The GOSPEL TRUTH
VIII. Proper method of accounting for the universal and total moral depravity of the unregenerate moral agents of our race.
In the discussion of this subject, I will,
1. Endeavor to show how it is not to be accounted for.
2. How it is to be accounted for.
1. How the moral depravity of mankind is not to be accounted for.
In examining this part of the subject, it is necessary to have distinctly in view, that which constitutes moral depravity. All the error that has existed upon this subject, has been founded in false assumptions in regard to the nature or essence of moral depravity. It has been almost universally true, that no distinction has been made between moral and physical depravity; and consequently physical depravity has been confounded with and treated of as moral depravity. This, of course, has led to vast confusion and nonsense upon this subject. Let the following facts, which have been shown in former lectures, be distinctly borne in mind.
I. That moral depravity consists in selfishness, or in the choice of self-interest, self-gratification, or self-indulgence, as an end. Consequently it can not consist,
1. In a sinful constitution, or in a constitutional appetency or craving for sin. This has been shown in a former lecture, on what is not implied in disobedience to the moral law.
2. Moral depravity is sin itself, and not the cause of sin. It is not something back of sin that sustains to it the relation of a cause, but it is the essence and the whole of sin.
3. It can not be an attribute of human nature, for this would be physical, and not moral depravity.
4. Moral depravity is not then to be accounted for by ascribing it to a nature or constitution sinful in itself. To talk of a sinful nature, or sinful constitution, in the sense of physical sinfulness, is to talk stark nonsense. It is to overlook the essential nature of sin, and to make sin a physical virus, instead of a voluntary and responsible choice. Both sound philosophy, and the Bible, make sin to consist in obeying the flesh, or in the spirit of self-pleasing, or self-indulgence, or which is the same thing, in selfishness--in a carnal mind, or in minding the flesh. But writers on moral depravity have assumed, that moral depravity was distinct from, and the cause of sin, that is, of actual transgression. They call it original sin, indwelling sin, a sinful nature, an appetite for sin, an attribute of human nature, and the like. We shall soon see what has led to this view of the subject.
I will, in the next place, notice a modern, and perhaps the most popular view of this subject, which has been taken by any late writer who has fallen into the error of confounding physical and moral depravity. I refer to the prize essay of Dr. Woods, of Andover, Mass. A reward of $300 was offered for the best treatise upon the subject of moral depravity. The prize was awarded to Dr. Leonard Woods. In his essay, he defines moral depravity to be the same as "sinfulness." He also, in one part of his essay, holds and maintains, that it is always and necessarily, voluntary. Still, his great effort is to prove that sinfulness or moral depravity, is an attribute of human nature. It is no part of my design to expose the inconsistency of holding moral depravity to be a voluntary state of mind, and yet a natural attribute, but only to examine the philosophy, the logic, and theology of his main argument. The following quotation will show the sense in which he holds moral depravity to belong to the nature of man. On page 54 he says:
"The word depravity, relating as it here does to man's moral character, means the same as sinfulness, being the opposite of moral purity or holiness. In this use of the word there is a general agreement. But what is the meaning of native or natural? Among the variety of meanings specified by Johnson, Webster, and others, I refer to the following, as relating particularly to the subject before us.
"Native. Produced by nature. Natural, or such as is according to nature; belonging by birth; original. Natural has substantially the same meaning: "produced by nature; not acquired."--So Crabbe. "Of a person we say, his worth is native, to designate it as some valuable property born with him, not foreign to him or ingrafted upon him; but we say of his disposition, that it is natural, as opposed to that which is acquired by habit." And Johnson defines nature to be "the native state or properties of any thing, by which it is discriminated from others." He quotes the definition of Boyle; "Nature sometimes means what belongs to a living creature at its nativity, or accrues to it by its birth, as when we say a man is noble by nature, or a child is naturally forward. "This," he says, " may be expressed by saying, the man was born so."
After those brief definitions, which come to nearly the same thing, I proceed to inquire, what are the marks or evidences which show any thing in man to be natural or native; and how far these marks are found in relation to depravity.
