The soul that sinneth, it shall die. —Ezekiel xviii. 20.
ON common consent man is a sinner. The Lord declares it, and man confesses it. Man has broken the Divine commandments, and he now stands before the Lord guilty, rebellious, and justly exposed to the penalty of a violated law. It is, therefore, a matter of the most momentous importance to him to know his exact relations to the law and to the Lord. How does his sin affect his own being ? What change does it make in the disposition of the Lord towards him ? What is the punishment for sin, and how is it administered ? What are the conditions of pardon, and how can man comply with them ? These questions have been answered many times.
Hundreds of volumes have been written to state and explain them, and yet, to the minds of most people the whole subject is involved in many difficulties, and the most dangerous errors are widely prevalent concerning it. We are, each one of us, a party in this question. It vitally touches our spiritual and eternal interests. It is not merely a question of temporal wealth and worldly prosperity ; the riches of the soul are brought into peril of loss ; the title to our inheritance of the blessings and honor and glory of heaven is at stake. Let us, then, endeavor to understand the subject as it really is, as reason enlightened by revelation sees it, as the Lord Himself has presented it to us in His Holy Word. There are four points of inquiry which contain the essential elements of the whole subject. These questions are, first, What is sin? in what does man’s offence really consist ? secondly, What is the penalty ? thirdly, How is it inflicted? and, fourthly, What are the only conditions of escape from it ?
A clear and rational comprehension of the principles involved in these questions will enable us to see the whole subject in its true light. I invite your attention, therefore, to what the doctrines of the New Church teach us concerning these principles which involve our eternal interests. First, What is sin ? The common and the true answer is: It is a violation of a Divine law. But this answer, though true, may not convey a true idea, or at least may give us a very imperfect idea of the real nature of sin. We must have a true conception of the nature of a Divine Taw before we can see what the necessary results of its violation are. If the law is an arbitrary prohibition or requirement, having no necessary, essential ground in the nature of man or the Lord, but is imposed upon man because the Lord had a right to do it, or for the sake of testing his obedience, the punishment is as arbitrary as the law. There is no necessary connection between them. The punishment is not the direct effect of the sin, but of the Lord’s displeasure. But if the Divine laws are the principles of man’s life ; if man before he fell was the personal embodiment of them, as the plant is the embodiment of the laws of vegetable life, or the material body of animal life, then the punishment of their violation follows as a necessary effect. As the plant withers and dies when the conditions of its life and growth are not complied with ; as the material body becomes feeble and is filled with pain when its laws are broken, so disease and pain and death must inevitably follow disobedience to the laws of the soul. This point, then, must be settled before we can answer the question we propose for our consideration, and upon its answer will depend the answer to all the other questions.
The prevalent theology is based upon the theory that the law of the Lord, like the civil laws of nations, is in a certain sense arbitrary,—that is, it has no necessary, inherent ground in the nature of man and his relations to his Creator. The Lord, by His absolute ownership of man, had a right to impose upon him any test of his obedience, or to demand any amount of homage and service He chose, and to attach any penalty He pleased. He therefore gave him such laws and imposed such penalties as in His wisdom and good pleasure He saw best, as an arbitrary sovereign. In this respect, according to common opinion, human and Divine laws are similar. They may both be enacted for the good of the people, and such penalties for disobedience or non-performance of duty may be imposed as the highest wisdom and the most benevolent intentions may dictate ; but still they are totally unlike physical laws in their operation. We call physical laws natural because they are embodied in nature. But civil laws are in a certain sense arbitrary. They may be the expression of the nature and relations of societies and peoples, or they may not. They may be enacted and repealed. Men may violate them and escape the penalty, or they may suffer the penalty under false accusation when they are innocent. But a natural law cannot be evaded. Punishment grows out of its violation, and only the guilty can suffer. A natural law can never be repealed or annulled. It may be overborne for a time by a superior force, but its action is never suspended. If the Divine laws are arbitrary in the same sense that any law of human enactment may be,—that is, if they are not the outward expression of inward principles actually embodied in man’s spiritual nature,—the punishment may be remitted at the good pleasure of the Lord, or it may not. And this is the general opinion of the Christian world.
But there is abundant testimony in the Sacred Scriptures that the laws of the Lord are not in any sense arbitrary. ” If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.” “Thy law is the truth. ” ” I am the way,the truth, and the life” are Divine declarations. All the promises of pardon and eternal life are based upon obedience to the commandments ; for to keep the commandments is to love the Lord and to beheve in Him. ” He that hath my commandments and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me.” Reason also would teach us that Divine laws must be the embodiments of infinite wisdom. Natural laws are the Divine methods of operation in the material world, and they are inconceivably more perfect in their action than the wisest human laws. Must we not believe that the same, if not a much greater, perfection exists in the Lord’s spiritual laws ? Is it not evident that the moral law existed before it was written on tables of stone? Was it not always wrong to steal and lie and murder? Was man under no obligations to love the Lord and his neighbor before the two great commandments were given? These laws are written in man’s spiritual nature. He can no more attain heavenly happiness without living according to them than the tree can attain blossoms and fruit without acting according to the laws of vegetable life, or than man can obtain the blessings of health without obedience to the laws of physical life. They were given in a formal and apparently arbitrary manner because man had forgotten them, and because it was essential that he should know and obey them as the laws of God. Spiritual laws, then, are of the same nature as natural laws ; they operate in the same way ; they are enacted in man’s spiritual nature; they are the principles of his being which govern all his activities and relations to the Lord and to other beings. When I say to my child. You must not put your hand into the fire, and if you do you will be punished with terrible pain, I merely state a law which exists whether I state it or not. I only give information of a truth which existed before, though I give it in the form of a command. So it is with all the Divine commandments. They are formal statements of the laws of man’s spiritual nature.
But it may be said. The commandments are Divine laws. Why does a man violate the laws of his own life by disobedience to them ? Because man was created in the image and likeness of the Lord. The laws of the Divine life are finited in him, and he cannot break the least commandment without doing violence to his own nature.
Now we are prepared to answer our first question, What is sin ? It is a violation of the laws of our own life. The Lord created us for a definite purpose, and with faculties specifically formed and adjusted to the attainment of that purpose. He established a definite and perfect order and system of means ; and when we step out of that order we turn aside from the true and only path that leads to life. We do the same thing in principle that we do when we disobey a physical law. There are physical, social, civil, and moral, as well as spiritual, sins. All natural, as well as spiritual, laws are Divine, because the Lord instituted them. They are His laws. They are His methods of attaining His ends. The planet obeys His law while it keeps to its own orbit ; the plant obeys His law while it grows and brings forth fruit after its kind ; the animal obeys His law while it follows its own instincts ; and if it were possible for a plant or animal to depart from its order, it would sin against the Lord as well as do violence to the laws of its own life. So when man obeys the Divine laws he obeys the laws of his own being, and when he breaks them he breaks the laws of his own life. Sin, therefore, consists essentially in acting contrary to the laws of spiritual life, as they originate in the Lord and are embodied in man.
All the forms and relations and methods of operation of man’s spiritual faculties were created and adapted in the most perfect manner by infinite wisdom for the attainment of a specific end, and that end was the reception of life from the Lord, with its blessedness. Man sins by departing from that order. He thinks he knows what is good for him better than the Lord does. It seems to him that the true way to attain hfe is to love himself and the world, rather than the Lord and the neighbor. He loves the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil better than that which grows upon the tree of life. Thus he inverts the true order of his life and disturbs the harmonies of all his spiritual faculties, abandons the methods of infinite wisdom, and violates its laws. This is sin.
We are now prepared to answer the second question. What is the penalty ? It must be death. It could be nothing else. For if the Lord has established a certain method and chain of instrumentalities for the attainment of life, and has adjusted them to that end with infinite wisdom, to depart from that order must be to fail of the end. Death follows as a necessary consequence and according to a universal law, as it does in the physical body or in a plant. But the penalty of sin is not the death of the body ; it is the death of the soul. ” The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” This body dies by the violation of physical and natural laws ; the soul dies by the violation of spiritual laws ; for the body is subject to physical laws and the soul is subject to spiritual laws. There is no evidence in the Bible, there are no grounds in reason or in the analogies of nature, for the belief that the material body would have been immortal if man had never sinned. The decay and dissolution of the body is not the death of the man any more than the falling of the leaf or the rejection of the husk and chaff is the death of the plant. Man is not a material being, and therefore no material changes can create or destroy him.
But spiritual death is not the disorganization and dispersion of the spiritual substances which compose man’s spiritual form. It is rather such a derangement and inversion of his spiritual organism that it is no longer receptive of spiritual life from the Lord. The lower plane of his mind, the natural and sensual degree, has become so deranged and disproportionately developed that the higher planes cannot be formed. Man is a barren figtree, which bears leaves only. His faculties are so ajar and discordant in their activities that their movements cause pain instead of pleasure. Like an instrument out of- tune, they produce discords rather than harmonies ; or like a defective chronometer, they do not move in the order and exact measure of the heavenly principles with which they were made to accord, and consequently the man who trusts to them is led astray. Life is not bare existence ; death is not the extinction of being. Life truly considered is the attainment of the ends of our being, the development of the spiritual and heavenly degrees of the mind, and the reception of life from the Lord, in those degrees, in ever-increasing fulness. Death obstructs, withers, blasts them. Death is failure in the true ends of life. It prevents the orderly development of the higher degrees of man’s spiritual nature, and brings discord, disease, and pain into all those that remain. ”The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” The penalty of sin is spiritual death ; sin is the cause and death the inevitable effect.
Our next inquiry is, How is this penalty inflicted ? Is it imposed like a fine ? or measured out like the penalties of human laws ? Is it arbitrarily imposed, as so many years of imprisonment or a certain amount of disabilities for so much sin ? Is it imposed or remitted at the good pleasure of the Lord, as an emperor having absolute power determines the punishment for offences against his government, and inflicts or remits it according to his will ? The Lord answers the question, ” The wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.” “In his trespass that he hath trespassed, and in his sin that he hath sinned, in them shall he die.” Death follows sin as an inevitable consequence. Sin is death. Man is not punished for sinning as the thief is sent to the penitentiary for stealing. But he is punished in sinning. As spiritual laws are not arbitrarily imposed, so their violation cannot be arbitrarily punished. The Lord does not bruise a man’s flesh and break his bones because he falls. The physical injury follows as a consequence of the disobedience of physical law. The Lord does not measure out in an arbitrary way so much pain for so much physical sin, so many twinges of gout or pangs of dyspepsia for so much idleness and luxury. He does not send a fever upon one, a consumption on another, a dropsy or paralysis upon another, as a punishment for the violation of certain physiological laws ; they follow as legitimate effects from natural causes. He did not organize the body for pain, but for pleasure ; but if man will not obey the laws of his organization, the end is missed, and pain comes as a consequence.
So the Lord did not organize the spiritual body that It might be tormented with fears, regrets, disappointments, hatreds, revenges, and remorse, but for the reception of gratitude, love, joy, peace, blessedness, and all heavenly delights. But if man will not obey the laws of his spiritual organization, if he will not follow the methods which infinite wisdom has provided as the only way of attaining these spiritual blessings, he must fail of receiving them. If he will sin, he must reap the fruits of sinning. There is no escape from the consequences. If there had been no written law, if the Lord had never said a word about sin or its punishment, the consequences would have been the same. In a word, all Divine laws, spiritual, moral, civil, physical, and material, are selfexecuting. There is no difference in principle in their operation. The reward and the punishment inhere in the law, and when we act according to it the blessing necessarily follows, and when we break it the curse follows. Life is the effect of obedience, and death of sin.
Our final inquiry is. What are the only conditions of escape from the penalties of sin ? The Lord answers the question, ” But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die.” His release from the penalty, then, is effected by his release from sin. The effect ceases with the cause which produced it. When a man begins to live he ceases to die. The penalty goes with the sin. They are inseparably bound together, like pain and disease. With a return to health, feebleness and pain disappear. Put an instrument in perfect tune and its discords cease. Darkness disappears when the sun rises ; frost vanishes in the presence of heat. So death ceases in the presence of life. This result follows of necessity, if the relation between sin and its penalties is that of cause and effect. The logic, as you will see, is complete, and there is no escape from it, if you admit that spiritual and natural laws are similar in their operation. If the Lord follows an immutable order and method in the administration of His spiritual kingdom, as universal nature attests that He does in His natural kingdom, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” There are no exceptions, no remedies, no offers of pardon, no conditions of escape except a return to life. This is not the prevalent opinion, and it is worthy of our most careful consideration.
