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Lecture XII. The Possibility of Moral Restoration

SO far, we have been considering the nature and origin of moral evil. We must now proceed to consider the possibility of its cure or extinction, of the partial or complete victory of good over it. Is moral evil irremediable, or, if not, is moral recovery possible in the way of self-reformation, or only through external, supernatural interposition? If the latter alternative be the truth, is the moral impotence which sin produces absolute and complete, or only partial? Is it of the nature of sin so to paralyze the spiritual energies, that the soul must passively wait for and submit itself to the power that interposes for its recovery, or can it do anything to bring that power into operation and co-operate with it in the process of its own restoration?

These are questions around which theological controversy has raged for centuries, and the solution of which, in the view of many, is still as far off as ever. It will be necessary to refer to these controversies in subsequent lectures, but meantime it may here be observed that the doctrine of human depravity has often, both by individual thinkers and by schools of theology, been so presented as to become self-contradictory. As a thorough-going scepticism, so a thorough-going pessimism, refutes itself. The sceptic presupposes a standard of knowledge by reference to which he pronounces all knowledge to be futile, and tacitly assumes the competence of human intelligence in the very act of denying it. In like manner, the assertor of the “total depravity” of human nature, of its absolute moral blindness and incapacity, presupposes in himself and others the presence of a criterion or principle of good, in virtue of which he discerns himself to be wholly evil; yet the very proposition that human nature is wholly evil, would be unintelligible unless it were false.

Moreover, the notion of absolute or total depravity would imply, not only the unconsciousness of its existence, but the impossibility of moral recovery; and, conversely, the consciousness of sin implies that it is not absolute, and that a spiritual nature, so long as it does not cease to be spiritual, contains in it at least so much of good as to constitute the possibility of its moral restoration. Neither from within nor from without, by its own or by any external power, could the process of moral recovery be initiated in a nature in which evil had become absolute. Not from within, for absolute depravity is only another name for moral impotence; it means that the very conception of a good to which aspiration might be directed has vanished; in other words, that the nature is one for which moral distinctions no longer exist, which has sunk from being spiritual into being purely animal, and which can no more raise itself out of its degradation than an animal can transform itself into an intelligent agent. Nor, on this supposition, could the process of recovery be effected from without, or by any external, supernatural agency. For the external agency, however powerful, would have no material on which to operate. Restoration is possible in the case of a diseased organism, but not in one in which life is extinct. The restoration to moral and spiritual vitality of a nature wholly depraved, would not be really the restoration of that which was depraved or devitalized, but the creation of a new moral agent: not the making of a bad man good, but the transforming of an animal, or of something lower than an animal, into a man.

Again, if, as I tried to show in a former lecture, goodness or moral character is from its very nature a thing which cannot be directly and immediately created, neither can it be restored even by an Omnipotent power. Moral qualities cannot, like physical, be gifts of nature or of any purely external benefactor; they involve, in the very idea of them, the self-determined activity of the agent. The activity by which they are produced must be our own and not another's. Our natural gifts and endowments, so long as they are merely given, are of no more moral value than the beauty of a flower or the speed and sagacity of an animal. Our natural desires and tendencies are only the materials out of which moral character can be formed; and to lend moral value to the result, it must be achieved by self-conscious choice, by self-discipline and self-determination. If we could conceive of a goodness created or restored by an external power apart from the activity of the subject, such goodness would in reality belong, not to the subject, but to the power that operated on it. But, in that case, it must be added, that the Being, who simply by an act of power could turn evil into good, must be held responsible, not only for neglecting to extirpate evil and transform the whole universe of moral being into perfect goodness, but also for not, by a similar act of power, preventing the very entrance of evil into the world.

