The great Southern Presbyterian theologian Robert Lewis Dabney has been mentioned a number of times on this site. It is a very telling indication of our times that such a visionary man is so little known, and usually slandered when mentioned at all. You can find the entire collection of his written works at the Dabney Archive, all of which are well worth reading. However, such a massive undertaking can be a bit overwhelming, and so on Sundays I will post bite-sized excerpts from Dabney’s works, with perhaps a little bit of my own commentary. This will be done in hopes of promoting wider readership for this great man. You can find links to all the previous “Dabney on Sunday” posts at the bottom of this post.
The following excerpt is taken from an article written by Dabney, entitled “A Phase of Religious Selfishness.”
Christ’s priestly work is that in which he makes sacrifice, satisfaction and intercession for believers, to deliver them from the penalty due their guilt. The human want which this mediatorial work meets, is man’s sense of guilt and danger. This feeling awakened by the convincing light of the word and Spirit, regards self directly; and it is entirely compatible with a dominant selfishness. It is but self-love awakened by foreseen danger. There is, then, nothing characteristic of the new and holy nature in it. Men dead in trespasses and sins often feel a degree of it. Lost spirits feel it. . . . When we see a responsible creature living supremely for wealth and what wealth purchases, gratified sensual appetites, gratified vanity and ambition, immunity from personal toil and pain, we regard him as a selfish and sinful creature. But is the principle of the case changed in the least by placing the gratification craved in another sphere of existence, and beyond the grave rather than this side of it? Obviously not. This “other worldliness” is but worldliness exaggerated and intruding its unhallowed grasp into the holy realm of redemption. It is not forgotten that there is a legitimate and righteous regard for one’s own welfare, that Christianity does not extinguish this appetency, but appeals to and stimulates it. But the gospel consigns it to a subordinate place, and requires the absolute “denial of self” as the very condition of discipleship.
Every act of the soul receives its moral complexion from that of its real motive. If the sole want of the soul, which impels it to Christ in faith, is this sense of future danger from its guilt, then the faith exercised is nothing but the temporary faith of the “stony ground” hearer. Redemption is presented to this soul, not as a moral good, but simply as an advantage. . . . There is no real faith, no real coming to Christ, except that which embraces him in his three offices of prophet, priest, and king. Hence there is no real coming to Christ until the soul is so enlightened and renewed as truly to view not only its danger, but its ignorance and pollution, as intolerable evils. The true believer goes to Christ in faith, for personal impunity indeed, but far more for sanctification. He is fleeing from sin as truly as from punishment. The object to which his soul moves is he “who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.” This is God’s representation of the matter, “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness.” . . .
Is not Protestant preaching very defective in this respect? Do we not hear Christ currently held forth too exclusively for the personal advantages of embracing him, while his sanctifying work as a Saviour from sin to holiness is left out? Sinners are exhorted to flee to the Saviour, simply that they may not be punished in hell. The penal wrath of God is described as though it were the only evil. Even the reprehension of the preacher proceeds as though the sin of neglecting one’s enlightened future self-interest were the whole of the crime of unbelief. It is very true that personal recklessness is criminal; but such preaching leaves in the background the far more enormous crimes of the impenitent against God’s rights. . . .
Another consequence, we are persuaded, is that the gospel is shorn of much of its strength. The reasonable and valid appeal to the conscience is left in the background. But our Maker designed this faculty to be the mistress of the human heart. Sin has usurped its authority? True. And the monster will not be effectually dethroned without the intervention of God’s grace? True. But that grace acts on human nature in accordance with the healthy laws of nature. Hence the instrument who neglects and omits the appeal to what ought to be the dominant faculty has no right to expect the aid of the great agent. We are mistrustful of the power of this imperial faculty over the soul; perhaps also we are mistrustful of God’s promise to enlighten and enable the conscience. We aim at the baser principle of self-interest; and we fail as we deserve. We forget that in a soul dead in sin self-interest is even more impotent than conscience to prompt any godly action. If we made the argument to self-love less prominent, and said more about righteous and reasonable obligation; if we urged sinners to believe and repent, less because thus they escape hell, and more because it is right; if we made less of the claims of self, and more of the righteous claims of God, we should find him honoring our ministry more by making it effectual. A fashionable mother, who knew no way of controlling her children, except wheedling or force, once heard a wise Christian woman base her authority over her young child on a simple appeal to conscience—”You must do this, my dear, because it is right,”—and secure a prompt and sincere obedience. The godless woman expressed her astonishment at the method, and declared, that with her children such language would be breath thrown away. The Christian replied, that her Bible taught her the Creator had imprinted conscience in the human soul as the ruling faculty, that she had always concluded, hence, that her first duty as a parent was to appeal to it, and that the appeal was usually successful. “But if you act,” said she, “towards your children as though the faculty were not there, of course you leave it dormant.” Too often the pulpit commits the same mistake. If we struck more habitually at the sinner’s slumbering conscience, we should find the Spirit of God sending home the blow.
Dabney’s central point is that the gospel should primarily appeal not to the hearer’s self-interest, but to the intrinsic righteousness of repenting and trusting in the one true God, Jesus Christ. Yet his qualification is very important: “It is not forgotten that there is a legitimate and righteous regard for one’s own welfare, that Christianity does not extinguish this appetency, but appeals to and stimulates it.”
The sum of our moral duties includes (though it is not limited to) aiding the aggregate well-being of mankind, with a much heavier weight placed upon the well-being of our own, especially those of our own household (1 Tim. 5:8). This concern we ought to have for human well-being also includes a regard which we ought to have for our own well-being. The best demonstration of this is the sinfulness of suicide, which is sinful not simply because it hurts others, but at its basis because it is self-murder. The sinfulness of suicide is a perfect argument to evidence that we have moral obligations concerning our own well-being.
While we ought not to place too much value on our own well-being—at which point the healthy self-love of a moral agent mutates into selfishness—it is crucial in our day to emphasize the goodness of self-preservation and to aim for balance, if only because whites have utterly lost their minds. We ought to properly order our souls in extolling God’s glory as the highest good, making all concerns for human well-being to be subsidiary; but we ought not to forget the well-being of our own people as a high objective, albeit subservient.
Previous Dabney on Sundays: