Sermon I. First Sunday in Lent.
Of the Nature of Sin: As to its Personality.
WHAT is Sin? My Brethren, what is Sin?
These few words ask a Question, which it requires many words to answer. They ask a Question which needs an answer of some sort. They ask a Question which must be answered at some time, and in some way: a Question which it were better for us to consider now, willingly, than to consider, against our will, hereafter. For they suggest an inquiry, which may be discussed in this life, but which must be entertained in the next. We are permitted to find an explanation of the Mystery of Sin to-day, we shall be obliged to [1/2] furnish it at the Day of Judgment. And an answer to the Question, 'What is Sin?' will to some extent involve an examination into the Nature and consequences of Sin, as it concerns man--Who is the Author of it, and how his influence is exerted; The effect of Sin, and how its effects are counteracted; By what agency Sin may be taken away, and how Holiness of life may afterwards be cultivated.
The form in which this Question is made, and the manner in which it is purposed to answer it, is suggestive of the fact, that Sin has some actual existence, that Sin is some absolute and positive thing. It points to the truth, that Sin is something without ourselves, something independent of ourselves. For, if Sin be not external to, and apart from ourselves, if it be nothing more than a sentiment or a feeling within ourselves, it would be more difficult than it is to find an answer, at once true, and satisfactory, or even intelligible. None could analyze the elements of such sentiment, none could define the effect of such feeling, for any other than himself. The man who is the victim of it may assert that the feeling is weak or powerful, keen or blunt, lasting or transient. He may compare the sentiment to any other inward sensation, and declare it to be more or less peaceful or painful, more or less a matter of indifference, or a cause [2/3] of care. But, he can only speak for himself. And after all that can be said, a feeling or a sentiment admits only of a comparative statement. There is nothing positive, or definite in the matter.
If Sin be only an inner consciousness of evil; only a realization to oneself of that which is not holy, not honest, not pure, not good; only a subjective assent to being out of harmony with GOD'S Will, to restore the balance of which a mere mental inclination the other way will suffice--no single explanation of the Mystery of Sin will meet the difficulties or temptations, or will explain the falls and risings again of more than a single mind. The experience of any Soul which possesses a knowledge of itself, will at once confirm this statement. But if, in its nature, Sin be something actual and positive; if Sin be something absolute and definite, the case is very different. If Sin be something without and beyond ourselves, something above and below ourselves; if it may be estimated, though not measured, and localized, though not felt; if it be at once the cause and effect, the source and fount of Supernatural influence and Spiritual agencies: in short, if Sin be an objective entity, instead of a subjective negation, we may hope so far to look into its complex nature, as to be able, with some chance of success, to lead home to the consciences of all, thoughts which may serve [3/4] as an answer to that Question of exceeding difficulty--'What is Sin?'
Before, however, I endeavour to state what may enable you to answer this Question for yourselves, I wish to say a few words on the general subject, of which the answer will form a portion. It has become my duty to speak to you from this place, in this Office, at this season of Lent. Of course, I shall speak to you on the Holy Gospel for the Day; and I have been desired to do so shortly. To this end, what GOD shall enable me to say will take the form of suggestion, rather than the manner of direct teaching. Under such circumstances, it is better to discuss a few points with some fulness, than many superficially. I have therefore made a selection, out of the wide subject of Sin, of a single point for each Sunday's meditation; and it will tend, perhaps, to give method and unity to the whole plan, if I concisely state what these points may be. They are as follows:--
I. The Nature of Sin, what Sin actually is, demands our attention this morning.
II. The objective existence of Sin within the Soul of man; an existence difficult to define, though well known by its effect, which we call 'Guilt.' This will be considered next Sunday.
III. On the third Sunday in Lent, the means [4/5] which GOD has provided, in order to counteract the effect of Sin, in the 'Sacramental System' of the Church Catholic, may be discussed.