Again, not only does absolute depravity, and the unconsciousness of evil involved in it, render the notion of moral restoration impossible, but, on the other hand, as I have said, the consciousness of evil implies that the evil is not absolute, but carries with it the possibility of moral restoration. The misery and dissatisfaction of an evil life, the self-reproach and shame which, so long as the subject does not cease to be human, can never be wholly extinguished in it, are not indeed in themselves the signs of moral recovery; but they are the indication of a nature the essence of which is on the side of goodness, and the silent proof that recovery is still possible. There is a sense in which even in sin, in a life abandoned to sensual or selfish indulgence, there is to be discerned an indication of the latent presence of that which is the principle of all goodness. What vicious self-seeking means, as we have already seen, is that the universal self which, in a self-conscious nature, lies behind all particular desires and impulses, is vainly trying to find its satisfaction in them: that the spirit made in the image of God is setting itself to the impossible quest for satisfaction in the pleasures of the animal. And that this is so, is shown partly by the disproportionate avidity and eagerness with which sensuous and selfish satisfactions are sought after, but mainly by the reaction of discontent, restlessness, disappointment, which attends each particular gratification, and by the self-contempt and remorse which are the ultimate issue of a life of such self-indulgence.

But whilst the consciousness of sin is a negative sign of the possibility of moral restoration, it does not seem to be in itself a proof that that possibility will become actuality. The dissatisfaction and self-reproach which attend a selfish life, witness to the presence in the spirit of a latent ideal which is denied and frustrated; but it may remain nothing more than a latent ideal. It may be sufficient to condemn, without producing any, or any but the faintest, stimulus to its own realization. The impulse to self-reformation which arises simply from shame, remorse, self-reproach, unless reinforced by something infinitely more potent, will be easily overborne by outward temptation, and must ever prove inadequate to the conquest of selfish desires and the restoration of the soul to goodness.

How, then, is this restoration to be effected? Is there any conceivable means by which the possibility involved in the consciousness of sin can be turned into a reality,—by which selfish passions can be disarmed of their power, and brought into subjection to that higher and better self which has in it the principle of a divine or infinite life?

The answer to this question is contained in the personality and life of Christ and in the Christian doctrines of Redemption and Grace; and that answer, and its accordance with the principles of reason and the moral and spiritual needs of man, will form the subjects of the following lectures. But, meantime, it may be possible, even at this stage of our inquiry, to see by anticipation what direction the inquiry must take. From the view which has been given of the nature of the disease, we may discern in some measure what the remedy must be capable of achieving, and so be prepared to perceive the adequacy of that remedy which, as unfolded in the Christian religion, we believe to be “the power of God unto salvation.”

We have seen that the conflict between the higher and lower nature of man, of which moral character is the result, is, in the outset, waged on very unequal terms. From the very dawn of the moral consciousness there are many influences which would seem to throw the balance on the side of evil. Many natural feelings and passions, many satisfactions which are immediate and certain, are on the one side; while, on the other side, moral principle is yet undeveloped, and the satisfactions which it promises are dim and distant, and attainable only by long and painful effort and self-discipline. And what is specially to be noticed is, that whilst the lower element has on its side all the immediate force of natural appetite, of spontaneous inclination and impulse, the higher comes to us at the first only in the form of an outward imperative or of deference to an arbitrary authority. The moral imperative is, indeed, the expression of our own deepest nature, and obedience to it may ultimately become obedience that has lost all sense of constraint, and that is identical with perfect freedom. But at the beginning of our moral history it is not so. Duty at the first presents itself to us in the form of commands and prohibitions which limit and repress nature, obedience to which may be enforced by outward sanctions, but runs counter to natural inclination. It is, in short, a law which we may be constrained to obey, but which we do not and cannot love.

And if this be so even at the outset, much more intense becomes the bias on the side of the lower self in the nature that has already become vitiated by yielding to it. For here the conflict becomes one between, on the one hand, desires and passions that have become intensified, and moral perceptions that have been obscured and weakened by evil compliance; and, on the other hand, a law which not only limits and represses but which also condemns us. How shall this balance be redressed? How shall the soul which is entangled in the meshes of evil inclination, and confronted by a law that speaks only with a voice of condemnation, and which, even if shame and remorse should awaken the longing for a better life, feels its endeavours to issue only in a painful sense of impotence and baffled effort—how under such conditions shall the soul achieve its escape from the fatal grasp of sin?

