I am a sinful man


LUKE 5:8.—“When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying: Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

THE occurrence which called forth this at first sight singular request from Peter, is one of the many interesting incidents which throw such a charm over the narratives of the Evangelists. Christ had entered into the fishing boat of his newly called disciple, that, free from the pressure of the people who thronged to hear him, he might teach them those truths which are spirit and life to all who receive them into good and honest hearts. Having ended his discourse, he requested Peter to move his boat into deeper water, farther from the shore, and to “let down his net for a draught.” The disciple complied with the request, more, it would seem, from respect to his Master, than from any expectation of a successful result, for he says: “Master, we have toiled all the night and have taken nothing; nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net.” But that word was the word of “Him by whom all things were made, and without whom was not anything made that was made.”

Though the disciple did not at that moment realize it, yet God Almighty was standing beside him in the little fishing boat—that infinite Being who possesses a mysterious power over all the world of natural as well as spiritual life. Hence the miraculous draught of fishes which followed the obedience of Peter. This wonderful event came unexpectedly upon him. The certainty that he was in the presence of a higher Being than man, then flashed upon him. With this knowledge, a sense of his own sinfulness arose within him, and the spontaneous utterance of his heart was: “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

This is the natural effect of all immediate and startling manifestations of the Deity to fallen man. The flash of lightning produces a twinge of conscience; the roll of thunder makes the guilty tremble. Should God instantaneously rend the heavens and come down, as he will in the day of doom, every eye would see him, and every soul would be conscious of sin. When the same dread Being, by a series of searching and significant questions respecting the wonderful movements and processes in the world of nature, had brought into clear light his own greatness and majesty, Job, the sinful man, answered the Lord and said: “Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer Thee? I will lay my hand upon my mouth.”

Those questions which God put out of the whirlwind: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Hast thou commanded the day-spring to know its place? Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea, or hast thou walked in the search of the depth? Doth the hawk fly by thy wisdom, and stretch her wings towards the south? Doth the eagle mount up at thy command, and make her nest on high?”—these significant questions were, for the patriarch, what this miraculous draught of fishes was for the apostle. And hence the like result in each instance—an abasing sense of sin in the more immediate presence of God.

In that hour when the fingers of a man’s hand came forth and wrote incandescent letters upon the wall of the palace, the countenance of Belshazzar, the guilty Babylonian monarch, was changed, and his thoughts troubled him, so that the joints of his loins were loosed, and his knees smote one against another. (Dan. 5:6.) When Daniel, the man greatly beloved of God, yet not freed from the taint of mortal corruption, saw the vision of the contending empires, and heard the explanatory words of the archangel Gabriel, “he fainted and was sick certain days.” And when he afterwards saw, upon the banks of Hiddekel, One clothed in linen, whose loins were girded with fine gold of Uphaz, his body like the beryl, his face as the appearance of lightning, his eyes as lamps of fire, his arms and his feet like in color to polished brass, and the voice of his words like the voice of a multitude, “there remained no strength in him: for his comeliness was turned into corruption, and he retained no strength.” (Dan. 8:27; 10:8.)

There are various modes in which the Divine character is brought vividly before the mind, and thus the feeling of sinfulness educed. There are many objects which are the occasion of directing attention to the holiness and immaculateness of God, and thus, by contrast, of disclosing the imperfection and pollution of man. Material nature is full of symbols, which are a kind of language by which the soul is told of spiritual truths. “The heavens declare the glory of God.” The clear cerulean sky speaks of God’s purity to the soul that desires and strives to be pure, and sorrowfully feels its corruption. The crimson of the clouds that gather round the rising sun reminded the guilt-smitten and lowly Cowper, of the blood which cleanses and atones:

“Light appears with early dawn
While the sun makes haste to rise;
See His bleeding beauties drawn
On the blushes of the skies.”

But while the manifestation of God in the works of his hands has power to display the Divine excellence, and by contrast, human corruption, the manifestation of God in the flesh, the incarnation of the Deity, has a far greater power. Many a man has had fleeting emotions called up by the former that have produced no abiding effect. Many a man, amidst the glorious or terrible scenes of the material world, has had transient feelings of awe, and perhaps an evanescent sense of ill-desert. But these influences from nature, though when made effective by higher ones they may form a part of the current which bears the spirit back to God, are not the primary and most efficacious influences. It is the view of God manifest in the flesh, alone, which produces a salutary sense of sinfulness.

