rss

CMF eZine


The online magazine of the Christian Military Fellowship.

Specify Alternate Text

A Practical View of the Prevailing - Chapter 2 Bookmark

Corruption of Human Nature

sect. i

Inadequate Conceptions of the Corruption of Human Nature

Popular Notions

AFTER considering the defective notions of the importance of Christianity in general, which prevail among the higher orders of professed Christians, the particular misconceptions which first come under our notice respect the corruption and weakness of human nature. This is a topic on which it is possible that many into whose hands the present Work shall fall, may not have bestowed much attention. If the case be so, it may be requisite to entreat them to lend a patient and a serious ear. The subject is of the deepest import. Nor are we afraid of going too far when we assert, that it lies at the very root of all true Religion, and is eminently the basis and groundwork of Christianity.

So far as the writer has had an opportunity of remarking, the generality of professed Christians among the higher classes, either altogether overlook or deny, or at least greatly extenuate, the corruption and weakness here in question. They acknowledge indeed that there is, and ever has been in the world, a great portion of vice and wickedness; that mankind have been ever prone to sensuality and selfishness, in disobedience to the more refined and liberal principles of their nature; that in all ages and countries, in public and in private life, innumerable instances have been afforded of oppression, of rapacity, of cruelty, of fraud, of envy, and of malice. They own that it is too often in vain that you inform the understanding, and convince the judgment. They admit that you do not thereby reform the hearts of men. Though they know their duty, they will not practice it; no, not even when you have forced them to acknowledge that the path of virtue is also that of real interest, and of solid enjoyment.

These facts are certain; they cannot be disputed; and they are at the same time so obvious, that one would have thought the celebrated apophthegm of the Grecian sage, “the majority are wicked,” would scarcely have established his claim to intellectual superiority.

But though these effects of human depravity are every where acknowledged and lamented, we must not expect to find them traced to their true origin.

Causa latet, vis est notissima

Prepare yourself to hear rather of frailty and infirmity, of petty transgressions, of occasional failings, of sudden surprisals, and of such other qualifying terms as may serve to keep out of view the true source of the evil, and without shocking the understanding, may administer consolation to the pride of human nature. The bulk of professed Christians are used to speak of man as of a being, who naturally pure, and inclined to all virtue, is sometimes, almost involuntarily, drawn out of the right course, or is overpowered by the violence of temptation. Vice with them is rather an accidental and temporary, than a constitutional and habitual distemper; a noxious plant, which, though found to live and even to thrive in the human mind, is not the natural growth and production of the soil.

True account proved from Reason and Scripture

Far different is the humiliating language of Christianity. From it we learn that man is an apostate creature, fallen from his high original, degraded in his nature, and depraved in his faculties: indisposed to good, and disposed to evil; prone to vice—it is natural and easy to him: disinclined to virtue—it is difficult and laborious; he is tainted with sin, not slightly and superficially, but radically and to the very core. That such is the Scripture account of man, however mortifying the acknowledgment of it may be to our pride, one would think, if this very corruption itself did not warp the judgment, none would be hardy enough to attempt to controvert. I know nothing which brings home so forcibly to my own feelings the truth of this Representation, as the consideration of what still remains to us of our primitive dignity, when contrasted with our present state of moral degradation,

“Into what depth thou seest,

From what height fallen.”

Examine first with attention the natural powers and faculties of man; invention, reason, judgment, memory; a mind “of large discourse,” “looking before and after,” reviewing the past, thence determining for the present, and anticipating the future; discerning, collecting, combining, comparing; capable, not merely of apprehending, but of admiring, the beauty of moral excellence: with fear and hope to warm and animate; with joy and sorrow to solace and soften; with love to attach, with sympathy to harmonize, with courage to attempt, with patience to endure, and with the power of conscience, that faithful monitor within the breast, to enforce the conclusions of reason, and direct and regulate the passions of the soul. Truly we must pronounce him “majestic though in ruin.” “Happy, happy world!” would be the exclamation of the inhabitant of some other planet, on being told of a globe like ours, peopled with such creatures as these, and abounding with situations and occasions to call forth the multiplied excellencies of their nature. “Happy, happy world, with what delight must your great Creator and Governor witness your conduct, and what a glorious recompense awaits you when your term of probation shall have expired.”

“I bone, quo virtus tua te vocat, i pede fausto,

Grandia laturus meritorum prœmia.”

But we have indulged too long in these delightful speculations; a sad reverse presents itself on our survey of the actual state of man; when, from viewing his natural powers, we follow him into practice, and see the uses to which he applies them. Take in the whole of the prospect, view him in every age, and climate, and nation, in every condition and period of society. Where now do you discover the characters of his exalted nature? “How is the gold become dim, and the fine gold changed?” How is his reason clouded, his affections perverted, his conscience stupefied! How do anger and envy, and hatred, and revenge, spring up in his wretched bosom! How is he a slave to the meanest of his appetites! What fatal propensities does he discover to evil! What inaptitude to good!

Dwell awhile on the state of the ancient world; not merely on that benighted part of it where all lay buried in brutish ignorance and barbarism, but on the seats of civilized and polished nations, on the empire of taste, and learning, and philosophy: yet in these chosen regions, with whatever luster the sun of science poured forth its rays, the moral darkness was so thick “that it might be felt.” Behold their sottish idolatries, their absurd superstitions, their want of natural affection, their brutal excesses, their unfeeling oppression, their savage cruelty! Look not to the illiterate and the vulgar, but to the learned and refined. Form not your ideas from the conduct of the less restrained and more licentious; you will turn away with disgust and shame from the allowed and familiar habits of the decent and the moral. St. Paul best states the facts, and furnishes the explanation; “because they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, he gave them over to a reprobate mind.”*

Now direct your view to another quarter, to the inhabitants of a new hemisphere, where the baneful practices and contagious example of the old world had never travelled. Surely, among these children of nature we may expect to find those virtuous tendencies, for which we have hitherto looked in vain! Alas! our search will still be fruitless! They are represented by the historian of America, whose account is more favorable than those of some other great authorities, as being a compound of pride, indolence, selfishness, cunning, and cruelty; full of a revenge which nothing could satiate, of a ferocity which nothing could soften; strangers to the most amiable sensibilities of nature. They appeared incapable of conjugal affection, or parental fondness, or filial reverence, or social attachments; uniting too with their state of barbarism, many of the vices and weaknesses of polished society. Their horrid treatment of captives taken in war, on whose bodies they feasted, after putting them to death by the most cruel tortures, is so well known, that we may spare the disgusting recital. No commendable qualities relieve this gloomy picture, except fortitude, and perseverance, and zeal for the welfare of their little community; if this last quality, exercised and directed as it was, can be thought deserving of commendation.

But you give up the heathen nations as indefensible, and wish rather to form your estimate of man from a view of countries which have been blessed with the light of Revelation. True it is, and with joy let us record the concession, Christianity has set the general tone of morals much higher than it was ever found in the Pagan world. She has every where improved the character of man, and multiplied the comforts of society, particularly to the poor and the weak, whom from the beginning she professed to take under her special patronage. Like her divine Author, “who sends his rain on the evil and on the good,” she showers down unnumbered blessings on thousands who profit from her bounty, while they forget or deny her power, and set at naught her authority. Yet even in this more favored situation we shall discover too many lamentable proofs of the depravity of man. Nay, this depravity will now become even more apparent and less excusable. For what bars does it not now overleap? Over what motives is it not now victorious? Consider well the superior light and advantages which we enjoy, and then appreciate the superior obligations which are imposed on us. Consider in how many cases our evil propensities are now kept from breaking forth, by the superior restraints under which vice is laid among us by positive laws, and by the amended standard of public opinion; and we may be assisted in conjecturing what force is to be assigned to these motives, by the dreadful proofs which have been lately exhibited in a neighboring country, that when their influence is withdrawn, the most atrocious crimes can be perpetrated shamelessly and in the face of day. Consider then the superior excellence of our moral code, the new principles of obedience furnished by the Gospel, and above all, the awful sanction which the doctrines and precepts of Christianity derive from the clear discovery of a future state of retribution, and from the annunciation of that tremendous day, “when we shall stand before the judgment-seat of Christ.” Yet, in spite of all our knowledge, thus enforced and pressed home by so solemn a notice, how little has been our progress in virtue! It has been by no means such as to prevent the adoption, in our days, of various maxims of antiquity, which, when well considered, too clearly establish the depravity of man. It may not be amiss to adduce a few instances in proof of this assertion. It is now no less acknowledged than heretofore, that prosperity hardens the heart: that unlimited power is ever abused, instead of being rendered the instrument of diffusing happiness: that habits of vice grow up of themselves, whilst those of virtue are of slow and difficult formation: that they who draw the finest pictures of Virtue, and seem most enamored of her charms, are often the least under her influence, and by the merest trifles are drawn aside from that line of conduct, which they most seriously recommend to others: that all this takes place, though most of the pleasures of vice are to be found with less alloy in the paths of virtue: whilst at the same time, these paths afford superior and more exquisite delights, peculiar to themselves, and are free from the diseases and bitter remorse, at the price of which vicious gratifications are so often purchased.