There is, indeed, one thing that would redress the unequal strife, and even give victorious energy to the side of duty. If evil inclination could be encountered by a larger, deeper love, reinforcing reason and conscience, then might moral emancipation be no longer hopeless. But the love that would disarm law of its sternness and quell the power of the evil self, is not a thing which by any act of our own will we can compass. By an effort of will we may yield a hollow and painful outward obedience to a law that condemns us. Compunction and remorse, slavish fear and selfish interest, have often made men outwardly moral, or induced them to submit to penances and painful austerities, in order to atone for an evil past. But if there be nothing in the law of right that calls forth our sympathy or kindles our admiration, if the emotion, which would render the conflict between duty and inclination no longer an unequal one, spring not up unprompted in the heart, then by no effort of will, though it were to save the soul from perdition, can we force it to arise.

Now, it is this problem of the spiritual life which finds its solution in the Christian religion, and especially in the person and life of Christ. Christianity supplies that new motive force which renders the moral conflict no longer unequal; and it does so by presenting that infinite right to which reason and conscience point, no longer as a mere external authoritative law which at once condemns and repels us, but in a form in which it awakens and reciprocates our love. In other words, the law of eternal right ceases to present the aspect of an abstract, impersonal authority, and becomes transformed into a personality that is capable of loving and being loved.

Christianity, in the first place, presents to us the moral ideal in a form which calls forth all the ardour and intensity of the personal affections. Christianity, indeed, does not supersede the moral ideal, the conception of right as a principle of rational intelligence; on the contrary, it immeasurably elevates and expands that ideal, and so, in one way, renders its realization more difficult, its non-attainment a source of deeper humiliation. But, on the other hand, it lends to moral effort the wonderful accession of power, the warmth and intensity, the sweetness and joy, which are possible only in our relations to a living personality. In the person and life of Christ the moral ideal, so to speak, takes visible form and embodiment; truth, goodness, purity, righteousness, present themselves to us, not as abstract ideas or unrealized qualities, but in the living, breathing characteristics of a concrete personality, for whom we can feel—what the former can never create—the admiration, reverence, love, of a personal devotion. Whilst thus the eternal law of right loses in Christian morality nothing of its imperativeness, it gains a new and incalculable power over the deeper springs of human action. Not, indeed, that in introducing the personal element into our moral conceptions, Christianity is to be regarded as substituting the authority of an individual will for the universal authority of the moral law; but that the universal ideas of the moral law, in becoming incarnate in the self-consciousness of a living personality, whilst they retain all their absoluteness and imperativeness, add to these the subtler, more constraining power that pertains to their embodiment in a Being who can touch our hearts, captivate our affections, and bind us to Himself by the tie of a profound yet passionate self-surrender.

But, in the second place, Christianity identifies the moral ideal, not only with a Being whom we can love, but with a Being who loves us. So long as the moral imperative reveals itself to our reason and conscience simply as an ideal principle or law, its power over the human spirit is inadequate to the control of the desires and passions of the lower nature, and still more to the emancipation of the will that has already long abandoned itself to their sway. And this inadequacy arises from the fact, not only that it cannot call forth the personal affections, but that it cannot respond to them. We may personify law or duty, but it is only by a flight of imagination that we can say of it:

… “Thou dost wear,

The Godhead's most benignant grace;

Nor is there anything so fair

As is the smile upon thy face.”

For law has no personality, no face to smile upon us, no consciousness to recognize our devotion or reciprocate our love.

