1 CORINTHIANS 15:56.—“The strength of sin is the law.”
ANY man who thinks or feels at all about the sin that is in him, knows that it is strong; and, also, that it is the strongest principle within him. His will is adequate for all the other undertakings that come up before him in life, but it fails the moment it attempts to conquer and subdue itself. He rules other men, but he does not rule himself; and, in more senses than one, “he that is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.”
The experience of the Christian, likewise, demonstrates that sin is the most powerful antagonist that man has to contend with. That great struggle through which the believer passes, in order to be freed from the bondage of corruption, summons the strongest energies of the soul, and stretches the cords of the inner man to their utmost tension. Nay, more, this heat and stress of the Christian race and fight evinces that man must be “strong in the Lord,” in order to overcome sin. “The power of God’s might” must descend and dwell in the human soul, or else it will sink in the struggle. And when the finite spirit is endued with this power from on high; when it is laden, as it were, with the omnipotence of God; how does it tremble and reel under the burden.
When the human soul is pervaded by the presence of its Maker, in the hour of searching convictions, and especially of severe struggle with long-indulged habits of sin, how does it stagger to and fro like a drunken man. Were it not that the influences of the Divine Spirit, while they press the soul down, at the same time hold it up, and prevent it from being utterly cast down, the frail creature would not be able to endure such a strain. If the man were all permeated by a power that convicts but does not renovate; that wakens a sense of guilt, but does not apply the atoning blood; that sets the whole inward being into commotion, but does not tranquillize it with the sense and assurance of forgiveness and love; like the person in the Gospel possessed with a dumb spirit, he would be “torn, and be as one dead.” Nay, he would be dead with that death of the spirit which is a vitality of anguish. These pangs and throes, attending that process which our Lord denominates a “birth” of the soul, show how stubborn and inveterate is the sin which it subdues and eradicates.
What is the cause of this mighty strength of sin?
The apostle in the text asserts, somewhat remarkably, that it is the law of God. “The strength of sin is the law.”
By the law is meant the sum of all that a rational being ought to do, under all circumstances, and at all times. It is equivalent to duty—using this term to denote the collective body or mass, if we may so say, of all the requirements of conscience upon a man. It includes all that is implied in the word right, and excludes all that we mean by wrong. At first sight, it appears passing strange that a law of this description should, in any sense, be said to be the strength of sin. Yet such is the explicit assertion of an inspired apostle. And elsewhere the same apostle seems to vilify the ten commandments. He tells us that “when the commandment came, sin revived;” and that “sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived him, and wrought in him all manner of concupiscence.” (Rom. 7:8, 9, 11.)
We cannot understand these statements, unless we take into view the difference in the relation which a holy and a sinful being, respectively, sustains to the moral law. The assertion in the text is only a relative one. St. Paul does not lay down an absolute and universal proposition. He means that the pure and holy law of God is the strength of sin for a sinner. For the saint, on the contrary, it is the strength of holiness; and had the apostle been speaking of the holy, he would have said this. The law is identically the same thing in both cases, and therefore the difference in its effects must be attributed to the different attitude which the natural and the spiritual man, respectively, holds toward it. In the instance of the holy being, the law of righteousness is an inward and actuating principle. It is his own loved and chosen law, and he obeys it because it is one with his inclination, and he would not do otherwise.
But for a sinful being, the law of God is only an outward rule, and not an inward principle. Law does not work sweetly and pleasantly within the sinner, but stands stern and severe outside of, and over him, commanding and threatening. The moral law is not internal and spontaneous to the natural man. If he attempts to obey it, he does so from fear, or self-interest, and not from the love of it. It is not his own chosen law in which he delights, but a hated statute, to which his heart and inclination are in deadly opposition. The “law of sin” is the sole inward principle that rules him, and his service of sin is spontaneous and willing. In short, the law of righteousness is the strength of sin for the sinner, because it is extraneous, and hostile, to his will and affections. It is written upon his conscience, but not written into his heart.