IV. Admitting, generally, the presence of Sin within the Soul, it will be well, in the next place, to ascertain what special Sins may harbour there; and this knowledge is discovered by the aid of Self-Examination.
V. Having found out what Sins have taken refuge in our Souls, the method of expelling such Sins by Confession--for Confession of Sin naturally succeeds to Examination of Conscience--will be noticed.
VI. And lastly, after having unburdened our consciences in the Sacrament of Absolution, we shall be at liberty to consider, How "we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life"--ad majorem Dei Gloriam--"to the Glory of God's holy Name."
The subject for our consideration this morning is the Nature of Sin. And here it may be remarked, at the outset, how difficult it is to avoid using the single term 'Sin' in two different ways, as both the cause and effect of certain spiritual realities. Bearing this in mind, it will be well to state that the special point in the Nature of Sin to which I desire to lead your thoughts is, its [5/6] Personality. The Gospel for to-day teaches us this important lesson, that the Evil One is a Person:--"Then was JESUS led up into the Wilderness, to be tempted of the Devil." In support of this cardinal fact in the Nature of Sin, I need not go beyond the bounds of this portion of Holy Scripture. It is more than sufficient for our purpose. Indeed, how any one, taking even the mere letter of the Bible, independent of the teaching of the Church, could arrive at any other conclusion, it is not easy to imagine. And yet, such ingenious perversion of the Sacred Text, as would idealize the objective personality of the Tempter into the subjective mental consciousness of the tempted, is not without example. Many persons, indeed, adopt this strange opinion. Perhaps the latest Writer on the subject, whose words are well known to some of us, may fitly be taken as the popular exponent of this view. "What is called," says this able and talented Author, and I beg you to notice the delicate shade of contempt he seeks to cast over the historical and traditional account--"What is called the Temptation of CHRIST, is the excitement of His Mind, caused by nascent consciousness of Supernatural Power."
Now, I venture to ask any candid student of the Bible--not one, mark you, my Brethren, who believes that Holy Scripture not only contains, but is the Word of God--but any honest dis-believer in [6/7] Inspiration--whether or not this statement at all exhausts S. Matthew's account, as an historical document, of the Temptation of our Divine LORD? The words of the Gospel for to-day contain an emphatic denial of this Latitudinarian explanation. From one end of the statement to the other, a Person and a Person only--a Spiritual being if you will, an Angelic organism if you please--but still a Person it is, who stands in the awful position of Tempter to the LORD GOD Almighty. To explain away the external agencies at work, by any appeal to inward consciousness, is simply to do violence to the plain meaning of terms, and the easiest deductions from them. For the chief actor in this mysterious scene is a Person endowed with many qualities, faculties, and powers. It is a Person gifted with imagination, to conceive Who He was, Whom he ventured to tempt. It is a Person energized with a will, to compass the fall into Sin of the Sinless One. It is a Person created with a memory to call to mind, with an understanding to argue upon, and with an intellect to misapply the words of Inspiration. It is a Person, again, with a capacity for motion, and for causing motion in another. It is a Person in possession of Superhuman power over time and space--aye, and, to a certain extent, over the Author of both space and time. And lastly, it is a Person endued with a [7/8] nature to a certain extent similar to, if not identical with, that of our sensitive organization--I mean, in the pos ession of the sense of touch, or of sight, or of hearing; without the aid of which, it is hard to account for his intimate acquaintance with the contents of the Sacred Volume.
My Brethren, these facts lie on the surface of the Gospel for to-day. I cannot doubt your assent to them. For, I cannot believe that any Catholic could hold to the theory that one who is depicted as possessing a sensitive constitution, the power of motion, an intellect, an imagination, a will, and other individual qualities, can be fairly set forth as a mere subjective influence; or that his work can be explained away, as an excitement of the inner consciousness. It is a Person and a Person only, I repeat, by whom our Blessed LORD, after fasting forty days and forty nights, was tempted in the Wilderness.
