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"It is impossible but that offences come; but woe unto him through whom they come!"-Luke xvii. 1.
AN "offence" as used in this passage, is an occasion of falling into sin. It is anything which causes another to sin and fall.
It is plain that the author of the offence is in this passage conceived of as voluntary and as sinful in his act; else the woe of God would not be denounced upon him.
Consequently the passage assumes that this sin is in some sense necessary and unavoidable. What is true of this sin in this respect is true of all other sin. Indeed any sin may become an offence in the sense of a temptation to others to sin, and therefore its necessity and unavoidableness would then be affirmed by this text.
The doctrine of this text, therefore, is that sin, under the government of God, can not be prevented. I purpose to examine this doctrine; to show that, nevertheless, sin is utterly inexcusable as to the sinner; then answer some objections, and conclude with remarks.
1. When we say it is impossible to prevent sin under the government of God, the statement still calls for another inquiry, viz.: Where does this impossibility lie? Is it on the part of the sinner, or on the part of God? Which is true; that the sinner can not possibly forbear to sin, or that God can not prevent his sinning?
The first supposition answers itself, for it could not be sin if it were utterly unavoidable. It might be his misfortune; but nothing could be more unjust than to impute it to him as his crime.
But we shall better understand where this impossibility does and must lie, if we first recall to mind some of the elementary principles of God's government.
Let us, then, consider that God's government over men is moral, and known to be such by every intelligent being. By the term moral, I mean that it governs by motives, and does not move by physical force. It adapts itself to mind, not to matter. It contemplates mind as having intellect to understand truth, sensibility to appreciate its bearing upon happiness, conscience to judge of the right, and a will to determine a course of voluntary action in view of God's claims, So God governs mind. Not so does He govern matter. The planetary worlds are controlled by quite a different sort of agency. God does not move them in their orbits by motives, but by a physical agency.
I said, all men know this government to be moral by their own consciousness. When its precepts and its penalties come before their minds, they are conscious that an appeal is made to their voluntary powers. They are never conscious of any physical agency coercing obedience.
God's government implies in man the power to will, or not to will; to will right, or to will wrong: to choose or to refuse the great good which Jehovah promises. It also implies intelligence. The beings to whom law is addressed are capable of understanding it. They have also, as I have said, a conscience, by which they can appreciate and must affirm its obligations.
You need to distinguish broadly between the influence of motive on mind and of mechanical force upon matter. The former implies voluntariness; the latter does not. The former is adapted to mind and has no adaptation to matter the latter equally is adapted to matter, but has no possible application to mind. In God's government over the human mind, all is voluntary; nothing is coerced as by physical force. Indeed, it is impossible that physical force should directly influence mind. Compulsion is precluded by the very nature of moral agency. Where compulsion begins, moral agency ends. If it were possible for God to force the will as He forces the moon along in her orbit, to do so would subvert the very idea of a moral government. Neither praise nor blame could attach to any actions of beings, so moved. Persuasion, brought to bear upon mind, is always such in its nature that it can be resisted. By the very nature of the case, God's creatures must have power to resist any amount of even His persuasion. There can be no power in heaven or earth to coerce the will, as matter is coerced. The nature of mind forbids its possibility. And if it were possible, it would still be true that in just so far as God should coerce the human will, He would cease to govern morally.
God is infinitely wise. Men can no more doubt this than they can doubt their own existence. He has infinite knowledge. He knows everything i.e., all objects of knowledge; and knows them all perfectly. He is also infinitely good, If is will being always conformed to His perfect knowledge and always controlled by infinite benevolence.
His infinite goodness implies that He does the best He can, always, and everywhere. In no instance does He ever fail to do the very best He can do, so that He can appeal to every creature and say -- What more can I do to prevent sin than I am doing! Indeed, He does so appeal to every intelligent mind. He made this appeal through Isaiah to the ancient Jews, "And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem, and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard. What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it?"
Every moral agent in the universe knows that God has done the best He could do in regard to sin. Do not you know this, each one of you? Certainly you do. He Himself, in all His infinite wisdom, could not suggest a better course than that which He has taken. Men know this truth so well, they never can know it better. You may at some future day realize it more fully when you shall come to see its millions of illustrations drawn out before your eyes; but no demonstration can make its proof more perfect than it is to your own minds today.
Now sin does, in fact, exist under God's government. For this sin, God either is or is not to blame. Every man knows that God is not to blame for this sin, for man's own nature affirms that He would prevent it if He wisely could. Certainly if He was able wisely to prevent sin in any case where it actually occurs, then not to do so nullifies all our conceptions of His goodness and wisdom. He would be the greatest sinner in the universe if, with power and wisdom adequate to the prevention of sin, He had failed to prevent it.
Let me here note, also, that what God can not do wisely, He can not (speaking morally) do at all. For He can not act unwisely. He can not do things which wisdom forbids. To do so would be to undeify Himself. The supposition would make Him cease to be perfect, and this were equivalent to ceasing to be God.
Or thus: If He were to interpose unwisely to prevent a sinner from sinning, He would sin Himself. I speak now of each instance in which God does not, in fact, interpose to prevent sin. In any of these cases, if He were to interpose unwisely to prevent sin, He would prevent a man from sinning at the expense of sinning Himself. Here, then, is the case. A sinner is about to fall before temptation, or in more correct language, is about to rush into some new sin. God cannot wisely prevent his doing so. Now what shall be done? Shall He let that sinner rush on to his chosen sin and self-wrought ruin; or shall He step forward, unwisely, sin Himself, and incur all the frightful consequences of such a step? He lets the sinner bear his own responsibility. Why should not He? Who would wish to have God sin?
And this is not conjecture, but is logical certainly. No truth can be more irresistibly and necessarily certain than this. I once heard a minister say in a sermon, "It is not irrational to suppose that in each case of sin, it occurs as it does because God can not prevent it." After he retired from the pulpit, I said to him -- Why did you leave the matter so? You left your hearers to infer that perhaps it might be in some other way; that this was only a possible theory, yet that some other theory was perhaps even more probable. Why did you not say, This theory is certain and must necessarily be true?
Thus the impossibility of preventing sin lies not in the sinner, but wholly with God. Sin, it should be remembered, is nothing else than an act of free will, always committed against one's conviction of right. Indeed, if a man did not know that selfishness is sin, it would not be sin in his case.