[The truths undermined by the Free Church Declaratory Act of 1892/93 remain as relevant today as ever. The Free Presbyterian Church was formed to contend for those truths and it is still her duty and privilege to contend for them. The first volume of the Free Presbyterian Magazine ran a series of articles, from August to December 1896, exposing the pernicious and dangerous nature of the Declaratory Act. This is the fourth post and is taken from the third of those articles, and shows just how seriously in error the Declaratory Act was, and thus how sinfully culpable the Free Church was in passing it.]
We now proceed to examine the second section of the Act which runs as follows:
That, in holding and teaching, according to the Confession of Faith, the corruption of man’s whole nature as fallen, this Church also maintains that there remain tokens of his greatness as created in the image of God; that he possesses a knowledge of God and of duty; that he is responsible for compliance with the moral law and with the Gospel; and that, although unable without the aid of the Holy Spirit to return to God, he is yet capable of affections and actions which in themselves are virtuous and praiseworthy.
This section deals with the fall of man and its effects. This important subject is treated, as we might expect, like former subjects, in a way that modifies the doctrines of the Confession and adapts them to the light and easy views of sin and man’s depravity which are current in the present age. Instead of a bold, clear, and truthful statement of man’s total depravity by nature as a corrective to current views, we have a statement which is fitted to gratify the pride and self-righteousness of the age, and is not wanting in serious deviations from essential and vital truth. If the views contained in this section are believed by anxious inquirers, they may freely cherish shallow and inadequate impressions of their sin and misery, so that something far less than “the great salvation” that is in Christ will meet their case. Their latter end will therefore be worse than their first.
The first clause in this section is open to criticism. It sets forth that the Church holds and teaches, according to the Confession, “the corruption of man’s whole nature as fallen”. These words are given as a summary of Confessional teaching. They are right as far as they go. But we must remember that the Confession not only teaches that man’s whole nature is corrupt, but is totally corrupt. This makes a great difference, and in an important document such as this Act, every word is of value. The omission of the word “total” before corruption is therefore significant. The Church in the above expression only commits itself to the corruption of man’s whole nature, and not to the total corruption thereof. The words “whole nature” do not alter the matter anything. For the whole or every part of an organism may be corrupt, and yet not totally so. We feel, therefore, that the opening words of this section are a fitting preface to the light and erroneous views of man’s fallen estate that follow.
The Act proceeds: “This Church also maintains that there remain tokens of his greatness as created in the image of God.” Admitting that there are tokens in man of his original greatness, such as reason and conscience which are, however, largely weakened and corrupted by sin, we deny that there are such remaining tokens as this Act asserts. We are told “he possesses a knowledge of God and duty”. This is an ascription to man of attainments that even Pelagius himself would have shrunk from making. We know of no Christian creed that affirms so much of man by nature; and there is no statement throughout the Act more destitute of foundation from, or more contrary to, the teaching of the Word of God than this. It is to be wondered at that men who professed the least regard whatsoever to the Scriptures, or had the smallest acquaintance with human nature, could employ such language. To assert of man that “he possesses a knowledge of God” is not simply to say that his conscience testifies that there is a God, or that his understanding leads him to believe in a Supreme Being, but it is to declare that man in his natural state, dead in sin, and independent of the Scriptures, knows the living and true God.
How utterly contrary to truth this is we need hardly attempt to prove. If the framers say no such meaning was intended, then we affirm that they were either ignorant of the proper use of the English language, or that they used it most carelessly. One thing is certain, that the man who wants shelter for his erroneous views will not hesitate to take the language of the Act in its plain sense without modification. But it is quite probable that the framers will not disclaim the interpretation we have given, for is it not a fact that Professor Candlish, D.D., of the Free Church College, Glasgow, asserts in one of his books a statement equally as wild as theirs, that those among the heathen who loved goodness loved God, even although they might deny His existence? When this is the sort of theology vented in high places of instruction, we need expect no better in the Declaratory Act.
The Word of God, however, will stand for ever when the vain notions of men shall perish, and that Word asserts that men by nature are “without God” (Eph. 2:12), “know not God” (1 Thess. 4:5), and are “haters of God” (Rom. 1:30). We are also told in 2 Thessalonians 1:8 that when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven, He will take “vengeance on them that know not God”. Men in their natural estate are thus declared ignorant of God, and it is only blindness and presumption that would affirm the opposite.
On the other hand, when it is considered what “a knowledge of God” implies, it is also seen how far this Act wanders from the truth. In John 17:3 it is written, “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent”. Here we are told that it is eternal life to know God, and if this Act is true, every man in his natural state possesses eternal life – a manifest absurdity. Further, a knowledge of God implies saving acquaintance with Jesus Christ, for “neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him” (Matt. 11:27), so that it is all one to say that a man by nature possesses a knowledge of Christ, as to say that he possesses a knowledge of God. It is therefore quite clear that the Act ascribes to man in his natural state what is only possible to man when enlightened by the Spirit of God in the knowledge of the truth as it is in Jesus.
We are also informed in this clause that man by nature possesses “a knowledge of duty”. This also is a further statement thoroughly unwarrantable. No doubt the law was originally written on man’s heart, but man’s duty does not simply comprehend what is to be found in the moral law, but also what is to be found in the Gospel. Of extremely important duties contained in the latter, man by nature is totally ignorant, and therefore requires the teaching of the Word of God. To say, therefore, that “he possesses a knowledge of duty” is to say what is contrary to truth and experience.