Again, page 66, he says:
"The evil then can not be supposed to originate in any unfavorable external circumstances, such as corrupting examples, or insinuating and strong temptations; for if we suppose these entirely removed, all human beings would still be sinners. With such a moral nature as they now have, they would not wait for strong temptations to sin. Nay, they would be sinners in opposition to the strongest motives to the contrary. Indeed we know that human beings will turn those very motives which most powerfully urge to holiness, into occasions of sin. Now does not the confidence and certainty with which we foretell the commission of sin, and of sin unmixed with moral purity, presuppose a full conviction in us, and a conviction resting upon what we regard as satisfactory evidence, that sin, in all its visible strings, arises from that which is within the mind itself, and which belongs to our very nature as moral beings? Have we not as much evidence that this is the case with moral evil, as with any of our natural affections or bodily appetites?"
This quotation, together with the whole argument, shows that he considers moral depravity to be an attribute of human nature in the same sense that the appetites and passions are.
Before I proceed directly to the examination of his argument to establish the position that sinfulness, or moral depravity is an "attribute of human nature," I would premise, that an argument, or fact, that may equally well consist with either of two opposing theories can prove neither. The author of the treatise in question, presents the following facts and considerations in support of his great position, that moral depravity, or sinfulness, is an attribute of human nature; and three Presidents of colleges underwrite for the soundness and conclusiveness of the argument. He argues this,
1. From the "universality of moral depravity." To this I answer, that this argument proves nothing to the purpose, unless it be true, and assumed as a major premise, that whatever is universal among mankind, must be a natural attribute of man as such; that whatever is common to all men, must be an attribute of human nature. If this be not assumed as a truth, and if it be not true in fact, it will not follow, that the universality of moral depravity, proves, or is any evidence, that it is an attribute of human nature. But do not all men breathe, and eat, and drink, and sleep, and wake, and think, and will, and perform various actions? These, and many other things, are universal, and common to all men. But are these--choices and volitions, for example--attributes of human nature? An attribute of a thing, is that which belongs to its essence, substance, nature. Volition, thought, feeling, &c.; are they natural attributes? Are they inherent in, and do they belong to the nature or substance of man? Who does not know, that they are not attributes of his nature, although common to all men. This argument, then, amounts to nothing.
Again. Selfishness is common to all unregenerate men. Is selfishness a natural attribute? We have seen, in a former lecture, that it consists in choice. Can choice be an attribute of human nature?
Again. This argument is just as consistent with the opposite theory, to wit, that moral depravity is selfishness. The universality of selfishness is just what might be expected, if selfishness consists in the committal of the will to the gratification of self. This will be a thing of course, unless the Holy Spirit interpose, to greatly enlighten the intelligence, and break up the force of habit, and change the attitude of the will, already at the first dawn of reason, as has been shown, committed to the impulses of the sensibility. If moral depravity is to be accounted for, as I have endeavored to account for it in a former lecture, and shall hereafter more fully, by ascribing it to the influence of temptation, or to a physically depraved constitution, surrounded by the circumstances in which mankind first form their moral character, or put forth their first moral choices, universality might of course be expected to be one of its characteristics. This argument, then, agreeing equally well with either theory, proves neither.
2. His second argument is, that "Moral depravity develops itself in early life." Answer,
(1.) This is just what might be expected upon the opposite theory. If moral depravity consist in the choice of self-gratification, it would of course appear in early life. So this argument agrees quite as well with the opposing theory, and therefore proves nothing. But,
(2.) This argument is good for nothing, unless the following be assumed as a major premise, and unless the fact assumed, be indeed a truth, namely, "Whatever is developed in early life, must be an attribute of human nature." But is this true? Breathing, sleeping, eating, and such like things--are these attributes of nature? But unless it be true, that whatever is universally developed in early life, is an attribute of human nature, it will not of course follow, that moral depravity is.
3. His third argument is, that "Moral depravity is not owing to any change that occurs subsequent to birth." Answer:
Nor is choice or volition, thought or feeling, owing to any change in the constitution, that occurs subsequently to birth. What then: are they attributes of human nature? This argument proves nothing, unless it be true, that whatever is universally true of men that is not owing to any change of constitution that occurs after birth, must be an attribute of human nature. But who does not know, that this is not true. "What then, does this arguing prove?"
Again: this argument is just as consistent with the opposite theory, and therefore proves neither.