Christ assures his disciples in his farewell discourse to them, that he will send them the Holy Ghost who will glorify Him; for he should receive of His, and should show Him unto them. (John 16:14.) The Divine Spirit, in this promise, is represented as tributary to Jesus Christ. Through this heavenly teaching, they should obtain a view of the Son of God and the Son of man that would be as palpable for the mind and heart, as his bodily form had been for their senses.

This knowledge of Christ’s person and work is impossible to the natural man. “The world,” that is, the worldly mind, says Christ, “cannot see me, nor know me; but ye see me, for I am in you, and will be with you.” (John 14:17–19.) Let us, then, turn our reflections to some features in this portraiture of the Redeemer by the Holy Ghost, which are fitted to cause the imperfectly sanctified Christian to cry out with the apostle Peter: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

I. In the first place, a view of the character of Jesus Christ awakens the feeling of sinfulness.

It is absolutely perfect. Sanctity both in mind and heart is found at its height in it. Even he who has contemplated it long, and carefully, feels that but little of its fulness and richness has been seen. For Christ is the brightness of the Father’s glory, and the exact image of his person; and therefore cannot be found out to perfection. The character of Jesus is fathomless; and what has been remarked of Christianity by one of the early Roman bishops, may with equal truth be said of the character of its Author:

“It is like the firmament; the more diligently you search it, the more stars will you discover. It is like the ocean; the longer you regard it, the more immeasurable will it appear to you.”

When the characteristic qualities of Christ are distinctly beheld in their holy and spotless beauty by a sinful man, the contrast is felt immediately. The instant that his eye rests upon the sinlessness of Jesus, it turns involuntarily to the sinfulness of himself. He realizes that he is a different man from “the man Christ Jesus;” and that except so far as he is changed by Divine grace, there can be no sympathy and union with him. In this clear light, he is conscious that his is a defiled and polluted nature, and that it is not fit to come in contact with the purity of the Son of God. His own forebodings and fears of judgment have nothing in common with the innocence and serenity of Jesus. He feels that he is not worthy of companionship with so spotless a Being, or to enter that pure world where Christ sitteth at the right hand of the Holy Father, and where all the spirits that surround him are immaculate.

Though he knows that unless he is ultimately a constant companion of the Redeemer, he must be shut out from him, and be “filthy still,” yet the sense of unworthiness thus awakened by contrasting himself with the Saviour prompts him instinctively to say: “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Seeing no spot or wrinkle upon the soul of Christ, and comparing his own spotted and wrinkled soul with it, a sense of amazement rises within him that he should become the temple of the Holy Ghost, and that his unclean spirit should be selected by the Eternal Father and the Eternal Son to make their abode in.

This is a proper and blessed mood for an imperfectly sanctified Christian. It corresponds with the facts of the case. When he obtains this clear view of Christ’s perfections, he becomes truly meek—the most difficult of the graces—and is filled with that penitential lowliness of heart which keeps him at the foot of the cross. How can pride, the essence of sin, dwell in such a spirit? It is excluded. For the believer is absorbed in this view of his immaculate Redeemer, which shames him, yet rouses him to action and imitation. He has “the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit,” because the holy eye of the Master is upon him, and he knows himself to be an unworthy disciple—yet a disciple, and not an enemy of the Lord.

II. Intimately connected, in the second place, with a view of Christ’s character, is that of Christ’s daily life.

When this with its train of holy actions passes before the mind of the believer, it produces a deep sense of indwelling sin. For the everyday life is the unfolding and accent of the character; and the same elements of power that are found in the one appear yet more clearly in the other. That celestial spotlessness in the inmost nature and disposition of Christ, which awakens the consciousness of sin, when reappearing in the daily conduct of Christ produces the same effect. Or rather its effective power is enhanced, inasmuch as it comes into our notice active and working amidst the ordinary relations and circumstances of human life. It was only an internal principle before; it is now an external product, bright and beaming with energy, and displaying itself in the very midst of men and things. The dark root has become a brilliant flower.

