D. Scott Meadows
John Newton, along with Scripture, uses the term “man” as a genderneutral term for humanity as a whole; so will I in this abridged paraphrase.
1. “Lord, what is man!” (Psa 8.4). Originally, man was an excellent creature, but since the fall, he is so depraved! It is a wonder that the great God should still pay any attention to him.
2. It is apparent even now that God made man capable of great things. He has noble and amazing powers like understanding, will, affections, imagination, and memory. But considered morally, as intelligent, dependent on God, accountable to Him, and destined to an eternity, he is a monster—a vile, base, stupid, stubborn, and hurtful creature, even beyond the power of words to describe. Man is a fool. His conduct is absurd and indefensible. His affections and pursuits are utterly degraded. His will is malignant and wicked like the devil.
3. I am not speaking just about particularly bad individuals like Nero whose lives were unspeakably disgusting, but of human nature generally, except for the relatively few who are truly born again. Not all are equally bad but that is due to providential restraints. A chained lion cannot do much harm but it is still true that lions are vicious by nature. Restraints on human depravity include education, self-interest, fear and shame, human laws, and God’s invisible power over the mind. These sometimes combine to make someone extremely decent and respectable. Even the worst people behave far less badly than they would if they were not restrained. But man’s heart is universally deceitful and desperately wicked (Jer 17.9).
4. Man is a fool. It seems incredible to say that, considering all the genius we have seen in the arts, inventions, science, and business. People still study the greats in these areas today, but even the most admired philosophers, legislators, logicians, orators, and artists were as destitute as newborns of that knowledge which is really true wisdom. They suppressed the truth about God and worshipped idols instead. Look at their mythology, their religious fables, things which educated people today think they must know. Those esteemed traditions are like the ravings of lunatics. If these we admire are the pinnacle of man without the Spirit of God, shall we not conclude that man is a fool? And without saving grace, I am no wiser than they were! Folly is a lack of judgment, disregard of consequences, irrationality, and unreasonable behavior. Therefore the sinner is a great fool. He chooses earthly toys over the happiness of heaven. He dares not violate the world’s wicked customs. He would rather please his peers and offend God Almighty.
5. Man in his natural state is worse than brute beasts. He is like them in two ways—following his feelings and living for himself. In many other ways, he sinks below the beasts, for example, in sexual perversion and killing one’s own offspring, not to mention self-murder. Men are more stubborn and more likely to fall into traps known beforehand (Prov 1.17; 29.1).
6. Man even resembles the devil because of “spiritual sins.” What Jesus said to the Jews who opposed Him applies to all unbelievers, “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father you will do” (John 8.44). The devil’s traits appear in us. 1) Pride: we imagine we are so good and can save ourselves by our good deeds. 2) Malice: this is the root of all murder, and there would be more if the Lord did not restrain us. 3) Envy: we are tormented by our neighbors’ prosperity and pleased with their calamities, though we gain nothing by them. 4) Cruelty: even children have taken pleasure in torturing insects, and grown men have made sport of suffering animals, as in cockfighting. Consider how cruelly people even treat each other! 5) Deceit and treachery: Scripture warns with good reason, “Trust ye not in a friend, put ye not confidence in a guide: keep the doors of thy mouth from her that lieth in thy bosom,” for, “they hunt every man his brother with a net” (Mic 7.2, 5). Many have experienced David’s grief, “The words of his mouth were smoother than butter, but war was in his heart: his words were softer than oil, yet they were drawn swords” (Psa 55.21). Like Satan, men are not content to damn themselves but try to drag as many as they can to hell with them. They are the devil’s agents and willing slaves to persecute the Church. In this way they show their hatred to God who is out of their reach.
7. Much more could be said, but this is enough to justify the exclamation, “Lord, what is man!” Some may accuse me of unfairly describing only the worst specimens of our species, but they are tacitly admitting, then, that I have truly described the traits of man, and therefore, that these are their own traits, at least innately, unless they claim to belong to another species. Some apple trees have more apples, but even a tree with one apple growing from it is proven by this fruit to be an apple tree. Surely we all concede that we find things in ourselves very contrary to common notions of goodness! Wouldn’t you prefer to be banished from human society than to reveal every ugly thought and desire that has ever arisen in your heart?
8. Yes, this is an unpleasant subject, but not unprofitable if we take it to heart. How much we all owe to God for living in peace and safety for even one single day in a world populated by sinners like this! Wherever we may live, it is amidst people capable of the most atrocious crimes, but God restrains them, so they cannot do everything they would. Murders, rapes, and other outrageous things happen when He withdraws His restraints, and civil government is an important means of social peace. But often that is not enough. Civil punishment is not enough to deter some.
9. God’s love is incomprehensible in giving His Son for such wretches! From all this, the new birth appears properly as absolutely necessary. We must be changed by God if we would enter His kingdom. We must remember these things to approach anything like humility, gratitude, and perpetual vigilance against sin. Even those in Christ have remaining sin and are capable of surprisingly depraved acts. The sad cases of Aaron, David, Solomon, and Peter are in the biblical record to remind us of this.
—to be continued . . .