4. His fourth argument is, "That moral depravity acts freely and spontaneously." Answer: the moral agent acts freely, and acts selfishly, that is, wickedly. This argument assumes, that if a moral agent acts freely and wickedly, moral depravity, or sin, must be an attribute of his nature. Or more fairly, if mankind universally, in the exercise of their liberty, act sinfully, sinfulness must be an attribute of human nature." But what is sin? Why sin is a voluntary transgression of law--Dr. Woods being judge. Can a voluntary transgression of law be an attribute of human nature?
But again: this argument is equally consistent with the opposite theory. If moral depravity consist in the choice of self-gratification as an end, it would of course freely and spontaneously manifest itself. This argument, then, is good for nothing.
5. His fifth argument is, "That moral depravity is hard to overcome." Answer,
1. If it were an attribute of human nature, it could not be overcome at all without a change of the human constitution.
2. It is hard to overcome, just as selfishness naturally would be in beings of a physically depraved constitution, and in the presence of so many temptations to self-indulgence.
3. If it were an attribute of human nature, it could not be overcome without a change of personal identity. But the fact that it can be overcome, and the consciousness of personal identity remain, proves that it is not an attribute of human nature.
6. His sixth argument is, that "We can predict with certainty, that in due time, it will act itself out." Answer: Just as might be expected. If moral depravity consists in selfishness, we can predict with certainty, that the spirit of self-pleasing will, in due time, and at all times, act itself out. We can also predict, without the gilt of prophesying, that with a constitution physically depraved, and surrounded with objects to awaken appetite, and with all the circumstances in which human beings first form their moral character, they will seek to gratify themselves universally, unless prevented by the Holy Spirit. This argument is just as consistent with the opposite theory, and therefore proves neither.
Again: this argument, like all the rest, is based upon the assumption of a false major premise, to wit, "That whatever we can predict with certainty, of human beings, must be an attribute of their nature." But we can predict, that if they live, they will think and choose. Are these attributes of human nature?
It is unnecessary to occupy any more time with the treatise of Dr. Woods. I will now quote the standards of the Presbyterian church, which will possess you of their views upon this subject. On pages 30 and 31 of the Presbyterian Confession of Faith, we have the following: "By this sin, they, (Adam and Eve,) fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed, and the same death in sin and corrupted nature conveyed to all their posterity, descending from them by ordinary generation. From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions."
Again, pages 152--154, Shorter Catechism. Question 22. Did all mankind fall in that first transgression? Answer: The covenant being made with Adam as a public person, not for himself only, but for his posterity; all mankind descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him in that first transgression.
Question 23. Into what estate did the fall bring mankind? Ans. The fall brought mankind into an estate of sin and misery.
Question 24. What is sin? Ans. Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of any law of God, given as a rule to the reasonable creature.
Question 25. Wherein consists the sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell? Ans. The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consisteth in the guilt of Adam's first sin, the want of that righteousness wherein he was created, and the corruption of his nature, whereby he is utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite unto all that is spiritually good, and wholly inclined to all evil, and that continually, which is commonly called original sin, and from which do proceed all actual transgressions.
Question 26. How is original sin conveyed from our first parents unto their posterity? Ans. Original sin is conveyed from our first parents unto their posterity by natural generation, so as all that proceed from them in that way, are conceived and born in sin."
These extracts show, that the framers and defenders of this Confession of Faith, account for the moral depravity of mankind, by making it to consist in a sinful nature, inherited by natural generation from Adam. They regard the constitution inherited from Adam as in itself sinful, and the cause of all actual transgression. They make no distinction between physical and moral depravity. They also distinguish between original and actual sin. Original sin is the sinfulness of the constitution, in which Adam's posterity have no other hand than to inherit it by natural generation, or by birth. This original sin, or sinful nature, renders mankind utterly disabled from all that is spiritually good, and wholly inclined to all that is evil. This is their account of moral depravity. This, it will be seen, is substantially the ground of Dr. Woods.
It has been common with those who confound physical with moral depravity, and who maintain that human nature is itself sinful, to quote certain passages of Scripture to sustain their position. An examination of these proof texts must, in the next place, occupy our attention. But before I enter upon this examination, I must first call your attention to certain well settled rules of biblical interpretation.