God’s law and the human conscience are one and harmonious; but God’s law and the human will are diverse and antagonistic. Hence the Scriptures describe regeneration as the inwardizing of the moral law. “This shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel: After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jer. 31:33.) According to this description, to regenerate a man is to make the law of God internal, impulsive, and spontaneous, where before it has been external, compulsory, and threatening; it is to convert duty into inclination, so that the man shall know no difference between the commands of God and the desires of his own heart.
Before proceeding to unfold and illustrate the truth taught in the text, let us notice the fact, that the two principles, or in St. Paul’s phrase “laws,” of holiness and sin, which operate in the moral world, in order to have efficiency must be within the heart and will. If the law of righteousness, for example, does not abide and work in the inclination and affections of a man, the mere fact that it is inlaid in his conscience will not secure obedience. The ten commandments may be cut into the hard, unyielding stone of the moral sense, but unless they are also written in the soft, fleshy tablet of the heart, they will be inoperative, except in the form of conviction and condemnation. The moral law must be “in the members,” in St. Paul’s phrase—that is, it must be wrought into the feelings and disposition of the person—before it can be effectual and productive.
The laws or principles of holiness and sin may fitly be compared with the great fruitful laws that work and weave in the world of nature. All these laws are internal. They start from within, and work outward. They permeate and pervade, and not merely affix and attach themselves to, the products of nature. The principle of life in the tree is not dropped down upon the tree like dew from without, but rises up from within it like an exhalation. How wonderfully productive and mighty, because internal, are the movements of the law of vegetable life, which carpets with bright flowers the meadows of half a continent, and sends the sap through every twig of every tree in its vast forests. This law lives, and develops itself, within these productions.
All this holds true of the mental world, equally with the physical. In the upper blessed realm of heaven, the law of holiness works as an inward and spontaneous force in every one of its inhabitants. Issuing from the infinite and glorious Fountain of purity, it takes its course through all the happy spirits, producing the fruits of holiness throughout its bright track, and building up a beautiful world of order, light, and purity. And it is equally true, that throughout the realm of hell, the law of sin as an inward principle of life and action—self-chosen, it is true, and not forced upon any one, yet internal to the will, and thoroughly inwrought into the affections—is working within every individual member of that world. And the fact that there is such a realm, where the principle of evil in antagonism to the principle of good is unfolding itself, and multiplying its unsightly and deadly products, should make every man thoughtful, and lead him to inquire most earnestly: “Am I in and of this realm? am I, in Christ’s phrase, ‘from beneath’? is the law of sin the inward and actuating principle of my will?”
In the light of this illustration, let us now look more closely at the attitude which the unrenewed will maintains toward the Divine law.
The law of righteousness, confessedly, is not the inward, actuating force in a sinner’s will. It is the law of sin which is “in his members”—which is internal to him—and which, consequently, is the only one that can bear fruits. And how rank and luxuriant they are; with what ease are they produced; how willingly and spontaneously does he sin. There is nothing artificial or mechanical in man’s iniquity. There are no spurious and “dead” works on the side of transgression. Sin is always alive and genuine. Man is never a formalist, or a hypocrite, in his disobedience. This work is hearty, and springs from an inward principle. Yet the law of holiness is the one that ought to bear the fruit. But it cannot, until it ceases to be external and threatening, and becomes internal and complacent.
So long as the existing inimical relation continues between the moral law and the voluntary faculty; so long as the law of God is a letter on the statute-book of the conscience, but not a letter written in the fleshy tablet of the heart; so long must it be inoperative, except in the way of death and misery. The law of holiness must cease to be outwardly comminatory and dreadful, and become inwardly attractive and beloved, before any fruits of righteousness can spring up. Is not this righteous law “the strength of sin” in us, so long as it merely weighs down with a mountain’s weight upon our enslaved wills? so long as it merely holds a whip of scorpions over our opposing inclination, and lashes it into anger and resistance? so long as it merely presents the sharp goads of duty that stab our unwillingness? How can there be any moral growth, in the midst of such a hatred and hostility between the human heart and the moral law?
