Sin Measured by the Disposition, not by the Act
1 John 3:15
Whoever hates his brother is a murderer: and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.

These are harsh words, some will say, and many will deny that they are just. "I hate such a one, it is true, but I would not harm him for the world. There is surely a wide interval between the feeling of rancour, or even the bitter lasting quarrel, and the act of Cain who was of that wicked one and slew his brother." As for the spirit of the words it is enough to say at present that they proceed from the apostle of love, and that, if true, they ought to be known. Moreover, if you find fault with him, you must find the same fault with Him from whom he learnt his religion (Matthew 5:28). But besides this, our feeling that we are incapable of this or that sin is not to be entirely trusted (2 Kings 8:13-15). So too our great poet portrays to us a man, loyal, upright hitherto, conscious of no secret treachery, into whose mind the infernal powers sent the thought, that he, now Thane of Cawdor, should be king hereafter. The thought ripened into a wish, the wish into a plan: he murdered his king, when asleep and a guest under the protection of the rights of hospitality, and from this dark beginning he waded on through blood, to retain what he had grasped, until he worked out his own ruin. The apostle says not that all hatred will end in murder — far from it — nor that all hatred is equally intense and equally reckless, nor that hatred which bursts out into great crime may not imply a worse state of soul than such as remains within, and does no obvious harm to others. Nor does he intend to confine the murderous quality to positive hatred. Want of love, hardened selfishness, acting on calculation with no rage or wrath in it, may be as deadly, as murderous, as malignity or revenge. The apostle teaches us in these words that evil lies in the heart, and that the evil there, which meets with some temporary or some lasting hindrance, differs not in kind from that which is ripened by opportunity. It may be forever dormant as far as the notice of man is concerned. It may never burst forth into the poisonous flower of wicked action, yet the hatred within and the hatred in the wicked action are one and the same, one quality runs through both. The powder that is explosive and the powder that explodes do not differ. It is just as we measure the power of a flood by its breaking down a dam or transporting heavy masses to a distance. There are restraining influences which secure human society from the explosion of injurious passions, so that such a crime as murder, common enough, if you gather up all the instances of it in a year, will excite wonder and awe in the place where it is committed. We know that fear of consequences, conscience, respect for public opinion, pity, are as permanent and universal as sin itself is, and that they are the dam and banks which keep the stream of unregulated selfishness from sweeping over society. Yet though we call the crime extraordinary, whenever it occurs we trace it back to some principle or habit. The man who committed homicide was subject to great fits of rage which he took no pains to restrain, or his natural heat was increased by strong drink, or he had such a covetous temper that he was tempted by it into robbery and murder. All this is obviously just. But with all this, we have a right to say, that the limit to which a passion, such as hatred or lust, leads, is a fair measure of its general power. We apply to the strength of hatred, or some other evil passion, the same measurement which we apply to the capacities of the mind. A man of genius seems at one time to be inert and without, creative power: at another, he will produce a poem or a picture that the world admires. We measure his genius by his best productions, by what he does in the most favourable circumstances, not by the vacancy of his dreamy or inactive hours, where thought is gathering strength for a new flight. Why not judge of sin, and especially of hatred, after the same fashion? The justness of the apostle's words is shown by the awful quickness with which resolutions are sometimes taken to commit great crimes. We flee into crime as if the dogs of sinful desire were on us, and we sought the outward act as a relief from the agitation and war within the soul. So strange do some such historical crimes appear, that they look like the sway of destiny. A divine Nemesis, or Ate, urged the man into self-ruin. The tragedy of life was not accomplished by his own free will. And when the deed is done, unthinking men will ascribe it to the force of circumstances, as if circumstances could have any effect, independently of the passion or selfish desire itself. And the criminal himself may think that he was hardly a moral agent in the deed; that his own power of resistance was destroyed by temptation against his will; or, that others, the most respectable men in his society, would do the same. To all of which, we reply, that the consent of his soul was his sin; that his sin was weakness; that if he had wanted strength really, and prayed for it, it would have come down out of heaven, and that whether others would have acted like him or not is a point of no importance. There was in London, a few years since, a German tailor, who was, probably, not more dissolute than hundreds of others in such a vast city, a mild, inoffensive man, whom nobody thought capable of dark deeds of wickedness. He found himself in a car of an underground railroad in company with a wealthy man. They were alone, and yet, as the cars had a number of stopping places in their five or six miles' course, every few minutes a new passenger might come into their compartment. They were alone, I say, for a passenger had left them, and the door was shut. Now, in the interval of three or four minutes, this man had murdered the wealthy man by his side, had seized his purse and watch, and in the hurry taken his hat by mistake, and had left the train the instant it reached the next station. He fled to America, was seized on his landing, was found to have the dead man's hat and watch, was handed over to the English authorities, carried back, tried, and sent to his execution. How terrible was this speed of crime! No whirlwind or waterspout, no thunder cloud flying through mid-heaven could represent its swiftness, and yet here there was nothing unaccountable, nothing monstrous. He himself had been no prodigy of sin, nor was he now. The crime was an epitome of his life, a condensed extract of his character. And again, the apostle's principle is vindicated by the rapid deterioration which we often observe in the lives of particular men. It seems as if they had only covered up their sins before, as if an evil life could not begin, all of a sudden, but the habits of sin must have been suppressed, perhaps, for a long period. But it is not so. They have not grown suddenly worse, but some natural motives, which swayed them before, have given way to other natural motives which were for a time counteracted. Self-indulgence was counteracted by prudence or by conscience, hatred was kept down or shut up in the breast by public opinion. Meanwhile changes of life, more liberty of action, greater means of self-gratification, new forms of society, new sentiments and opinions, make the road of temptation leading to outward sin easier. According to this view of man, there is nothing strange when hatred culminates in murder, there is no new principle injected, there is, in reality, no sudden worsening of the character. It is natural, not monstrous or morbid, that he who indulges hatred in his heart should yield, when he is tempted to manifest it in the life. The deed is the expression of the feeling, as words are of thoughts. I add, again, that if in any given case it were certain that sinful affections would be suppressed and be prevented from going out into sinful deeds, the apostle's principle would still be true. The spirit of the extreme crime is in the unblamed malice or the unobserved envy. It is neutralised, as the oxygen of air is by nitrogen. The two in mechanical union form an innocuous atmosphere, and yet we know that oxygen alone would be a principle of death. So hate in the heart is a deadly affection though counteracted, and although it may be always counteracted.

