ON THE ORIGIN OF HUMAN DEPRAVITY.
We will now briefly inquire how it is that we are the subjects of a depraved nature. There are many who seem to think that man is now, in respect to the purity of his nature, just as he was when he was first created. But it would be preposterous, and even blasphemous, to say that a holy God created man with an unholy nature, and then pronounced him good. We must seek for the origin of our moral corruption in some other direction; for there is no unholiness in the Divine nature–therefore He could not impart sinfulness to His creatures. One has a black skin, and another has a white skin: how does this come to pass? The answer is obvious; we derive our natural complexion from our parents. There is a universal law of nature that “like produces like.” Every vegetable that grows out of the earth, and every animal that inhabits it, derives its own peculiar nature from the parent–not by imitation, not by instruction, nor by example, but by natural descent. If, therefore, we account for our own peculiar nature in the same way, we reason in conformity with a universal law of nature; and there can be no solid reason assigned why man should be an exception to this law, and the only exception. Hence it is not philosophical to ascribe our depravity to any other than a natural cause. And if we could trace the moral nature of our parentage upward to the first man, we should not be able to find the origin of our depravity anywhere this side of that source. And further, if we direct our inquiries to any other department of creation, we shall search in vain for this moral malady.
By what means it was that our first parents became infected with moral depravity, is another question, and may possibly engage our attention hereafter. Certainly, it was not by creation.
We must take ourselves just as we now are; and our own sins we must charge to our own selves, for the righteous Judge will certainly charge them to us. We possess mental abilities by which we are able to distinguish between right and wrong–between good and evil; and if we choose the evil and refuse the good, it is plain that we are justly liable to the necessary consequences of our own voluntary and sinful choice. The path of duty is made plain, and we are forewarned of the consequences of disobedience; and it matters not how we became possessed of a disobedient spirit, if we voluntarily choose the way that leads to death, it is just that we abide the consequences. And what is this depravity, less or more, than a prevailing disposition or inclination to that which is evil ? The power to discern between right and wrong is not extinguished in the mind of any human being where insanity has not supervened. The most ignorant and besotted savages understand the difference sufficiently to render them amenable to justice. And the most debased tribes of our species have their laws, or established customs, for the punishment of evil-doers. Our perception of this distinction is a part of our natural knowledge, and has its foundation in the fact that we are intelligent beings. We do not need the light of revelation to enable us to know enough of the principles of right and wrong, to render us accountable, for we know enough for that by the light of nature. Some persons have clearer perceptions of this principle than others; and we who have the benefit of the light of Divine revelation are under additional responsibilities, corresponding with our superior advantages. And justice must award a punishment in proportion to the increased degree of our guilt. Our knowledge of the Divine will is sufficient to render us responsible agents; and our unwillingness to do that will, makes our condemnation just. We disobey because we are unwilling to obey. This is the very reason why we do those things that are forbidden.
Of Total Depravity.
It will be recollected that I have said that few, if any, will pretend that man is absolutely perfect in holiness. It will be admitted that man is, to some extent, naturally inclined to things that are unholy in the sight of God. This point being conceded, we proceed to inquire whether man is “totally depraved,“ as we commonly express the idea. The question of man’s total depravity has been a subject of dispute among the learned and the unlearned almost from time immemorial. We are hardly in a condition to render an impartial verdict, because man is a party interested in the decision. It is a rule in equity that a man is not to be the judge in his own cause.
I chose to reserve this important question, till I had submitted some thoughts on the general subject of human nature, that the reader might be the better prepared to understand my views on the subject of total depravity.
Is man totally depraved? Is he so utterly alienated in heart from God and holiness that he is incapable of rendering to God any acceptable worship and service? The evidence is such as forces me to take the affirmative. I believe that all of man’s nature that is susceptible of spiritual corruption is depraved. If the word of God does not support this doctrine, then I will consent that the controversy shall hinge on the principles of human reasoning, and logical inferences from general truths. But if the plain statements of the Holy Scriptures, fairly interpreted, will decide the question, I will not hold myself bound to follow an opponent through all his abstruse speculations, and answer all the disingenuous quibbles he may choose to interpose. I shall address my arguments to those who acknowledge implicitly the supreme authority of Divine inspiration.