Cicero tells us that the laws are ineffectual in war-time—“silent leges inter arma.” And neither can flowers and fruits grow on a battlefield. As well might we suppose that the vegetation which now constitutes the coal-beds grew up in that geological era when fire and water were contending for possession of the planet, as to suppose that the fruits of holiness can spring up when the human will is in obstinate and deadly conflict with the human conscience. So long as the heart of man sustains this outside and hostile relation to holiness, and righteousness comes before it as the hated quality and the stern command of another’s will, and is not in the least its own sweet inclination, obedience is impossible. The law of righteousness can produce no effects in character and conduct until it is obeyed from an inward impulse and spontaneity, as the law of sin now is.
We have thus, in a general way, noticed that the Divine law is “the strength of sin,” whenever it is an external commandment coupled with a threatening, and not an internal principle coupled with an affection. Let us now consider some particulars which illustrate and explain more fully this doctrine of the text.
I. In the first place, so long as the law sustains this extraneous relation to the heart and will, there is no genuine obedience.
For genuine obedience is voluntary, cheerful, and spontaneous. The child does not truly obey its parent, when it performs an outward act, outwardly insisted upon by its superior, from no inward genial impulse, but solely from the force of fear. So also the moralist, in whom the law has not become a hearty principle of willing action, does not truly comply with it. He may perform some outwardly moral acts, but he does them mechanically and insincerely, and neither mechanism nor insincerity is of the nature of obedience.
It is here that we see the difference between a moral man and a religious man. The moralist attempts, from considerations of prudence, fear, and self-interest, to externally obey the external and comminatory law of God. It is not a law that he loves, but one which he would keep because of the penalty attached to it. And yet, after all his attempts at obedience, he is conscious of utter failure. In his moments of reflection, he sees that it is no genuine compliance and submission which he renders, and that it is not valid before Him who looketh not on the outward appearance, but upon the heart. And at times, perhaps, he would wish that this selfish attempt to square accounts with his Maker might be supplanted by a free, filial impulse of the soul—that his conscience might be converted into his will.
But the renewed and sanctified man, so far as he is such, “obeys from the heart the form of doctrine that is delivered” unto him. The holy law, though imperfectly, yet predominantly, has become his inclination, and overflows in holy feelings and acts. “The law,” in the phrase of the Psalmist, “is within his heart, and none of his steps shall slide.” The Holy Spirit has inwardized it. The law has become his natural disposition, and when he acts naturally he acts holily, and when he sins he is uneasy, because sin is unnatural to a renewed heart.
Again, we may perceive that the obedience rendered to the law by one who does not feel it to be his own law, is not real and genuine, by noticing the appearance which it exhibits. Everything that is genuine, spontaneous, and voluntary, wears the garb of grace and beauty; while that which is false, pretended, and constrained, has the look of deformity. That alone which is alive, and the product of an inward principle, is beautiful. The growing plant, with the dew fresh upon it, immediately attracts our gaze; but we turn away from the splendid artificial flower.
So is it with the appearance which the moralist and the believer, respectively, presents. The one is rigid, hard, and formal. We feel instinctively that he is a precise and unhappy person; that he rather endures his religion than enjoys it. The other is a free, cheerful, pliant creature. The Son hath made him free, and he is free indeed. His is the obedience of love and of nature; not of fear and compulsion. The principle of spiritual life—the moral law now made internal, and one with his heart and will—is warm and plastic within him, and carries warmth, vigor, and robustness through the whole system. All his acts of obedience to the Divine commands are what we expect from him. They suit him, and wear no forced look. In fine, the difference between the fruits of the law of holiness when it is in the heart, and those of the same law when it is merely in the conscience, is like that between those fruits into which the vegetative principle has infused cooling juices, rich flavors, and pleasant odors, and those imitations of fruit which are lifeless and tasteless.
Another criterion of genuine obedience is love. But so long as the law sustains this extraneous and hostile relation to the heart and will, there is no love of it, or its Author. Examine the feeling of the unrenewed though perhaps moral man, and do you find that calm, settled affection for the statutes and commandments of God which evinces that they are wrought into the very fibre and texture of the soul? Have they not been expelled from the affections, and does not the man sometimes wish that he could expel them also from his conscience? And even if he sometimes attempts to obey them because he fears to transgress them, yet does he not, in the depths of his soul, wish that he could free himself from their everlasting restraint? And although, from the same motives of fear or selfish prudence, he may repress violent outbreaks of passion and rebellion, yet is all within him calm and serene? Is there not a noiseless friction and wearing within? Is he not at schism with himself? Are not conscience and will continually at war?