1. Different passages must be so interpreted, if they can be, as not to contradict each other.
2. Language is to be interpreted according to the subject matter of discourse.
3. Respect is always to be had to the general scope and design of the speaker or writer.
4. Texts that are consistent with either theory prove neither.
5. Language is to be so interpreted, if it can be, as not to conflict with sound philosophy, matters of fact, the nature of things, or immutable justice.
Let us now, remembering and applying these plain rules of sound interpretation, proceed to the examination of those passages that are supposed to establish the theory of depravity I am examining.
Gem 5:3. "Adam lived an hundred and thirty years and begat a son in his own likeness and after his own image, and called his name Seth." It is not very easy to see why this text should be pressed into the service of those who hold that human nature is in itself sinful. Why should it be assumed that the likeness and image here spoken of was a moral likeness or image? But unless this be assumed the text has nothing to do with the subject.
Again. It is generally admitted that in all probability Adam was a regenerate man at the time and before the birth of Seth. Is it intended that Adam begot a saint or a sinner? If, as is supposed, Adam was a saint of God. if this text is any thing to the purpose it affirms that Adam begat a saint. But this is the opposite of that in proof of which the text is quoted.
Another text is, Job 14:4. "Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? Not one." This text is quoted in support of the position of the Presbyterian Confession of Faith that children inherit from their parents by natural generation, a sinful nature. Upon this text I remark,
1. That all that can be made of it even if we read it without regard to the translation or the context, is that a physically depraved parent will produce a physically depraved offspring.
2. That this is its real meaning is quite evident when we look into the context. Job is treating of the frail and dying state of man, and manifestly has in the text and context his eye wholly on the physical state, and not on the moral character of man. What he intends is: Who can bring other than a frail, dying offspring from a frail, dying parent? Not one. This is substantially the view that Professor Stuart takes of this text. The utmost that can be made of it is, that as he belonged to a race of sinners, nothing else could be expected than that he should be a sinner without meaning to affirm any thing in regard to the quo modo of this result.
Again. Job 15:14. "What is man that he should be clean, and he that is born of a woman that he should be righteous."
1. These are the words of Eliphaz, and it is improper to quote them as inspired truth. That Eliphaz uttered this sentiment, let what will be the meaning, there is no reason to doubt; and there is just as little reason to receive his doctrines as truth. For God himself testifies that Job's friends did not hold the truth. But,
2. Suppose we understand the text as true, what is its import? Why, it simply asserts, or rather implies the unrighteousness or sinfulness of the whole human race. He expresses the universality of depravity in the very common way of including all that are born of woman. This certainly says nothing and implies nothing respecting a sinful constitution. It is just as plain and just as warrantable to understand this passage as implying that mankind have become so physically depraved that this fact together with the circumstances under which they come into being and begin their moral career will certainly, (not necessarily) result in moral depravity. I might use just such language as that found in this text and naturally enough express by it my own views of moral depravity; to wit, that it results from a physically depraved constitution and the circumstances of temptation under which children come into this world and begin and prosecute their moral career; certainly this is the most that can be made of this text.
Again, Ps. 51:5, "Behold I was shapen in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me." Upon this I remark,
1. It would seem, if this text is to be understood literally, that the Psalmist intended to affirm the sinful state of his mother at the time of his conception and during gestation. But,
2. I make a remark that is applicable to all the texts and arguments that are adduced in support of the theory in question; namely, that to take this view of the subject and to interpret these passages as teaching the constitutional sinfulness of man is to contradict God's own definition of sin and the only definition that human reason or common sense can receive, to wit, that "sin is a transgression of the law." This is no doubt the only correct definition of sin. But we have seen that the law does not legislate over substance requiring men to have a certain nature, but over voluntary action only. If the Psalmist really intended to affirm that the substance of his conceived ftus was sinful, then he not only arrays himself against God's own definition of sin, but be also affirms sheer nonsense. The substance of an unborn child sinful! It is impossible! But what did the Psalmist mean? I answer, this verse is found in David's penitential psalm. He was deeply convinced of sin and was, as he had good reason to be, much excited, and expressed himself, as we all do in similar circumstances, in strong language. His eye, as was natural and is common in such cases, had been directed back along the pathway of life up to the days of his earliest recollection. He remembered sins among the earliest acts of his recollected life. He broke out in the language of this text to express, not the anti-scriptural and nonsensical dogma of a sinful constitution, but to affirm in his strong, poetic language that he had always been a sinner from the commencement of his moral existence, or from the earliest moment of his capability of being a sinner. This language is the strong language of poetry. To press this and similar texts further than this, is to violate two sound rules of biblical interpretation, to wit:
1. That language is to be interpreted according to the subject matter of discourse. And,
2. That one passage is to be so interpreted as not to contradict another. But to make this text state that sin belongs, or may belong to the substance of an unborn infant is to make it flatly contradict another passage that defines sin to be a transgression of the law of God.
