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‘A Dreadful Evil’

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Date February 19, 2010

Sin is everywhere around us in a fallen world. We come in contact with it constantly; the media bring some particularly-awful examples of it to our attention again and again. And no matter where we look, in any part of the earth, we will find sin and its terrible consequences staring us in the face. Yes, as W S Plumer succinctly expressed the matter, ‘sin is a dreadful evil’.1

He made this remark, not merely on the basis of a lifetime of observing his fellow creatures; it is the infallible testimony of Scripture. Accordingly he added that

it [sin] is everywhere so represented [as a dreadful evil] in God’s Word. It is defiling to the soul and dishonouring to God. Its heinousness arises from the fact that it is against infinite majesty and purity and authority and benevolence. No man has ever thought sin to be a greater evil than it actually is.

To put the concept of sin in the simplest of language: it is to do wrong against God – the One who made us, who therefore has complete authority over us. Plumer went on to quote from John Owen: ‘It is the contempt of God and his authority in his law that is the gall and poison of sin’.

It is, no doubt, human rebellion against that authority which has gained for the theory of evolution, in spite of all its difficulties, the level of acceptance it has attained today. If there is indeed a divine Creator, he has an absolute right to our obedience, but fallen man does not like the idea of being under obligation to obey God; nor does he like the punishment that must follow his refusal to give God the obedience due to him. It is so much more convenient to convince himself that God does not exist. But it is ‘the fool [who] hath said in his heart, There is no God’ (Psa. 14:1).

Scripture and experience make it obvious that sin has a great hold on each of us personally, not just on other people. David’s words to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the Lord’ (2 Sam. 12:13), may have referred to a particularly-serious sequence of transgressions, but these words are the confession that every one of us needs to make continually. Even the best of God’s children are never able in this life to yield to him perfect submission; that will only be possible in a better world – one entirely free from the dreadful evil of sin.

David, in his confession, made clear his consciousness of the One against whom his sins were committed – the Lord. Apart from the acknowledgement that sin is committed against the living and true God, any such confession is worthless. Pharaoh admitted to Moses and Aaron: ‘I have sinned against the Lord your God’ (Exod. 10:16), but he was refusing to acknowledge the true God as his God. That lack of submission was in itself a serious sin and the absence of sincere repentance in Pharaoh’s heart was confirmed when, after the plague of locusts was removed, he returned to his sin – his refusal to obey God’s command to let Israel go free.

Over recent centuries, religion has often been blamed for the strife in the world. Eliminate religion, is the cry, and all will be well; individuals and nations will live at peace with each other. Well, the experiment has been performed, and nowhere more energetically than in Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China. For most of the time these men were in power, they made every effort to suppress religion and promote atheism; and rarely has the world seen more awful displays of horrid cruelty, oppression and wickedness. Religion is not the real problem; it is the dreadful evil of sin. The absence of religion actually allows sin more scope to flourish; estimates of the total number of Communism’s victims have been placed between 85 and 100 million.

Religion may impose a real restraint on sinful human nature. But genuine heart religion will not only restrain sin; it will produce real obedience, both inward and outward, to God’s commandments – for then the Holy Spirit is present to provide the only truly-effective restraint on sin. It is an evil which has such a tenacious root in the human soul that only divine power can subdue it; for the Spirit deals, not merely with symptoms, but with the root.

Sin of every kind deserves punishment; it cannot be otherwise when a holy, just God rules the universe. But whatever punishment may follow sin in this life, it is almost as nothing in comparison with the endless punishment that must be experienced by the unrepentant in another world. Of all the doctrines of the Bible, perhaps none have been more strongly opposed than eternal punishment. But human objection is of no force in the face of divine revelation. And Christ himself, who did not come ‘into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved’ (John 3:17), was the one who spoke more than any other about a lost eternity. Plumer commented wisely:

When we are disposed to think God’s punishment for sin to be too great, let us remember that he only can gauge the depths of moral evil. We should also notice the universal fact that slight thoughts of sin always proceed from unworthy thoughts of God.

Clearly if we are to have appropriate thoughts of sin as a dreadful evil, we must have high thoughts of God as holy and just and good – infinitely so.

A dreadful evil clearly requires a powerful remedy, and an evil as dreadful as sin requires a divine remedy. So that sin could be taken away, the Son of God had to take our nature, suffer and die. This is the remedy that must be proclaimed to a fallen world. Fallen human beings, with corrupted hearts, are to be presented with the good news about the glorious Saviour who came into a world so saturated with the dreadful evil of sin. He bore the guilt of sin, enduring dreadful suffering which culminated in what the Shorter Catechism calls ‘the cursed death of the cross’.

The remedy for the dreadful evil of sin is, according to God’s appointment, to be proclaimed by men, not by angels. John Newton points out that

the angel who appeared to Cornelius did not preach the gospel to him, but directed him to send for Peter. For though the glory and grace of the Saviour seems a fitter subject for an angel’s powers than for the poor stammering tongues of sinful men, yet an angel could not speak experimentally, nor describe the warfare between grace and sin from his own feelings. And if we could suppose a minister as full of comforts and as free from failings as an angel, though he would be a good and happy man, I cannot conceive that he would be a good and useful preacher; for he would not know how to sympathise with the weak and afflicted of the flock, or to comfort them under their difficulties with the consolations wherewith he himself, in similar circumstances, had been comforted of God.2

Those who are sent out by God to preach the gospel can be thankful that they have a message which is perfectly suited to the needs of all kinds of sinners – those who are infected by the dreadful evil of sin in all its varied manifestations. The message of the gospel, as presented in Scripture, describes the means devised by God in his infinite wisdom so that fallen human beings may be delivered from both the guilt and the corruption of sin. It is a message that lays those who hear it under further obligation, for it comes from him who has been appointed King over all the earth: they are to listen; they are to receive it as sent to them in infinite kindness; and they are to submit, by faith in Jesus Christ, to the righteousness of God revealed in it.

Those who believe are immediately forgiven all their sins, for the sake of Christ, who suffered the awful consequences of these sins. And through the activity of the Holy Spirit, that dreadful evil – their sin – is being subdued, in a process which will go on until it is finally completed as their soul is being removed from this world to eternal glory. There they will be able to serve God perfectly; they will be able to do his will without coming short in the least degree. And it is one of the most wonderful aspects of the eternal blessedness of heaven that the dreadful evil of sin can find no place there.


  1. All Plumer quotations are from his Commentary on Hebrews, Baker reprint, 1980, pp 421-2.

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      Sin is everywhere around us in a fallen world. We come in contact with it constantly; the media bring some particularly-awful examples of it to our attention again and again. And no matter where we look, in any part of the earth, we will find sin and its terrible consequences staring us in the face. […]

Kenneth D. Macleod is the pastor of a church in Leverburgh on the Isle of Harris. He is the editor of The Free Presbyterian Magazine from the February 2010 issue of which the above editorial has been taken with permission.

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