The Act further goes on to say that “he is responsible for compliance with the moral law and the Gospel”, and to this we have just one, but an important objection, namely – that his responsibility is here based, not upon the authority of God in law and Gospel, but upon man’s supposed powers of compliance in possessing a knowledge of God and duty. We admit that man is under moral obligation to keep the law and obey the Gospel, but he can do neither the one nor the other without saving grace. The measure of his responsibility does not serve as any index to the measure of his ability, for that is virtually nothing, because he is “dead in sins” – the weight of his responsibility only serves to show him the depth of his inability. It is thus he is made sensible of his need of saving grace to fulfil his obligations, according as Christ said to His disciples, “Without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5). To set before fallen man, therefore, that he has any measure of ability by nature to comply with the law or the Gospel is to delude him as to the possession of powers he is utterly unable of exercising, and is also to take away the possibility of a sense of the need of saving grace finding a place in his soul.
This section of the Act thus concludes: “And that, although unable without the aid of the Holy Spirit to return to God, he is yet capable of affections and actions which in themselves are virtuous and praiseworthy.” The reference here to “the aid” of the Spirit is one of the most unsatisfactory expressions of doctrine to be found in the Act. Man is described in the Scriptures as by nature “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1), and what he needs is not aid but life. Aid may do something for a living man, but nothing for a dead man. The Scriptures, therefore, affirm that sinners are “quickened”, “born again”, “made new creatures in Christ Jesus”, all which expressions clearly prove that it was not the aid of the Spirit, but this almighty creative, life-giving power that caused them to return to God. Witness also the language of Ephraim in Jeremiah 31:18, “Turn thou me, and I shall be turned”, which shows that for a sinner to “turn”, or “return to God”, there is required the almighty power of God, and that no creature help is of any value.
The use of the words “the aid of the Holy Spirit” by the framers of this Act is all the more reprehensible when it is considered that these words have long been the centre of controversy in the Christian Church. Arminians have held that men simply require the aid or help of the Spirit in returning to God and believing in Christ Jesus, while Calvinists have affirmed that men are totally dead in sin, and, therefore, require regeneration in order to return, a work that can only be accomplished by the life-giving energy of the Holy Ghost. In the former case man is represented as possessing some life, and, therefore, as capable of concurring and cooperating with the Spirit of God, while in the latter case he is represented as without any spiritual life and so, entirely passive in the hands of the Spirit when He comes to regenerate the soul and bring it back to God. The latter view is that of our Confession, and that which we believe to be agreeable to the Word of God, and, therefore, by the adoption of the former, the Free Church has accepted the Arminian and set aside the scriptural doctrine of regeneration. If men go wrong here, everything else that follows is likely to be wrong. It is, therefore, fraught with deadly consequences that erroneous views in so vital a subject should enter into the creed of the Free or any other Church.
As to man’s capacity for “affections and actions which in themselves are virtuous and praiseworthy”, let us hear what the Confession itself says on this subject. The Act treats of it in connection with the Fall, and, therefore, gives a false impression of man’s fallen estate in the sight of God, but the Confession devotes a special chapter to the doctrine of “Good Works”, and puts it on its proper footing. It says, “Works done by unregenerate men, although, for the matter of them, they may be things which God commands, and of good use both to themselves and others; yet, because they proceed not from an heart purified by faith; nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word; nor to a right end, the glory of the Lord; they are therefore sinful, and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God. And yet their neglect of them is more sinful, and displeasing unto God” (chap. 16, sect. 7).
The works treated of in this section of the Confession will evidently embrace the “affections and actions” referred to in the Act. Looking at these affections and actions in the light of the Confession, we may say that “although, for the matter of them, they may be things which God commands, and of good use to themselves and others, yet because of ‘three vital defects pointed out above they are therefore sinful and cannot please God’.” This is the Scriptural verdict which the Confession gives on the subject. But the impression given by the Act is that natural men are capable of affections and actions that are virtuous and praiseworthy even in the sight of God, and that the human race is not totally sinful in nature and practice. This view is not only subversive of the doctrine of the Confession, but also of that of the Word of God which declares that “there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Ps. 53:3), that “unto them that are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure” (Titus 1:15), and that “the sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord” (Prov. 15:8). The best that man can perform in his natural state has been well described by one of the early fathers of the Church as “shining sin”.
Let us use a simple illustration. Love to one’s fellow men is a virtuous and praiseworthy affection. But when that love, as is the case with all unregenerate persons, is not accompanied by love to God as the predominant affection of the soul, then the former affection takes the place of the latter, and the soul worships the creature rather than the Creator, committing thereby sin of such a heinous character as leaves no real virtue or praiseworthiness in mere affection of one’s fellow men. If all the affections and actions of man are tested in this way, it may easily be seen that their character in no wise modifies one’s views of the Fall, but rather reveals its tremendous extent and consequences.
Besides, let it be observed that if there be any outward rectitude or virtue in men, this is traceable not to any lack of depravity or presence of good in the creature, but to the common influences of the Spirit of God. These influences surround, in more or less degree, the whole human race. But the framers of the Act forgot these influences altogether in their extraordinary readiness to credit man with some natural power for good.
In conclusion, we affirm that it is drugging souls with sweet poison to make them believe they are capable of affections and actions that have any real virtue or praiseworthiness in the sight of God. Nevertheless, this is the obvious meaning of the Act which clearly teaches that men are not at all so bad by nature as they were formerly told from faithful evangelical pulpits in Scotland, and that there is something good in man after all. This kind of doctrine is much more prevalent than people are aware of. A certain Rev. Mr. Ferrier, a few years ago an assistant in a Free Church in Aberdeen, and now an ordained minister, situated somewhere in the south, stated in a sermon then printed for private circulation, that the Apostle might well describe the Ephesians as “dead in trespasses and sins”, but for any one to say so of amiable young men and women who were battling their way through life, such was “a monstrous lie before heaven and hell”! That was the substance of his remarks. Our readers need not be startled. The same thing is to be found in milder language in the Declaratory Act.