It may suffice to touch very slightly on some other arguments, which it would hardly be right to leave altogether unnoticed: one of these, the justice of which, however denied by superficial moralists, parents of strict principles can abundantly testify, may be drawn from the perverse and froward dispositions positions perceivable in children, the correction of which too often baffles the most strenuous efforts of the wise and good. Another may be drawn from the various deceits we are apt to practice on ourselves, to which no one can be a stranger, who has ever contemplated the operations of his own mind with serious attention. To the influence of this species of corruption it has been in a great degree owing, that Christianity itself has been too often disgraced. The gospel of peace has been turned into an engine of cruelty, and amidst the bitterness of persecution, every trace has disappeared of the mild and beneficent spirit of the religion of Jesus. In what degree must the taint have worked itself into the frame, and corrupted the habit, when the most wholesome nutriment can be thus converted into the deadliest poison? Wishing always to argue from such premises as are not only really sound, but from such as cannot even be questioned by those to whom this Work is addressed, little was said in representing the deplorable state of the heathen world, respecting their defective and unworthy conceptions in what regards the Supreme Being, who even then “left not himself without witness, but gave them rain and fruitful seasons, filling their hearts with food and gladness.” But surely to any who call themselves Christians, it may be justly urged as an astonishing instance of human depravity, that we ourselves, who enjoy the full light of Revelation; to whom God has vouchsafed such clear discoveries of what we are concerned to know of his being and attributes; who profess to believe “that in him we live, and move, and have our being;” that to him we owe all the comforts we here enjoy, and the offer of eternal Glory purchased for us by the atoning blood of his own Son; “thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift,” that we, thus loaded with mercies, should be continually chargeable with forgetting his authority, and being ungrateful for his benefits; with slighting his gracious proposals, or at best receiving them with cold and unaffected hearts.

But to put the question concerning the natural depravity of man to the severest test; take the best of the human species, the watchful, self-denying Christian, and let him decide the controversy: not by inferences drawn from the practices of a thoughtless and dissolute world, but by an appeal to his personal experience. Go with him into his closet, ask him his opinion of the corruption of the heart; and he will tell you, that he is deeply sensible of its power, for that he has learned it from much self-observation and long acquaintance with the workings of his own mind. He will tell you, that every day strengthens this conviction; yea, that hourly he sees fresh reason to deplore his want of simplicity in intention, his infirmity of purpose, his low views, his selfish unworthy desires, his backwardness to set about his duty, his languor and coldness in performing it: that he finds himself obliged continually to confess, that he feels within him two opposite principles, and that “he cannot do the things that he would.” He cries out in the language of the excellent Hooker: “The little fruit which we have in holiness, it is, God knoweth, corrupt and unsound: we put no confidence at all in it, we challenge nothing in the world for it, we dare not call God to reckoning, as if we had him in our debtbooks; our continual suit to him is, and must be, to bear with our infirmities, and pardon our offences.”

Such is the moral history, such the condition of man. The figures of the piece may vary, and the coloring may sometimes be of a darker, sometimes of a lighter hue; but the principles of the composition, the grand outlines, are every where the same. Wherever we direct our view, we discover the melancholy proofs of our depravity; whether we look to ancient or modern times, to barbarous or civilized nations, to the conduct of the world around us, or to the monitor within the breast; whether we read, or hear, or act, or think, or feel, the same humiliating lesson is forced upon us,

Jupiter est quodcunque vides, quocunque moveris.

Now when we look back to the picture which was formerly drawn of the natural powers of man, and compare this his actual state with that for which, from a consideration of those powers, he seems to have been originally designed, how are we to account for the astonishing contrast! will frailty or infirmity, or occasional lapses, or sudden surprisals, or any such qualifying terms, convey an adequate idea of the nature of the distemper, or point out its cause? How, on any principles of common reasoning, can we account for it, but by conceiving that man, since he came out of the hands of his Creator, has contracted a taint, and that the venom of this subtle poison has been communicated throughout the race of Adam, every where exhibiting incontestable marks of its fatal malignity? Hence it has arisen, that the appetites deriving new strength, and the powers of reason and conscience being weakened, the latter have feebly and impotently pleaded against those forbidden indulgences which the former have solicited. Sensual gratifications and illicit affections have debased our nobler powers, and indisposed our hearts to the discovery of God, and to the consideration of his perfections; to a constant willing submission to his authority, and obedience to his laws. By a repetition of vicious acts, evil habits have been formed within us, and have rivetted the fetters of sin. Left to the consequences of our own folly, the understanding has grown darker, and the heart more obdurate; reason has at length betrayed her trust, and even conscience herself has aided the delusion, till, instead of deploring our miserable condition, we have too often hugged our chains, and even gloried in our ignominious bondage.

Such is the general account of the progress of vice, where it is suffered to attain to its full growth in the human heart. The circumstances of individuals indeed will be found to differ; to continue a figure so exactly descriptive of the case, the servitude of some is more rigorous than that of others, their bonds more galling, their degradation more complete. Some too have for a while appeared almost to have escaped from their confinement; but none are altogether free; all without exception, in a greater or less degree, bear about them more visibly or more concealed, the disgraceful marks of their captivity.

Such, on a full and fair investigation, must be confessed to be the state of facts; and how can this be accounted for on any other supposition, than that of some original taint, some radical principle of corruption? All other solutions are unsatisfactory, whilst the potent cause which has been assigned, does abundantly, and can alone sufficiently, account for the effect. It appears then, that the corruption of human nature is proved by the same mode of reasoning, as that which hath been deemed conclusive in establishing the existence of the principle of gravitation and in ascertaining its laws; that the doctrine rests on that solid basis on which Newton hath raised the superstructure of his sublime philosophy; that it is not a mere speculation; an uncertain, though perhaps an ingenious theory, but the sure result of large and actual experiment; deduced from incontestable facts, and still more fully approving its truth by harmonizing with the several parts, and accounting for the various phænomena, jarring otherwise and inexplicable, of the great system of the universe.

Here, however, Revelation interposes, and sustains the fallible conjectures of our unassisted reason. The Holy Scriptures speak of us as fallen creatures; in almost every page we shall find something that is calculated to abate the loftiness, and silence the pretensions of man. “The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” “What is man, that he should be clean? and he which is born of a woman, that he should be righteous?”* “How much more abominable and filthy is man, which drinketh iniquity like water?” “The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. They are all gone aside; they are altogether become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no not one.” “Who can say, I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin?”|| “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” “Behold, I was shapen in wickedness, and in sin hath my mother conceived me.” “We were by nature the children of wrath, even as others, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind.” “O, wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death!”—Passages might be multiplied upon passages, which speak the same language; and these again might be illustrated and confirmed by various other considerations, drawn from the same sacred source; such as those which represent a thorough change, a renovation of our nature, as being necessary to our becoming true Christians; or which are suggested by observing that holy men refer their good dispositions and affections to the immediate agency of the Supreme Being.

sect. ii

Evil Spirit.—Natural State of Man

Evil Spirit

BUT the word of God instructs us that we have to contend not only with our own natural depravity, but with the power of darkness, the Evil Spirit, who rules in the hearts of the wicked, and whose dominion we learn from Scripture to be so general, as to entitle him to the denomination of “the Prince of this world.” There cannot be a stronger proof of the difference which exists between the religious system of the Scriptures, and that of the bulk of nominal Christians, than the proof which is afforded by the subject now in question. The existence and agency of the Evil Spirit, though so distinctly and repeatedly affirmed in Scripture, are almost universally exploded in a country which professes to admit the authority of the sacred volume. Some other Doctrines of Revelation, the force and meaning of which are commonly in a great degree explained away, are yet conceded in general terms. But this seems almost on the point of being universally abandoned, as a post no longer tenable. It is regarded as an evanescent prejudice which it would now be a discredit to any man of understanding to believe. Like ghosts and witches and other phantoms which haunted the night of superstition, it cannot in these more enlightened times stand the test of our severer scrutiny. To be suffered to pass away quietly, is as much as it can hope for; and it might rather expect to be laughed off the stage as a just object of contempt and derision.

But although the Scripture doctrine concerning the Evil Spirit is thus generally exploded, yet were we to consider the matter seriously and fairly, we should probably find ground for believing that there is no better reason for its being abandoned, than that many absurd stories, concerning spirits and apparitions, have been commonly propagated amongst weak and credulous people; and that the Evil Spirit not being the object of our bodily eyes, it would argue the same weakness to give credit to the doctrine of its existence and agency. But to be consistent with ourselves, we might almost as well, on the same principle, deny the reality of all other incorporeal beings. What is there, in truth, in the doctrine, which is in itself improbable, or which is not confirmed by analogy? We see, in fact, that there are wicked men, enemies to God, and malignant towards their fellow-creatures, who take pleasure, and often succeed, in seducing others to the commission of evil. Why then should it be deemed incredible, that there may be spiritual intelligences of similar propensities, who may in like manner be permitted to tempt men to the practice of sin? Surely we may retort upon our opponents the charge of absurdity, and justly accuse them of gross inconsistency, in admitting, without difficulty, the existence and operation of these qualities in a being like man, compounded of matter and spirit, and yet denying them in a purely spiritual being, in direct contradiction to the authority of Scripture, which they allow to be conclusive, when they cannot pretend for a moment that there is anything belonging to the nature of matter, to which these qualities naturally adhere.

