John Kennedy of Dingwall

Rev. John Kennedy, D.D., of Dingwall

This website is dedicated to the works of Rev. John Kennedy, D.D., who was minister of the Free Church of Scotland in Dingwall (in the Scottish Highlands) from 1843 until his death in 1884.


What is Sin?

A Sermon
by Rev. John Kennedy, D.D., of Dingwall

"Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight." — Psalm 51:4.

THERE are two lights exhibited on shore for the guidance of those "that go down to the sea in ships" — the beacon light, to warn them away from the dangerous reef or headland, and the harbour light, to direct them to a place of safety. I have seen a shipwreck take place owing to one of these lights being mistaken for the other. The account of David's sin, in the inspired history of his life, and the record of his repentance in this psalm, are like these two lights — the former warning us away from unwatchfulness, the latter guiding us back to God with confession of our sin. To take encouragement in sin from the former, instead of being warned away "from all appearance of evil," is to run the awful risk — or rather to encounter the certain danger — of soulwreck; and not to follow David, in his return, "with weeping and supplication," to God on His mercy-seat, is to keep our souls away from the only true rest and blessedness, and still to expose them to the storm of His wrath.

In David's penitence, of which this psalm is a record, there are the following elements:— 1. A view of his sin as it is "against" and in the "sight" of "God," such as causes him to justify God, in condemning him to death, according to the curse of the law, which he had broken, and as quite shut him up to the rich sovereign mercy of God, as the only fountain whence pardon could come to him, and to an atoning sacrifice such as would satisfy the justice of God, as the only meet channel for the outflow of His grace. 2. A confession of original sin — of his total depravity — as the result of his fellowship in "the guilt of Adam’s first sin," which alone accounted for his being "shapen in iniquity" and conceived "in sin." 3. An earnest desire for an intimation of pardon from God. 4. Panting of heart for renewing grace. 5. Longings for the joy of God’s salvation. 6. A sense of his need of being kept from sinning in the future, as one who could not trust in himself, and who sought to be upheld by the "free Spirit" of the Lord. And 7. In the measure in which hope was restored to his heart, he desired employment in the Lord's service, as well as preparation for it, the conversion of sinners unto God, and "the good of Jerusalem."

It is the first of these we at present are called to consider — DAVID'S VIEW OF SIN AS "AGAINST" AND IN THE "SIGHT" OF GOD.


He had acted to the injury of his own soul, he had offended, by his conduct, those who feared the Lord, and by his evil example he had encouraged the ungodly to continue in sin; but yet he says, "Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned." Viewing his conduct as sin, he thinks only of its being against God. It might bring misery on himself, it might bring grief to the hearts of the godly, and it might encourage others to continue to act the part of suicides, but his conduct he regarded as sinful only as it was "against" God.

1. It was against the law of God. Associating the law with God, how venerable it seemed to his eyes, opened as these were, to behold the glory of Jehovah, as Lawgiver and Judge; how awful seemed to him the guilt which was involved in the breach of such a law; and how impossible escape from the law's penalty appeared to him as he thought of the omnipotence, faithfulness, and justice of Him who was Judge of all, unless mercy came to him with a free pardon through atoning blood. One may transgress the law of his country, and his offence never be discovered; or even if it be discovered, he may not be convicted of the crime; or by some miscarriage of justice the execution may not follow the passing of the sentence. But in none of these ways can, under His government, any transgressors of the law of God escape. Sinner, seek to realise this. Have done with dreaming of being able to sin with impunity while the eye that is "as a flame of fire" is on you, while the sword of divine justice is wielded by the Almighty, and while it is impossible for God to lie. Either life, through the righteousness of Christ being placed to your account, or death, as the wages of your sin, is the only alternative to you, and to me, and to all. "Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law; for sin is the transgression of the law," and "the soul that sinneth shall die."

2. Sin is against the will of God. Not merely against what was the will of God, but against what, at the moment when the sin is committed, is the will of God — against a present volition of the will of God bearing authoritatively on the transgressor, and in opposition to what he is about to do, or is doing. There is many a law on the Statute Book of our nation the very existence of which is unknown to our Sovereign, and which cannot be regarded as an intended expression of her will; and we must not think of a transgressor of our laws as acting in opposition to a present exercise of the Queen's will bearing on him individually. But do not approach so to conceive of the relation in which God stands to His own law, and to those by whom that law is broken. His will is ever active in volitions which accord with the claims of His commandments, and bears according to the law's demands on each individual, always and everywhere. Because of this there must be in every act of sin a collision with the will of God, the Most High, "whose name is holy." Think of the weak worm dashing himself against the will of Jehovah, as, swayed by enmity, he ventures to transgress His law, which is "holy, and just, and good." Friend, do not conceive of God as like yourself, and one to be trifled with, as if He could forget your sin; and do not imagine that such collisions with the will of God can take place with impunity though "sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily." The will of God, now expressed in the form of law, shall soon and surely be expressed in a providence by which you shall be utterly and eternally overwhelmed.

