HAND – BOOK OF THEOLOGY.
ON MAN’S MORAL NATURE.
There is scarcely any important doctrine taught in the Bible that has not been made the subject of controversy. While great numbers acknowledge the Divine authenticity of the Holy Scriptures, and earnestly contend for their supreme authority in all matters relating to God and His will–profess implicit subjection to their teaching, and contend for them as the only and perfect standard of truth and error, in all matters of faith and practice–still there are wide differences of opinion and endless controversies among them, and have been in all the ages of the Christian dispensation. To say that this is owing to any obscurity or ambiguity in Divine Revelation is to charge God foolishly, The sacred Scriptures were designed to give us the knowledge of God and His Will; and if they are not competent to convey to us the true knowledge of the character and will of God, they fail to answer the purpose for which they were intended. And there is no alternative–we are left without a guide. That we may obtain some knowledge of God, and our relations to Him, as the rightful subjects of His moral government, without revelation, is true enough. But of that knowledge which is necessary to our acceptance with Him, and which will secure our salvation, we can learn nothing–absolutely nothing–but what we learn from the written word. And from the inspired record we may, if we will, learn all that is necessary for our faith, our duty, and our eternal destiny. From works of creation, and the ordinary course of Divine Providence, in connection with man’s intellectual and moral constitution, we may learn enough of God and our relations to Him to make us accountable subjects of His government; but we can not by these means gain the least degree of knowledge of the way of eternal life. The Holy Scriptures are the only source from which we can derive the least degree of light upon the subject of our salvation. Without the Bible we can never attain to a saving knowledge of the true God and eternal life; neither can we, without it, ever acquire a right knowledge of ourselves, and our true character in the sight of God; nor can we rightly understand the relation in which we stand to Him. Ignorance and error will characterize all our speculations upon these subjects, any further than they are based upon the clear light of God’s revealed truth. But the instructions of the word of God upon these subjects are clear and explicit, and if we fall into any essential error, it is not for want of adequate instructions, but because we are indisposed to receive implicitly the plain teachings of the Bible. Many there are who would disdain to seek spiritual light in a Romish confessional; but they will explore the fields of natural science in search of spiritual truth. The latter would certainly be the more pleasant employment to a truly rational mind; but what is the difference in the final event? We may be led by the hand of blind superstition till we fall into the ditch, or we may be beguiled into it by the false light of philosophy. I do not say this with a view to depreciate natural science; no man can hold it in higher esteem than I do; but the way of salvation is to be found in the infallible word of God, and nowhere else. To verify the truth of those remarks, nothing more would be necessary than to mention a few celebrated names found recorded in modern history–men upon whose minds the sun of science has shed its brightest rays; but what do those men say of the true light–the light that shines in a dark place?
The word of God is truth. What He says of Himself is truth, though it may not entirely coincide with our views of what He ought to be; but He alone knows Himself. What He says of us, is truth, for He knows us far better than we know ourselves; yet the character He gives us may not be quite agreeable to the opinion we entertain of ourselves. And what God says of His purposes and His will is true; but we can know nothing at all of His purposes, except what He has revealed in His word.
We should deal honestly with ourselves, and not be afraid to know the very worst of our condition as condemned sinners before God; and we should also deal honestly with ourselves, and be willing to know and confess the very worst of our character as sinful in our nature. It would be good for us to know the whole extent of our alienation from God, and our want of a perfect conformity of heart to the law and will of God.
