Of all the doctrines proclaimed by the Christian pulpit the one the world finds most abhorrent is its insistence on the depravity of human nature. People find it offensive enough to be called ‘sinners’: it is beyond tolerance that they should be called ‘depraved’.
To an extent the pulpit itself is to blame. Too often we haven’t spoken circumspectly, and have conveyed the impression that human nature and human history present a picture of unrelieved evil devoid of all beauty and all nobility, as if there were no difference between a kind old lady and an SS guard in a Nazi concentration camp.
There is a brilliant corrective to such an understanding of human depravity in a sermon by Thomas Chalmers on Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:11, ‘If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good gifts to them that ask him?’
He begins by diving home the fact that even in our fallenness, even in our depravity, we are still capable of such God-like acts as giving good gifts to our children. Our world is lit up by the fondness of parents towards their offspring, the delight of a mother when she sees the happiness of her children, her alarm and tenderness towards them when they are ill, and a father’s willingness to sacrifice even the comforts of home in search of a means of providing for his family. It is this strength of family affection, Chalmers declares, that binds society together: the parental love that nourished us as children, counselled us in youth, welcomes us back under their roof when things go wrong, and which endures even to old age, declining powers and straitened circumstances.
But parental affection is not the only light that continues to shine even in a fallen world. There are, Chalmers proclaims, other clear signs that human depravity does not mean the elimination of all that is amiable in feeling or upright in principle. There is still a compassion that reaches out to the relief of misery, a delicacy that refrains from what is hurtful or offensive to our neighbour’s feelings, and a high-minded integrity that spurns unworthy artifice: in a word, even in the present state of human nature, ‘there might be all those native moralities which uphold the economy of an earthly state, and all those native affections between man and man which shed a pleasure and a brightness along the way of his earthly pilgrimage.’
Jesus’ recognises all this, and even sees in these qualities a reflection of ‘God’s Paternal Character’ (the title of Chalmers’s sermon). And yet, and in the very same breath, Jesus describes his hearers as ‘evil.’ How do we resolve this paradox? How can the Lord compliment us on our generosity to our children (and even see it as a type and symbol of his own) and yet call us ‘evil’?
To answer this Chalmers turns to another all too frequent form of the parent-child relationship: the son who responds to paternal tenderness with disobedience, neglect, defiance, selfishness, distaste for the society of his parents, and ‘the selfish unconcern of one who can ravenously seize upon the gifts but without one movement either of grateful or of duteous inclination towards the giver.’
Chalmers portrays this as a parable of humanity’s attitude to God. He is the ultimate affectionate parent, creation is his spacious household, and human beings his universal family; and none of us is exempt from the guilt of having done ‘most outrageous violence’ to this relationship. Living in the midst of a thousand gratifications, surrounded by a scenery of smiling landscapes, experiencing delight through all our senses, and yet reckless all the time of the Giver to whom we owe it all.
What, then, does Christianity mean when it speaks of human depravity? ‘It may be expressed in one word. It lies in ungodliness.’ It doesn’t mean that there is no milk of human kindness, or that atheists and humanists are incapable of compassion, generosity, self-sacrifice and heroism. Far less does it mean that were it not for the restraints imposed by law all humans would be thieves, stalkers and child-abusers. There may be some beauty of character where there is no religion, but far too often the mother who has such tender love for her child has no love for God. That is the Christian point. Touching the orthodoxy of contemporary Wokism, we may be blameless: taking the knee, caring for the environment, saluting the Gay Pride movement, faithfully attending every demo; and in many quarters such virtues will be counted to us for righteousness. But we are ungodly. Generous to our own children, we are ungrateful children of our heavenly Father, unwilling even to give him a place in our thoughts and, in too many instances, constantly on the look-out for any opportunity to deride and miscall him.
That is the meaning of human depravity. The most important relationship in life is our relationship with God, it is a broken one, and that brings with it ‘the sense of a dishonoured law and an incensed lawgiver.’ This is why the preaching of human depravity can never be enough. As Chalmers warns in the Preface to this volume of sermons, it would be cruelty to expose the unworthiness of man ‘for the single object of disturbing him.’ It can only be a prelude to guiding men and women, the virtuous and the profligate, the revered and the disreputable, to make peace with the Father in Heaven. There is a way to such peace, but only one: by mediation. And there is only one accredited Mediator, the divine Son, Jesus Christ. If we approach the Father through him, we will never be turned away.
There is no complete and uniform edition of the Works of Thomas Chalmers. The volume quoted here is Volume 3 of a 25-volume edition published in Edinburgh for Thomas Constable in 1848. It is one of 3 volumes of his ‘Congregational Sermons’. Like all his sermons, this one is marked by intense passion and a high rhetorical register, neither of which is altogether suited to modern taste. But they were unsurpassable examples of the power of the Word of God preached.