Is there Good in Humanity Apart From God's Grace?

by James Henley Thornwell


The question, therefore, which we have to discuss is, Whether the sinner, independently of grace, possesses any element that can be truly and properly called good? Whether any seeds of holiness are still deposited in his nature? Whether he is able in any sphere of cognition or of practice to compass the holy and divine? There are but two sources of proof: Scripture and experience - the word of God and the consciousness of those who have been renewed by the Holy Ghost.

If there be any spiritual good in man, it must manifest itself in the double form of spiritual perception and of holy love, as an act of cognition and an act of will. It is the characteristic of holiness that it holds in unity all the elements of our rational and moral being. We can separate logically betwixt thought and volition, betwixt the understanding and the heart, but in every holy exercise there is the indissoluble union of both. The perception of beauty and excellence cannot be disjoined from love. The peculiarity of the cognition is just the discernment of that element to which the soul immediately cleaves as the divine and good. Now if man independently of grace possesses any germ of holiness, he is able to some extent to perceive and appreciate the infinite excellence of God; he must in some degree love Him as the perfect good, and desire conformity with Him as the true perfection of the soul. Wherever there is no element of love to Gory as the good there is no real holiness. Wherever there is no sense of the glory of God as the supreme end of life there is nothing divine. Tried by this test -- and it is the only test which is at all applicable to the case -- every mouth must surely be stopped and the whole world become guilty before God.

The testimony of Scripture is explicit, both as to man's inability to perceive the glory of God, and the total absence from his heart of anything answering to a genuine love. Every Scripture which teaches that his understanding is blinded by sin, that his mind is darkness, that he needs a special illumination of the Spirit of God in order to be able to cognize Divine things, teaches most explicitly that in his natural condition he is destitute of the lowest germ of holiness. If he cannot see he surely cannot relish beauty. If he is incapable of apprehending the qualities which excite holy affections, he is surely incapable of possessing the emotions themselves.

There is nothing in the unrenewed sinner corresponding to that union of all the higher faculties in one operation which his implied in every exercise of holiness. He neither knows God nor loves Him. Hence, all who have been renewed are conscious that they have been introduced into a new type of life. There is not the development of something that was in them before, dormant or suppressed, but all things have become in a most important sense new. Their faculties are moved by a principle of which they had previously experienced no trace, and a harmony and unity are imparted to them which make them like really new powers. It issue less to recount the numerous passages of Scripture which teach the natural blindness of men, the hardness of their hearts, the perverseness of their wills and their obstinate aversion to the Author of their being -- useless to cite the manifold texts which describe man in his natural state as an enemy to God and a slave to his lusts, to Satan and the world. Their plain and obvious meaning would be admitted at once if there were not certain appearances of human nature which seem to be contradictory to the natural explanation, and which therefore demand a sense in harmony with themselves. If these appearances can be reconciled with the scheme of total depravity, then that scheme must be accepted as the one taught in Scripture.

