Undue laxity or undue severity...

Human Views of Sin

Frederick W. Robertson: It would be a blessed thing for our Christian society if we could contemplate sin from the same point of view from which Christ and his apostles saw it. But in this matter society is ever oscillating between two extremes - undue laxity and undue severity.

In one age of the church, the days of Donatism, for instance, men refuse the grace of repentance to those who have erred: holding that baptismal privileges once forfeited can not be got back; that for a single distinct lapse there is no restoration.

In another age, the church, having found out its error and discovered the danger of setting up an impossible standard, begins to confer periodical absolutions and plenary indulgences, until sin, easily forgiven, is as easily committed.

And so too with societies and legislatures. In one period Puritanism is dominant and morals severe. There are no small faults. The statute book is defiled with the red mark of blood, set opposite innumerable misdemeanors. In an age still earlier the destruction of a wild animal is punished like the murder of a man. Then in another period we have such a medley of sentiments and sickliness that we have lost all our bearings, and cannot tell what is vice and what is goodness. Charity and toleration degenerate into that feeble dreaminess which refuses to be roused by stern views of life.

This contrast, too, may exist in the same age, nay, in the same individual. One man gifted with talent, or privileged by rank, outrages all decency: the world smiles, calls it eccentricity, forgives, and is very merciful and tolerant. Then someone unshielded by these advantages, endorsed neither by wealth nor birth, sins - not to one-tenth, nor one-ten-thousandth part of the same extent: society is seized with a virtuous indignation, rises up in wrath, asks what is to become of the morals of the community if these things are committed, and protects its proprieties by a rigorous exclusion of the offender, cutting off the bridge behind him against his return forever.

Now the divine character of the New Testament is shown in nothing more signally than in the stable ground from which it views this matter, in comparison with the shifting and uncertain standing-point from whence the world sees it. It says, never retracting nor bating, "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). It speaks sternly, with no weak sentiment, "sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee" (John 5:14). But then it accepts every excuse, admits every palliation: looks upon this world of temptation and these frail human hearts of ours, not from the cell of a monk or the study of a recluse, but in a large, real way; accepts the existence of sin as a fact, without affecting to be shocked or startled; assumes that it must needs be that offenses come, and deals with them in a large noble way, as the results of a disease which must be met - which should be, and which can be, cured.

From a sermon entitled "The Restoration of the Erring" by Frederick William Robertson (1816-1853), Brighton, England, July 27, 1851

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