Every observer knows the additional force which a moral principle, or attribute, acquires as soon as it takes up its residence in a man, and is shown out in a man’s conduct. What wonderful energy, for example, did the abstract doctrine of justification by faith gain to itself, when it became incarnate in Martin Luther; incorporated into the substantial mass of his feelings and moral wants. The moment that it ceased to be a mere letter upon the page of Scripture, where it had been through all the papal centuries, and became a vivid principle of belief and action in the heart of the reformer, that moment it acquired a power under God to make the falling Church stand up in the pristine vigor of its youth. It became a possessing spirit, as it were, dwelling in Luther’s mighty and passionate nature, and sending though his instrumentality a reforming influence through the Church, and through the world.

Or, to take another instance, let the principle of avarice, the abstract vice, twine itself into the moral nature of a man, and become a concrete working force within him, and how it turns all that he touches into gold; how it transforms the very man himself, so that it issues from him like black rays, and throws an air of miserliness and hard-heartedness over him in all the relations of life.

Now, the attribute of Divine holiness appears in this vivid biographical way, in the daily conduct of Christ. Our Saviour was God with all his attributes manifested in the flesh—a perfect and blameless man, therefore, in all the varied relations of human life; knowing both the weakness and the strength of humanity, yet in all cases without sin. And what a holy phenomenon is his life in the flesh! The human nature which he assumed is transfigured and glorified by this indwelling of Divinity, and becomes its white and glistening raiment.

If, now, we obtain a clear view of Christ’s daily life, and let our own worthless life be seen in its light, we shall feel deeply that we are fallen creatures. When we witness his constant holiness and love, appearing wherever he appears, be it before a friend or an enemy; when we never for an instant see the placid surface of his soul ruffled by passion, but always find spiritual objects mirrored in quiet beauty there; when we notice the absolute control which he possessed over all the energies and impulses of his spirit; how even his most fleeting thoughts were all pure, and even his most evanescent feelings were suffused with the righteous and holy love which was his nature—when we behold all this exhibited in a life among wicked men, and virulent enemies, and amidst strong temptations, are we not painfully reminded of our passionate, impetuous, ungoverned, and sinful life?

If we would but study with humble earnestness the biography of Christ, as detailed in the Gospels, we could not fail of becoming convinced of sin; and as in this way we carried ourselves back to the time when he was upon earth, and placed ourselves within the circle of his influence along with his first disciples, we should, through grace helping us, acquire that constant sense of unworthiness, in comparison with Him, which runs through their narratives. His whole pure life would disclose our corruption; and we should receive a healthful influence from many a slight incident in the Gospel narratives which now escapes our careless eye, even as a healing virtue was once experienced by touching the mere hem of his garment.

In what has thus far been said, it has been assumed that there is remaining sin even in the most spiritual and excellent of Christ’s disciples, and that if fitting objects are presented, the feeling of unworthiness will rise up as naturally as the power of a magnet will exhibit itself when its appropriate eliciting object is brought near it.

But the consciousness of sin takes on two forms, which may be distinguished but not divided from each other.

Only one form—that of a sense of corruption, and of unconformity with the law of God—has been principally in view, in what has thus far been said respecting the character and life of Christ. The other form which the consciousness of sin assumes, is that of a sense of guilt, and of merited exposure to punishment. The feeling which prompts a transgressor to say: “I have disobeyed the law of God, and deserve to suffer for it,” is plainly distinct from the feeling which leads him to say: “I am carnal and corrupt in my propensities, and desire to be made pure and spiritual.”

The reference in the first instance is an external and objective one—namely, to the majesty of God, and the claims of his law. In the last instance, the reference is an internal and subjective one—namely, to the condition and wants of the human heart. The feeling of guilt goes away from self, and terminates upon another Being, even God, the Holy, and the Just. It is, therefore, less liable to be mingled with selfish elements than is the feeling of inward corruption. This latter is blended with a sense of personal unrest and unhappiness, and hence needs to be watched lest it degenerate into a refined selfishness.

The two feelings are clearly distinguishable, although they exist side by side in the soul; and both are equally necessary in order to a complete evangelical experience. The consciousness of culpability, or of crime, is one of the most radical and profound phases of human consciousness; and it can be removed only by the most strange and wonderful of agencies. It is easier to provide for man’s corruption, than for man’s guilt. The Holy Ghost, by a sanctifying agency, can remove the soul’s pollution; but only the substituted passion and agony of incarnate Deity can remove the soul’s guilt. Spiritual influences can purify, but they cannot expiate. Had there not been this crimson tincture of criminality in human depravity, the incarnation and passion of the Second Person in the Godhead would not have been necessary. Had there been no guilt to atone for, the Triune God could have sat in the heavens, and by an inward influence have turned the human heart to righteousness, even as the rivers of water are turned.

It is this guilt-consciousness which gives itself vent in the sacrifices of Heathenism, as well as those of Judaism. It is this emotion, working, it is true, in an obscure, yet in a powerful manner, and filling him with that anxious foreboding of a coming retribution of which St. Paul speaks, that causes the pagan to yearn after a sacrifice of “richer blood” than that of bulls and goats, and makes the blood of Christ so grateful to his anguished spirit, when the missionary says: “Behold the Lamb of God—behold the real and true atonement for sin.” Much as man fears punishment, his moral nature is so constituted that it demands it, in order to its own satisfaction. Man’s heart hates the penalty of sin; but man’s conscience insists upon it. And it opens to us a very solemn view of the final state of a lost soul, when we consider that that very judicial infliction which is the cause of its distress, is felt by itself to be just and necessary under the government of God.

So deeply has the Creator implanted the judicial principle in man, that wherever he may be, it demands, by an instinctive action that is altogether independent of the wishes of the heart, that law and justice take their course, even if he be miserable to all eternity. And it is to provide for this dispassionate and impartial sense of ill-desert, which is so distinct from the sense of corruption and misery, that Christ’s atoning death on the cross is so distinct from the Holy Spirit’s work within the heart. One thing is set over against another, in the plan of Redemption. Christ’s blood expiates my guilt. Christ’s Spirit purifies my corruption.

This sense of sin as related to justice should hold a prominent place in the Christian experience; and in proportion as it is first vividly elicited by the operation of the law, and then is completely pacified by a view of Christ as suffering “the just for the unjust,” will be the depth of our love towards him, and the simplicity and entireness of our trust in him. Those who, like Paul and Luther, have had the clearest perception of the iniquity of sin, and of their own criminality before God, have had the most luminous and constraining view of Christ as the “Lamb of God;” while, at the same time, the life of Christ in the soul, the process of sanctification, has reached its highest degree, and matured the fruits of holiness in their richest bloom. The experience was not one-sided, and thus neither side suffered.

III. Having thus directed attention to the fact that there is such a distinct feeling as guilt, we remark, in the third place, that the contemplation of the sufferings and death of Christ both elicits and pacifies it, in the believer.

Christ’s whole life upon earth was a continuous state of humiliation and suffering, but his last anguish and death are represented as eminently the atoning sacrifice for the sin of the world; inasmuch as at this point the flood of his sorrows reached its height, and gathered and settled upon Calvary, like a tarn of deep and black water in a volcanic crater. Hence a clear view of those scenes in the Garden, and on the Cross, will arrest the believer’s attention, and fix his thoughts upon that particular quality in himself, that specific element in sin, which rendered the agony and death of such a Being necessary.

As he becomes a witness of that mysterious distress under the olive trees—that inward shrinking of One who never shrank before, and who never shrank afterwards—which wrung from him the earnest yet submissive prayer: “O my Father, if it be possible let this cup pass from me;” as he follows him through his trial of mockings and scourgings, and sees the consummation of his Passion upon the cross, and hears the words: “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” betokening greater anguish in the soul than the body was undergoing—as the believer obtains a clear understanding of all these events, he is instinctively prompted by the feeling of personal ill-desert which now rises within him, to say: “The punishment which I deserve was assumed by that innocent God-man. He, then and there, was wounded for my transgression, was bruised for my iniquity.”

