For though you wash you with nitre, and take you much soap, yet your iniquity is marked before me, said the Lord GOD.
One of the shortest, but most pregnant, words in our language is sin. And yet it is one of those words least understood. The whole system of the Gospel rests on the fact of sin, and on the dreadful evil of sin, and on the inexpiable character of sin by any human means whatsoever. Our text puts the truth with a very startling clearness. The nitre here mentioned was a mineral substance, and the soap was a vegetable substance, both employed for the purpose of removing spots; and the meaning is, adopt what means you may and all the means within your power, and still your sin will remain, it will strike through again, and be as fresh as the day on which it was committed. This is true of sin in both its aspects of guilt and stain: as guilt or wrong you cannot remove it; and as a blot you cannot remove it. Let us look at it as guilt or wrong. Who can expiate it as a matter of right? If the question be asked, but may not God waive His right? We answer that, if He did this, it would be an act of grace; it would be a voluntary surrender on His part of what He had a right to claim and to inflict. But it does not require much thought to teach us that God could never give to any of His creatures the power of expiation consistent with the stability of His own throne and government. To grant that a man has power to expiate a sin, would be to grant that he has a right to insult God and to sin whenever he desires. Such an engagement would place God in the position of a being who was trafficking in selling the right to do iniquity. You can conceive of a foolish father or mother possessing an imperious nature, and anxious to display supreme authority, incessantly commanding and forbidding their children to do certain trifling things — things which, whether done or left undone, would be of no injury to the children. This is not government. It is irritation. This is not encouraging obedience; it is promoting rebellion. It frets the will by the assertion of needless and unreasonable claims. But surely, the commands of God are not of this character. The commands of God are God Himself in expression, and not merely the power of God or the will of God, but the sense of right and justice and holiness, without which He could have no claim on the obedience and reverence of any creature. But this is not all. Not only do God's commands express His own eternal nature, and not only do they appeal to our moral nature, so that we cannot treat them as if they were simply suggestions, or pieces of advice, or matters of taste; but they are commands which contemplate and secure, in so far as they are obeyed, our happiness. In other words, they not only enjoin the right way, but the happy way. To sin, therefore, is not only to disobey, but to derange; it is not only to set at nought a Divine injunction, but to outrage your own nature. If therefore the line of obedience to the Divine will is also, as it most assuredly is, the line of blessedness to yourself, do you not see that there can be no expiation for disobedience? Will punishment for a certain time be an expiation? In no country is it held that imprisonment for theft is as good as honesty; in no country is a fine for drunkenness as good as sobriety. But if punishment is not an expiation for sin in human government, in the sense of being regarded as an equivalent for the offence which has been committed, if it does not restore to a man either the character or the standing which he occupied before, so neither is it an expiation for sin in our relations to God. It is true that He too says, If you sin you will also suffer; but He does not say, Your suffering will stand good instead of your obedience. When God punishes, He says first, I cannot be trifled with, and I cannot have My laws set at nought. The punishment means that in the first instance; it must mean that, whether it means anything else or not. If it be asked whether punishment is not meant to be corrective, and whether it is not meant also to be preventive, by way of example to others who see the suffering which follows sin, I admit that these are among the purposes of punishment; but they are secondary purposes. God says to us, If you sin punishment will follow whether you are corrected by it or you are not, and whether others take warning by it or not. It may be said that suffering is not the only nitre and soap by means of which men seek to wash off the guilt of sin; that there is repentance, and future amendment; and that these are sufficient as a set-off against any amount of transgression. Now, it is impossible for us to determine what repentance can do or what future amendment can do, in reference to past sin, without the light which Scripture gives us. Repentance is a change of mind and heart and life; and in the dispensation under which we live, repentance is connected with faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And it must not be torn from this connection. The parable of the prodigal son teaches us, that as a son must return to his father, and will be received if he returns, so if a man return to God he will be received. But it was not meant to expound the whole Gospel. The great truth is set forth that a returning child is received; but the way of return Christ explains again and again in His other teachings, as for example when He says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh to the Father, but by Me." The question which we have all to consider is, how is the guilt of our sins to be dealt with that it will not be laid at last to our charge? The answer of the Gospel is not that repentance will stand between it and us. It is that Christ will stand between it and us. Repentance does not bear our sins; Christ bears our sins.
(E. Mellor, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: For though thou wash thee with nitre, and take thee much soap, yet thine iniquity is marked before me, saith the Lord GOD.