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ON THE TOTAL DEPRAVITY OF MANKIND BY NA
ROMANS VII. 18.
For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing.
THE knowledge of ourselves, is of the
nearest concernment to us; more especially the knowledge of our moral character, and spiritual condition. Other knowledge may be useful, respecting the life that now is; but this is necessary, in regard to that which is to come. This, therefore, is an essential part of that wisdom which is the principal thing. The greatest naturalist, geographer, astronomer, or politician, if he lives and dies a stranger to himself, and never knows the state he is in, or what manner of spirit he is of, it may be truly said of him, that he lives and dies a fool.
And as self-knowledge is of the greatest importance to us, so, one would think, it were of the easiest acquisition. But yet the truth too evidently is, that. in this branch of science, we are apt to be most remarkably deficient. Those who can discern the least mote in a neighbor's eye, are often insensible of a beam in their own. Those who carry their in
vestigations through the remotest ages of antiquity, and to the most distant regions of the earth, are often great strangers at home, and amazingly ignorant respecting themselves. This can be resolved only into selfish partiality, and an extreme reluctance to come to the light, when we are afraid it would reprove and condemn us. Hence many, all their days, flatter themselves that they are rich and increased with goods, when really they are wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.
The apostle Paul himself, was once in this state of ignorance and self-deception. He is giving an account in our context, of the high ideas he had formerly entertained of his pharisaical righteousness; of the causes of those wrong apprehensions; and of the means by which he was brought to alter them, and forced to admit the mortifying conviction of his exceeding vileness. "I was alive without the law once," says he, ver. 5, "but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died." He goes on to relate the further experimental knowledge which had been given him, of what he still was, as well as of what he had been before his conversion. "For we know that the law is spiritual," says he, "but I am carnal, sold under sin.-I find then a law, that when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man : but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" And in the midst of these humiliating confessions and bitter complaints, he expresses himself in the words of our text: "For I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing."
Supposing that this description of himself is equal-. ly a true one of other men; we will briefly inquire
how it is to be understood; and then consider the evidence we have of its truth, as applicable to all mankind.
I. I shall endeavor to explain, briefly, how Paul is here to be understood; that in him, that is, in his flesh, dwelt no good thing.
What the apostle means by his flesh, may be learnt from his repeated use of that expression. In ver. 5, of the context, he says, "When we were in the flesh, the motions of sin did work in our members." And ver. 8, of the next chapter, "So then they that are in the flesh, cannot please God." In both which places, by being in the flesh, is plainly meant, being in a state of unrenewed nature. In Gal. v. 17, he says, "The flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh; so that ye cannot do the things that ye would." There, by flesh, we are to understand, the remainder of corrupt nature in good men. And ver. 19-23, the contrary operations of the flesh, and effects of the spirit, are particularly described. "Now, the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, laciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envy, ings, &c. But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, meekness, temperance." By flesh and spirit cannot be here meant, the body and soul: for several of the sins enumerated have not their origin or seat in the body, any more than all sins have: and the virtues mentioned are not the fruits of every human soul; but of the Divine Spirit, where he operates in a sanctifying manner. Or they are the fruits of that new nature in man, which is begun in regeneration. By the flesh, then, we are to understand the sinful nature derived from Adam-the old man which is corrupt.
So that when in our text the apostle says, me, that is, in my flesh;" he means in him by na
ture or so far as he was yet unsanctified, by divine grace.
When he says there was thus in him no good thing, his meaning is, nothing spiritually good. Not that he was destitute of every natural excellency. This, certainly, is not the case with fallen man, as born of the flesh. The unregenerate have good things of these kinds. They may have good features, shapes, and limbs they may have good understandings, good inventions, and good memories; as good as those who have been born again.
Nor is it to be understood that mankind by nature have nothing humane or sociable in their dispositions; nothing of those partial, friendly propensities, which, in a limited sphere, answer good purposes; and which, to our short-sighted, superficial view, appear amiable. The unrenewed are not, all of them, without natural affection, nor wholly destitute of compassion for one another in distress and misery. Sometimes they are kind parents, dutiful children, and tender husbands and wives; and some of them have a great deal of what we call, general good nature. There are such instincts as these, perhaps not originating merely from self-love, which most men, more or less, plainly discover.
But, the meaning of the apostle, I conceive, is simply this: That in him, as far as he remained unsanctified, or as he was by nature, there were no principles of real godliness or virtue-no inclinations to that love of God and his neighbors, on which hang all the law and the prophets-not a single living branch or root, of disinterested, universal good
Unless, therefore, Paul, in his native character and state, was essentially different from other men, we have in these words of his, the doctrine of man's total depravity by nature; as consisting in the entire want of righteousness and true holiness.
We will now, as was proposed,
II. Consider whether we have not other plain and full proofs of this doctrine.
That the heart of the sons of men is very full of evil, is what no one can well dispute: their abominable works-their biting, and devouring, and slaughtering one another; and the wretched state of all nations ever since the fall, notwithstanding all the methods taken to restrain the lusts of men, make this undeniably evident. But that there is nothing truly virtuous in man by nature, may not perhaps be so readily admitted, nor so easily proved. Our principal light respecting this point, must be derived from scripture. Experience and observation may not furnish arguments universally satisfactory, one way or the other. Some may be fully convinced, by their own experience, that they themselves were thus totally depraved: but their testimony may not convince others, who have had no such experience, that all natural men are so very wicked. Some, on the other side, may imagine it is abundantly evident from observation, that mankind, though very bad in many instances, have not lost all their virtue ; besure as they are by nature, uncontaminated by evil communications. But it is so uncertain to us who are in a state of nature, and there are so many lower instincts, and so many selfish principles, from which the specious actions of men may proceed, that no infallible conclusion can be grounded on this kind of evidence. Let us then candidly inquire, "What saith the scripture?" Here,
1. There are several texts which seem expressly to assert, or plainly to imply, that the native condition of fallen man, is such a state of total moral depravity as hath now been explained.