The thought of guilt has been in the past inseparably associated with the idea of that which we call sin, and especially guilt before God. We read that in former generations the sense of sinfulness was even cultivated, and was regarded as a proof of holiness. But today the true nature of sin is beginning to be recognized.
The word itself means "a missing of the mark;" but this meaning has largely in the past been lost sight of. The essential essence of the nature of sin is ignorance. No one ever sets out with the formed design of missing the mark. But his ignorance leads him to expect to hit it by the wrong method. We all aim at happiness, and we believe at first that it is possible to reach it through selfishness. We seek every man his own things in the conviction that they are the sign-posts pointing out the road to the wished-for goal. But the "mark" is always inevitably missed, because he who aims at self-pleasing, whether knowingly or ignorantly, is pointing his bow in the opposite direction from happiness. Lovers of pleasure can never be lovers of God.
Sin is always a wrong choice. It is not, in the legal sense, guilt. We may break the law of man, and by our cunning escape the penalty. But we can neither "break" the law of God, nor hide ourselves from the consequences of the attempt. If our choice be made in ignorance of, or in defiance—which is only a still denser ignorance—of the Law of the Universe, which is Love, the Law is not broken, but we are flung back quivering and bleeding, and when we have thus bruised ourselves a few times against the adamantine bars of the Eternal Law we begin to learn. Very slowly, perhaps, and with difficulty, as a child cons his first lesson; but still the truth begins to dawn upon our vision that as we partake of the divine nature which is Love, so only in the exercise of that nature, only in loving is happiness to be found.
It has been said that "Punishment is the other half of sin;" but Mankind has been slow to learn this unpalatable truth, ad in its childishness has preferred to believe that the "mercy" of the Deity might be prevailed upon to take the place of His "justice." But, in the sense of remission of penalty, there is no such thing in all the Universe as forgiveness of sin. Were it so, then sin would lose its purpose and cease to be educative. Its present function, little as it looks like it, is to train the sons of God and school them into holiness. It is the spiritual gymnasium of life in which the thews and muscles of the soul are strengthened. For it is only through the suffering which sin causes that we learn the "beauty of holiness." No one who has ever had the vision which struck Saul of Tarsus blind, the vision of himself as he is in fact and not in seeming, will ever disbelieve in hell, or doubt its beneficial character. And so by pain we learn in which direction alone happiness may be found, and through and by our mistakes rise a little nearer to that perfection which is the ultimate destiny of the human race.
But yet another use is subserved by sin. Browning says without pain there would be no room for thank to God or love to Man. Surely the sin of the world, which is also the pain of this groaning, travailing Creation, is an opportunity for practicing our lessons as we learn them, bit by bit. For it does not follow that if evil be only good disguised, that we are to acquiesce in it. It is a stage in the development of the race, and its final banishment to the realm of things overcome can only be achieved through the fight of Humanity against it. And if it seems to gain the victory, and instead of schooling men into righteousness seems only to deaden their spiritual sensibilities and sink them deeper in the stupor of iniquity, that is because we foolishly limit the opportunities of learning to threescore years and ten, and forget that they are but the Antechamber of Life.
If, then, this Universe be indeed a Cosmos, and if there be but one source from Whom, and in Whom, and to Whom, are all things—though to our present experience and limited apprehension sin is bitter and devastating, yet out of it will be evolved the great and beneficent purpose of God.