Even if the surface be placid, and there is not a ripple upon it, yet far down in the fountains of his soul; in those depths where the feelings, and propensities, and all the main and primal agency of the man has its source; in those lowest recesses, where the real character of the man is to be sought for; is there not a restless eddying and whirl? No man can love God’s law in this state of things. No man can have a cordial affection for it, until it becomes the inward and actuating principle, the real inclination of his will; until his will is renewed, and he obeys the law because he would not do otherwise. Yet the law overhangs him all this while, and since it cannot produce the fruits of peace and holiness, it betakes itself to its other function, and elicits his corruption, and exasperates his depravity. And thus the law, for the sinner, is the stimulus and strength of sin.
II. In the second place, so long as the extraneous relation spoken of continues between law and will, there not only is no true obedience, but obedience is impossible.
For the law is entirely outside of the executive faculty. It is in the conscience, but not in the heart. It consequently gives no impulse and aid to right action, but only passes a penal, damning sentence, the effect of which is paralyzing. The law sternly tells the man that by his own determination and fault he is “dead in trespasses and sins,” and condemns him therefore; but so long as it is merely didactic and comminatory, and not impulsive and indwelling, he derives from it none of that strength which empowers to righteousness. The man in chains is not animated and assisted to freedom, by being merely informed that he is chained, or by being sternly commanded to tear off his chains. Until the law has become the loved and chosen law of the will, as well as the organic law of the conscience, it cannot be obeyed.
God’s law follows man like God’s omnipresence, and if he ascend into heaven it has authority there, and if he descend into hell even there conscience affirms that it most be obeyed; but wheresoever it follows him, if he does not love it he cannot obey it, if it is not in his will it can produce no fruits of holiness. The tree cannot bear fruit, if the principle of life is outside of it. The tree is dead.
But in the Christian, the law of holiness, by virtue of his regeneration and union with Christ, has become inward, spontaneous, and voluntary. It is no longer a mere fiery letter in his conscience, giving him knowledge of his sinfulness, and distressing him therefore; but it is a glowing and genial impulse in his heart. His duty is now his inclination, and his now holy inclination is his duty. The two are one, and undivided in his consciousness. The schism in the soul is healed. Through the renewing influences of the Spirit of God, the commandment has again become a vital force in the soul, as it was before the fall. As the apostle calls it, it is “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus”—the living spirit of law.
And this is the reason why the Christian, in proportion to the closeness of his union to Christ, and the simplicity of his faith in Him, finds it easy, pleasant, and natural to keep the Divine law. The law in a Christian is spontaneous and self-executing. Says an old divine: “The law of the Spirit of life within the renewed will is as if the soul of music should incorporate itself with the instrument, and live in the strings, and make them, of their own accord, and without any touch or impulse from without, dance up and down and warble out their harmonies.”
1. This subject as thus unfolded shows, in the first place, that it is an immense work to make such an entire change and reversal in the relations that now exist between man’s will and the Divine law.
The problem is, to transmute the law of God into the very inclination of a man, so that the two shall be one and the same thing in the personal experience, and the man shall know no difference between the dictates of his conscience and the desires of his heart. The investigation has demonstrated that there is now, not only no such unity and unison between will and conscience in man, but that the former is deadly hostile to the latter, and wholly extraneous to it. It shows, moreover, that until the right harmonious relation is established again between these two fundamental parts of man; until the constitutional and the voluntary are once more in unison; all other adjustment is useless, so far as the eternal world is concerned; that it is in reality no adjustment at all; that the man must, in our Lord’s phrase, “make the tree good, and so the fruit good, or else let it remain corrupt, and its fruit corrupt.”
We appeal to the daily experience of every thinking person, whether this is not the truth. Are we not aware, that if our will and affections do not undergo such a change in their central determination and inmost bent, that the law of holiness becomes spontaneous to them, and vital within them, all of our desultory attempts under the goadings of conscience to keep it are in vain? Do we not know that unless our heart is in the work of obedience, we do not and cannot obey? When the law of God, reaching to every thought, and to every word, merely stands over us, and above us, commanding and threatening, and our wills and affections are hostile and resistant, instead of being sweetly blended and accordant, do we not see that nothing holy and spiritual can be done in this state of things? So long as our executive and affectionate powers stand in this alien and outside relation to the law, can there be any geniality or complacency toward it? Until we can say with the Psalmist: “I delight to do thy will, O my God; yea, thy law is within my heart,” can we render the Psalmist’s obedience?
