Dignity of Human Nature Shown from its Ruins
Romans 3:9-20
What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin;…

1. A most dark and dismal picture of humanity, and yet it has two aspects. In one view it is the picture of weakness, wretchedness, and shame; in the other it presents a being fearfully great; great in his evil will, his demoniacal passions, his contempt of fear, the splendour of his degradation, and the magnificence of his woe.

2. It has been the way of many to magnify humanity by tracing its capabilities and its affinity with God and truth; and by such kind of evidences they repel what they call the insulting doctrine of total depravity. And not without some show of reason, when the doctrine is asserted so as to exclude the admission of high aspirations and amiable properties; for some teachers have formulated a doctrine of human depravity in which there is no proper humanity left.

3. Now one of these extremes makes the gospel unnecessary, because there is no depravation to restore; the other makes it impossible, because there is nothing left to which any holy appeal can be made; but I undertake, in partial disregard of both, to show the essential greatness of man from the ruin itself which he becomes; confident of this, that in no other point of view will he prove the spiritual sublimity of his nature so convincingly.


1. Of ancient dynasties. Falling on patches of paved road leading out from ancient Rome, here for Britain, here for Germany, here for Ephesus, etc.; imagining the couriers flying back and forth, bearing the mandates of the central authority, followed by the military legions to execute them; we receive an impression of the empire which no words could give us. So, to form some opinion of the dynasty of the Pharaohs, of whom history gives us but the obscurest traditions, we have only to look on the monumental mountains, and these dumb historians in stone will show us more of that vast and populous empire than history and geography together.

2. Of ancient cities. Though described by historians, we form no sufficient conception of their grandeur till we look upon their ruins. Even the eloquence of Homer yields only a faint, unimpressive conception of Thebes; but to pass through the ruins of Karnac and Luxor, a vast desolation of temples and pillared avenues that dwarf all the present structures of the world. This reveals a fit conception of the grandest city of the world as no words could describe it. So Jonah endeavours to raise some adequate opinion of Nineveh, and Nahum follows, magnifying its splendour in terms of high description; but no one had any proper conception of it till a traveller opens to view, at points many miles asunder, collects the tokens of art and splendour, and says, "This is the 'exceeding great city.'" And so it is with Babylon, Ephesus, Tadmor of the Desert, Baalbec, and the nameless cities and pyramids of the extinct American race.

II. SO IT IS WITH MAN. Our most veritable, though saddest impression of his greatness, we shall derive from the magnificent ruin he displays.

1. And this is the Scripture representation of man, as apostate from duty and God. How sublime a creature must that be who is able to confront the Almighty and tear himself away from His throne! And, as if to forbid our taking his deep misery and shame as tokens of contempt, the first men are shown as living out a thousand years of lustful energy, and braving the Almighty in strong defiance to the last. We look upon a race of Titans who fill the earth — even up to the sky — with demoniacal tumult, till God can suffer them no longer. So of the picture in chap. 1, and the picture in the text corresponds.

2. But we come to the ruin as it is, and we look —

(1) Upon the false religions of the world; pompous and costly rites transacted before crocodiles and onions; magnificent temples built over monstrous creatures, carved by men's hands; children offered up by their mothers; gorgeous palaces and majestic trappings studded all over with beetles in gold, or precious stones, to serve as a protection against pestilences, poisons, and accidents. A picture of ruin — yet how magnificent! For how high a nature must that be that it must prepare such pomps, incur such sacrifices, and can elevate such trifles of imposture to a place of reverence! If we say that in all this it is feeling after God, then how inextinguishable and grand are those religious instincts by which it is allied to Him!

(2) The wars of the world. What opinion should we have of the fearful passion of a race of animals, who marshal themselves by the hundred thousand, marching across kingdoms and deserts, "swift to shed blood," and strewing leagues of ground with dead? (ver. 16). One race there is that figure in these heroics, viz., the tiny race of ants, whom God has made a spectacle to mock the glory of human wars. Plainly enough man is a creature in ruins, but how magnificent! Mean as the ant in his passions, but erecting, on the desolations he makes, thrones of honour and renown; for who of us can live content without some hero to admire and worship?

(3) The persecutions of the good; poison for Socrates, a cross for Jesus. What does it mean? No other than this, that cursing and bitterness, the poison even of asps, and more, is entered into the heart of man. He hates with a diabolical hatred. And what a being is this that can be stung with so great madness by the spectacle of a good and holy life! The fiercest of animals are capable of no such devilish instigation.