Above all, so long as the moral ideal is that of impersonal law, it is absolutely devoid of that profound remedial influence which is involved in the notion of forgiveness—of sorrow as well as condemnation for the guilty, of self-sacrificing love for the penitent. For, so long as the moral imperative is conceived of apart from those qualities which belong to personality and self-consciousness, its relation to the transgressor is that of unalterable, irreconcilable condemnation, of a principle according to which the sequence of sin and penalty, of moral evil and its penal results, is one that can never be broken or redressed. The moral order of the universe, under this conception, is one in which the connection of cause and effect is as uniform and rigid and inviolable as the physical; and every event in it is woven into a concatenation or system, in which the disturbance of a single link would imply the subversion of the whole, and in which human exigencies can no more arrest the prescribed and changeless course of things than they can arrest the force of gravitation, or the ebb and flow of the tide, or the destructive energy of the tempest or the volcano. It is one of the commonest of moral truisms that the penalty of sin does not consist of arbitrary or external inflictions, but arises out of the law that we ourselves are the result of our own past, and that we can no more evade or undo these results than we can turn back the wheel of time and make the past never to have been. In so far as the penalty of sin can be said to be external and physical, it actually belongs to, and partakes of, the changeless necessity of nature. No penitence, no agony of shame or sorrow can bring back health to the intemperate man, or re-string the nerves which sensuality has disordered, or restore the vital energy which a course of vicious indulgence has wasted.

But the main penalty of sin lies in those inward and spiritual results which arise out of its very essence, and which would seem, so long as the agent lives, to be as indestructible as the very substance of his self-consciousness. We are what we have done. The responsibility and guilt that pertained to us in each sinful act, pertains to us now, and can never be shaken off. Even though the memory of it may grow dim or be obliterated, it is ours and will for ever remain ours, all the same. Equally ineffaceable would seem to be the moral results of sin—the increasing proclivity to sensuous and selfish passion, the darkening of our moral perceptions, the deadening of our moral sympathies, the taint of falsehood, the corrosion of avarice, the hardening influence of lust, the loss of self-respect, of pure feeling and all nobility of nature—these and the like are consequences of sin which are related by an absolute necessity to their cause, and which, inasmuch as they sap the moral strength and undermine the freedom from which any endeavour after recovery could proceed, would seem to render moral recovery impossible.1

Now what modification, let us ask, of this aspect of the moral ideal would be effected, if we could regard it, no longer as an unchangeable and absolute law, but as embodied in a living self-conscious personality? It may, indeed, be said that we do not need Christ to enable us to reach this point of view; that we attain to it whenever we identify the principle of morality with the mind and will of a personal God. But to whatever idea of God speculative thought may be capable of attaining, God, as an object of religious knowledge, is for us the highest finite form in and through which the Infinite manifests or reveals Himself to us; and this highest manifestation of the Infinite Spirit is the finite spirit made in His own image. If, therefore, the moral ideal is to be identified in our thought with a living, self-conscious personality, it can only be with that of a perfect humanity, and, in the first instance at least, of a perfect individual human life.

Now, so presented to us, consider what transformation the moral ideal undergoes, and especially the remediable power over the fallen, sin-burdened spirit which it gains. For one thing, instead of unconscious, unbending necessity, the impersonal uniformity and unchangeable rigidity of law, the conception that rises before us is that of law become alive with thought and love, of eternal purity and righteousness knowing itself and us, rejoicing in our obedience, condemning our moral aberrations, yet, while condemning, not ceasing to love us. What we have here is the absolute righteousness which law expresses, along with that which law cannot express—boundless love and pity for the transgressor; and both linked together in one beautiful human personality. Nay, more than that, instead of the conception of an impersonal principle which cannot be affected by pain or sorrow, there is here that of a being who can bear, with us and for us, the burden of our guilt, and who, in one sense, can endure for us a reflected shame and sorrow, infinitely more intense and poignant than our own. For, on the one hand, it is of the very nature of sin to dull or deaden our moral sensibilities, and so to blind us to its abhorrent nature; and, on the other hand, the recoil from sin, the wound it inflicts on the moral consciousness, grows with the elevation and purity of our nature, and would reach its point of keenest intensity in a moral, nature absolutely pure and good. Conceive, therefore, such a being, the ideal of moral perfection incarnate in a human personality, and at the same time one who loves us with a love so absolute as to identify himself with us and to make our good and evil his own—bring together these elements in a living, conscious, human spirit, and you have in it a capacity of shame and sorrow and anguish, a possibility of bearing the burden of human guilt and wretchedness which lost and sinful humanity can never bear for itself.