Now, my Brethren, how does this fact bear upon the Question before us? It affects the Question intimately. For, in considering the Nature of Sin, so far as it concerns ourselves, it is of the first importance to decide--Who is the author of it? And I think we may assume, that the author of Sin is a Person. This truth being admitted, we may now distinguish between the personal author, and [8/9] the influence exercised. And here we come in contact with a principle which continually meets us in Theology, namely, this:--That in any given dogma, there is a higher and a lower truth, either of which is incomplete without the other, and both of which must be held to compass, in this particular instance, the Catholic Faith. To hold either portion alone, is to believe a half-truth: and to believe a half-truth, in Religion, is ever full of danger. To accept the lower, and deny the higher truth must be heresy: to believe the higher, and decline the lower may be so. For instance:--Take the very analogous case to the one before us, that Article of the Creed which we say every day of our lives--"I believe in the HOLY GHOST." In this Article of faith are two co-ordinate truths, a higher and a lower. We believe in God the Holy Giiost as a Person: this is the higher truth. And after we believe in Him as a Person--and not before--we then believe in Him as an Influence: and this is the lower truth. It is pure infidelity to hold to His Influence apart from His Divine Personality; and it is little short of unbelief to believe in His Person, and, if that be possible, to deny the Operation of the HOLY GHOST. And so, in the case of the Enemy of Souls, it is at once unhistoric and anti-Christian to admit the influence of Satan, and to ignore his individual personality.
 Sin, then, my Brethren, in relation to ourselves, is both the presence of a Person within the Soul, and the influence of a Person upon the Soul of Man. Both these aspects of Sin must be held, if we would understand the agency by which the Evil One offers, if we would learn to conquer, his temptations. The higher truth is the objective reality of the personality of the Tempter: the lower truth is the subjective consciousness of his influence. If we accept the higher, we are at liberty to speak of the lower as a theory or a 'view' of Sin. But it is absolutely false, and it cannot be too earnestly and too lovingly urged upon you, my Brethren, to hold merely the influence of the Arch-enemy, whilst we deny his undoubted personality.
Having thus found a definition of Sin which will, I think, serve our present purpose, let me say a few words on its twofold aspect--on the agent and his work--the presence of Sin in the Soul and its influence. How the personal presence of Sin exists, we cannot tell. How the personal influence of Satan acts, we do not know. Of its existence, we are assured; of the mode and manner of its action, we are ignorant. But we do know, that our Divine Master was tempted in all points, like as we are, yet without Sin. We are not ignorant, that He was placed under the influence of temptation, yet [10/11] fell not; for, never forget it, Brethren, He was ONE Who could not fall. From this we learn the blessed truth, that we in Him, as our Representative and Pattern MAN, and He in us, as our Incarnate and Divine Lord, we too, after His example, may fall under, yet not fall into temptation. The Temptation of our Master is identical in substance, is one in form, is the same in reality, with that which tempts His servants. In the threefold manner in which we are tempted, was He tempted. The World, the Flesh, the Devil, combined to tempt our Blessed LORD. They tempt us still. But after the example, by the power, in the Person of the SON of God, we may escape, as He issued from temptation, without a spot or a stain of Sin.
And if we turn from the work to the worker, from the temptation to the Tempter, what may we learn from the teaching of the Holy Gospel for the Day? We may, I think, learn this--Amongst other specialities of the Catholic Faith, it is one, that our Creed is a personal Religion, set forth by a Personal DEITY, by personal agents, upon personal beings. Hence, it follows, that to the personal influence of Satan we can only oppose the Personal Influence of the SON of GOD. But more than this. It is an axiomatic truth in Science, that two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time. It [11/12] is equally axiomatic in Faith, that two Persons cannot hold possession, at the same time, of the same immortal Soul. We all admit, that no influence of evil can overcome a personal Union with the GOD-HEAD, so long as such Union is complete. Let us not imagine, on the other hand, that any mere influences for good, any mere yearnings after holiness, any mere aspirations after the beautiful, the just, and the true, any mere inward feeling or sentimental self-consciousness, can have the slightest effect against the personal action and the personal presence of the great Enemy of Souls.