It is an almost universal belief in the Christian Church that the Lord punishes in an arbitrary manner, and that He can remit the penalty of sin from mere mercy, and admit whomsoever He chooses into heaven ; and that He is only prevented from exercising universal clemency by some considerations of justice and consistency. The common idea is that the Divine pardon is similar to that exercised by kings and magistrates in this world. A man has broken some law or committed some offence against the king or ruler, and from mercy or favor, or through the intercession of friends, he is pardoned,—that is, the penalty is remitted ; the man is restored to favor, and occupies the same position which he did before the offence was committed. So it is commonly believed that by the intercession of the Saviour, and the exercise of faith by man, the Lord will remit the penalty of sin and take him to heaven. The whole scheme of salvation, according to the prevalent theology, is based upon this idea, and must stand or fall with it.
This error seems to have arisen from confounding sin with its penalty, while they are as distinct as pain and disease, as sound and the instrument which produces it, or, universally, as cause and effect. The Lord is always, by all the means known to His infinite wisdom, in the unceasing effort to pardon our sins. But He never remits the penalty. ” The soul that sinneth, it shall die,” is the immutable and irrevocable sentence pronounced against sin, and the law is in as full force now as it ever was. There is no more pardon for violating a spiritual or moral law than there is in breaking a natural law. Every violation of every law, physical, moral, or spiritual, always has been, is now, and ever will be punished. If you throw yourself into the fire or water, or eat arsenic, or fall from an immense height, we know that the Lord will not interpose in answer to any prayer to save you from burning or drowning, from the effects of poison, or from broken bones. He will not arrest His own order and violate His own laws for the sake of saving man from the consequences of disobedience. And yet this is what we are commonly taught the Lord does in His spiritual kingdom, and it is generally believed that our salvation depends upon such interposition. But that is contrary to every principle of the Divine government.
There can be no greater absurdity than that a Being of infinite wisdom should impose an arbitrary law upon His children, which He knew they would break, pronounce an arbitrary punishment, and when they broke the law, as He foresaw they would, set about contriving a plan by which He could save them from His own sentence. With all our weakness and folly, a human parent would hardly do that. What would you say of a legislator or of a king who should promulgate a law which he knew would be broken, and then devise a method of averting the very penalties he had affixed to it ? Would you not say that the law ought not to have been enacted, or that the penalty was not wisely decreed ? Why do today what you must seek to undo to-morrow or ruin your
Because there is so much said in the Bible about the Lord’s mercy and His willingness to forgive sin, because He came down to earth and suffered and died and rose again to save man from sin, it is inferred that He seeks to set aside His own law and prevent the execution of its penalty. But He declares that He did not come to destroy the law or the prophets, but to fulfil ; that heaven and earth shall pass away, but not one jot or tittle shall pass from the law until all are fulfilled. He did not come, therefore, to repeal His own laws, to release man from his obligations to keep them, or to save him from the penalty
of breaking them.
Two great errors widely prevail upon this subject : first, that the Lord came into the world to save man from the punishment of sin ; and, secondly, that the punishment of sin remains after the sin is committed, until some compensation is made for it, or some special act of release is obtained. The Lord did not come to save man from the punishment of sin apart from the sin itself This would be a violation of His own laws and order. The Lord never remits the penalty of sin so long as the sin remains. No penalty ever was remitted or ever will be while the sin remains. He no more forgives us for being diseased spiritually than He does for being diseased naturally. If I break any of the commandments, the Lord will no more forgive me than He will forgive me for breaking my bones. The two cases are perfectly analogous. The punishment follows as the inevitable effect of its cause, the sin, and it must remain as long as the producing cause remains. If we can settle it in our minds as a great and universal law of the Lord’s operation, from which He never deviates, that no penalty is ever remitted and that no sin goes unpunished, we have taken one great step towards the solution of one of the most difficult problems
of human life.
The question now occurs, If the Lord never remits the penalty of sin, how are we to escape punishment ? Must we suffer forever? No. The penalty ceases with the sin. It would be just as impossible for the punishment to remain after man had ceased to be a sinner as it would be for the cold of winter to remain during the heat of summer, or the pains of a disease to fill the body after the disease was removed and the body restored to perfect health. The executors of human laws can punish after the deed is committed and for it, but the Lord never does. The penalty and the sin are so bound together that they cannot be separated.
But if I broke my bones yesterday, shall I not suffer for it to-day? No, you suffer to-day because they are still broken. The evil is not yet removed. If they were restored to perfect soundness, you would not suffer in the least. You suffer so long as the cause which produces the pain remains, and no longer. Sin is not limited to the overt act, and does not essentially consist in it. The sin consists in that evil state or motive which causes us to commit evil deeds. There is the same distinction between sin and sinful deeds that there is between a tree and its fruits, or between disease and its symptoms ; between the flushed face, the rapid pulse, the burning thirst, and the wild delirium, and the fever which causes them. The sin may remain and burn and consume and be the continual cause of sinful acts. We are not punished for doing this or that sinful act. The Lord does not recount our evil deeds, or keep a record of our good ones. He does not keep an account of debt and credit with us. We suffer because our natures are not in harmony with the Divine order ; not because they were discordant yesterday, but because they are discordant now.