The change in the human soul which establishes this inward relation and accordancy between will and conscience, is denominated in Scripture a “birth,” a “new creation,” and is the most marked change which a rational spirit can undergo, with the exception of that great catastrophe by which it falls from the heavens to the hells. Without such a change, the being is in continual antagonism and war with himself, and with God.
“There are times,” says Tholuck, “in the life of the natural man, when he seems to be possessed with a demon that tears and weakens him. When, with the swelling power of passion circling in his veins, and the whole world with its enjoyments opens itself wide for his gratification, he hears the solemn voice of law saying: ‘Deny thyself, deny thyself,’ what commotion rises within him! What wonder is it, if, when excited to madness by this holy commandment which he hates but fears, he cries out: ‘Let me tear off these bands; let me cast away these cords’?”
Such a commotion and ferment, which more or less violent arises in the soul of man in some periods of his life here on earth, and will last forever if it is not stilled by a work of grace within, evinces that in our natural state we are not in right relations; for where right relation exists there is harmony and peace. This fact must be acknowledged to ourselves, and receive our earnest attention. This renovation of the affections and the will—this production of new character—must occur here in this world, or it will never occur. And after its occurrence, it will still be a slow and toilsome process to root out the remainders of sin, and remove the last elements of discord and dissension from the soul.
2. The second inference from this subject must have been already anticipated—that this inwardizing of the Divine law; this “putting the law in the inward parts, and writing it in the heart” (Jer. 31:33); is the work and office of the Holy Ghost.
It is the result of God’s “working in man to will and to do.” Sinful man is spiritually impotent, and feels himself to be so, particularly when he undertakes to become the very contrary of what he is; when he tries to make himself as totally holy as he is totally sinful. Let a man look into his own soul, and see how spontaneously he now does wrong, and how delicious it now is to indulge himself in that which is forbidden; and then let him remember, that in order to heavenly perfection and blessedness he must come into such an exactly contrary moral state, that it will be just as spontaneous for him to do right, and just as delicious for him to keep the commandments of God—let him, we repeat, look into his heart and see what the character now is, and what it must become in order to heaven, and then say if he does not need the operation and aids of Divine grace. Nothing so throws a man upon his knees, and prompts the utterance: “I am the clay, be thou the potter; turn thou me and I shall be turned; purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean; create within me a clean heart, O God”—nothing so drives man away from himself to his Maker and Saviour, as a clear understanding of the immensity of the work that must be done within his own soul before it is fit for the heavenly state.
The subject clearly demonstrates the necessity of the new birth, and of the sanctification of body, soul, and spirit, that follows it.
“Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
We have seen from the unfolding of the text, and human experience will corroborate it, that so long as the Divine law is not an inward principle of willing and cheerful action for us, and we do not love it from the heart, it can only be “the strength of sin” for us. It only accuses of sin; it only revives and stimulates the inward corruption; it only detects and brings sin to light. This is all the law can do for us as sinners.
The Word of God informs us of a method by which this state of things can be changed, and we can stand in the same relation to the law of righteousness that God himself does, and the holy angels. It is by the washing of regeneration, and the renewing of the Holy Ghost. If we ask for this we shall receive it. If we seek it, we shall find it. “For if ye being evil know how to give good gift unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him.”
We must pray importunately and incessantly for renewing and sanctifying grace. When God answers that prayer—and, in the parable of the widow and the unjust judge, Christ commands every man to pray until he gets an answer—when God answers that prayer, the law of holiness shall be made the strength of holiness in our heart and in our will. It shall become a living principle within us forever, gathering strength and acquiring settled firmness as we pass on through the ages of a blessed eternity, and producing in richer and richer bloom the fruits of holiness and love.
William G. T. Shedd, Sermons to the Spiritual Man, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1884), 210–224.