He sees in the death of Christ a manifestation of God’s righteous displeasure against sin, and says to himself: “If it was not possible to let that cup pass, and if Eternal Justice could throw no lenitive into the bitter potion which the sinner’s Substitute voluntarily put to his own lips, does not the real criminal himself deserve to ‘drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation?’ ” Absorbed in the contemplation of this great Divine sacrifice for the sin of the world, the feeling that retribution is what a sinner deserves swallows up for the time all others; and the believer stands before the bar of justice taking sides with the law against himself, and heartily confessing that his condemnation is righteous.

Whoever beholds human transgression in the light of the Cross, has no doubts as to the nature and character of the Being nailed to it; and he has no doubts as to his own nature and character. The distinct and intelligent feeling of culpability forbids that he should omit to look at sin in its penal relations, and enables him to understand these relations. The vicarious atonement of Christ is well comprehended because it is precisely what the guilt-smitten conscience craves, in its restlessness and anguish. The believer now has wants which are met in this sacrifice. His moral feelings are all awake, and the fundamental feeling of guilt pervades and tinges them all; until, in genuine contrition, he holds up the Lamb of God in his prayer for mercy, and cries out to the Just One: “This oblation which Thou Thyself hast provided is my propitiation; this atones for my sin.”

Then the expiating blood is applied by the Holy Ghost, and the conscience is filled with the peace of God that passeth all understanding. “Then,” to use the language of Leighton,

“the conscience makes answer to God: ‘Lord, I have found that there is no standing in the judgment before thee, for the soul in itself is overwhelmed with a world of guiltiness; but I find a blood sprinkled upon it that hath, I am sure, virtue enough to purge it all away, and to present it pure unto thee. And I know that wheresoever thou findest that blood sprinkled, thine anger is quenched and appeased immediately upon the sight of it. Thine hand cannot smite when that blood is before thine eye.’ ”

We have thus considered the effect, in awakening a sense of sin, produced by a clear view of the character, life, and death of Christ. But how dim and indistinct is our vision of all this! It should be one of our most distinct and earnest aims, to set a crucified Redeemer visibly before our eyes. “I determined,” said St. Paul, “to know nothing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

There are other aspects of the God-man which we may contemplate in their own time and place; but he is not upon a high and firm evangelic position, who finds it difficult to account for the death of the God-man; who detects in himself the secret query whether there really is anything in the nature of sin, and the character of God, that renders it rational and necessary. For, such doubt and querying originate in a defective knowledge of sin. Only bring out into vividness the consciousness of guilt; only fill the soul with a sense of utter ill-desert, and there will be the uplifting of the despairing eye to that central Cross, and the simple looking will be the explanation of the mystery, as it stills the throbbing conscience. This accounts for the immediateness with which Christ on the Cross is beheld, if beheld at all; and the reason why he cannot be seen by indirection, and roundabout. Like a flash of light; like an explosion of sound; the peace of God takes the place of remorse, when guilt and atonement come together in the personal experience.

It is our duty, and our wisdom, to cultivate a purer and more spiritual conviction of sin, that we may feel that spiritual hunger, and that spiritual thirst, which makes Christ’s atonement vital to the soul. His own words are: “Except ye eat my flesh and drink my blood, ye have no life in you.” But how can the full-fed and self-satiated be famine-struck? How can the self-indulgent and luxurious know anything of burning thirst? How can torpid sin feel guilt? We need to experience the keen incisive force of God’s truth, and God’s law, cutting into our proud flesh, and by its probing preparing us for the balsam and the balm.

Let us, then, lift up our hearts, and seek this preparation for the sprinkling of the blood of expiation. Let us by every means in our power—by prayer, by self-examination, and by absorbing meditation upon Christ’s character, daily life, and last sufferings—awaken a pure and poignant sense of unworthiness and ill-desert, so that when we give utterance to it in the words of Peter: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord,” the Lord himself shall say to us: “Be of good cheer, thy sins are forgiven thee.”

William G. T. Shedd, Sermons to the Spiritual Man, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1884), 241–255.

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