1. I lay it down as a fundamental principle that the depravity of which we are speaking relates wholly to things spiritual, and must be considered exclusively in respect to our relations to God. Consequently,
Whatever may pertain to our nature that may be regarded as good in itself, and whatever good dispositions we may possess or entertain toward our fellow creatures, excepting as above stated, is not competent evidence against total depravity.
2. Again: I lay it down as a fundamental truth, that if there is not in our nature a principle of holiness–positive holiness, even “holiness to the Lord“–then our depravity is total. For,
That holiness which is required is an active and operative principle, that must produce holy fruits; it is not a mere negative virtue; the mere absence of sinfulness. Even if it were possible–which it is not–that there could be such a neutral character as a human being without sinfulness, and without holiness, he would sustain no moral relation to God whatever. If there is not the element of activity in our holiness, there can be no acceptable obedience, for obedience consists in doing the will of God.
We will now proceed to examine the direct evidence contained in the word of God.
“You hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and in sins; wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others.” (Eph. ii. 1-3.) What is the doctrine of this passage of Scripture? “You who were dead in trespasses and in sins.” Can evidence be more decisive than this? It is hardly possible to find language that will teach total depravity in a more determinate and unqualified manner than this does. No stronger term can be found in any language than the word dead. And the adjuncts, in trespasses and sins, fully show the nature of the death intended by the Holy Spirit. To modify the meaning of the word, is to attempt, to improve the diction of the Divine Witness. If the inspired writer did not mean all that his language imports, he surely could have adopted a different mode of expression, without using terms which would necessarily be false. The language is not hortative nor poetical, but a grave statement of a most solemn and important truth. If man is not spiritually dead, he is spiritually alive. This is self-evident. There can be no intermediate ground for a debater to contend upon. Dead to all that is holy and spiritual. “In trespasses and in sins.” This phrase fixes and defines the term dead. Not deprived of the use of our mental powers, or the exercise of our moral affections, but wholly under the power of our carnal nature; or, in other words, totally depraved. Living, not in the holiness of the Spirit, but the lusts of the flesh. “And the flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh, and these two are contrary the one to the other.” Before we are born of the Spirit, we “fulfill the desires of the flesh and of the mind.” And these desires, not merely coming short of conformity to the Spirit of holiness, but being contrary to it. Who will say, that he who fulfills that which is contrary to holiness, possesses the spirit of holiness ? While in a state of nature, and dead in trespasses and sins, we walk “according to the course of this world.” Is the course of this world holy in any respect or in any degree? If it is, the world is in the right road to heaven. But it is “according to the prince of the power of the air “–that is, Satan. Does the Spirit of God dwell in the man that walks according to–that is, in conformity with–the will Satan? Also, it is the same spirit that “now works in the children of disobedience,“ elsewhere said to be the children of the devil. They are “of their father the devil, and the desires of their father they will do.” The saints at Ephesus had been “by nature the children of wrath.” Because they were by nature the children of disobedience, they are, therefore, said to be by nature the children of wrath.
Besides all this, if we are disposed to be consistent in our interpretation of the text, we are bound to consider the term dead in sin with reference to the antithesis, “quickened,“ or made alive. If, spiritually, we are dead, we are not alive; and if we are alive, we are not dead; and, therefore, do not need to be made alive. If we are not spiritually dead, there is no consistency in the apostle’s instruction, and no propriety in his language. This passage of Scripture alone ought to be decisive on the question, and satisfactory to every obedient mind. That the doctrine it teaches is at war with the natural pride of man’s heart, is true enough; but I believe the same may be said of every fundamental doctrine revealed in the Bible. Such is the innate hostility of the unrenewed heart against God and His truth.