Some suppose that in the passage in question the Psalmist referred to and meant to acknowledge and assert his low and despicable origin and to say, I was always a sinner, and my mother that conceived me was a sinner, and I am but the degenerate plant of a strange vine, without intending to affirm any thing in respect to the absolute sinfulness of his nature.
Again, Ps. 58:3. "The wicked are estranged from the womb, they go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies." Upon this text I remark,
1. That it has been quoted at one time to establish the doctrine of a sinful nature, and at another to prove that infants commit actual sin from the very day and hour of their birth. But certainly no such use can be legitimately made of this text. It does not affirm any thing of a sinful nature, but this has been inferred from what it does affirm, that the wicked are estranged from their birth. But does this mean that they are really and literally estranged from the day and hour of their birth and that they really "go astray the very day they are born, speaking lies?" This every one knows to be contrary to fact. The text cannot then be pressed to the letter. What then does it mean? It must mean like the text last examined, that the wicked are estranged and go astray from the commencement of their moral agency. If it means more than this, it is not and cannot be true. And besides, it would contradict other plain passages of scripture. It is affirming in strong, graphic, and poetic language the fact that the first moral conduct and character of children is sinful. This is all that in truth it can assert, and it doubtless dates the beginning of their moral depravity at a very early period, which it expresses in very strong language, as if it were literally from the hour of birth. But when it adds that they go astray speaking lies we know that this is not and cannot be to be literally taken, for, as every one knows children do not speak at all from their birth. Should we understand the Psalmist as affirming that children go astray as soon as they go at all, and speak lies as soon as they speak at all, this would not prove that their nature was in itself sinful, but might well consist with the theory that their physical depravity together with their circumstances of temptation led them into selfishness from the very first of their moral existence.
Again, John 3:6. "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit."
Upon this I remark.
1. That it may, if literally taken, mean nothing more than this, that the body which is born of flesh is flesh, and that that which is born of the Spirit is spirit, that is that this birth of which he was speaking was of the soul, and not of the body. But,
2. It may be understood to mean that that which results from the influence of the flesh is flesh in the sense of sin, for this is a common sense of the term flesh in the New Testament, and that which results from the Spirit, is spirit or spiritual in the sense of holy. This I understand to be the true sense. The text when thus understood does not at all support the dogma of a sinful nature or constitution, but only this that the flesh tends to sin, that the appetites and passions are temptations to sin, so that when the will obeys them it sins. Whatever is born of the propensities, in the sense that the will yields to their control, is sinful. And on the other hand whatever is born of the Spirit, that is, whatever results from the agency of the Holy Spirit in the sense that the will yields to Him, is holy.
Again, Eph. 2:3. "By nature children of wrath even as others." Upon this text I remark,
1. That it cannot consistently with natural justice, be understood to mean, that we are exposed to the wrath of God on account of our nature. It is a monstrous and blasphemous dogma, that a holy God is angry with any creature, for possessing a nature with which he was forced into being without his knowledge or consent. The Bible represents God as angry with men for their wicked deeds, and not for their nature.
2. It is common, and proper to speak of the first state in which men universally are as a natural state. Thus we speak of sinners before regeneration, as in a state of nature, as opposed to a changed state, a regenerate state, and a state of grace. But by this we do not necessarily mean, that they have a nature sinful in itself, but merely that before regeneration, they are universally and totally morally depraved, that this is their natural, as opposed to their regenerate state. Total moral depravity is the state that follows, and results from their first birth, and is in this sense natural, and in this sense alone, can it truly be said, that they are "by nature children of wrath." Against the use that is made of this, and all this class of texts, may be arrayed the whole scope of scripture that represents man as to blame, and to be judged and punished only for his deeds. But I forbear, as it cannot be necessary. The subject matter of discourse in these texts is such as demands that we should understand them as not implying or asserting that sin is a part of our nature.
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