But men are unwilling to believe that they sustain that character in the sight of God which is given to them in the Holy Scriptures. Almost every man thinks he possesses some good qualities. Some will estimate their moral worth very high, while others will entertain a more humble opinion of their personal goodness; but all have claims, in their own esteem, to a degree, less or more, to something which is commendable in the sight of God. Now, if they would confine their pretensions to what is generally termed moral goodness–such qualities as are good in themselves, and justly commendable in the estimation of the social community–there ought to be no controversy on the subject. Their claims in this respect would be just, on every principle of sound reason, and fully supported by the sacred scriptures. But we suppose there are very few, if any, who are so blind to their own imperfections as to imagine that they are morally perfect, and wholly free from any principles, or dispositions, or inclinations to things that are evil. And when men regard themselves as being possessed of a degree of moral virtue, and know that they are sustained in their opinion by the public sentiment, they readily conclude that there is in them, by nature, a degree of moral goodness in the sight of God. They, therefore, persuade themselves that the good moral traits in their character, and the good moral actions they perform, are somewhat meritorious in the sight of God, and must, to some extent, secure His favor–when at the same time, in all probability, they would be just as good as they are, and act just as well as they do, if they believed that God never sees their actions. A man may perform an act of kindness, because prompted by the feelings of common humanity. Or he may do it in order to gain or preserve the respect and confidence of the community in which be lives. Or he may respect himself as a rational man, too much to debase himself in his own esteem by beastliness. And all this is well in its place, but it may be done while God is not in all his thoughts; and an Atheist would do no less.
On the subject of human depravity there have been conflicting opinions among writers and preachers in almost every age since the days of the apostles; and this will probably continue to be the case for ages to come, or till the brightness of the millennial day shall dispel the darkness of error in a much greater degree than in the present age. I am not vain enough to hope that I shall be able to settle this controversy; but if I can suggest any thought to the mind of the reader that will be profitable, I shall not think my time and labor wasted.
One great reason why men, even good men, differ so much in their views of the doctrine, is because they affix different ideas to the words employed to express it. One gives the term depravity a much greater extent of application than another. That human nature is depraved in some measure, I believe all admit. None will contend that man is, by nature, absolutely perfect–that he is perfect in holiness; and none ought to contend that man is utterly incapable in every respect of doing a good moral action. All may admit that there is in us, by nature, a tendency to things that are sinful, and freely subscribe to the doctrine that human nature is, to some extent, morally corrupt.
In forming a judgment upon this subject, there is one thing that should never be overlooked, if we desire to know the truth: we are all naturally inclined to think we are better than we are. This has the effect to warp the judgment, and lead to an erroneous conclusion. Every man should keep a jealous guard over this self-partiality. This is the occasion of innumerable errors, and is a dangerous foe to our spiritual interest. It is one of the strongest weapons in Satan’s armor; or like an open gate in a fortress, at which the enemy can enter at any time, and therefore should be guarded with unceasing vigilance.
Holiness and sinfulness are directly contrary to each other: and our conceptions of the former are so very imperfect, that we have very imperfect and erroneous views of the latter. Hence we form false notions of the degree of our alienation from God–that is the degree of our moral depravity.
In order to ascertain as nearly as we well can, to what extent we may properly apply the principle of depravity–that is, the sinfulness of our nature to the human soul–it is necessary that we observe the proper distinction between those attributes of the mind which are purely intellectual or mental, and those which we term moral. As this distinction is important in the present inquiry, I must dwell a little on this point. I will specify: Mental perception is that faculty or power of the mind by which we are able to distinguish the difference between things–by which we know that a part is less than the whole–by which we know that two is more than one. This we call an intellectual or mental attribute or faculty. By exercising the power of the understanding we acquire knowledge on any subject; by the powers of the memory we retain that knowledge; by the judgment we compare the relative weight of evidence on any question, and are able to decide in matters of truth and error, right and wrong. These we term intellectual or mental attributes: they are also sometimes called physical powers, to distinguish them from the moral attributes; though the word physical is more generally applied to the organization and activities of the body, in distinction from those of the mind. But perhaps I ought here to notify or remind some of my readers that as God has no bodily attributes (because He has no bodily organizations), we are under a kind of necessity to distinguish His attributes by the terms physical and moral. Thus His power and wisdom are called physical attributes, and His love and goodness are moral attributes.