No! dear Brethren: no! We must look without ourselves, we must search beyond ourselves, we must ascend above ourselves, if we would gain the mastery. The Gospel for to-day teaches us that Sin is the personal influence of a personal agent. We can only counteract one influence by Another; we can only oppose one person by Another. Of ourselves, we can do nothing: and yet, of ourselves we can do all. Though absolute free-agents, and in possession of perfect free-will, we can only be successful when we employ an Influence not our own, when we seek a Person other than ourselves. And when such Influence is ours, and such Personality is on our side, we cannot be overcome. But there is no third course to be pursued. We are not our own. We are Another's. We may [12/13] indeed exchange the Service of God for the slavery of Sin: but to one of the two we must submit; there is but one alternative. If the influence of Sin be conquered, it can only give way to the Influence of Holiness. If the personality of evil be ejected from our hearts, the Personality of Good must take its place. The immortal Soul which has banished Satan, must be fulfilled with JESUS/
The means by which the influence of Sin upon, and the personality of Sin within our hearts may be dealt with, please God, will be discussed hereafter. The effect of Sin, in its Guilt; the antidote to Sin, in the Sacraments; the searching out of Sin, by Self-examination; the purging away of Sin, by Absolution; and the after penitential Life of Sanctity, will be considered at a future time. But the time is always present when we may seek for, when we may secure the Power by which alone we can hope to conquer. Day by day, in this Church at least, morning after morning, the Divine Influence we need may be obtained, the Divine Person we long for may be found. The chamber of the heart need only be made meet for the Presence of its Lord: the Soul need only be made fit for the God Who made it. All else must be left to Him. He "will bring it to pass;" and He will do for us "more than either we can ask or think." [13/14] Within a little while, and this stupendous Wonder will be wrought, this untold Blessing may be obtained. Within a little while, and the Sacrifice for Sin in the New Law, continually offered before the Eternal FATHER in Heaven, will be re-presented here on earth; and the Atonement for Sin, once made on Calvary, will be pleaded anew within this Sanctuary. Within a little while, and this Church will be filled with the Glory of His Majesty; and as the smoke of the sweet-smelling Incense ascends on high, JESUS, God and Man, upon His Altar-Throne, will tabernacle amongst men, Present under the humble Forms of Bread and Wine.
Do I speak to fellow-Christians, Church-men and women, Brother and Sister Catholics? Early in the morning of the Lord's Own Day, you, dear Brethren, will have received, with bodily frame subdued by fasting, with Soul purified from Sin, the Lord's Own Body and His most Precious BLOOD. Having thus done that which in you lay to banish Satan from your heart, and having done every thing in your power to welcome to your Soul her Spouse Divine, do this yet more. After the sacred Words of Consecration have been uttered by the Priest; after the Words of Institution have been listened to, by each one present, with devotion befitting one of the most sacred moments of your [14/15] lives, adore, aye, adore your God, Present upon His Altar, and worship Him, Oh, "worship Him with holy Worship." And after you have adored, after you have worshipped, then, "let your supplications be made known unto GOD." Join your prayers with mine, that we together may obtain further insight into the Mystery of Iniquity, into the Reality of Sin. Pray for yourselves, and pray for me: for yourselves, a heart to hearken; for me, words to speak. And pray for us all, that we may not only believe in the personality of the Tempter, and in the effects of his influence; but also, that we may counteract his power by Union with the Sinless Manhood of the Son of GOD, and may keep our Souls free from his presence, by the Eucharistic Indwelling of the Person of our ever Blessed Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Now, to God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be ascribed all Glory, for ever and for evermore. Amen.