But it is needless to dilate further on a topic which, however it may excite the ridicule of the inconsiderate, will suggest matter of serious apprehension to all who form their opinions on a sincere and impartial examination of the word of God. It fills up the measure of our natural misery and helplessness. Such then being our condition, thus depraved and weakened within, and tempted from without, it may well fill our hearts with anxiety to reflect, “that the day will come,” when “the Heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat;” “when the dead, small and great, shall stand before the tribunal of God,” and we shall have to give account of all things done in the body. We are naturally prompted to turn over the page of Revelation with solicitude, in order to discover the attributes and character of our Judge; but these only serve to turn painful apprehension into fixed and certain terror.

First with regard to the attributes of our Judge. As all nature bears witness to his irresistible power, so we read in Scripture that nothing can escape his observation, or elude his discovery; not only our actions, but our most secret cogitations are open to his view. “He is about our path, and about our bed, and spieth out all our ways.”* “The Lord searcheth all hearts, and understandeth all the imaginations of the thoughts.”—“And he will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the heart.”

Now hear his character, and the rule of his award: “The Lord our God is a consuming fire, even a jealous God.”—“He is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity.”—“The soul that sinneth, it shall die.”—“The wages of sin is death.”—“Without holiness no man shall see the Lord.” These positive declarations are enforced by the accounts which, for our warning, we read in sacred history, of the terrible vengeance of the Almighty: His punishment of “the angels who kept not their first estate, and whom he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day:” The fate of Sodom and Gomorrah; the sentence issued against the idolatrous nations of Canaan, and of which the execution was assigned to the Israelites, by the express command of God, at their own peril in case of disobedience: The ruin of Babylon, of Tyre, of Nineveh, and of Jerusalem, prophetically denounced as the punishment of their crimes, and taking place in an exact and terrible accordance with the divine predictions. Surely these examples may suffice to confound that fallacious confidence, which, presuming on the Creator’s knowledge of our weakness, and his disposition to allow for it, should allege, that instead of giving way to gloomy apprehensions, we might throw ourselves, in full assurance of hope, on the infinite benevolence of the Supreme Being. It is true, indeed, that with the threatenings of the word of God, there are mixed many gracious declarations of pardon, on repentance and thorough amendment. But, alas! who is there among us, whose conscience must not reproach him with having trifled with the long-suffering of God, and with having but ill kept the resolutions of amendment, which had been formed in the seasons of recollection and remorse?—And how is the disquietude naturally excited by such a retrospect, confirmed and heightened by passages like these. “Because I have called, and ye refused; I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded; but ye have set at naught all my counsel, and would none of my reproof: I also will laugh at your calamity, I will mock when your fear cometh; when your fear cometh as desolation, and your destruction cometh as a whirlwind; when distress and anguish cometh upon you. Then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer; they to shall seek me early, but they shall not find me: for that they hated knowledge, and did not choose the fear of the Lord.”* The apprehensions which must be excited by thus reading the recorded judgments and awful language of Scripture, are confirmed to the inquisitive and attentive mind by a close observation of the moral constitution of the world. In fact, all that has been suggested of the final consequences of vice, is strictly analogous to what we may observe in the ordinary course of human affairs; from a careful survey of which it will appear, that God hath established such an order of causes and effects, as, however interrupted here below, by hindrances and obstructions apparently of a temporary nature, loudly proclaim the principles of his moral government, and strongly suggest that vice and imprudence will finally terminate in misery. (a) Not that this species of proof was wanted; for that which we must acknowledge, on weighing the evidence, to be a revelation from God, requires not the aid of such a confirmation: but yet, as this accordance might be expected between the words and the works of the same Almighty Being, it is no idle speculation to remark, that the visible constitution of things in the world around us, falls in with the scriptural representations of the dreadful consequences of vice, nay even of what is commonly termed inconsiderateness and imprudence.

Christianity breaks in

If such, then, be indeed our sad condition, what is to be done? Is there no hope? Nothing left for us, “but a fearful looking for of judgment, and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries?”* Blessed be God! we are not shut up irrecoverably in this sad condition: “Turn you to the strong hold, ye prisoners of hope;” hear one who proclaims his designation, “to heal the broken-hearted, to preach liberty to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind.” They who have formed a true notion of their lost and helpless state, will most gladly listen to the sound, and most justly estimate the value, of such a deliverance. And hence appears the importance of not passing over in a cursory manner those important topics of the original and superinduced corruption, and weakness of man; a discussion painful and humiliating to the pride of human nature, to which the mind listens with difficulty, nay with a mixture of anger and disgust; but well suited to our case, and like the distasteful lessons of adversity, permanently useful in its consequences.

Practical importance and uses of the doctrine of Human Corruption

It is here, never let it be forgotten, that our foundation must be laid; otherwise our superstructure, whatever we may think of it, will one day prove tottering and insecure. This therefore is not a metaphysical speculation, but a practical matter. Slight and superficial conceptions of our state of natural degradation, and of our insufficiency to recover from it by our own unassisted powers, fall in too well with our natural inconsiderateness, and produce that fatal insensibility to the divine threatenings which we cannot but observe to prevail so generally. Having no due sense of the malignity of our disease, and of its dreadful issue, we do not set ourselves to work in earnest to obtain the remedy, and it can only be thus obtained; for, let it be remembered, that deliverance is not forced on us, but offered to us; we are furnished indeed with every help, and are always to bear in mind, that we are unable of ourselves to will or to do rightly; but we are plainly admonished to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling;”*—to be watchful, “because we are encompassed with dangers;”—to “put on the whole armor of God,” because “we are beset with enemies.”

Practical advice respecting it, and its practical uses

May we be enabled to shake off that lethargy which is so apt to creep upon us! For this end, a deep practical conviction of our natural depravity and weakness will be found of eminent advantage. As it is by this we must at first be roused from our fallacious security, so by this we must be kept wakeful and active unto the end. Let us therefore make it our business to have this doctrine firmly seated in our understandings, and radically implanted in our hearts. With a view to our conviction of the truth of this doctrine, we should seriously and attentively consider the firm grounds on which it rests. It is plainly made known to us by the light of nature, and irresistibly enforced on us by the dictates of our unassisted understandings. But lest there should be any so obstinately dull, as not to discern the force of the evidence suggested to our reason, and confirmed by all experience, or rather so heedless as not to notice it, the authoritative stamp of Revelation is superadded, as we have seen, to complete the proof; and we must therefore be altogether inexcusable, if we still remain unconvinced by such an accumulated mass of argument.

But it is not sufficient to assent to the doctrine, we must also feel it. To this end, let the power of habit be called in to our aid. Let us accustom ourselves to refer to our natural depravity, as to their primary cause, the sad instances of vice and folly of which we read, or which we see around us, or to which we feel the propensities in our own bosoms; ever vigilant and distrustful of ourselves, and looking with an eye of kindness and pity on the faults and infirmities of others, whom we should learn to regard with the same tender concern as that, with which the sick are used to sympathize with those who are suffering under the same distemper. This lesson once well acquired, we shall feel the benefit of it in all our future progress; and though it be a lesson which we are slow to learn, it is one in which study and experience, the incidents of every day, and every fresh observation of the workings of our own hearts, will gradually concur to perfect us. Let it not, after all, then, be our reproach, and at length our ruin, that these abundant means of instruction are possessed in vain.

sect. iii

Corruption of Human Nature.—Objection

Objection:—That our corruption and weakness, being natural to us, will be excused and allowed for—stated and considered

BUT there is one difficulty still behind, more formidable than all the rest. The pride of man is loth to be humbled. Forced to abandon the plea of innocence, and pressed so closely that he can no longer escape from the conclusion to which we would drive him, some more bold Objector faces about and stands at bay, endeavoring to justify what he cannot deny. “Whatever I am,” he contends, “I am what my Creator made me. I inherit a nature, you yourself confess, depraved, and prone to evil: how then can I withstand the temptations to sin by which I am environed? If this plea cannot establish my innocence, it must excuse or at least extenuate my guilt. Frail and weak as I am, a Being of infinite justice and goodness will never try me by a rule, which however equitable in the case of creatures of a higher nature, is altogether disproportionate to mine.”

Let not my readers be alarmed! The writer is not going to enter into the discussion of the grand question concerning the origin of moral evil, or to attempt to reconcile its existence and consequent punishment with the acknowledged attributes and perfections of God. These are questions, of which, if one may judge from the little success with which the acutest and profoundest reasoners have been ever laboring to solve the difficulties they contain, the full and clear comprehension is above the intellect of man. Yet, as the objection above mentioned is sometimes heard from the mouths of professed Christians, it must not be passed by without a few short observations.

Were the language in question to be addressed to us by an avowed sceptic, though it might not be very difficult to expose to him the futility of his reasonings, we should almost despair of satisfying him of the soundness of our own. We should perhaps suggest impossibilities, which might stand in the way of such a system as he would establish: arguing from concessions which he would freely make, we might indeed point out wherein his pre-conceptions concerning the conduct of the Supreme Being, had been in fact already contradicted, particularly by the undeniable existence of natural or moral evil: and if thus proved erroneous in one instance, why might they not be so likewise in another? But though by these and similar arguments we might at length silence our objector, we could not much expect to bring him over to our opinions. We should probably do better, if we were to endeavor rather to draw him off from those dark and slippery regions, slippery in truth they are to every human foot, and to contend with him, where we might tread with firmness and freedom, on sure ground, and in the light of day. Then we might fairly lay before him all the various arguments for the truth of our holy religion; arguments which have been sufficient to satisfy the wisest, and the best, and the ablest of men. We might afterwards insist on the abundant confirmation Christianity receives from its being exactly suited to the nature and wants of man; and we might conclude with fairly putting it to him, whether all this weight of evidence were to be overbalanced by one difficulty, on a subject so confessedly high and mysterious, considering too that he must allow, we see but a part, O how small a part! of the universal creation of God, and that our faculties are wholly incompetent to judge of the schemes of His infinite wisdom. This, if the writer may be permitted to offer his own judgment, is at least in general the best mode, in the case of the objection we are now considering, of dealing with unbelievers; and to adopt the contrary plan, seems somewhat like that of any one, who having to convince some untutored Indian of the truth of the Copernican system, instead of beginning with plain and simple propositions, and leading him on to what is more abstruse and remote, should state to him at the outset some startling problems, to which the understanding can only yield its slow assent, when constrained by the decisive force of demonstration. The novice, instead of lending himself to such a mistaken method of instruction, would turn away in disgust, and be only hardened against his preceptor. But it must be remembered, that the present Work is addressed to those who acknowledge the authority of the Holy Scriptures. And in order to convince all these that there is, somewhere or other, a fallacy in our objector’s reasoning, it will be sufficient to establish, that, though the word of God clearly asserts the justice and goodness of the Supreme Being, and also the natural depravity of man, yet it no less clearly lays down, that this natural depravity shall never be admitted as an excuse for sin, but that “they which have done evil, shall rise to the resurrection of damnation.”*—“That the wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the people that forget God.” And it is worthy of remark, that, as if for the very purpose of more effectually silencing those unbelieving doubts which are ever springing up in the human heart, our blessed Savior, though the messenger of peace and good will to man, has again and again repeated these awful denunciations.

Nor are the Holy Scriptures less clear and full in guarding us against supposing our sins, or the dreadful consequences of them, to be chargeable on God.—“Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man:” “The Lord is not willing that any should perish.” And in other passages, where the idea is repelled as injurious to his character: “Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord God; and not that he should return from his ways, and live?”|| “For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord God.”§ Indeed almost every page of the word of God contains some warning or invitation to sinners; and all these, to a considerate mind, must be unquestionable proofs of our present position.

It has been the more necessary not to leave unnoticed the objection which we have been now refuting, because, where not admitted to such an unqualified extent as altogether to take away the moral responsibility of man, and when not avowed in the daring language in which it has been above stated, it may frequently be observed to exist in an inferior degree: and often, when not distinctly formed into shape, it lurks in secret, diffusing a general cloud of doubt or unbelief; or lowering our standard of right, or whispering fallacious comfort, and producing a ruinous tranquility. It is of the utmost importance to remark, that though the Holy Scriptures so clearly state the natural corruption and weakness of man, yet they never, in the remotest degree, countenance, but throughout directly oppose, the supposition to which we are often too forward to listen, that our natural corruption and weakness may be admitted as lowering the demands of divine justice, and in some sort palliating our transgressions of the laws of God. It would not be difficult to show that such a notion is at war with the whole scheme of redemption by the atonement of Christ. But perhaps it may be enough, when any such suggestions as those which we are condemning force themselves into the imagination of a Christian, to recommend it to him to silence them by what is their best practical answer: that if our natural condition be depraved and weak, our temptations numerous, and our Almighty Judge infinitely holy: yet that the offers of pardon, grace, and strength to penitent sinners are universal and unlimited. Let it not however surprise us, if in all this there seem to be involved difficulties which we cannot fully comprehend. How many such present themselves on all sides! Scarcely is there an object around us, that does not afford endless matter of doubt and argument. The meanest reptile which crawls on the earth, nay, every herb and flower which we behold, baffles the imbecility of our limited inquiries. All nature calls upon us to be humble. Can it then be surprising if we are at a loss on this question, which respects, not the properties of matter, or of numbers, but the councils and ways of Him whose “understanding is infinite,”* “whose judgments are declared to be unsearchable, and his ways past finding out?” In this our ignorance, however, we may calmly repose ourselves on his own declaration, “That though clouds and darkness are round about him, yet righteousness and judgment are the habitation of his throne.” Let it also be remembered, that if in Christianity some things are difficult, that which we are most concerned to know, is plain and obvious. To this it is true wisdom to attach ourselves, assenting to what is revealed, where it is above our comprehension (we do not say contrary to our reason,) and believing it on the credit of what is clearly discerned and satisfactorily established. In truth, we are all perhaps too apt to plunge into depths, which it is beyond our power to fathom; and it was to warn us against this very error, that the inspired writer, having threatened the people, whom God had selected as the objects of his special favor, with the most dreadful punishments, if they should forsake the law of the Lord, and having introduced surrounding nations as asking the meaning of the severe infliction, winds up the whole with this instructive admonition: “Secret things belong unto the Lord our God; but those which are revealed belong unto us, and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.”*

To any one who is seriously impressed with a sense of the critical state in which we are here placed, a short and uncertain space in which to make our peace with God, and this little span of life followed by the last judgment, and an eternity of unspeakable happiness or misery, it is indeed an awful and an affecting spectacle, to see men thus busying themselves in vain speculations of an arrogant curiosity, and trifling with their dearest, their everlasting interests. It is but a feeble illustration of this exquisite folly to compare it to the conduct of some convicted rebel, who, when brought into the presence of his Sovereign, instead of seizing the occasion to sue for mercy, should even treat with neglect and contempt the pardon which should be offered to him, and insolently employ himself in prying into his Sovereign’s designs, and criticizing his counsels. But our case, too similar as it is to that of the convicted rebel, differs from it in this grand particular, that at the best, his success must be uncertain, ours, if it be not our own fault, is sure; and while, on the one hand, our guilt is unspeakably greater than that of any rebel against an earthly monarch, so, on the other, we know that our Sovereign is “long-suffering, and easy to be entreated;” more ready to grant forgiveness than we to ask it. Well then may we adopt the language of the poet:

What better can we do, than prostrate fall

Before him reverent; and there confess

Humbly our faults, and pardon beg; with tears

Watering the ground, and with our sighs the air

Frequenting, sent from hearts contrite, in sign

Of sorrow unfeign’d, and humiliation meek?        Milton.[1]

 

 

* Exempla duo, quæ pravitatis humanæ vim animo meo luculentur exhibent, non proferre non possum. Alterum, decens ille Virgilius, alterum Cicero, probus idem verique studiosus, suppeditat. Virgilius, innocuam certe pastorum vitam depicturas, ita incipit,

“Formosum pastor Corydon ardebat Alexim.”

Cicero in libro de Officiis primo, ubi de actionibus prout inter se apte et convenientes sint, loci temporis, et agentis ratione habita, disserit, argumentum sic illustrat: “Turpe est enim, valdeque vitiosum, in re severa, convivio dignum, aut delicatum, aliquem inferre sermonem. Bene Pericles, quum haberet collegam in prætura Sophoclem poëtam, hique de communi officio convenissent, et casu formosus puer præteriret, dixissetque Sophocles, O puerum pulchrum Pericle! At enim, inquit Pericles, prætorem Sophoclem decet non solum manus, sed etiam oculos abstinentes habere. Atquî hoc idem Sophocles, si in athletarum probatione dixisset, justa reprehensione caruisset, tanta vis est, et loci et tempores.”

Quomodo sese res habuisse necesse est, cum vir antiquorum prestantissimis adscribendus, philosophiam, immo mores et officia tractans, talia doceret! Qualem sibi ipse virtutis normam proposuerat, satis liquet. Vide inter alia, justa reprehensione, &c. et tanta vis est, &c. &c.

Robertson, Vol. ii. p. 130.

Ibid. Book iv. Sect. 2. Head, Condition of Women, Vol. ii. 8vo. 90, 91.

Ibid. 16.

Psalm 14:2, 3.

1 Chron. 28:9.

a Vide Butler’s Analogy.

James 1:13.

2 Peter 3:9.

Rom. 11:33.

Psalm 97:2.