Now it is this combination which is presented to us in the personality and life of Christ. And it needs little reflection to perceive the remedial, quickening, redeeming power, the awakening, transforming influence over human hearts and lives which is contained in this aspect of our Christian faith. In the love of eternal purity incarnate for sin-burdened souls, lies the profoundest appeal to our moral nature and the secret of moral and spiritual restoration. Experience shows that even in ordinary human sympathy and love there is a strange power of moral healing. Even among the morally degraded and abandoned, where at first sight the problem of moral recovery might seem to be insoluble, there are, as experience shows, men and women who could never be reached by moral teaching, still less by denunciations, threatenings, penal terrors, in whose breast the spring of moral sensibility has been touched by the presence and power of self-sacrificing love. And the reason, in part at least, is, that in such a presence there is a living witness to the truth, that past guilt is no bar to reconciliation with perfect goodness, and that the sin which has not exhausted or estranged us from human love, cannot lie beyond the range of the divine.

But there is a limit to the restorative power of human sympathy and forgiveness. In the case of all ordinary human benefactors the doubt may arise, whether man's clemency to man may not in some measure be due to human imperfection. It may be the expression of merely natural, instinctive affection. It may be the false tolerance that springs from imperfect moral perceptions, and an inadequate appreciation of the evil of sin. It may be the unconscious forbearance that shrinks from condemning in another, shortcomings and sins which are only an exaggerated reflexion of our own. At best, no ordinary human being has ever attained to such absolute, stainless purity and goodness, that his voice could be regarded as one with the voice of eternal truth and righteousness, his forgiveness of sin as identified with forgiveness from the absolute source and centre of right. In the awakened, self-condemning conscience the redeeming power of human sympathy may be arrested by the thought, that man may forgive where God has not forgiven.

Now it is from this point of view that we can discern the moral need of humanity, and the adequacy of that provision which Christianity has made to meet it. The marvellous power which Christ exerted in His earthly life, and which through successive generations His Gospel has exerted over human hearts and lives, is due above all to this, that in Him the absolute righteousness we reverence, and the forgiveness we need, are blended in perfect unity in one actual, living personality. That our sins have not for ever separated us from God, that the infinite purity has not for ever hid its face from us, that the inviolable justice which condemns sin is only another aspect of the love that seeks the salvation of the sinner; or, conversely, that the love which no depth of moral degradation can exhaust, is one with the righteousness that is absolutely intolerant of evil—this is the great idea, of which Christianity not merely brings to us the authoritative announcement, but which in the person and life of Christ it sets before us as a living reality.

Lastly, I can only notice, without enlarging on it, this further thought, that in Christianity the moral ideal is revealed to us, not merely as an outward object of love, but as an immanent Spirit and life. In the conflict with sin and the endeavour after goodness, Christ is something more for us than a beautiful historic personality; He is an indwelling ever-present spirit, co-operating with us, animating and inspiring us, reinforcing our better nature, blending His thought with our thought, His will with our will, His life with our life.

It is no doubt true that we can say of the historic life of Christ, as of the life of all good men, that it has become an undying legacy to the world. There is that in the career of a noble and exalted personality which never dies, but constitutes a permanent contribution to the spiritual life of the race. And, in some respects, it may even be said that the influence of the world's saints and heroes, especially of those who by their genius or their self-devotion, their intellectual or moral greatness and originality, have introduced a new element into the progressive life of mankind, becomes more potent when in outward presence they have passed away from the world. The universal element that was in them becomes, so to speak, liberated by death from the accidents of the individual life. Even for the contemporaries of a great individuality, the idea of a vanished life may be more vivid in its purely spiritual essence than in its actual presence. For it comes back upon them idealized and elevated, with a rounded completeness for thought which it had not for sense, with a subtle charm in which memory is more potent than sight. And, undoubtedly, even in this sense, it is pre-eminently true of Christ that the idea of His life has become a rich and permanent element in the spiritual life of the world. Measured merely by its traditional influence, no such life has ever been lived on earth: no other life has so triumphed over death, has gone on, as His has done, re-living itself through the ages, permeating with its hidden power the individual and social life, the institutions, the literature and art, the moral and spiritual history of mankind.