3. Sin is rebellion against the authority of God. The authority of God as our Lawgiver — His right to reign — rests on what He is in the infinite excellence of His being and glory. He, because of what He is, is entitled to be Lord over all — to bring His will in the form of law to bear on each rational being whom He hath created, whether their place originally was heaven or earth. There is rebellion against authority thus founded and asserted, in every transgression of His law, and this cannot be without a denial of His right to reign, without an attack on His throne. How fearful sin is as implying — necessarily implying — this! And there cannot be rebellion such as this that does not imply a claim on the part of the transgressor to the place which necessarily and eternally belongs to the Most High. The rebelling will of the creature makes this demand. He raises himself thronewards, in his meanness and loathsomeness, and requires that Jehovah should give place to him. "Who is the Lord that He should reign over us?" is the mad shout that reaches the ear of God from the hearts of all transgressors of His law; and, as they demand for themselves the sovereignty which is God's, they ask, "Who is Lord over us?"

4. Sin is against the name of God. There can be no sinning that does not cast dishonour on the moral glory of Jehovah. He demands perfect love to Himself, because of what He is in the infinite loveliness of His moral character. His claim for love rests on what He is in the infinite beauty of His holiness. On this the eye of His omniscience ever rests, and to this He "is," and must be "love." And through this love to Himself He is "blessed for ever" in the enjoyment of Himself. And He cannot have this knowledge of, this love to, and this enjoyment of, Himself, and act righteously as the supreme Governor, without demanding love to Himself from all rational beings. One who did not necessarily make such a demand could not reasonably be worshipped. And there is goodness as well as authority in such a claim. If to Himself His love to Himself is the source of such blessedness, what can be more surely good than to demand love to Him from His creatures, who shall never fail to find that through love to Him satisfying blessedness shall flow into their hearts from "the fountain of living waters." But whichever of the Ten Commandments you break, you cannot do so without refusing this love to God. You cannot break any of the commandments of the second table of the law without refusing such love to God as would be expressed in submission to His authority. For He requires with equal authority love to your neighbour as love to Himself. To refuse this expression of love to Him is blasphemously to declare Him unworthy of what He demands, though His right to be loved rests on what He is in the infinite glory of His moral character. But there can be no negative feeling towards the holiness of God. If there is not love to it as the spring of action in the heart, there must be enmity. In every unconverted man there is nothing but the flesh, and the minding of the flesh is enmity against God. Think of God beholding, loving, and rejoicing in, His own infinite beauty, and at the same time having before His eye the creature of His hand turning away from and hating Him because His name is holy, and expressing in his transgression of His law his enmity to what He so infinitely loves and enjoys. How marvellous is the patience of God with thee, who wast observed by Him thus dishonouring His glorious name in every one of all thy countless transgressions!

5. Sin is against the being of God. God cannot be without being infinitely great and infinitely holy. His greatness is the basis of His right to issue a law, and His holiness is the basis of His claim for love. His law demanding obedience in love rests on His unchangeable majesty and loveliness. It is entrenched within His being. You cannot assail that law without an attack on God. You cannot rise against the throne without setting yourself against the existence of God. Every sinner is, in intent, a Deicide. And in every "carnal mind" there is positive enmity to the very being of God. This may not be a reality in your consciousness, but it is the root of all your action in transgressing the law of God. Roots are usually hidden, and why is this "root of bitterness" undiscovered by you? It is because you keep so far away from God that you have no opportunity of discovering how you are affected towards Him. But if you were pressed by the law's claims, and overwhelmed by the terrors of its curse, if you were left for a season without any conscious hope of "escape from the wrath to come," and at the same time were persuaded that there can be no withdrawal of these demands and terrors, till the justice of the unchangeable and Eternal God was satisfied, then would you find in your consciousness the stirring of an enmity to God, whose cry is, "Let there be no God." How fearful the consciousness of this! And how bitter the remembrance of this when the glory of Jehovah was so revealed to you, and the riches of His pardoning mercy, that, while having hope in Him, you went forth in loving desire after Him! But whether you are conscious of this enmity towards the very being of God or not, of all the sin in your action this is the root in your heart.

II. But the Psalmist confesses that he had done "this evil IN" HIS "SIGHT" as surely as he had sinned AGAINST the Lord.

1. It was in His sight, for it was done under His all-seeing eye. Nothing can be done anywhere, at any time, or by any one that is not fully observed by God. And is the eye of God to be no check upon us? A child sometimes may take liberties because his father cannot see him. He acts dishonestly who acts thus. But the child who has, as his father, one entitled to both his love and respect, acts most presumptuously if he is not restrained by knowing that such a father's eye is on him. If he refuses to be careful because his parent's eye is on him, he is both callous and presumptuous. But think of your being as completely watched by the Omniscient as if there was no other being on which He had to rest His eye, and, while thus the object of His undivided attention, trampling His law under foot! O the marvellous long-suffering of God!

