Sin, The Gospel, and Salvation
From my experience in teaching and discussing God's word with members of the body of Christ I have reached the conclusion that there is considerable confusion and misunderstanding concerning the three topics which serve as the heading of this article. Particularly do I have in mind the proper relation of each to the other. This subject is both fundamental and elemental, but due to the subjective approach often made to it too little clear thinking is done concerning it. And that we might be sufficiently impressed with the seriousness of a distorted view of these vital topics I shall list before concluding this paper some of the harmful effects proceeding from it.
What is sin? How is sin related to the gospel? Is it the cause of the gospel or the effect of the gospel? And what about salvation? How is it related both to sin and the gospel? These are questions which come to mind and which need to be answered as we consider the proper relation of the matters at hand.
The apostle John in I Jno. 3:4 defines sin as "the transgression of the law." Of course he means the transgression of God's law. Hence anytime God's law is transgressed sin has occurred. But someone inquires: "What if one is wholly ignorant of God's law? Can such a person be guilty of sin?" The answer to this query lies in the inspired definition of of sin. Sin is transgression, not necessarily willful or recognized transgression. In proof of this we find Jehovah making provision for the atonement of any Israelite who sinned "through ignorance." (Num. 15:27-29) Peter condemned the Jews in Jerusalem for their crucifixion of Christ, although he confessed that he knew they had done so "through ignorance," and then proceeded immediately to exhort them to "repent and be converted, that their sins might be blotted out." (Acts 3:12-19) Paul wrote to Timothy of his former life as a "blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious", but he affirmed that he "obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief." (I Tim. 1:13) Mercy implies sin, and he could not have obtained mercy had he not been held responsible for his ignorant transgressions. So sin exists wherever man's actions are inconsistent or out of harmony with God's will.
This fact becomes more obvious when we consider the extent of sin. Paul wrote that "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God." (Rom. 3:23) This is further emphasized by the apostle's description of the exceeding sinfulness of the Gentiles (comparable to the heathen of today). (Rom. 1:18-32). People often ask of the spiritual condition of the heathen in Africa, India, etc. Sin describes their spiritual condition! If the heathen in Paul's day were sinners, then the heathen of today are no less!
The end or final consequence of sin is a pertinent consideration before concluding these remarks on sin. Ezekiel says "the soul that sinneth, it shall die." (Ezek. 18:20) In Rom. 6:23 we read that "the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." Sin inevitably leads to death, and the nature of this death is spiritual and its duration eternal since it is described as the antithesis of "eternal life." Hence, if one lives in sin and dies in sin, he is eternally doomed. (Jno. 8:21)
Now what has the gospel to do with sin or sin with the gospel? In the first place, it should be remembered that sin can and does exist independently of the gospel. This was precisely the condition of humanity when in the fullness of time God sent forth his son. Jesus affirmed that he "came to seek and to save that which was lost." Sometimes you hear that a person is lost because he does not obey the gospel. This statement needs clarification, for it is true only in a secondary sense. The efficient cause of one being lost is always sin. Let me illustrate: Suppose a destructive force of nature such as a tornado or hurricane is approaching a community and the only place of safety is a storm cellar. If an individual refuses or neglects to use the cellar for an escape from the storm and is killed, what actually caused his death? It is obvious that the storm killed him. The storm cellar was but a means of escape from the storm and his failure to use it only prevented his escape from the destructive results of the storm. Now what the cellar was to the storm the gospel is to sin. just as the man was in the storm which was physically destructive, so all today are in sin which is spiritually destructive. In other words, God has furnished man with a "storm cellar", an escape from sin and its results, and that is the gospel.
When one reasons that a person is not lost if he has never heard or had access to the gospel he in effect makes the gospel the cause of rather than the escape from condemnation. Any theory or idea that changes the "power of God unto salvation" (Rom. 1:16) into the power of God unto condemnation must be false and should be unreservedly condemned. Hence the introductory question as to the relation of sin to the gospel has been answered. Sin is the cause and not the effect of the gospel!
If one understands the subjects of sin and the gospel then an understanding of salvation is inevitable. Salvation is the escape from sin and its effects which is procured by the gospel. Salvation here pertains to the escape from sin (its guilt) and salvation hereafter pertains to the escape from its effects or consequences (eternal damnation). The latter is conditioned upon the former because it is said of heaven that "there shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie: but they which are written in the Lamb's book of life." (Rev. 21:27)
In conclusion I shall list as promised some of the harmful effects which I believe proceed from a misunderstanding of the afore-mentioned topics:
1. A failure to realize the extent of sin.
2. A lack of true appreciation for the gospel -what it can do; etc.
3. A failure to sense the urgency of our obligation to make known to others the truth, which is their only hope of salvation.
Truth Magazine III:4, pp. 19-20