The following is part of an ongoing commentary on J. W. McGarvey’s Sermons Delivered in Louisville Kentucky. For an introduction to and table of contents for the series, see Happy Birthday, J. W.
After the toil of reading through J. W. McGarvey’s apology for the special inspiration of Scripture, I was delighted to see that the next set of sermons was on “Sin and Its Punishment” (followed by “Objections Considered”). Well, delighted is perhaps not the best way to describe it, but as the Bible is not self-aware, it has very little to say about the question of the Bible. In contrast, Scripture is littered with rich (and ripe for exploration) references to sin, its origins, and its consequences. McGarvey unfortunately, but predictably, spends more time on the question of “Its Punishment” than on “Sin.” McGarvey spends the bulk of the first sermon in a Q&A session with himself. He has five objects for consideration: is there any punishment for the wicked after death, when does it begin, is there a final judgment, what punishment will follow said judgment, and how long will that punishment last? McGarvey believes, and I concur, that Scripture offers some very plain answers to these questions, and consequently I find myself agreeing very much with his five points (one for each finger as part of an exercise that would have sent Scott reaching for a Prozac). Though they appear clumsy in hindsight with a century of research and discovery at our disposal, even McGarvey’s second sermon on the objections to his first has valid refutations, considering such timeless alternate theories as annihilationism and apoktostasis. He draws deftly from Scripture and logic to support what seems more or less uncontroversial in the biblical narrative: some will go off into eternal life, some into eternal punishment.
Unlike with his treatment of the inspiration of Scripture, McGarvey’s homily on the wages of sin needs to contortion to make it conversant with contemporary readers. Though it may seem at first that McGarvey’s interest is in a dry, Baconian lecture enumerating biblical facts about eternal punishment, his focus truly is on the nature of sin and not the character of hell. His problem is not an academic one–“List five aspects of hell”–but a deeply personal one. Throughout both sermons he returns to his true focus: why do I keep sinning even though I know I shouldn’t? He knows the answer from the start:
I wonder if any of us has ever realized what it is to commit sin. I believe that I would esteem above every other gift that could be bestowed upon me as a preacher, the power to adequately conceive what sin is, and to adequately set it before the people. A number of times in my ministrations, I have prepared sermons designed to set forth the enormity of sin; but I have every time felt that I made a failure. I found, I thought, two causes of the failure: first, a want of realization in my own soul of the enormity of it; and second, inability to gather up such words and such figures of speech, as would, with anything like adequacy, set it forth before my hearers. The pleasures of sin have blinded our eyes to its enormity.
Knowing the answer doesn’t solve the problem, unsurprisingly, and McGarvey makes no claims in his sermon to have accurately grasped sin or to have adequately conveyed its magnitude to his audience. In fact, he insists during the course of his second lesson that “in order to have a fair and equitable” understanding of sin and its consequences, a person would need to be “totally separated from sin.” As there is no one truly without sin save God, McGarvey admits that the best we can do is learn what God has taught us about it and defer to His judgment regarding its consequences.
With this purpose thus expressed, McGarvey’s sermon is seen for what it truly is. Rather than simply musing about the nature of hell, McGarvey suggests that the “words and figures of speech” best suited to illuminating the enormity of sin are those teachings in Scripture about its consequences. In this way he reappropriates hell, and it becomes no longer simply a scare tactic to get the unconverted into the water or a cause for sadistic revelry on the part of those who are sure they’ll never go there. Instead, hell functions as a mirror reflecting back to us the enormity of sin, of which we are all willing participants. The language used to describe hell and the eternal torment of its inhabitants is among the most gruesome, some would say repugnant, in the New Testament (or even the Bible as a whole). So often we turn from this galling language and ask what it might say about God (often with less than pious answers), but only rarely do we take what we know about God and what we know about hell and ask what it might say about sin. At the conclusion of his initial presentation of the character of judgment for “the wicked,” McGarvey returns to this theme with gusto:
Are you horrified at that thought? I think you certainly must be. Well, if you are, then how should you feel towards the sin which compels a God of love and mercy and infinite compassion to inflict such a punishment as that upon the sinner? What must sin be in the sight of the only being in this universe who is capable of appreciating it at its real enormity? And if sin be the horrible, the detestable thing that extorts from an infinite, merciful and gracious God such punishment as that, Oh! why should you and I be guilty of it? Why should mortal man ever gain his own consent to commit one single sin? And how amazing it is that men and women, who know of this, can consent to live in sin from day to day!
I have often argued that self-deception and selective amnesia are at the root of persistent sin in the lives of Christians. After all, is it possible imagine any sinful behavior in which we engage that we would still do if we truly believed and were mindful of the fact that “the wages of sin is death?” It’s irrational (as, unfortunately, are all people). Even that argument, however, still focuses inappropriately on hell as a post-judgment boogeyman meant to keep Christians in line. Without totally discarding the value or truth of that application, it is critical to see that what McGarvey offers is richer understanding of the way hell can function in Christian spirituality. Rather than saying a truer belief in hell would stop sin, why not recognize that a truer belief in sin would be a far more effective means of stopping sin. If we genuinely believed that sin was as detestable, as deleterious as God has told us it is, would any of us really continue to engage in it? Hell, if we can reclaim it as a theological tool rather than a biblical third rail, can serve to throw into sharp relief just how serious God is in His condemnation of sin. Hell is death, eternal and inviolable, in an analogous way to the sense in which God is life, eternal and inviolable. If we believed that, if we enshrined in our hearts and kept in our minds a genuine longing for life and a realistic appreciation of the enormity of sin, would we not find ourselves living more nearly the kinds of lives we have been called to in Christ?