By Pastor Charlie Parish
“The very animals whose smell is most offensive to us have no idea that they are offensive, and are not offensive to one another. And man, fallen man, I believe can have no idea what a vile thing sin is in the sight of that God whose handy work is absolutely perfect.” -J.C. Ryle
The first chapter of J.C. Ryle’s book ‘Holiness’ is simply entitled ‘Sin.’ The first chapter of any book sets the tone for everything that follows. It is in reading the first chapter of a book that usually, a person can begin to gage whether or not it will hold their attention to the very end. After reading this initial first chapter, there is no doubt that I was sucked in. I was captivated by every word. Not at all because it elevated me or puffed me up in any way. Quite the opposite. This first chapter on sin broke me. Literally. Ryle’s word did not build me up and tell me how special I am to God. Rather, it pointed out what a wretched sinner I am, even within my own moral standards.
However, Ryle is not attempting to flatter the reader. It is painfully apparent that this chapter on sin had to be the first chapter. The reality of the depravity of man is the foundation to which the Gospel is built upon. I will go so far to say that if a man does not see himself a wretch before God, then he is not capable of understanding the grace of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A man must first be broken by the true image of his sinful flesh before he can be saved. The Psalmist plainly says this.
“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Psalm 51:17.
The quote I listed at the top of this page was alarming as well as enlightening. It caused me to pause, and it scraped away many blinders that were hiding my own idols from my conscience. Ryle relates to the reader in the most elementary of examples. Consider an animal, like a skunk. A skunk does not know that he stinks. He is not offended by his own oder. Because he has grown used to the smell. The skunk is nose blind to his own stench. Even other skunks who it interacts with will not be offended. Because they have the same foul oder themselves, and are cannot detect any offense.
I heard it once explained in terms of the fish in the water. A fish who has lived and swam in water all of its life has no idea that it is wet. Because being wet in the water is all that it has ever know. Being wet defines its whole existence. But take that fish out of water and immediately it is aware that something has changed. The fish longs to be in the water again. It cannot appreciate the air, because by nature it loves the water. This fish cannot transform itself into a creature that will breath air. In order for the fish to begin to distain the water and love the air, its only hope is to be made into a new creation.
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” John 3:19.
Much like the fish, we swim in a world marred by sin daily. Like the skunk, we co exist with other sinners on a constant basis. And we grow ignorant to the fact that we are wet with sin. We forget that in our natural state, even with all of our morality and good works, we are an offensive oder before God. By our sinful nature, we are lovers of darkness. We love the lusts of the world. It is only when we are taken out of the fish bowl, which is our own self centered world view, and gaze upon the holiness of God…only then can we begin to grasp our sinful state and the depths of the grace of God? Why is this?
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” Ephesians 2:1-3.
By nature, due to the fall of Adam and our inherited sin, we are children of wrath. Which means that apart from Jesus Christ, even the most moral and upright man who would do nothing but good deeds is an anathema before God.
“We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags.” Isaiah 64:6.
We have no hope. Like the fish, we cannot make ourselves by our own will into a new creation. We cannot willingly transform ourselves from our natural state of being lovers of darkness into people that now desire the light. Salvation is not merely a choice that must be made. Its a supernatural transforming miracle that only God can perform. Our only hope is Jesus Christ.
Ryle’s driving point is that we are blind to our sins. We are deadened to noticing our idols. The apostle Paul in Galatians points out the extreme distain God has for even the smallest of sins (Galatians 3:10). That if we were only to break one of God’s laws, that alone would be enough to condemn us to Hell. Just one lie. Just one lustful thought. Just one hateful word spoken. In the court room of our Holy God, these trespasses warrant one ruling. Death.
“But those who depend on the law to make them right with God are under his curse, for the Scriptures say, “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the commands that are written in God’s Book of the Law.”So it is clear that no one can be made right with God by trying to keep the law. For the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.” Galatians 3:10-11.
In the verses above, Paul states that those who depend on the law for their salvation are under a curse. Basically saying that those who think that they are made right with God by trying to be a good person, or by doing good deeds commanded by the law of God are under a curse. Why is this? Paul goes on to say that cursed is everyone who does not obey ALL of God’s commands. So again, just one sin, just one violation of God’s law places us under a curse. So what does a cursed man deserve?
“But Christ has rescued us from the curse pronounced by the law. When he was hung on the cross, he took upon himself the curse for our wrongdoing. For it is written in the Scriptures, “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” Galatians 3:13.
Everyone who is cursed, (that would be all of humanity), deserves to hang on a tree. This is to be one deserving of crucifixion and death. The Word of God declares our condemnation. If God were to reserve mercy and send everyone into eternal Hell, He would still be just and righteous and fair in His decision. But in the verse above, Paul writes that Christ has rescued us from the curse of the law by taking our curse upon Himself.
Ryle goes on to say that separation from the world seems to be lessening more and more as time goes on. It is scary to view the lives of many professing Christians and to watch how closely they run towards the ways of the world. It is appalling how they will quickly laugh off and justify sins in their lives. And in not realizing the dire straights of their own soul, the prove that they know not God. At least not the God of the Bible. They have molded a God of their own image. They have treated the scriptures like a buffet, choosing to pay attention to verses about the love of God, and the forgiveness of God, but bypassing those passages which speak to the depravity of man, the holiness of God, and the wrath of God.
Sin, as Ryle said, is a disease that penetrates us to the very bone. We are terminal. We are the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37, incapable of breathing new life or deciding to put ourselves back together. The only way a dead sinner is capable of moving towards God is when God brings those dead bones to new life. This new creation of a man then is not made to follow God as a robot. But now in his new sanctified state, he now desires to follow the Lord. The realization of the depths of our sin should break our hearts and cause us to fall to our knees in repentance. But then, and only then, we rise to our feet with a true heart of thankfulness as one who can now say as Isaiah, “Here I am Lord, send me.” The knowledge of sin is necessary in order to rightly gaze upon the holiness of God.