[1] Wilberforce, W. (1830). A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians. (pp. 16–40). London: T. Cadell. (Public Domain)

Corruption of Human Nature

sect. i

Inadequate Conceptions of the Corruption of Human Nature

Popular Notions

AFTER considering the defective notions of the importance of Christianity in general, which prevail among the higher orders of professed Christians, the particular misconceptions which first come under our notice respect the corruption and weakness of human nature. This is a topic on which it is possible that many into whose hands the present Work shall fall, may not have bestowed much attention. If the case be so, it may be requisite to entreat them to lend a patient and a serious ear. The subject is of the deepest import. Nor are we afraid of going too far when we assert, that it lies at the very root of all true Religion, and is eminently the basis and groundwork of Christianity.

So far as the writer has had an opportunity of remarking, the generality of professed Christians among the higher classes, either altogether overlook or deny, or at least greatly extenuate, the corruption and weakness here in question. They acknowledge indeed that there is, and ever has been in the world, a great portion of vice and wickedness; that mankind have been ever prone to sensuality and selfishness, in disobedience to the more refined and liberal principles of their nature; that in all ages and countries, in public and in private life, innumerable instances have been afforded of oppression, of rapacity, of cruelty, of fraud, of envy, and of malice. They own that it is too often in vain that you inform the understanding, and convince the judgment. They admit that you do not thereby reform the hearts of men. Though they know their duty, they will not practice it; no, not even when you have forced them to acknowledge that the path of virtue is also that of real interest, and of solid enjoyment.

These facts are certain; they cannot be disputed; and they are at the same time so obvious, that one would have thought the celebrated apophthegm of the Grecian sage, “the majority are wicked,” would scarcely have established his claim to intellectual superiority.

But though these effects of human depravity are every where acknowledged and lamented, we must not expect to find them traced to their true origin.

Causa latet, vis est notissima

Prepare yourself to hear rather of frailty and infirmity, of petty transgressions, of occasional failings, of sudden surprisals, and of such other qualifying terms as may serve to keep out of view the true source of the evil, and without shocking the understanding, may administer consolation to the pride of human nature. The bulk of professed Christians are used to speak of man as of a being, who naturally pure, and inclined to all virtue, is sometimes, almost involuntarily, drawn out of the right course, or is overpowered by the violence of temptation. Vice with them is rather an accidental and temporary, than a constitutional and habitual distemper; a noxious plant, which, though found to live and even to thrive in the human mind, is not the natural growth and production of the soil.

True account proved from Reason and Scripture

Far different is the humiliating language of Christianity. From it we learn that man is an apostate creature, fallen from his high original, degraded in his nature, and depraved in his faculties: indisposed to good, and disposed to evil; prone to vice—it is natural and easy to him: disinclined to virtue—it is difficult and laborious; he is tainted with sin, not slightly and superficially, but radically and to the very core. That such is the Scripture account of man, however mortifying the acknowledgment of it may be to our pride, one would think, if this very corruption itself did not warp the judgment, none would be hardy enough to attempt to controvert. I know nothing which brings home so forcibly to my own feelings the truth of this Representation, as the consideration of what still remains to us of our primitive dignity, when contrasted with our present state of moral degradation,

“Into what depth thou seest,

From what height fallen.”

Examine first with attention the natural powers and faculties of man; invention, reason, judgment, memory; a mind “of large discourse,” “looking before and after,” reviewing the past, thence determining for the present, and anticipating the future; discerning, collecting, combining, comparing; capable, not merely of apprehending, but of admiring, the beauty of moral excellence: with fear and hope to warm and animate; with joy and sorrow to solace and soften; with love to attach, with sympathy to harmonize, with courage to attempt, with patience to endure, and with the power of conscience, that faithful monitor within the breast, to enforce the conclusions of reason, and direct and regulate the passions of the soul. Truly we must pronounce him “majestic though in ruin.” “Happy, happy world!” would be the exclamation of the inhabitant of some other planet, on being told of a globe like ours, peopled with such creatures as these, and abounding with situations and occasions to call forth the multiplied excellencies of their nature. “Happy, happy world, with what delight must your great Creator and Governor witness your conduct, and what a glorious recompense awaits you when your term of probation shall have expired.”

“I bone, quo virtus tua te vocat, i pede fausto,

Grandia laturus meritorum prœmia.”

But we have indulged too long in these delightful speculations; a sad reverse presents itself on our survey of the actual state of man; when, from viewing his natural powers, we follow him into practice, and see the uses to which he applies them. Take in the whole of the prospect, view him in every age, and climate, and nation, in every condition and period of society. Where now do you discover the characters of his exalted nature? “How is the gold become dim, and the fine gold changed?” How is his reason clouded, his affections perverted, his conscience stupefied! How do anger and envy, and hatred, and revenge, spring up in his wretched bosom! How is he a slave to the meanest of his appetites! What fatal propensities does he discover to evil! What inaptitude to good!

Dwell awhile on the state of the ancient world; not merely on that benighted part of it where all lay buried in brutish ignorance and barbarism, but on the seats of civilized and polished nations, on the empire of taste, and learning, and philosophy: yet in these chosen regions, with whatever luster the sun of science poured forth its rays, the moral darkness was so thick “that it might be felt.” Behold their sottish idolatries, their absurd superstitions, their want of natural affection, their brutal excesses, their unfeeling oppression, their savage cruelty! Look not to the illiterate and the vulgar, but to the learned and refined. Form not your ideas from the conduct of the less restrained and more licentious; you will turn away with disgust and shame from the allowed and familiar habits of the decent and the moral. St. Paul best states the facts, and furnishes the explanation; “because they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, he gave them over to a reprobate mind.”*

Now direct your view to another quarter, to the inhabitants of a new hemisphere, where the baneful practices and contagious example of the old world had never travelled. Surely, among these children of nature we may expect to find those virtuous tendencies, for which we have hitherto looked in vain! Alas! our search will still be fruitless! They are represented by the historian of America, whose account is more favorable than those of some other great authorities, as being a compound of pride, indolence, selfishness, cunning, and cruelty; full of a revenge which nothing could satiate, of a ferocity which nothing could soften; strangers to the most amiable sensibilities of nature. They appeared incapable of conjugal affection, or parental fondness, or filial reverence, or social attachments; uniting too with their state of barbarism, many of the vices and weaknesses of polished society. Their horrid treatment of captives taken in war, on whose bodies they feasted, after putting them to death by the most cruel tortures, is so well known, that we may spare the disgusting recital. No commendable qualities relieve this gloomy picture, except fortitude, and perseverance, and zeal for the welfare of their little community; if this last quality, exercised and directed as it was, can be thought deserving of commendation.

But you give up the heathen nations as indefensible, and wish rather to form your estimate of man from a view of countries which have been blessed with the light of Revelation. True it is, and with joy let us record the concession, Christianity has set the general tone of morals much higher than it was ever found in the Pagan world. She has every where improved the character of man, and multiplied the comforts of society, particularly to the poor and the weak, whom from the beginning she professed to take under her special patronage. Like her divine Author, “who sends his rain on the evil and on the good,” she showers down unnumbered blessings on thousands who profit from her bounty, while they forget or deny her power, and set at naught her authority. Yet even in this more favored situation we shall discover too many lamentable proofs of the depravity of man. Nay, this depravity will now become even more apparent and less excusable. For what bars does it not now overleap? Over what motives is it not now victorious? Consider well the superior light and advantages which we enjoy, and then appreciate the superior obligations which are imposed on us. Consider in how many cases our evil propensities are now kept from breaking forth, by the superior restraints under which vice is laid among us by positive laws, and by the amended standard of public opinion; and we may be assisted in conjecturing what force is to be assigned to these motives, by the dreadful proofs which have been lately exhibited in a neighboring country, that when their influence is withdrawn, the most atrocious crimes can be perpetrated shamelessly and in the face of day. Consider then the superior excellence of our moral code, the new principles of obedience furnished by the Gospel, and above all, the awful sanction which the doctrines and precepts of Christianity derive from the clear discovery of a future state of retribution, and from the annunciation of that tremendous day, “when we shall stand before the judgment-seat of Christ.” Yet, in spite of all our knowledge, thus enforced and pressed home by so solemn a notice, how little has been our progress in virtue! It has been by no means such as to prevent the adoption, in our days, of various maxims of antiquity, which, when well considered, too clearly establish the depravity of man. It may not be amiss to adduce a few instances in proof of this assertion. It is now no less acknowledged than heretofore, that prosperity hardens the heart: that unlimited power is ever abused, instead of being rendered the instrument of diffusing happiness: that habits of vice grow up of themselves, whilst those of virtue are of slow and difficult formation: that they who draw the finest pictures of Virtue, and seem most enamored of her charms, are often the least under her influence, and by the merest trifles are drawn aside from that line of conduct, which they most seriously recommend to others: that all this takes place, though most of the pleasures of vice are to be found with less alloy in the paths of virtue: whilst at the same time, these paths afford superior and more exquisite delights, peculiar to themselves, and are free from the diseases and bitter remorse, at the price of which vicious gratifications are so often purchased.