But in respect to those attributes of the mind which we term moral, it is necessary to specify only a few–justice, kindness, truth, chastity, etc. If a man is deficient in any of these he is not considered a good man. A man is not blamable simply for thinking, but he is blameworthy for evil-thinking; he is not blamable merely for speaking, but for evil-speaking be is culpable. Mere desire is not, in itself, sinful, but unlawful desire is sinful.
There are duties which we owe to God which we do not owe to man; but all the duties we owe to one another, even all duties, are included in our duty to God. We may fail in the discharge of our peculiar duties to God, and yet not sin against our fellow-men; but if we fail to fulfill any duty we owe to others, or to ourselves, we sin against God. Hence moral depravity is always to be considered in relation to God. The word holiness includes all that is good, and the word sinfulness includes all that is not good. No action, or word, or thought of man is destitute of moral character in the sight of God; every thought is either holy or sinful in His sight. And any thought, or word, or action of man that does not possess the character of holiness in the sight of God, is sinful. There must be in it the element of positive holiness, or it is not good in His sight, but is necessarily sinful.
It is highly important, as I have said, that we keep this distinction between the mental and moral nature of man in view. Because I hold that the mental or intellectual powers of man are not depraved. They are not subjects of moral character. In themselves they are neither morally good nor morally bad. They have no inherent tendencies or proclivities to good or evil, but are, as it were, the instruments of our moral nature, and always obey its dictates. On the supposition that man is an order of beings inferior to angels, yet Adam was, in his created character, as holy as Gabriel; and Satan may be even now, in his intellectual powers, as great as Gabriel, yet no one will say that he is not totally depraved in his moral nature. The unjust steward exhibited great intellectual power in devising the means of support, after he was displaced from his office, and his Lord commended him because he acted wisely; but no one would commend him for acting dishonestly. It was his duty to exercise his mental powers the best he could, but the sinfulness of his conduct is to be referred to his depraved moral principles. The assassin plunges the dagger into the heart of his enemy:–there is no moral depravity in the dagger, for it is not, and can not be, the subject of moral character; there is no depravity in the arm that forced the dagger, for the very same reason; and for the same reason, there is no moral depravity in the mental discernment and correct judgment that directed the instrument to the vital organ, for all these might have been employed in a similar act, in a lawful way; but the moral corruption attaches to the malicious disposition of the heart, which influenced the will to commit the deed. The sheriff who executes a criminal, employs the intellectual powers of his mind as diligently as the assassin; but this he does because it is his duty. He does it, not to gratify an evil disposition, but to fulfill a lawful obligation. He does right, and the righteousness of the act is founded in the motives which induce him to perform it.
I must be indulged to dwell a little longer on this point, because, for want of observing this distinction, the doctrine of human depravity is often misapplied and perverted to the cause of error. If the teacher does not, yet the hearer applies the doctrine to those actings of the mind which it is the moral duty of every man to exercise; and, on the other hand, they will exempt from sinfulness those dispositions and inclinations which are the very seat of moral depravity, and source of all sinful thoughts, words, and actions.
Being desirous to exhibit the subject as plainly as I possibly can, I will have recourse to another exemplification : “Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity.” Now let us notice the term ‘canst not:’ We learn here that God can not endure the sight of iniquity. This is not said merely by way of emphasis; the prophet speaks Divine truth. But what is the reason that God can not look upon sin ? He looks upon and sees all things, and sees every thing just as it is. But on account of the infinite holiness of His nature He can not endure the sight of sin with the least degree of toleration. It is not from any imperfection in his power, but owing to the perfection of His holiness. It is contrary to His nature, and therefore He can not behold evil otherwise than with abhorrence find indignation. But again: It is said of some, “Having eyes full of adultery that can not cease from sin.” Here we have a similar mode of expression–they can not cease from sin. Such persons are not blind. They have ability to employ their eyes in reading the word of God, that they may learn and do His will. They might use their eyes for holy purposes, as well as for lascivious purposes, but by reason of the unholiness or depravity of their nature they can not cease from sin. God always acts, and must act, in perfect conformity with His holy nature, and therefore can not sin; and man always acts in conformity with his unholy nature, and therefore can not cease from sin. Strictly speaking, neither the faculties of the mind nor the members of the body are depraved; but both are governed and controlled by his carnal and worldly heart. Both may yield themselves as instruments of righteousness unto holiness, or they may yield themselves as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin ; and by reason of the depravity of man’s moral nature, they do the latter–“fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind.”
In the foregoing remarks I would not be understood to advance the doctrine that the mental powers of man have sustained no injury by our apostasy from God, and that the intellectual faculties are in every respect as perfect as they were in creation, and while man continued in a state of primeval holiness. I think far otherwise. I believe that man possesses now all the original mental faculties with which he was endowed in his creation; but, by reason of sin, and the alienation of his moral nature from God, these faculties are greatly impaired. Indeed, I entertain the opinion that the powers of the human mind are, in consequence of sin, impaired to a far greater extent than is generally supposed, and than many would be willing to admit. If sin had never found entrance among the human family, I have scarcely a doubt that every man would now possess a degree of knowledge in things, both natural and Divine, incomparably greater than any man has ever attained in this world to the present day–only he would have known nothing of God’s method of saving sinners, because that would not have been revealed. A man may possess every member of the body, not one lacking, but a leg may be broken, an arm paralyzed, the eyes diseased or injured, so that he is incapable of those exercises which properly pertain to a perfect human body; so the powers of his mind have suffered such a decree of detriment that he is now little more than the ruins of what be was when be first surveyed the works of his God. In consequence of moral depravity, the understanding is darkened, mental perception is weakened, the judgment is perverted, etc. But they are not morally depraved, because they are not, properly speaking, the subjects of moral character. A staff may be broken so as to be of little use, but the timber may still be sound; so is our intellectual nature–it is physically impaired, but not morally depraved. An egg may be whole, not a fracture in it, but it may be rotten; so is our moral nature.
The distinction between a natural ability and a moral ability is not merely technical or artificial, as some affect to believe; it is a real distinction, as much so as the distinction between a man’s desire to take his child in his arms, and the muscular strength by which he performs the deed. And he that can not see the distinction, should not set himself up as a teacher–even a teacher of babes. The terms “power,” “ability,” “inability,” and other words of similar force, being often used indefinitely, and with considerable latitude of application, may contribute somewhat to that confusion and indistinctness of thought which appear to embarrass the minds of persons on this subject. They do not consider that that may be possible in one respect which is impossible in another respect. If I should say a man has ability to think and judge–meaning the mind of the man–it would be true; but if I should affirm this of a man, meaning the mere body of the man, it would be false; for it is impossible for mere matter to think and judge. The confirmed atheist has as much natural ability to repeat the Lord’s Prayer as any of His apostles had, but he has absolutely no ability to pray that prayer “with the spirit and the understanding.” The natural man may have as much natural ability to sing as the holiest saint on earth; and he would sing the ballad of “Death and Dr. Hornbook” with as much spiritual devotion as he would the fifty–first Psalm. The distinction between the intellectual powers of man and his moral powers, is as real as the distinction between his bodily powers and the powers of his mind.
That the will is the ruling faculty of the mind in man, needs no proof; and that the will is not subject to reason, is evident, from both experience and observation, to every one who has given a tolerable degree of attention to the subject. Man often sets knowingly in opposition to every dictate of sound reason. He knows what is right, but the will is influenced by the passions, the appetites, avarice, pride, revenge, etc., and determines his actions contrary to his judgment, and in opposition even to the dictates of his conscience.
I have taken the ground that the purely mental powers of man are not susceptible of moral depravity, and therefore are not depraved, though they are impaired; and that depravity is confined to the moral faculties. I know not how far the intelligent reader will concur in this view. I might have said a great deal more on this particular point, but I should not have said so much, but for the bearing the subject must have upon other important doctrines which must necessarily come under consideration in the progress of this work. I desist on this point, but on the general subject of human depravity something more is required.