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Depravity: An Address to Sunday School Teachers

Category Articles
Date July 2, 2019

An Address to Sunday School teachers by C. H. Spurgeon, given when he was about fifteen years and eight months old.

The depravity of the human heart is a doctrine proved by the testimony of Scripture and immediately deducible from experience. If we read our Bibles with care we find numerous passages in which it is insisted that the heart is altogether evil.

Go into the world — as is the fountain so are the streams polluted by sin. In the various crimes which disgrace society, in the excesses of the voluptuary, the daring outrages of the dishonest and disorderly, or the more occult sins peculiar to every individual, have we not abundant evidence of universal depravity? It stands a monstrous fact in our history that from the moment when our parents first transgressed, sin has been naturalized in every human heart. The man who sees no evidence of depravity must be blind, and he who denies its existence affords suspicion that he is deeply affected by it.

It may be important perhaps for us as Sunday School teachers to consider what effect this universal evil has upon us in relation to the important work in which we are engaged. It is certain that something stands in the way of the success of Sunday School operations: on all hands it is admitted that, though a mighty engine for good, it does not produce all that could be wished.

In pursuing by the assistance of the Holy Spirit our consideration of this subject it shall be our aim to view it in two aspects as it regards the teacher and the taught.

1. In looking at its influence upon the teacher we shall see many ways in which it operates, but we will confine ourselves to two or three of the more obvious:

It corrupts his simplicity of aim. The desire of every teacher ought to be to glorify Christ by being an instrument in the salvation of his children. But how often do we go to our classes with only half our object in view? Do we not sometimes find ourselves contented with going through the regular routine of the school? and may we not sometimes go merely that we may not be thought negligent of our duty? Who among us can say that constantly we keep in view in all we say our great object? Are we not striving sometimes, rather to communicate instruction than to impress the heart? Here is a fertile source of mischief; when once our heart prompts us to lose sight of the vast realities of a future state, to forget the tremendous hazard of our children’s lives, or to close our eyes on the infinite value of the soul, what will our teaching be but an image without life, a model perhaps in form, but a cipher in usefulness? Could we always feel that our duty is to teach the young immortals ‘how they may be saved’ and regard all subjects as valuable only as they can be turned to account in the furthering our objects, might we not calculate upon greater success?

But here our natural depravity acts as an opiate, it deadens our sense of the solemnity of our undertaking, stifles or damps our zeal and makes us sleepy, drowsy in our work. In the next place it spreads its malignant influence over our actual engagements while with the classes. It removes far from us much of the earnestness and fidelity we so much need. We feel that after our Sabbath work is completed it is seldom that any of us can say ‘I have with all the earnestness possible directed my class to flee to Jesus for refuge.’ But we must sometimes and often thus soliloquize: ‘I fear today I have not regarded sufficiently the interests of those com­mitted to me, my appeals wanted much heart, I am conscious that I was not sufficiently faithful. I did not make my addresses direct enough nor did I urge them with powerful exhortation. I seem to have gone round my children when I ought to have sent a home stroke at them. I forgot their desperate situation and fear that I have tampered with their minds. I did not remember that the Lord’s eye was specially on me, and did not feel those throes of agonizing desire which I ought to have done. Thus it is that my evil heart has undone me, and made me an unfaithful servant.’ Let each of us now demand of our hearts, ‘If the Lord should please to call anyone of my children to his great tribunal could I acquit myself of his blood?’ Should we not then remember many opportunities which we have passed over when perhaps we might have been of use to the departed? We do not use half the earnestness in saving our children’s souls that we should in preserving their bodies. See a child near the edge of a precipice, we tremble, our blood chills, we rush to the rescue. See a soul on the borders of the yawning gulf and we sleep, we are little affected, we move with sluggishness to help. Surely such things ought not to be, but where must we trace them? Why, even to our own corrupt hearts, the seat and source of every kind of evil. We lose the sense of our own personal religion; the old man prevails; we do not make it the business of our lives to grow in grace, and then as a natural consequence, we lose our feeling of its importance to others and then impair or perhaps destroy our zeal in their behalf.

But yet we have not mentioned a still more direful effect, it chills our devotion.

We sometimes neglect the wrestling and striving at the throne of grace, and do not live sufficiently in prayer. The best of all preparations for the right performance of our duties is much earnest prayer — the want of it must be fatal to our attempts and an effectual hindrance to all real success. As well might a soldier stand in battle without sword or gun as a teacher without prayer. We cannot now stay to discuss the reasons of this, but it is sufficient for us to feel in our own hearts that often, very often, are we tempted to neglect our prayers, and still more frequently to pray without a due measure of fervent, heartfelt expectation.