It may suffice to touch very slightly on some other arguments, which it would hardly be right to leave altogether unnoticed: one of these, the justice of which, however denied by superficial moralists, parents of strict principles can abundantly testify, may be drawn from the perverse and froward dispositions positions perceivable in children, the correction of which too often baffles the most strenuous efforts of the wise and good. Another may be drawn from the various deceits we are apt to practice on ourselves, to which no one can be a stranger, who has ever contemplated the operations of his own mind with serious attention. To the influence of this species of corruption it has been in a great degree owing, that Christianity itself has been too often disgraced. The gospel of peace has been turned into an engine of cruelty, and amidst the bitterness of persecution, every trace has disappeared of the mild and beneficent spirit of the religion of Jesus. In what degree must the taint have worked itself into the frame, and corrupted the habit, when the most wholesome nutriment can be thus converted into the deadliest poison? Wishing always to argue from such premises as are not only really sound, but from such as cannot even be questioned by those to whom this Work is addressed, little was said in representing the deplorable state of the heathen world, respecting their defective and unworthy conceptions in what regards the Supreme Being, who even then “left not himself without witness, but gave them rain and fruitful seasons, filling their hearts with food and gladness.” But surely to any who call themselves Christians, it may be justly urged as an astonishing instance of human depravity, that we ourselves, who enjoy the full light of Revelation; to whom God has vouchsafed such clear discoveries of what we are concerned to know of his being and attributes; who profess to believe “that in him we live, and move, and have our being;” that to him we owe all the comforts we here enjoy, and the offer of eternal Glory purchased for us by the atoning blood of his own Son; “thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift,” that we, thus loaded with mercies, should be continually chargeable with forgetting his authority, and being ungrateful for his benefits; with slighting his gracious proposals, or at best receiving them with cold and unaffected hearts.

But to put the question concerning the natural depravity of man to the severest test; take the best of the human species, the watchful, self-denying Christian, and let him decide the controversy: not by inferences drawn from the practices of a thoughtless and dissolute world, but by an appeal to his personal experience. Go with him into his closet, ask him his opinion of the corruption of the heart; and he will tell you, that he is deeply sensible of its power, for that he has learned it from much self-observation and long acquaintance with the workings of his own mind. He will tell you, that every day strengthens this conviction; yea, that hourly he sees fresh reason to deplore his want of simplicity in intention, his infirmity of purpose, his low views, his selfish unworthy desires, his backwardness to set about his duty, his languor and coldness in performing it: that he finds himself obliged continually to confess, that he feels within him two opposite principles, and that “he cannot do the things that he would.” He cries out in the language of the excellent Hooker: “The little fruit which we have in holiness, it is, God knoweth, corrupt and unsound: we put no confidence at all in it, we challenge nothing in the world for it, we dare not call God to reckoning, as if we had him in our debtbooks; our continual suit to him is, and must be, to bear with our infirmities, and pardon our offences.”

Such is the moral history, such the condition of man. The figures of the piece may vary, and the coloring may sometimes be of a darker, sometimes of a lighter hue; but the principles of the composition, the grand outlines, are every where the same. Wherever we direct our view, we discover the melancholy proofs of our depravity; whether we look to ancient or modern times, to barbarous or civilized nations, to the conduct of the world around us, or to the monitor within the breast; whether we read, or hear, or act, or think, or feel, the same humiliating lesson is forced upon us,

Jupiter est quodcunque vides, quocunque moveris.

Now when we look back to the picture which was formerly drawn of the natural powers of man, and compare this his actual state with that for which, from a consideration of those powers, he seems to have been originally designed, how are we to account for the astonishing contrast! will frailty or infirmity, or occasional lapses, or sudden surprisals, or any such qualifying terms, convey an adequate idea of the nature of the distemper, or point out its cause? How, on any principles of common reasoning, can we account for it, but by conceiving that man, since he came out of the hands of his Creator, has contracted a taint, and that the venom of this subtle poison has been communicated throughout the race of Adam, every where exhibiting incontestable marks of its fatal malignity? Hence it has arisen, that the appetites deriving new strength, and the powers of reason and conscience being weakened, the latter have feebly and impotently pleaded against those forbidden indulgences which the former have solicited. Sensual gratifications and illicit affections have debased our nobler powers, and indisposed our hearts to the discovery of God, and to the consideration of his perfections; to a constant willing submission to his authority, and obedience to his laws. By a repetition of vicious acts, evil habits have been formed within us, and have rivetted the fetters of sin. Left to the consequences of our own folly, the understanding has grown darker, and the heart more obdurate; reason has at length betrayed her trust, and even conscience herself has aided the delusion, till, instead of deploring our miserable condition, we have too often hugged our chains, and even gloried in our ignominious bondage.

Such is the general account of the progress of vice, where it is suffered to attain to its full growth in the human heart. The circumstances of individuals indeed will be found to differ; to continue a figure so exactly descriptive of the case, the servitude of some is more rigorous than that of others, their bonds more galling, their degradation more complete. Some too have for a while appeared almost to have escaped from their confinement; but none are altogether free; all without exception, in a greater or less degree, bear about them more visibly or more concealed, the disgraceful marks of their captivity.

Such, on a full and fair investigation, must be confessed to be the state of facts; and how can this be accounted for on any other supposition, than that of some original taint, some radical principle of corruption? All other solutions are unsatisfactory, whilst the potent cause which has been assigned, does abundantly, and can alone sufficiently, account for the effect. It appears then, that the corruption of human nature is proved by the same mode of reasoning, as that which hath been deemed conclusive in establishing the existence of the principle of gravitation and in ascertaining its laws; that the doctrine rests on that solid basis on which Newton hath raised the superstructure of his sublime philosophy; that it is not a mere speculation; an uncertain, though perhaps an ingenious theory, but the sure result of large and actual experiment; deduced from incontestable facts, and still more fully approving its truth by harmonizing with the several parts, and accounting for the various phænomena, jarring otherwise and inexplicable, of the great system of the universe.

Here, however, Revelation interposes, and sustains the fallible conjectures of our unassisted reason. The Holy Scriptures speak of us as fallen creatures; in almost every page we shall find something that is calculated to abate the loftiness, and silence the pretensions of man. “The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” “What is man, that he should be clean? and he which is born of a woman, that he should be righteous?”* “How much more abominable and filthy is man, which drinketh iniquity like water?” “The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. They are all gone aside; they are altogether become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no not one.” “Who can say, I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin?”|| “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” “Behold, I was shapen in wickedness, and in sin hath my mother conceived me.” “We were by nature the children of wrath, even as others, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind.” “O, wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death!”—Passages might be multiplied upon passages, which speak the same language; and these again might be illustrated and confirmed by various other considerations, drawn from the same sacred source; such as those which represent a thorough change, a renovation of our nature, as being necessary to our becoming true Christians; or which are suggested by observing that holy men refer their good dispositions and affections to the immediate agency of the Supreme Being.

sect. ii

Evil Spirit.—Natural State of Man

Evil Spirit

BUT the word of God instructs us that we have to contend not only with our own natural depravity, but with the power of darkness, the Evil Spirit, who rules in the hearts of the wicked, and whose dominion we learn from Scripture to be so general, as to entitle him to the denomination of “the Prince of this world.” There cannot be a stronger proof of the difference which exists between the religious system of the Scriptures, and that of the bulk of nominal Christians, than the proof which is afforded by the subject now in question. The existence and agency of the Evil Spirit, though so distinctly and repeatedly affirmed in Scripture, are almost universally exploded in a country which professes to admit the authority of the sacred volume. Some other Doctrines of Revelation, the force and meaning of which are commonly in a great degree explained away, are yet conceded in general terms. But this seems almost on the point of being universally abandoned, as a post no longer tenable. It is regarded as an evanescent prejudice which it would now be a discredit to any man of understanding to believe. Like ghosts and witches and other phantoms which haunted the night of superstition, it cannot in these more enlightened times stand the test of our severer scrutiny. To be suffered to pass away quietly, is as much as it can hope for; and it might rather expect to be laughed off the stage as a just object of contempt and derision.

But although the Scripture doctrine concerning the Evil Spirit is thus generally exploded, yet were we to consider the matter seriously and fairly, we should probably find ground for believing that there is no better reason for its being abandoned, than that many absurd stories, concerning spirits and apparitions, have been commonly propagated amongst weak and credulous people; and that the Evil Spirit not being the object of our bodily eyes, it would argue the same weakness to give credit to the doctrine of its existence and agency. But to be consistent with ourselves, we might almost as well, on the same principle, deny the reality of all other incorporeal beings. What is there, in truth, in the doctrine, which is in itself improbable, or which is not confirmed by analogy? We see, in fact, that there are wicked men, enemies to God, and malignant towards their fellow-creatures, who take pleasure, and often succeed, in seducing others to the commission of evil. Why then should it be deemed incredible, that there may be spiritual intelligences of similar propensities, who may in like manner be permitted to tempt men to the practice of sin? Surely we may retort upon our opponents the charge of absurdity, and justly accuse them of gross inconsistency, in admitting, without difficulty, the existence and operation of these qualities in a being like man, compounded of matter and spirit, and yet denying them in a purely spiritual being, in direct contradiction to the authority of Scripture, which they allow to be conclusive, when they cannot pretend for a moment that there is anything belonging to the nature of matter, to which these qualities naturally adhere.

