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Westminster Shorter Catechism Project

A Commentary
on the
Shorter Catechism

Alexander Whyte

Q. 14. What is sin?
A. Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.

Sin—Wickedness, iniquity, crime. Skeat follows Curtius in tracing the root to a Teutonic base, A.S. to be. "Language regards the guilty man as the man who it was." Cf. Genesis 3:12, 13; 2 Samuel 12:7; Romasn 7:9. "Sin consists essentially in the motives, dispositions, and volitions of the heart; and the external act only possesses a moral nature by its connection with these internal affections" (Princeton Essays, xi.).

want of conformity—Whoso committeth sin transgresseth also the law; for sin is the transgression of the law, and where no law is there is no transgression. The law of God is the rule given to man for all his actions, and wherein he does not conform his actions to that rule he has committed sin. We may commit sin either by doing what we ought not to do, or by not doing what it is our duty to do. We may become guilty either by commission or omission. Want of conformity here means sins of omission, and transgression means the commission of actual deeds of sin. This two-edged definition is admirably observed and illustrated in the analysis of the Ten Commandments given in the practical parts of the Catechism. Under each commandment it is asked, What is required? and, What is forbidden? In other words, What is "conformity" here? and what is "transgression"? See Paterson's Preface.

Augustine defines sin as factum vel dictum vel concupitum aliquid contra aeternam legem, every work, word, or wish contrary to the law of God. And Trench in his New Testament Synonyms gathers a "mournfully numerous" group of words out of Holy Scripture, all of which describe sin in one or other of its many aspects. It is the missing of a mark or aim; it is the over-passing or transgression of a line; it is disobedience to a voice; it is falling where one should have stood upright; it is ignorance of what one ought to have known; it is any diminishing of that which should have been rendered in full measure; it is non-observance of a law; it is a discord, and other evil things and ways "almost out of number."

"Sin is no other thing than disagreeableness, in a moral agent, to the Iaw or rule of his duty. Aud therefore the degree of sin is to be judged by the rule; so much disagreeableness to the rule, so much sin, whether it be defect or excess. . . . Sin is an abominable defect, and appears so to the saints, especially those that are eminent" (Edwards).

1. "Shall I speak the least evil I can say of sin? It is an evil, which in the nature and essence of it, virtually and eminently contains all evils of all kinds that are in the world, insomuch as in the Scriptures you shall find that all the evils of the world serve but to answer for it, and to give names to it. Hence sin, it is called poison, and sinners, serpents; sin is called a vomit, and sinners, dogs; it is the stench of graves, and they rotten sepulchres; it is mire, sinners, sows; and sin, darkness, blindness, shame, nakedness, folly, madness, death, whatever is filthy, defective, infective, painful. . . . It is so evil that it cannot have a worse epithet given to it than itself; and therefore the apostle, when he would speak his worst of it, and wind up his expression highest, usque ad hyperbolem, calls it by its own name, sinful sin (Romans 7:13). . . It is sinning sin, you cannot call it by a worse name than its own (Goodwin).


"Sin is the living worm, the lasting fire;
Hell seen would lose its heat, could sin expire.
Better sinless is hell, than to be where
Heaven is, and to be found a sinner there.
One sinless with infernals might do well,
But sin would make of heaven a very hell.
Look to thyself then, keep it out of door,
Lest it get in and never leave thee more.

"Fools make a mock at sin, will not believe
It carries such a dagger in its sleeve;
How can it be, say they, that such a thing,
So full of sweetness, err should wear a sting?
They know not that it is the very spell
Of sin, to make them laugh themselves to hell.
Look to thyself, then, deal with sin no more,
Lest He who saves, against thee shuts the door. "—BUNYAN.


1. Hodge points out that the sinfulness of any "want of conformity" lies ultimately In want of congeniality. Explain.

2. The Catechism at its strongest is much less severe in its language concerning sin than the Scriptures. Give some illustrations of the awful language used In the word of God about sin. And study the terrific account of the procreation of sin by Satan, its father, in Paradise Lost.

3. Divinity students, and all who would know more of this subject, should see Dr. Hodge's analysis of Augustine's doctrine of sin in his second volume. Also the "mournfully numerous" group of scriptural synonyms for sin in Trench. Under Sin let students consult the index to Dr. Thomas Goodwin's Works, the most scriptural and by far the most suggestive of all the Puritan divines.

4. Illustrate the criminality of sins of omission from our Lord's parables.

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