(4) The great characters of the world. On a small island of the southern Atlantic is shut up a remarkable prisoner, wearing himself out there in a feeble mixture of peevishness and jealousy, solaced by no great thoughts and no heroic spirit. And this is the great conqueror of the modern world; a man who carried the greatest victories, and told the meanest lies; who, destitute of private magnanimity, had stupendous powers of understanding and will. How great a being must it be that makes a point of so great dignity before the world, despite of so much that is contemptible! But he is not alone. The immortal Kepler, piloting science into the skies, and comprehending the vastness of heaven, only proves the magnificence of man as a ruin, when you discover the strange ferment of irritability and "superstition wild," in which his great thoughts are brewed, and his mighty life dissolved. So also Bacon — "The greatest, wisest, meanest of mankind." Probably no one has raised himself to a higher pitch of renown by his superlative genius than Shakespeare; flowering out, nevertheless, into such eminence of glory, on a compost of buffoonery, and other vile stuff, which he so covers with splendour, and irradiates with beauty, that disgust itself is lost in the vehemence of praise.


1. The sublime vehemence of the passions.

(1) What a creature must that be who, out of mere revenge, will deliberately take the life of a fellow man, and then despatch his own to avoid the ignominy of a public execution! No tiger is ever instigated by any so intense and terrible passion.

(2) Or take the passion of covetousness. How great a creature must that be who is goaded by a zeal of acquisition so restless, so self-sacrificing, so insatiable! The poor, gaunt miser were even the greatest of heroes if he could deny himself with so great patience in a good cause.

(3) The same is true even of the licentious lusts. No race of animals can show the parallel of such vices, because they are none of them instigated by a nature so great in wants that find no good to satisfy them.

2. The wild mixtures of thought displayed both in the waking life and the dreams of mankind. How grand! how mean! It is as if the soul were a thinking ruin. The angel and the demon life appear to be contending in it. And yet a ruin which a Nineveh or a Thebes can parallel only in the faintest degree; comprehending all that is purest, brightest, most Divine; all that is worst, meanest, most deformed.

3. The significance of remorse. How great a creature must that be that, looking down upon itself from some high summit in itself, withers in relentless condemnation of itself, gnaws and chastises itself in the sense of what it is!

4. The dissonance and obstinacy of his evil will. It is dissonant as being out of harmony with God and the world, and all beside in the soul itself — viz., the reason, the conscience, the wants, the hopes, and even the remembrances of the soul. How great a creature is it that, knowing God, can set itself off from God and resist Him! "There is no fear of God before their eyes." In one view there is fear enough, the soul is all its life long haunted by this fear, but there is a desperation of will that makes it as though it were not.

5. The religious aspirations and capacities of religious attraction that are garnered up, and still live in the ruins of humanity.


1. It is a great hope of our time that society is going to slide into something better — by education, public reforms, and philanthropy. We have a new gospel that corresponds, which preaches faith in human nature, that proposes development, not regeneration. Alas, that we are taken with so great folly. As if man, or society, crazed and maddened by the demoniacal frenzy of sin, were going to reconstruct the shattered harmony of nature. As soon will the desolations of Karnac gather up their fragments. Nothing meets our case but to be born of God. He alone can rebuild the ruin.

2. The great difficulty with Christianity in our time is that it is too great for belief. After all our supposed discoveries of dignity in human nature, we have commonly none but the meanest opinion of man. How could we imagine that any such history as that of Jesus Christ is a fact, or that the infinite God has transacted any such wonder for man? God manifest in the flesh! It is extravagant, out of proportion, who can believe it? Anyone who has not lost the magnitude of man. To restore this tragic fall required a tragic salvation. Nor did ever any sinner, who had felt the bondage of his sin, think for one moment that Christ was too great a Saviour. Oh, it was an almighty Saviour that he wanted! none but such was sufficient! Him he could believe in, just because He was great — equal to the measures of his want, able to burst the bondage of his sin.

3. The magnitude and real importance of the soul are discovered in the subject as nowhere else. The soul appears under sin, all selfish as it is, to shrink and grow small in its own sight. Perhaps this is due, in part, to the consciousness we have, in sin, of moral littleness and meanness. Whereas, in another sense, sin is mighty, God-defying. Just here is it that you will get your most veritable impressions of your immortality; even as you get your best impression of armies, not by the count of numbers, but by the thunder shock of battle, and the carnage of the field when it is over. In the tragic desolations of intelligence and genius, of passion, pride, and sorrow, behold the import of his eternity. And yet, despite all this, you are trying and contriving still to be happy — a happy ruin! The eternal destiny is in you, and you cannot break loose from it. With your farthing bribes you try to hush your stupendous wants. Oh, this great and mighty soul, were it something less, you might find what to do with it. Anything would please it and bring it content. But it is the godlike soul, capable of rest in nothing but God; able to be filled and satisfied with nothing but His fulness.

(H. Bushnell, D. D.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin;

WEB: What then? Are we better than they? No, in no way. For we previously warned both Jews and Greeks, that they are all under sin.

We Must not Do Evil that Good May Come
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