But it is needless to dilate further on a topic which, however it may excite the ridicule of the inconsiderate, will suggest matter of serious apprehension to all who form their opinions on a sincere and impartial examination of the word of God. It fills up the measure of our natural misery and helplessness. Such then being our condition, thus depraved and weakened within, and tempted from without, it may well fill our hearts with anxiety to reflect, “that the day will come,” when “the Heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat;” “when the dead, small and great, shall stand before the tribunal of God,” and we shall have to give account of all things done in the body. We are naturally prompted to turn over the page of Revelation with solicitude, in order to discover the attributes and character of our Judge; but these only serve to turn painful apprehension into fixed and certain terror.

First with regard to the attributes of our Judge. As all nature bears witness to his irresistible power, so we read in Scripture that nothing can escape his observation, or elude his discovery; not only our actions, but our most secret cogitations are open to his view. “He is about our path, and about our bed, and spieth out all our ways.”* “The Lord searcheth all hearts, and understandeth all the imaginations of the thoughts.”—“And he will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the heart.”

Now hear his character, and the rule of his award: “The Lord our God is a consuming fire, even a jealous God.”—“He is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity.”—“The soul that sinneth, it shall die.”—“The wages of sin is death.”—“Without holiness no man shall see the Lord.” These positive declarations are enforced by the accounts which, for our warning, we read in sacred history, of the terrible vengeance of the Almighty: His punishment of “the angels who kept not their first estate, and whom he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day:” The fate of Sodom and Gomorrah; the sentence issued against the idolatrous nations of Canaan, and of which the execution was assigned to the Israelites, by the express command of God, at their own peril in case of disobedience: The ruin of Babylon, of Tyre, of Nineveh, and of Jerusalem, prophetically denounced as the punishment of their crimes, and taking place in an exact and terrible accordance with the divine predictions. Surely these examples may suffice to confound that fallacious confidence, which, presuming on the Creator’s knowledge of our weakness, and his disposition to allow for it, should allege, that instead of giving way to gloomy apprehensions, we might throw ourselves, in full assurance of hope, on the infinite benevolence of the Supreme Being. It is true, indeed, that with the threatenings of the word of God, there are mixed many gracious declarations of pardon, on repentance and thorough amendment. But, alas! who is there among us, whose conscience must not reproach him with having trifled with the long-suffering of God, and with having but ill kept the resolutions of amendment, which had been formed in the seasons of recollection and remorse?—And how is the disquietude naturally excited by such a retrospect, confirmed and heightened by passages like these. “Because I have called, and ye refused; I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded; but ye have set at naught all my counsel, and would none of my reproof: I also will laugh at your calamity, I will mock when your fear cometh; when your fear cometh as desolation, and your destruction cometh as a whirlwind; when distress and anguish cometh upon you. Then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer; they to shall seek me early, but they shall not find me: for that they hated knowledge, and did not choose the fear of the Lord.”* The apprehensions which must be excited by thus reading the recorded judgments and awful language of Scripture, are confirmed to the inquisitive and attentive mind by a close observation of the moral constitution of the world. In fact, all that has been suggested of the final consequences of vice, is strictly analogous to what we may observe in the ordinary course of human affairs; from a careful survey of which it will appear, that God hath established such an order of causes and effects, as, however interrupted here below, by hindrances and obstructions apparently of a temporary nature, loudly proclaim the principles of his moral government, and strongly suggest that vice and imprudence will finally terminate in misery. (a) Not that this species of proof was wanted; for that which we must acknowledge, on weighing the evidence, to be a revelation from God, requires not the aid of such a confirmation: but yet, as this accordance might be expected between the words and the works of the same Almighty Being, it is no idle speculation to remark, that the visible constitution of things in the world around us, falls in with the scriptural representations of the dreadful consequences of vice, nay even of what is commonly termed inconsiderateness and imprudence.

Christianity breaks in

If such, then, be indeed our sad condition, what is to be done? Is there no hope? Nothing left for us, “but a fearful looking for of judgment, and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries?”* Blessed be God! we are not shut up irrecoverably in this sad condition: “Turn you to the strong hold, ye prisoners of hope;” hear one who proclaims his designation, “to heal the broken-hearted, to preach liberty to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind.” They who have formed a true notion of their lost and helpless state, will most gladly listen to the sound, and most justly estimate the value, of such a deliverance. And hence appears the importance of not passing over in a cursory manner those important topics of the original and superinduced corruption, and weakness of man; a discussion painful and humiliating to the pride of human nature, to which the mind listens with difficulty, nay with a mixture of anger and disgust; but well suited to our case, and like the distasteful lessons of adversity, permanently useful in its consequences.

Practical importance and uses of the doctrine of Human Corruption

It is here, never let it be forgotten, that our foundation must be laid; otherwise our superstructure, whatever we may think of it, will one day prove tottering and insecure. This therefore is not a metaphysical speculation, but a practical matter. Slight and superficial conceptions of our state of natural degradation, and of our insufficiency to recover from it by our own unassisted powers, fall in too well with our natural inconsiderateness, and produce that fatal insensibility to the divine threatenings which we cannot but observe to prevail so generally. Having no due sense of the malignity of our disease, and of its dreadful issue, we do not set ourselves to work in earnest to obtain the remedy, and it can only be thus obtained; for, let it be remembered, that deliverance is not forced on us, but offered to us; we are furnished indeed with every help, and are always to bear in mind, that we are unable of ourselves to will or to do rightly; but we are plainly admonished to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling;”*—to be watchful, “because we are encompassed with dangers;”—to “put on the whole armor of God,” because “we are beset with enemies.”

Practical advice respecting it, and its practical uses

May we be enabled to shake off that lethargy which is so apt to creep upon us! For this end, a deep practical conviction of our natural depravity and weakness will be found of eminent advantage. As it is by this we must at first be roused from our fallacious security, so by this we must be kept wakeful and active unto the end. Let us therefore make it our business to have this doctrine firmly seated in our understandings, and radically implanted in our hearts. With a view to our conviction of the truth of this doctrine, we should seriously and attentively consider the firm grounds on which it rests. It is plainly made known to us by the light of nature, and irresistibly enforced on us by the dictates of our unassisted understandings. But lest there should be any so obstinately dull, as not to discern the force of the evidence suggested to our reason, and confirmed by all experience, or rather so heedless as not to notice it, the authoritative stamp of Revelation is superadded, as we have seen, to complete the proof; and we must therefore be altogether inexcusable, if we still remain unconvinced by such an accumulated mass of argument.

But it is not sufficient to assent to the doctrine, we must also feel it. To this end, let the power of habit be called in to our aid. Let us accustom ourselves to refer to our natural depravity, as to their primary cause, the sad instances of vice and folly of which we read, or which we see around us, or to which we feel the propensities in our own bosoms; ever vigilant and distrustful of ourselves, and looking with an eye of kindness and pity on the faults and infirmities of others, whom we should learn to regard with the same tender concern as that, with which the sick are used to sympathize with those who are suffering under the same distemper. This lesson once well acquired, we shall feel the benefit of it in all our future progress; and though it be a lesson which we are slow to learn, it is one in which study and experience, the incidents of every day, and every fresh observation of the workings of our own hearts, will gradually concur to perfect us. Let it not, after all, then, be our reproach, and at length our ruin, that these abundant means of instruction are possessed in vain.

sect. iii

Corruption of Human Nature.—Objection

Objection:—That our corruption and weakness, being natural to us, will be excused and allowed for—stated and considered

BUT there is one difficulty still behind, more formidable than all the rest. The pride of man is loth to be humbled. Forced to abandon the plea of innocence, and pressed so closely that he can no longer escape from the conclusion to which we would drive him, some more bold Objector faces about and stands at bay, endeavoring to justify what he cannot deny. “Whatever I am,” he contends, “I am what my Creator made me. I inherit a nature, you yourself confess, depraved, and prone to evil: how then can I withstand the temptations to sin by which I am environed? If this plea cannot establish my innocence, it must excuse or at least extenuate my guilt. Frail and weak as I am, a Being of infinite justice and goodness will never try me by a rule, which however equitable in the case of creatures of a higher nature, is altogether disproportionate to mine.”

Let not my readers be alarmed! The writer is not going to enter into the discussion of the grand question concerning the origin of moral evil, or to attempt to reconcile its existence and consequent punishment with the acknowledged attributes and perfections of God. These are questions, of which, if one may judge from the little success with which the acutest and profoundest reasoners have been ever laboring to solve the difficulties they contain, the full and clear comprehension is above the intellect of man. Yet, as the objection above mentioned is sometimes heard from the mouths of professed Christians, it must not be passed by without a few short observations.