We are at a mercy-seat after some struggles — like a schoolboy afraid to play truant and yet feeling it a task. We find a difficulty in collecting our straying thoughts and when once together the heart comes into slow, morbid action; how seldom do we pour out our hearts like our Master in sincere prayer for a blessing upon our endeavours. And here let us remember that closet prayer is not alone to be our exercise, but we should pray without ceasing and while teaching keep our souls in the devout attitude of supplication. But here let us all humbly confess our deep depravity in sinful neglect.

Although many other points remain let us remark that owing to the same potent, all-pervading influence, we are far from perfect in our lives. It becomes us well to reflect whether our example is always that which children may safely imitate, and whether sometimes some failing in our conduct coming beneath the observation of the scholar may not be an evil of magnitude, a blot upon our work. Thus we have considered the influence of our natural depravity upon our conduct, let us now notice the children. We see that the instruments are imperfect.

2. Let us look upon the objects to be worked upon. They are also suffering under the same deadly, self-increasing evil; they have a natural aversion to those things which we propose to teach them — their little hearts have in them a principle of opposition to the gospel. And here let us glance at a theory which assumes that all men or children would receive the gospel if properly exhibited, or in other words, that children or men in general are predisposed to receive the gospel if skilfully exhibited. Is not this theory wrong in principle and inconsistent both with the Bible and facts? May it not be refuted by such arguments as these?

First, the Bible represents unsanctified men as predisposed not to receive and love the gospel, but to hate and oppose it. Every such man is an enemy to God. In proof of this we will cite but one text as a specimen of the concurrent testimony of the sacred oracles. ‘The carnal mind is enmity against God’. To say that this refers only to Jews or to men of one age is to trifle with the plain import of language for it clearly applies to men universally of all ages. To say that it applies to men and not to children is equally erroneous, for they too have carnal minds and are consequently at enmity with God. Is it possible, looking at Scripture as full of evidence as to the native temper of the human heart, that the only reason why children are not converted is that teachers do not declare the truth properly? We think we may safely answer it is not. For, in the second place, such a theory has no countenance from the public ministry of Christ. He was eminently a teacher. If his hearers only needed to have the truth skilfully set before them to love it, why did they often bitterly complain under his sermons? Did not Christ know how to proclaim his own gospel? Surely he was better acquainted with it, and the best mode of presenting it to the heart, than we can possibly be. It was not want of acquaintance with the human heart or of any skill in adapting his instructions to the real condition of men, which led so to exhibit truth at Nazareth, that ‘the whole synagogue was filled with indignation’. We are driven here also to conclude that all the difficulty does not rest with the teacher — for here is one free from those great infirmities which act as drawbacks to success — a perfect man, a teacher possessed of the highest possible degree of knowledge, discretion, earnest­ness and faithfulness; having such a deep insight into hearts that it is said that he knew what was in man; accompanying his word with signs and miracles, and yet — with reverence let us speak — and yet finding such opposition to his teaching in fallen man that he exclaims, ‘Ye will not come unto me that ye may have life’. Can we wonder therefore if the children reject our appeals and slight our invitations?

But to multiply evidence in the third place — the theory that the gospel when properly proclaimed finds the unsanctified heart predisposed to embrace it, is contrary to the general evidence of facts. From the teaching of its Divine Founder to the present time, the gospel has fought its way against the pride and prejudice and unbelief of the human heart, arrayed in a thousand forms of inveterate hostility to oppose its progress. Indeed that this religion, in its primitive purity, should have maintained an existence on earth in the face of so much opposition, and notwithstanding so many motives operating on its teachers to disguise its truths, is owing merely to the shield of omnipotence interposed for its protection. Thus have we by disproving the one theory, proved the other — namely that the human heart and consequently our children’s hearts have in them a principle of opposition, yea, hatred to the gospel.

So various are the forms in which it displays itself that whilst we prepare to combat it in one shape it assumes another. Let us set before them truth with all earnestness and clearness, in such telling terms that we half suppose that it is impossible to resist its force — and we see each one of them perhaps generalizing it — admitting its truth, but concluding that it belongs to others. The child admits the truth of your reasoning but retires behind the others to escape the force of it. The faithful teacher observes this and commences a contest with this form of evil, by direct appeal, with personal and pointed remark to the heart and conscience of each individual — and then either in sullen disbelief it turns away, pays no attention to you, or takes it but partially into consideration. Onward presses the teacher, deals harder strokes and more to the purpose, till at last the young sinner trembles and is almost persuaded to be a Christian. How acts he then? Sends off the appeal with that base procrastinating promise of another day — tomorrow, when I am older I will attend to it. Now! says the earnest teacher, today is the appointed time! Delay not! This moment is the best! Where does the youthful then retreat? Either like the hunted animal at bay it opposes all its strength to the pursuer — or rushes headlong, choosing rather to be lost than to be saved; preferring death to life, and blindly hasting to its own destruction. We may here remark that it is very seldom that the child is thus hard pressed, and that to avoid many of our appeals would require but little perseverance.