Among these appearances, the one on which most stress is laid is the exhibition of a character distinguished by high probity and scrupulous integrity among unrenewed men. There are those who make conscience of duty, who recognize the supreme authority of right, and who endeavor to regulate their lives by the principles of reason. These men are not to be put in the same category with abandoned knaves or heartless voluptuaries. They have something about them spiritual and divine; they are good men. Such was the young man who presented himself to the Saviour as an inquirer after life, and whom even Jesus is said to have loved. Here the real question is as to the root of this morality. If it can exist apart from the love of God, and apart from any spiritual perception of the beauty and excellence of holiness, it is no more a proof of Divine life than the loveliness of a corpse is a proof that the soul still lingers in it. It must be borne in mind that the fall has destroyed no one faculty of man. It has not touched the substance of the soul. That remains entire with all its endowments of intelligence, conscience and will. These faculties have all, too, their laws, which determine the mode and measure of their operation -- principles which lie at their root and which condition the possibility of their exercise. Intelligence has its laws, which constitute the criteria of truth and falsehood, and without the silent influence of which no mental activity could be construed into knowledge. Conscience has its laws, which constitute the criteria of right and wrong, and without which the sense of duty or of good and ill desert would be wholly unintelligible. Taste has its laws, which constitute the criteria of beauty and deformity, without which esthetic sentiments would be nothing but arbitrary and capricious emotions. These are all co-ordinate faculties, and each has a sphere that is peculiar to itself. Collectively, they constitute the rational, moral, accountable being. They point to three distinct spheres of thought and life -- truth, virtue, beauty. Intelligence is the faculty of truth, conscience is the faculty of virtue, and taste is the faculty of beauty. They all have an essential unity in the unity of the human person. They are grounded in one and the same spiritual substance. It is obvious that the mere possession of these faculties does not make a being holy, otherwise holiness could not be lost without the destruction of the characteristic elements of humanity. They exist in the fiend as really as in the saint. Neither, again, does every mode of exercising them determine anything as to the holiness of the agent. There maybe a spontaneous exercise in which the ground of satisfaction is the congruity between the faculty and its object. Truth may be loved simply as that which is suited to evoke the peculiar activity which we term knowledge. Duty may be practiced, in obedience to the authority of conscience, to prevent schism and a sense of disharmony in the soul; each faculty may seek its object and delight in its object only from the natural correspondence betwixt them. When this is the spring of action and the ground of pleasure, there is nothing but a manifestation of the essential elements of humanity. There may be m this way much truth acquired, and duty as a demand of the nature may be steadily and consistently practiced, and in all this the man never rise above himself. He is acting out his own constitution, and the law of his agency is that it is his constitution. His cognitions of duty are really in this aspect upon a level with his cognitions of truth, and he himself is the centre of both. Given his present constitution, he might act and think as he does if there were no God to whom he is responsible. In order that the exercise of these faculties may be holy, there must be something more than the substantial unity of the person; they must be grounded in a common principle of love to God. As truth, beauty and goodness are one in Him, so they must be one in us by an unity of life. Truth must not only be apprehended as something suited to my faculties of cognition, but as something which rejects the glory of God, and be loved as a ray of His excellence; beauty must not only be admired as something suited to my taste, but as the radiance of Divine excellence, the harmony of the Divine perfections; and the good must not only be apprehended as a thing that ought to be, the right and obligatory, but as the secret of the Divine life, the soul of the Divine blessedness. Where the heart is pervaded by holy love all these faculties move in unison and all derive their inspiration from God.

Hence, in these various spheres, the cognition' of a holy and an unholy being are radically different; they look at the same objects, but they see them in a different light. One perceives only the relations to himself; the other perceives the marks and traces of God. One sees only the things; the other sees God in the things. To one the objective reality is all; to the other, the objective reality is only the dress in which Deity makes Himself visible. In one, each faculty has its own separate life grounded in its own laws; in the other, they all have a common life grounded in love to Him who is at once the true. the beautiful and the good. Hence, as there may be knowledge and taste without holiness, so there may also be virtue. Eminent con scientiousness may be joined with eminent ungodliness -- a high sense of duty as the requirement of our own nature with an utter absence of any real sense of dependence upon God. The most splendid achievements, therefore, of unrenewed men are dead works -- objectively good, but subjectively deficient in that which alone can entitle them to be considered as the expressions of a Divine life. That this reduction is true may be inferred from the fact that there is a tendency in all integrity which exists apart from the grace of God to generate a spirit of pride. The motives to right-doing are apt to crystallize around this principle as their central law. The great argument for virtue is the dignity of human nature; the life of virtue is self-respect, and the beauty and charm of virtue is the superiority which it impresses upon its votaries. This tendency is strikingly illustrated in the school of the Stoics. Their fundamental maxim was, Be true to yourselves; and the difference betwixt the genius of their philosophy and the philosophy of Christianity is, that in the one, man is compared to a palace in which the personal individual reigns as a king, and in the other, to a temple in which God manifests His presence and His glory. The virtue of one exalts the creature; the virtue of the other glorifies the Creator. The one burns incense to his own drag and sacrifices to his own net; the other lay s all its tribute at the feet of Divine grace. The one, in short, is the virtue of pride, and the other is the virtue of humility. The difference betwixt holiness and morality is like the difference between the Ptolemaic and Copernican systems of the universe. One puts the earth in the centre and makes the heavenly bodies revolve around it; the other, the sun. One makes man supreme; the other, God. Without denying the reality of human virtue, or reducing to the same level of moral worthlessness all the gradations of human character, it is possible to maintain that independently of grace there is none that doeth good in a spiritual and divine sense, no not one, There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. There is no fear of God before their eyes

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