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;…
I. THE APOSTLE'S CONCLUSION IS, THAT BEFORE GOD ALL THE WORLD IS GUILTY, and if we single out those verses which place man in his simple relationship to God, we shall see the justice of the sentence.
1. "There is none righteous, no, not one." To be held as having kept the law of our country, we must keep the whole of it. It is not necessary that we accumulate the guilt of treason, forgery, murder. One of these acts is enough to condemn. A hundred deeds of obedience will not efface or expiate one of disobedience; and we have only to plead for the same obedience to a Divine that we render to a human administration, to prove that there is none righteous before God.
2. "There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God." No man who has not submitted himself to the doctrine of justification by faith has any clear knowledge of the ground on which he rests his acceptance with God. He may have some obscure conception of His mercy, but he has never struck the compromise between His mercy and His justice. What becomes of all that which stamps authority upon a law, and exhibits the Majesty of a Lawgiver, is a matter of which he has no understanding, and he does not care to understand it. He is seeking after many things, but not seeking after God. When did your efforts in this way ever go beyond an empty round of observances?
3. "They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable, there is none that doeth good; no, not one." We do not say that they have gone out of the way of honour, equity, or neighbourliness. But they are all out of the way of godliness. The prophet does not affirm that we have turned everyone to a way either of injustice or cruelty; but he counts it condemnation enough that we have turned everyone to his own way — a way of independence of God, if not of iniquity against our fellows in society. It is this which renders all the works of mere natural men so unprofitable, that is, of no value in the reckoning of eternity. They want the great moral infusion which makes them valuable. There is nothing of God in them.
II. We now pass onward to another set of charges — which may not be so easy to substantiate — of OFFENCES AGAINST THE DEAREST INTERESTS OF SOCIETY. It is true that the apostle here drops the style of universality, and quotes David's charges, not against the race, but against his enemies. But yet it will be found that though the picture of atrocity may not in our day be so broadly exhibited as in ruder periods, yet that the principles of it are still at work; that though law and civilisation and interest may have stopped the mouth of many a desolating volcano, yet do the fiery materials still exist in the bosom of society. So that our nature, though here personified by the apostle into a monster, with a throat like an open sepulchre, emitting everything offensive; and a tongue practised in the arts of deceitfulness; and lips from which the gall of malignity ever drops in unceasing distillation; and a mouth full of venomous asperity; and feet that run to assassination as a game; and with the pathway on which she runs marked by the ruin and distress that attend upon her progress; and with a disdainful aversion in her heart to peace; and with an aspect of defiance to the God that gave all her parts and all her energies — though this sketch was originally taken by the Psalmist from prowling banditti, yet has the apostle, by admitting it into his argument, stamped a perpetuity upon it, and made it universal — giving us to understand that if such was the character of man, as it stood nakedly out among the hostilities of a barbarous people, such also is the real character of man among the regularities and the monotonous decencies of modern society. To illustrate: Oaths were more frequent at one time than they are now, but while there may be less of profaneness in the mouths, there may be as much as ever in the heart. Murder in the act may be less frequent now, but if he who hateth his brother be a murderer, it may be fully as foul and frequent in the principle. Actual theft may be no longer practised by him who gives vent to an equal degree of dishonesty through the chicaneries of merchandise. And thus may there lurk under the disguises of well-bred citizenship enough to prove that, with the duties of the second table as with the first, man has wandered far from the path of rectitude.
III. ALL THIS, WHILE IT GIVES A MOST HUMILIATING ESTIMATE OF OUR SPECIES, SHOULD SERVE TO ENHANCE TO OUR MINDS THE BLESSINGS OF REGULAR GOVERNMENT. Let our police and magistrates depose to the effect it would have upon society, were civil guardianship dissolved. Were all the restraints of order driven in, conceive the effect, and then compute how little there is of moral, and how much there is of mere animal restraint in the apparent virtues of human society. There is a two-fold benefit in such a contemplation. It will enhance to every Christian mind the cause of loyalty, and lead him to regard the power that is, as the minister of God to him for good. And it will also guide him through many delusions to appreciate justly the character of man; to distinguish aright between the semblance of principle and its reality.
IV. Learn THREE LESSONS from all that has been said.
1. As to the theology of this question. We trust you perceive how much and how little it is that can be gathered from the comparative peace and gentleness of modern society; how much is due to the physical restraints that are laid on by this world's government, and how little is due to the moral restraints that are laid on by the unseen government of Heaven: proving that human nature is more like the tractableness of an animal led about by a chain, than of an animal inwardly softened into docility. On this point observation and orthodoxy are at one; and one of the most convincing illustrations which the apostle can derive to his own doctrine may be taken from the testimony of legal functionaries. Let them simply aver what the result would be if all the earthly safeguards of law and of government were driven away; and they are just preaching orthodoxy to our ears.
2. The very same train of argument which goes to enlighten the theology of this subject, serves also to deepen and establish the principles of loyalty. That view of the human character, upon which it is contended, by the divine, that unless it is regenerated there can be no meetness for heaven, is the very same with that view of it upon which it is contended, by the politician, that unless it is restrained there will be no safety from crime and violence along the course of the pilgrimage which leads to it. An enlightened Christian recognises the hand of God in all the shelter that is thrown over him from the fury of the natural elements; and he equally recognises it in all the shelter that is thrown over him from the fury of the moral elements by which he is surrounded. Had he a more favourable view of our nature he might not look on government as so indispensable; but, with the view that he actually has, he cannot miss the conclusion of its being the ordinance of Heaven for the Church's good upon earth; and he rejoices in the authority of human laws as an instrument in the hand of God for the peace of His sabbaths, and the peace of His sacraments.
3. Let our legislators recognise the value of true religion. When Solomon says that it is righteousness which exalteth a nation, he means something of a deeper and more sacred character than the mere righteousness of society. Cut away the substratum of godliness, and how, we ask, will the secondary and the earth-born righteousness be found to thrive on the remaining soil which nature supplies for rearing it? But with many, and these too the holders of a great and ascendant influence in our land, godliness is puritanism; and thus is it a possible thing that in their hands the alone aliment of public virtue may be withheld, or turned into poison. The patent way to disarm Nature of her ferocities is to Christianise her. For note —
(1) Though social virtue and loyalty may exist in the upper walks of life apart from godliness — yet godliness, in the hearts of those who have the brunt of all the common and popular temptations to stand against, is the main and effective hold that we have upon them for securing the righteousness of their lives.
(2) The despisers of godliness are the enemies of the true interest of our nation; and it is possible that, under the name of Methodism, that very instrument may be put away which can alone recall the departing virtues of our land.
(3) Where godliness exists, loyalty exists; and no plausible delusion — no fire of their own kindling, lighted at the torch of false or spurious patriotism, will ever eclipse the light of this plain authoritative Scripture — "Honour the king, and meddle not with those who are given to change."(4) Though Christianity may only work the salvation of a few, it raises the standard of morality among many. The reflex influence of one sacred character upon his vicinity may soften, and purify, and overawe many others, even where it does not spiritualise them. This is encouragement to begin with.
(5) Alarming as the aspect of the times is, and deeply tainted and imbued as the minds of many are with infidelity, and widely spread as the habit has become of alienation from all the ordinances of religion, yet the honest and persevering goodwill of one imbued with the single-hearted benevolence of the gospel will always meet with respect. He who, had he met a minister of religion or of the state, would have cursed him, had he met the Sabbath school teacher who ventured across his threshold might have tried to bear a repulsive front against him, but would have found it to be impossible. Here is a feeling which even the irreligion of the times has not obliterated, and it has left, as it were, an open door of access, through which we might at length find our way to the landing place of a purer and better generation.
(T. Chalmers, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: 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;