2. It was done in His sight, because done before His omnipresence. It is the glory of God that, while He cannot be contained except in the infinite and Eternal immensity of His own being, He, in His infinite being and in all His moral glory, can be in every spot throughout all the universe, and therefore is thus present where thou art sinning. You cannot find a place to sin but in the presence of His majesty and glory. O think of how God is thus insulted to His face whenever and wherever thou art committing sin!

3. It is done in His sight, for it is done when He is near to you in the action of His providence. At the very moment when you are sinning He is putting forth His power in upholding you, and each token of His goodness, conveyed to you by the operation of His power — and conveyed to you at that moment — you use, as they reach your hand, as a weapon wherewith to contend with Him! It is while you "live, move, and have your being in Him" you are transgressing His holy law!

4. It is done in His sight by you, for it is done by you when He is near to you in the gospel — while He stands and knocks at your door. O think of the glory which He hath revealed, and which shines from "the face of Jesus Christ," of the love which He has commended, and of which He testifies to you, of the precious blood of His Son "shed for the remission of sins," of the "great salvation" which in Christ He presents to you, of the urgent calls addressed to you authoritatively requiring your acceptance of "His unspeakable gift," and of His patience in still continuing to plead with you, and then consider what must be implied in your doing evil in His sight when He has thus approached you!

5. In the case of David, and in that of every child of God, sin is committed in His sight, because done by one who was brought near to Him by being adopted into His family. Child of God, never approach to think that the grace which you have received can extenuate the guilt which you contract by law-breaking. Instead of this, your privileges as a child give you a power which no other has of aggravating your sin. No sin can be greater than yours. Is there nothing in the glorious greatness and rich grace of your Father to make you specially afraid of sinning? And surely there are no circumstances in which sin so aggravated can be committed, as by him who does "evil" amidst the blessings which surround him in a state of grace, on whom shines light from above the mercy seat, and before whom walked his Elder Brother, leaving him an example that he should follow His steps.

6. "This evil" was done by the Psalmist in His sight, because it was done by one in whom dwelt the Holy Spirit. This is, in a special sense, true of all sins committed by those who are "the temples of the Holy Ghost." He is in them, and specially and graciously present with the life which He has begotten in them, and forth from beside His presence there comes forth the evil lusting, and under its influence, the "enticed" will goes forth in sinful action. How intensely aggravated sin thus issuing and "finished" must be! Combine thoughts of the majesty and holiness, with thoughts of the grace, of the Spirit's presence in the heart, and then consider what doing "evil" in His sight must imply.

7. The Psalmist did "this evil" in the sight of the Lord, because he had done it after enjoying intimate communion with Him. His sinward movement began when he was lying on the bosom of divine love. And it began in his being lifted up in pride because of what he had enjoyed. How fearfully this aggravates his evil-doing! How ought his enjoyment of the light of God's face to have attached him to his Father and to His law! But he came forth from His fellowship to sin. And he made his enjoyment, while near, a reason for departing, in his pride of heart, from "the fountain of living waters!"


1. Mark well the difference between considering sin in its bearing on God, and viewing it merely in its bearing on yourself. For this indicates the difference between a true and a counterfeit conviction of sin. You may be much afflicted by a sense of the danger to which you have exposed yourself by sinning, and from that danger you may be most intensely anxious to escape. To secure a sense of deliverance from death what would you not do, what not sacrifice of carnal indulgence, what not suffer that would be penance to the flesh? But there is no such view of sin before your mind as constrains you to justify God in condemning you to death, as persuades you that there can be no hope for you unless the name of God, which you dishonoured, shall be glorified, as shuts you up to the cross of Christ as the only channel through which pardoning mercy can flow out from God to you as a sinner, or as enables you to have any right conception of the grace to which alone you may hopefully appeal. Only the man who heartily confesses "Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Thy sight," can heartily add a vindication of divine justice such as we have in the words, "That Thou mightest be justified when Thou speakest, and be clear when Thou judgest," can honestly cry for the application of atoning blood, or can make a guileless appeal to the loving-kindness and mercy of the Lord.

2. Almost all religious errors spring from defective views of sin, as these are the result of defective views of God. In these days it is becoming common to ignore all divine attributes but love, and so to conceive of divine love as something utterly inconsistent with His righteousness and holiness, and as therefore requiring the removal of all impressions of these which the revelations of the Old Testament and the true doctrine of the cross are fitted to produce. And all relations between God and men, such as are indicated in Scripture, are kept out of sight, and for all these there is substituted a supposed relation of universal fatherhood on the part of God, the faith of which is all that is required to make men safe and happy. Towards this is the drift of religious thought in these days, though only in a few instances  as the position indicated been reached. Against this rationalised scheme of grace all would do well to be on their guard. It may for a season act as a sedative, but just as surely it will act as a deadly poison. Know God, and know sin as against Him, and attain to some acquaintance with the mystery of the cross, then the plausible sophistries of rationalistic teachers will fail to draw thee aside from "the old paths" in which the fathers walked with God.

3. Only a heart in which there is love to God can be duly affected by viewing sin as against Him. Only from such a heart can true repentance flow. Let your prayer then be, "Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me."

Preached to the Free Church congregation in Dingwall in 1883.