We will proceed to consider some other scriptures, with but little comment. The same form of expression as that we have just considered is used in the fifth verse of the same chapter, and again in Col. ii. 13. In Eph. iv. 18, we read, “Being alienated from the life of God,” etc. Here the same doctrine is taught in different words, but in plain language. The fact that the apostle adopts a different phraseology to convey the same idea makes the point all the more definite, and precludes evasion. The apostle John, in his first epistle (v. 19), speaking of the unbelieving world, says: “The whole world lieth in wickedness;” or, “in the wicked one,” as in the margin. Can it be properly said of those that “lie in wickedness,” that they have the life of God in them ? The apostle is speaking of the whole world, as distinguished from those who are “of God.” There is no room here for evasion. Again (1 John iii. 14): “We know that we have passed from death unto life,” etc. And Jesus says: “But is passed from death unto life” (John v. 24.) You may consult the context; I omit it because there is but one point to which I design to direct your attention. We find here a passing from death unto life. These words must be understood in a positive sense, for they do not admit of being used in a comparative sense. Except, then, we are dissatisfied with the truth they teach, we are bound to understand them as meaning positive death and positive life. If, therefore, we possess by nature a particle of spiritual life, there is no propriety in saying we pass from death unto life. If any should say these terms are used in different applications, and that it is necessary to ascertain to what subject they are applied, I freely admit it. These terms are sometimes employed figuratively, and applied to different subjects. But in every place in the above quotations, they are manifestly used in a spiritual sense. The terms are strictly correlative, and placed in opposition to each other; and must be understood according to the antithesis, or they convey no definite idea, and give us no instruction. That state of life into which we pass by the transition, is a life that previously, while in the state of death, had no existence in us. The kind of life to which John refers in his epistle, is made so plain by the connection, that no unbiased mind can be at a loss for his meaning. Before the transition we are spiritually dead, and after it we are spiritually alive. While spiritually dead we are as incapable of doing any thing spiritually good, as the dead body of a man is of performing any useful action.
I will now cite you to other scriptures which clearly teach the same doctrine, and, without much comment, leave them to your own reflection: “But without faith it is impossible to please Him” (God). (Heb. xi. 6.) Now faith is a fruit of the Spirit, and we can not have the faith until the Spirit is given to us. Again, “They that are in the flesh can not please God.” (Rom. viii. 8.) “They that are in the flesh–” that is, they that are in a state of nature; for this is the sense in which Paul generally uses the phrase, and the context shows that this is the apostle’s meaning. Whatever ability we may ascribe to the natural man, these scriptures certify that he is not able to please God. And a good reason for it is, that whatever pleases the natural man does not please God. And here we see the extent of the natural ability of man to do that which is spiritually good–he can not please God. In the third chapter of Romans it is said, “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Examine this chapter from the ninth to the eighteenth verse, and see if you can subvert the doctrine of total depravity. Again, our Savior says, “I know you that ye have not the love of God in you.” (John v. 42.) How much more can a man be depraved, than to be totally destitute of the love of God? “The carnal mind is enmity against God.” (Rom. viii. 7.) “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing.” (Rom. vii. 18.) To these testimonies others might be added; but if they are not satisfactory without additional evidence, it appears to me the fault must be in the judge and not in the witnesses. Let the candid reader review the foregoing quotations, and sum up the characteristics there ascribed to human nature, and I do not see how he can avoid the conclusion that man’s moral nature is totally depraved. The word of God is a “sure word,” and “true from the beginning.” If we will be guided by its light, it will always lead us to true knowledge; but if our aversion to the doctrines it reveals is such that we choose to walk in the darkness of our own speculations, we shall eventually see the end of our wanderings.
In addition to the direct proofs exhibited in the foregoing quotations, the doctrine under discussion is susceptible of strong, and, as I think, unanswerable proof, by induction from the general doctrines of the gospel, as received by all who can rationally claim a title to be called evangelical. Doctrines which most Christians profess, and which are contended for by Christians generally–those in this country, at least–even by those who do not subscribe to the tenet of total depravity, are inconsistent with the opposite opinion.
We are taught that before we can have any Scripture ground to believe that we are converted, or in a saved state, we must be the subjects of a great change–a real change of heart; and that this is something more than a mere outward reformation; that this inward change is the special work of the Holy Spirit. This is a fundamental principle, and is generally accepted as such. If I were engaged in writing a strictly polemic discourse I should have no need to take advantage of this acknowledgment, but I would content myself with coming at once to the Divine record. Thus our Savior said to Nicodemus, “Ye must be born again.” We are said to be “born of the Spirit.” The Holy Spirit is the author, or agent, of this new birth. Hence we are said to be “begotten of God.” These scriptures with many others teach that a real change must be effected in our moral nature, in order to our becoming the proper subjects of the kingdom of Christ. For such expressions surely can not imply any thing less. And hence it is insisted on so earnestly by all our evangelical preachers and writers, and occupies a prominent place in so many of our confessions of faith. The necessity of conversion, as it is generally called, is urged with a zeal and pertinacity almost worthy of its importance. And this work of conversion is always attributed to the Holy Spirit. We are constantly taught that we must be born of the Spirit, else we can not be the children of God; and that this change is beyond the power of man, and is wrought by the power of God. In perfect agreement with this view, ministers and all Christians offer up their fervent prayers to God, that He would convert sinners from the error of their way. The Holy Scriptures abundantly ascribe this work to God. And the Lord himself speaks of it as his own work, and promises to perform it: “I will put my Spirit within you.” “I will put my laws into their minds, and write them in their hearts.” “I will give you a new heart.” Thus we read–“The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost, which is given unto us.” It is the Holy Ghost which convinces us of sin, of righteousness, etc.