Strictly speaking, therefore, we never suffer spiritually for a past evil. When the sinful state is gone, the pain that originated in it goes with it. The most fatal misconceptions of the Divine character have arisen from the erroneous belief that the consequences of sin remain after the sin itself is removed. And many of the difficulties which good men have found in reconciling the Divine benevolence with the punishment of the wicked have their origin in this falsity. It is a terrible injustice to the Lord to suppose that we shall be eternally punished for a sinful act, or any number of sinful acts committed in this life. It follows as a necessary consequence of the law which we have been considering that we shall never be punished in the spiritual world for what we do in this world. We shall be punished only for what we do there. When a man passes into the spiritual world through the gate of death the Lord does not say to him, You were a great sinner while you lived upon the earth, and now I am going to punish you for it forever. If the wicked go away into everlasting punishment, it will be because they will go their way in everlasting opposition to the Lord’s way, which is the only way in which happiness can be found. The Lord sends His angels to every one, saint as well as sinner, and invites them all to heaven, to the enjoyments of eternal life. He places all in the most favorable conditions to disclose their true characters. If they can conform to the order of heaven in will and in understanding, in thought and in act, they will enjoy the blessings of such conjunction with heaven and the Lord. He will not bring up old scores against them. If one will turn from his sins, ” all his transgressions that he hath committed, they shall not be mentioned unto him : in his righteousness that he hath done he shall live.” But if he still continues to love himself supremely, and to break the Divine commandments, which, as we have seen, are the laws of his own being and the only ways in which life and happiness can be obtained, he must suffer the consequences. The Lord cannot prevent it. ” The wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.” We are brought to the inevitable conclusion, therefore, that there is no hope for the sinner but in being cleansed from his sin. So long as he is a sinner he is not in harmony with the Divine order. His will cannot receive the Divine love and his understanding the Divine truth in their true forms and order. He is an instrument out of tune, and his activities can only be discords ; he is a corrupt tree which cannot bring forth good fruit ; his spiritual body is diseased, and all its activities are death rather than life, and he will remain spiritually dead until he turns from all his sins, which cause that death. When he keeps the Lord’s statutes and does that which is lawful and right, he will surely live ; he will not die. These are the conditions, and the only conditions, on which we can be saved.
My whole effort has been directed to one end, and that is to show that there is nothing arbitrary or fluctuating in the punishment of sin. Man is not punished for sinning, but in sinning ; sin and suffering are intimately connected, and by no possibility can they be separated. The Divine laws are not modelled after human laws. They are all self-executing. They are never annulled or repealed or modified.
This truth is very broad and comprehensive in its applications, and will reverse many of the opinions and much of the reasoning upon the Lord’s relations to man. It relieves the subject of human salvation from all its mysteries and complicated technicalities, and makes it as plain and simple as the curing of any natural disease, and much more certain, when the prescribed remedies are applied. For we have a Spiritual Physician who understands the disease perfectly, and who never fails to cure all who apply to Him and follow His prescriptions. We must direct our attention to the sin, to the disease, and not to the pain it causes. We must learn the Lord’s commandments, that we may know what the laws of life are, and then we must obey them. We must shun what they forbid. We must do it now, to-day, every day. The Lord will assist every effort we make. He came into this world by assuming a human nature, that He might remove every obstacle that prevents His access to us, that He might apply the remedy directly to the disease, and so bring His life down to us, even in the grave of our sins, that He might become our resurrection and life. He is present with us now by the influences of His Holy Spirit, and assists every struggle for release from sin, and favors every aspiration after a heavenly life. Infinite love, wisdom, and power are on our side, and we have only to remove the obstructions to their application to our own life to be sure of escaping every torment -of sin and of enjoying every heavenly blessing we are capable of receiving. Therefore, “cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed ; and make you a new heart and a new spirit : for why will ye die, O house of Israel ? For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord God. Wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye.”
Author: Chauncey Giles, From Progress in Spiritual Knowledge, 1895