The human heart is ever slow to admit its own depravity, and unwilling to brook the humiliating terms of salvation by grace, no wonder that it finds means to justify itself in rejecting them, or ways of convincing itself that the case is not so bad as it is represented. When we have discovered and enumerated all the schemes that have been used, we shall find that the child has as many more in reserve.

We may now endeavour to draw some lessons from the whole subject.

First, then the lesson of humility for us. Seeing our own imperfection, let us prostrate ourselves in the dust, confess our deep depravity, own our sinfulness and plead for mercy on our shortcomings. In this spirit we may see how little we have done, how imperfectly we have acted our part, and how great an honour it is that God has put upon us in calling us to labour in his vineyard. We shall neither think highly of ourselves, nor of our doings, but regard what we have effected as nothing, the mere starting point, the grain of mustard seed. We shall not rest satisfied, but desire to press forward to attain to higher points of the Christian course. Humility is one of the standard graces, one of the most glorious ornaments of a Christian, and if by the consideration of this subject, we are led to grow downward in humility, we shall find great reason to rejoice in it.

Let it next teach us our entire dependence upon Almighty power, our utter inability, seeing our own weakness and the peculiar difficulty of the undertaking to do anything of ourselves. Let us fall back into the arms of omnipotence and trust and look for aid to him that is able to save. We can do nothing. Let us learn this well. It will lead us to look out of self and to give all the glory to God.

Let us also learn that since we have such a monstrous foe to grapple with, such a subtle, cunning enemy to our progress, it becomes us to call up all our powers of heart and soul, to stir up our energies, and strive with all our might against the dreadful monster, and conscious of awful weakness, call in other aid, even the help of Jehovah by earnest prayer. How dare we be such madmen as to refuse the help of the mighty! How should we seek — seek constantly Divine assistance at a mercy seat! Let prayer be our element, our constant exercise. Never on any consideration or pretence may we omit our duties in the closet. What we are there we shall be elsewhere. We may enquire of ourselves whether we spend all the time we ought or might in supplication. Do we not waste time in unprofitable conversation which might be well employed in meditation or devotion? We may depend upon it, we cannot afford to lose one opportunity for devotion, one lesson from experience, or anything that may in the least assist us. Ours is an enterprise in which we need every aid. The works of Satan we have to storm are not impregnable, and if we keep up a regular, systematic, continual attack upon them, we shall yet by our Captain’s strength plant the flag of victory upon the bulwarks and drive the tyrant from his hold.

Difficulty overcome is glory gained – the harder the task, the greater honour in its accomplishment. We must never sit still but work while it is day. Though the walls of Satan’s hold be strong, and its bulwarks firm, our Master has an agency adapted to its destruction – he can burst the heart by mighty battering-rams, he can spring his mines, force a passage, and cause the fortifications to fall flat to the ground. Mighty are our enemies, Almighty is our Friend and Master. To wish to turn back from the work, because of ill success, implies a doubt either in the right of our cause, or in the strength of God. If one soul be saved it is a miracle, yet we must not be satisfied but long for more.

Lastly and chiefly, let us look well to the state of our personal piety in all its branches. It should be our morning, evening, hourly care to tend our souls, to guard against the very appearance of evil, and watch even the distant approach of sin. There may be a real backsliding under an apparently flourishing state. It becomes us all to consider if we are what we ought to be — what we might be, and to bethink ourselves how much the general deterioration of piety rests with us. There have been men who, surmounting difficulties, overcoming opposition, bursting bonds and o’er­leaping obstacles have maintained a consistent, noble devotion to the cause of Christ. And so will we — let us boldly say — and so shall we as surely. We too have seen young sinners turn to God, hard hearts relenting, stubborn souls subdued, opposition conquered and rebellious spirits quelled, and with such things in view we will not even look back, much less stay our hand.

This article was first published in the October 1969 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine with the following note: ‘This address, apparently hitherto unpublished, we are indebted to the Rev David Kingdon who, while at Spurgeon’s College, discovered the manuscript and transcribed it. No changes have been made apart from some minor adjust­ments in punctuation. Spurgeon speaks of his work as a Sunday School teacher in The Early Years, pp. 158-159. May God raise up in England today more fifteen-year-old boys with this theology!’

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