Were the language in question to be addressed to us by an avowed sceptic, though it might not be very difficult to expose to him the futility of his reasonings, we should almost despair of satisfying him of the soundness of our own. We should perhaps suggest impossibilities, which might stand in the way of such a system as he would establish: arguing from concessions which he would freely make, we might indeed point out wherein his pre-conceptions concerning the conduct of the Supreme Being, had been in fact already contradicted, particularly by the undeniable existence of natural or moral evil: and if thus proved erroneous in one instance, why might they not be so likewise in another? But though by these and similar arguments we might at length silence our objector, we could not much expect to bring him over to our opinions. We should probably do better, if we were to endeavor rather to draw him off from those dark and slippery regions, slippery in truth they are to every human foot, and to contend with him, where we might tread with firmness and freedom, on sure ground, and in the light of day. Then we might fairly lay before him all the various arguments for the truth of our holy religion; arguments which have been sufficient to satisfy the wisest, and the best, and the ablest of men. We might afterwards insist on the abundant confirmation Christianity receives from its being exactly suited to the nature and wants of man; and we might conclude with fairly putting it to him, whether all this weight of evidence were to be overbalanced by one difficulty, on a subject so confessedly high and mysterious, considering too that he must allow, we see but a part, O how small a part! of the universal creation of God, and that our faculties are wholly incompetent to judge of the schemes of His infinite wisdom. This, if the writer may be permitted to offer his own judgment, is at least in general the best mode, in the case of the objection we are now considering, of dealing with unbelievers; and to adopt the contrary plan, seems somewhat like that of any one, who having to convince some untutored Indian of the truth of the Copernican system, instead of beginning with plain and simple propositions, and leading him on to what is more abstruse and remote, should state to him at the outset some startling problems, to which the understanding can only yield its slow assent, when constrained by the decisive force of demonstration. The novice, instead of lending himself to such a mistaken method of instruction, would turn away in disgust, and be only hardened against his preceptor. But it must be remembered, that the present Work is addressed to those who acknowledge the authority of the Holy Scriptures. And in order to convince all these that there is, somewhere or other, a fallacy in our objector’s reasoning, it will be sufficient to establish, that, though the word of God clearly asserts the justice and goodness of the Supreme Being, and also the natural depravity of man, yet it no less clearly lays down, that this natural depravity shall never be admitted as an excuse for sin, but that “they which have done evil, shall rise to the resurrection of damnation.”*—“That the wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the people that forget God.” And it is worthy of remark, that, as if for the very purpose of more effectually silencing those unbelieving doubts which are ever springing up in the human heart, our blessed Savior, though the messenger of peace and good will to man, has again and again repeated these awful denunciations.

Nor are the Holy Scriptures less clear and full in guarding us against supposing our sins, or the dreadful consequences of them, to be chargeable on God.—“Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man:” “The Lord is not willing that any should perish.” And in other passages, where the idea is repelled as injurious to his character: “Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord God; and not that he should return from his ways, and live?”|| “For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord God.”§ Indeed almost every page of the word of God contains some warning or invitation to sinners; and all these, to a considerate mind, must be unquestionable proofs of our present position.

It has been the more necessary not to leave unnoticed the objection which we have been now refuting, because, where not admitted to such an unqualified extent as altogether to take away the moral responsibility of man, and when not avowed in the daring language in which it has been above stated, it may frequently be observed to exist in an inferior degree: and often, when not distinctly formed into shape, it lurks in secret, diffusing a general cloud of doubt or unbelief; or lowering our standard of right, or whispering fallacious comfort, and producing a ruinous tranquility. It is of the utmost importance to remark, that though the Holy Scriptures so clearly state the natural corruption and weakness of man, yet they never, in the remotest degree, countenance, but throughout directly oppose, the supposition to which we are often too forward to listen, that our natural corruption and weakness may be admitted as lowering the demands of divine justice, and in some sort palliating our transgressions of the laws of God. It would not be difficult to show that such a notion is at war with the whole scheme of redemption by the atonement of Christ. But perhaps it may be enough, when any such suggestions as those which we are condemning force themselves into the imagination of a Christian, to recommend it to him to silence them by what is their best practical answer: that if our natural condition be depraved and weak, our temptations numerous, and our Almighty Judge infinitely holy: yet that the offers of pardon, grace, and strength to penitent sinners are universal and unlimited. Let it not however surprise us, if in all this there seem to be involved difficulties which we cannot fully comprehend. How many such present themselves on all sides! Scarcely is there an object around us, that does not afford endless matter of doubt and argument. The meanest reptile which crawls on the earth, nay, every herb and flower which we behold, baffles the imbecility of our limited inquiries. All nature calls upon us to be humble. Can it then be surprising if we are at a loss on this question, which respects, not the properties of matter, or of numbers, but the councils and ways of Him whose “understanding is infinite,”* “whose judgments are declared to be unsearchable, and his ways past finding out?” In this our ignorance, however, we may calmly repose ourselves on his own declaration, “That though clouds and darkness are round about him, yet righteousness and judgment are the habitation of his throne.” Let it also be remembered, that if in Christianity some things are difficult, that which we are most concerned to know, is plain and obvious. To this it is true wisdom to attach ourselves, assenting to what is revealed, where it is above our comprehension (we do not say contrary to our reason,) and believing it on the credit of what is clearly discerned and satisfactorily established. In truth, we are all perhaps too apt to plunge into depths, which it is beyond our power to fathom; and it was to warn us against this very error, that the inspired writer, having threatened the people, whom God had selected as the objects of his special favor, with the most dreadful punishments, if they should forsake the law of the Lord, and having introduced surrounding nations as asking the meaning of the severe infliction, winds up the whole with this instructive admonition: “Secret things belong unto the Lord our God; but those which are revealed belong unto us, and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.”*

To any one who is seriously impressed with a sense of the critical state in which we are here placed, a short and uncertain space in which to make our peace with God, and this little span of life followed by the last judgment, and an eternity of unspeakable happiness or misery, it is indeed an awful and an affecting spectacle, to see men thus busying themselves in vain speculations of an arrogant curiosity, and trifling with their dearest, their everlasting interests. It is but a feeble illustration of this exquisite folly to compare it to the conduct of some convicted rebel, who, when brought into the presence of his Sovereign, instead of seizing the occasion to sue for mercy, should even treat with neglect and contempt the pardon which should be offered to him, and insolently employ himself in prying into his Sovereign’s designs, and criticizing his counsels. But our case, too similar as it is to that of the convicted rebel, differs from it in this grand particular, that at the best, his success must be uncertain, ours, if it be not our own fault, is sure; and while, on the one hand, our guilt is unspeakably greater than that of any rebel against an earthly monarch, so, on the other, we know that our Sovereign is “long-suffering, and easy to be entreated;” more ready to grant forgiveness than we to ask it. Well then may we adopt the language of the poet:

What better can we do, than prostrate fall

Before him reverent; and there confess

Humbly our faults, and pardon beg; with tears

Watering the ground, and with our sighs the air

Frequenting, sent from hearts contrite, in sign

Of sorrow unfeign’d, and humiliation meek?        Milton.[1]

 

 

* Exempla duo, quæ pravitatis humanæ vim animo meo luculentur exhibent, non proferre non possum. Alterum, decens ille Virgilius, alterum Cicero, probus idem verique studiosus, suppeditat. Virgilius, innocuam certe pastorum vitam depicturas, ita incipit,

“Formosum pastor Corydon ardebat Alexim.”

Cicero in libro de Officiis primo, ubi de actionibus prout inter se apte et convenientes sint, loci temporis, et agentis ratione habita, disserit, argumentum sic illustrat: “Turpe est enim, valdeque vitiosum, in re severa, convivio dignum, aut delicatum, aliquem inferre sermonem. Bene Pericles, quum haberet collegam in prætura Sophoclem poëtam, hique de communi officio convenissent, et casu formosus puer præteriret, dixissetque Sophocles, O puerum pulchrum Pericle! At enim, inquit Pericles, prætorem Sophoclem decet non solum manus, sed etiam oculos abstinentes habere. Atquî hoc idem Sophocles, si in athletarum probatione dixisset, justa reprehensione caruisset, tanta vis est, et loci et tempores.”

Quomodo sese res habuisse necesse est, cum vir antiquorum prestantissimis adscribendus, philosophiam, immo mores et officia tractans, talia doceret! Qualem sibi ipse virtutis normam proposuerat, satis liquet. Vide inter alia, justa reprehensione, &c. et tanta vis est, &c. &c.

Robertson, Vol. ii. p. 130.

Ibid. Book iv. Sect. 2. Head, Condition of Women, Vol. ii. 8vo. 90, 91.

Ibid. 16.

Psalm 14:2, 3.

1 Chron. 28:9.

a Vide Butler’s Analogy.

James 1:13.

2 Peter 3:9.

Rom. 11:33.

Psalm 97:2.

[1] Wilberforce, W. (1830). A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians. (pp. 16–40). London: T. Cadell. (Public Domain)



Comments are closed.

Christian Military Fellowship

An Indigenous Ministry • Discipleship • Prayer • Community • Support
Encouraging Men and Women in the United States Armed Forces, and their families, to love and serve the Lord Jesus Christ.

Contact Us

  • Address:
    PO Box 1207, Englewood, CO 80150-1207

  • Phone: (800) 798-7875

  • Email: Office@cmfhq.org

Webmaster

Book Offers