1. I wish to remark, first, that sin deceives us until it comes into manifestation. Men are apt to think that they are good enough, because no indications of a corrupt character are shown in their lives. And then, when the time of trial comes and they yield, they excuse themselves because temptation is so strong and so sudden. In neither case does their moral judgment conform to the true state of things. Principle means that which will stand the test, when native characteristics which were on its side have turned against it. The measure of principle is the strength of resistance to attacks of temptation, and if hatred or lust is a cherished feeling of the heart, there is no possibility of resistance when circumstances turn so as to favour sin.

2. Sins committed by others may fairly suggest to us what we ourselves can do, and so in a certain sense we may be humbled by them, when we apply them as the measuring line of the deep possibilities of sin within ourselves. It was no cant when John Bradford said, as he saw a man going to Tyburn to be hanged for crime, "There, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford." He did not magnify his sins, and liability to great sins, in order to magnify the grace of God, but he magnified the grace of God, because he felt and found within himself the same sinful nature which he saw in the unworthiest. He read himself in the history of his fallen and guilty brother.

3. Finally, we see what an uncompromising principle love is. One may say with truth love hates malevolence, hates all that is opposed to itself in the feelings or the manifestations of the inner life. Love is an element of a strong character which views men as they are in all their sins, which feels no favour towards the principles by which the worldly, the selfish, the proud are governed. And thus as it looks on moral evil in all its deformity, it can feel intense pity towards the blind in sin, the misguided, the fallen, the unworthy, and is ever ready to sacrifice its own interests for their good.

(T. D. Woolsey.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him.

WEB: Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life remaining in him.

The World Contrary to the Christian
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