But the abiding presence which Christian thought ascribes to Christ is something more than this ideal perpetuity. The Spirit of Christ, the divine life that was in Him, is not a thing that belongs merely to the past. What we recognize as the constitutive essence of that life is, that it was the self-revelation of the Divine in the human, the Infinite in the finite—the absolute identification of the mind and will of God with the mind and will of man. And, so regarded, the essence of the life of Christ is no more a thing of the past than the being and life of God is a thing of the past, or of any particular time or place. It is rather that eternal life which is for ever realizing itself in the spirit and life of humanity. The infinite spirit and power that identified itself with the finite and human in the person and life of Christ, has been revealing and realizing itself in the whole course of history, identifying itself with the finite and human as the indwelling principle of the thought and life of every individual Christian soul, penetrating all the social relations of communities and nations, and inspiring the corporate unity of the Christian Church; and it is still finding its ever growing manifestation in that progressive spirit and life of humanity, that ever advancing life of truth and goodness which, never hasting, never resting, is, we believe, under all the transient and ever changing aspects of human things, moving onwards to its consummation. The eye that looks on to the surface of things may fail to see it, the ear that is dulled or deadened by the tumult of human passion may fail to hear the heavenly voice; but it is here, never far from any one of us, a divine element surrounding us when we know and think not of it, a divine light rippling round blind eyes, a heavenly music seeking entrance into deaf ears; and nothing but our own moral opacity and dulness hinders it from penetrating, suffusing, identifying itself with our own very life and being.

Men sometimes speak as if our belief in Christ were a thing that stands or falls with the proof of the authenticity of ancient documents, and the demonstrated historic accuracy of the extant records of Christ's earthly life. In their main substance these records have, indeed, stood the test of criticism; but our faith in the Christ they reveal rests, I believe, on a more impregnable foundation than historic tradition—even on the inward witness of a spiritual presence here and now, which we can realize more profoundly than when men looked on the face and listened to the voice of Jesus of Nazareth—the inward witness to the presence of that redeeming, purifying, hallowing Spirit that was incarnate in Him, and that is still and for ever living not only for us, but in us, and in all who open their spirits to its life-giving power.

How do we know that the principle of life in nature, the germinating, animating force and energy, belongs not to any past age, has never departed from the world? We know it, because every successive spring we witness the annual miracle of nature's revival, every summer and autumn the waving corn clothing the fields with fertility, and the leafy woods ringing with the sounds of multitudinous life. How do we know as we read the works of the master minds, the great poets and artists of the past, that the spirit that inspired them is not a thing that pertained to a dim and distant age, or was limited to the compass of a few brief and glorious lives? We know it, because in communion with them we feel it. By the inner response which the undying products of their genius awaken in our minds, by the thoughts, emotions, aspirations which at their touch leap to life within us,—by these experiences we have the assurance that the spirit that was in them is not a transient visitant, but a perennial presence and power in the thought and life of the world.

And so, in a far higher sphere, we may know by a like witness that the spirit that was in Christ and that made all that one human life resplendent with the glory of the infinite and eternal, has not passed, will never pass away from the world. We need not go up to heaven to bring Christ down from above, or back to a dim and vanished age with painful research, to revive a fading image of the past. He is near us, here and now, the light of all our seeing, the ever present, inexhaustible source and well-spring of spiritual life and strength and joy. In the living experience of every Christian spirit, if we but read it truly, there is the witness to the abiding presence of another and higher, raising it ever above itself, the irrefragable proof that that redeeming, hallowing, saving spirit, which for a few brief years identified itself with a perfect human personality, is not a thing of the past, but a living operating spirit and power, imparting to every soul that will but open itself to receive it, the strength, the purity, the peace of a life that is one with the very life of God.

  • 1.

    Cf. in University Sermons, “Is repentance ever impossible?” p. 133 seq.