to its height in this: God in His infinite mercy has talked and spoken to you and me in our blessed Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word (the expression of the thought—the Oratio against the Ratio) became flesh and dwelt among us.” “His name shall be called Jesus.” Why? Because He is a beautiful teacher, because He is our example, because He is a great social leader? “His name thou shalt call Jesus: for He shall save His people from their sins.” There were things that our blessed Lord made very light of, things that He did not care a straw for, and sometimes they mean everything to us; but there was one thing our Lord never made light of; rather He deepened it, intensified it all the time, and that was the fact of human sin. It was that which brought Him here; it was that which sent Him among the publicans and sinners; it was that that nailed Him to the cross. And if you venture to say, “I have not sinned;” “It was not sin at all;” “Sin does not exist;” don’t you make Him just a liar when he talks to us in the Lord Jesus Christ? I beg of you not to do it. Life is far too serious for that. To wrap yourself up in excuses is to be naked before the great white throne. It is far better just to say however humbling it is, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” “Seek ye the Lord while He may be found, call ye upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thought, and let him return unto the Lord, and He will have mercy upon him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.”