Now if man is not totally depraved, there is a part in him that does not need this change, and is not a subject of renewing grace. And his salvation is partly of nature and partly of grace. It is partly of God, and partly of himself. It is held by some that by the death of Christ, the Spirit is spread in every man’s heart, by which he is able to reinstate himself in the favor of God. But this is destitute of Scripture proof–it is a mere assumption ; and, in fact, it is virtually taking for granted the main point in debate. They that take this ground must substantiate their position by adequate proofs from the Bible, which, I am sure, is a task they will never be able to perform. But till the proofs are fairly given we can not admit any arguments drawn from that source. Whether the death of Christ, of itself, could do it, is exceedingly doubtful; and that it did not do it, is, I think, very clear, for the whole tenor of Bible instruction is in opposition to such an idea. The ground usually taken is, that man is by nature possessed of a portion of spiritual life, or strength, or grace, or whatever it may be rightly called, which, if he will improve, or properly use and cultivate, he may become a Christian and a true child of God. Now if I were to concede the whole ground taken here, I might still contend that man is totally unable to bring himself into a state of grace, or even to do any thing which would be pleasing and acceptable to God, because the whole burden of this argument is made to rest upon the condition “if he will“–and the Scripture declares that he will not. So this lever is altogether too weak to overturn the doctrine of total depravity. On the doctrine of the will I hope to discourse before we have done with the subject of depravity. For the present, however, I wish to inquire what that germ or seed of grace is, that we have by nature–that every man brings into the world with him–or which, at some period of life previous to accountability, is given to every man. Great stress is laid upon it by some. It is made one of the strongest pillars upon which is built the scheme of our salvation, as taught in some systems of theology. If the doctrine is true, it behooves every man to understand it, for it devolves upon us an immense responsibility over and above all that the law imposes. If it is not true, the contrary must be true, and the doctrine of total depravity can not be assailed from that quarter. But even if their doctrine is true–if it can not be made available to our salvation–we should beware that we do not make a false and dangerous use of it, by resting more weight upon it than it is able to bear. It is, therefore, of great importance that we should know what it is, what it is worth, and what it can do for us. An erroneous estimate of its nature, use, and value, may be an occasion of fatal and ruinous mistakes. We inquire, then, Is this principle true spiritual life? If it is, we stand in no need of what we call conversion, but only of growth in grace. If it is that eternal life which the gospel reveals, what need is there to come to Christ that we may have life? And why exhort sinners to repent and be converted, seeing we are converted already, or do not need conversion? Is this principle the love of God, or does it implant the love of God in the heart? If this is what is meant, all is right with us. We have by nature the love of God in the soul. And all men love God if their doctrine is true. But both Scripture and facts testify the contrary. Again, Does this grace or power work in us repentance toward God? If it does, all men are under pardon; for pardon is secured to all that repent. And I would ask further, Is this ability, or spiritual principle, or whatever we may properly term it, the Spirit of Christ? Those in whom the Spirit of Christ dwells, are the children of God, and, consequently, the heirs of God. If it is not the Spirit of Christ, they are none of His, but are declared to be reprobates. Does it give as a hearty good-will to serve God in newness of life? Does it make us new creatures? If it does none of these things for us, it is no easy matter to see what its office is, or what is its nature, or wherein we are the better of it. The advocates of this doctrine, I believe, hold that, notwithstanding this ability possessed by all men, we must have wrought in us by the Holy Spirit a work of grace, without which we can not be saved. But the Holy Spirit is fully able to work in us any change and every grace we need, or possibly can need, as in any respect essential to our salvation, even though we are utterly destitute of any thing that is good. And if we can not be saved without a work of the Divine Spirit when we have this natural ability, and may be saved by the power of the Holy Ghost when we are totally depraved, how do we derive any advantage from it? I have given a good deal of reflection to this subject, and, so far as I can see, the legitimate tendency of this scheme is, that it increases our responsibilities without giving us any additional ability to meet them. And besides this, it is calculated to foster in the heart of the unconverted sinner a spirit of self-deception, by inducing the belief that his condition before God is better than what it really is; and all the while, as we have shown, the doctrine can not be reconciled with the obvious meaning of a great number of scriptures.
It is quite a possible thing for a man to mistake the workings of the natural conscience for the operations of the Holy Spirit. And this misapprehension, I suspect, has contributed a great deal to uphold the erroneous opinion that there is in man naturally a radical principle of spiritual goodness. It will not be denied that we may be misled by ignorance; and very few, I suppose, would doubt that we are liable to be deceived by the mere excitements of our moral sensations but many wilt think it almost impossible that we may be misguided by conscience. But this is an error; for “the mind and conscience are defiled.” Perhaps conscience is the best faculty of the soul in our present condition, as regards matters of right and wrong; but if it is not enlightened, and subdued into conformity with the word of God, it is not only an unsafe, but a dangerous guide in spiritual things. It is often false as an instructor; it is inefficient as a monitor, and unfaithful as a reprover. Look at the heathen nations in their absurd and superstitious rites and observances of their idolatrous worship, in which they are as conscientiously sincere as the most devoted Christian is in his obedience to the laws of Jesus Christ, and surely if a man is not as blind as they are he will see that conscience is not to be trusted to lead us to heaven. The parent burns the infant child as a sacrifice to procure the favor of his god. If this is right, certainly the Bible is not good authority; if it is not right, then the dictates of conscience are no certain criteria by which to judge of things spiritual. But without referring to the heathen, even in the land of Bibles there are superstitions as irrational, and absurd, and as sinful as those of the heathen. The ceremonies and observances enjoined by ecclesiastical despotism are respected by the conscience of the deluded votary, as much as the prescriptions of the Bible are by the enlightened believer. Paul acted as much in obedience to the authority of his conscience when persecuting the saints, as when he was preaching Jesus Christ and Him crucified to the Corinthians. If conscience does not lead according to the light of the Divine word, it is blind; and the consequences may be as fatal to follow a blind conscience, as to follow a blind Pharisee, or any other blind guide. He that knows his duty, and will not do it, is without excuse; and to plead ignorance, when we possess the means of knowing the truth, is to plead one sin in excuse for another. The God with whom we have to do will take no excuse.
Before I leave this subject I wish to present it to your reflection, very briefly, in two general points of view, leaving it with you to make the special applications.
The first is this: If we institute a comparison (I might say a contrast) between the holy and spiritual nature of the Divine Law on the one hand, and the exercises and inworkings of the natural heart of man on the other hand, it will clearly appear that in every respect in which a comparison can be made, the unsanctified heart is averse to the spiritual purity of the obligation which the law imposes. When all the thoughts and imaginations of the unregenerate heart are set in the strong light of the perfect spiritual holiness of God’s law it will be found that in that heart “there is no good thing”–nothing that the law will approve. I can not now go into the details of this argument, but if the position is defensible, as I have no doubt it is, it precludes the necessity of any other evidence, either to prove or disprove the total corruption of man’s moral nature.
The other general principle to which I referred above is the treatment which the gospel receives when proposed to the natural mind of man. Notwithstanding man’s ruined state–notwithstanding his desperate necessity, exposed to inevitable perdition–yet, when the gospel in its infinite worth and its unbounded freeness is presented to the sinner’s acceptance, it is willfully and persistently rejected by the natural heart. This is depravity with manifold aggravation.
These two categories comprehend all existing relations between God and man; and in respect to both, the facts demonstrate that there is in the unrenewed heart an inveterate opposition to both. In the investigation and discussion of this doctrine, we have no need, in strictness, to go out of the domain of law; but the open refusal of salvation by free grace, everywhere illustrated by facts, exhibits the truth in a most obvious and prominent light.