Be Counseled by Thomas Chalmers (1780–1847)

by Paul Tautges | August 23, 2012 2:55 am

“The Expulsive Power of a New Affection”[1] is the classic sermon of Thomas Chalmers, a Scottish mathematician, political economist, and leader of the Free Church of Scotland. Many months ago, I printed off this sermon and it’s been in my briefcase ever since. Yesterday, when I needed to get out of my office into the fresh air, I grabbed my briefcase and headed to a local park. After finding a picnic table in the shade, I fingered through my papers and decided to pull out Expulsive Power. I’m so glad I did. This sermon is an important contribution to our understanding of how we are converted, namely, by the Spirit’s regeneration and granting of a new heart of faith. It is also an important contribution to our understanding of how we grow in holiness, namely, by the consequent replacement of our natural affections with a new, supernatural affection for God which is birthed by the gospel.

CHALMERS’ MAIN PREMISE: There are two potential ways to stop loving the world (to be sanctified, to become holy). [1] You may withdraw from the world’s allurement having recognized its vanity (Put Off), or [2] You may replace love for the world with something more worthy (Put On). Chalmers wrote, “There are two ways in which a practical moralist may attempt to displace from the human heart its love of the world; either by a demonstration of the world’s vanity, so as that the heart shall be prevailed upon simply to withdraw its regards from an object that is not worthy of it; or, by setting forth another object, even God, as more worthy of its attachment; so as that the heart shall be prevailed upon, not to resign an old affection which shall have nothing to succeed it, but to exchange an old affection for a new one.”

CHALMERS’ MAIN PURPOSE: “My purpose is to show, that from the constitution of our nature, the former method is altogether incompetent and ineffectual and that the latter method will alone suffice for the rescue and recovery of the heart from the wrong affection that domineers over it.” In other words, Chalmers is convinced that we are transformed in holiness by first having our desires transformed.

Here are 12 truth principles that I gleaned from Chalmers’ sermon, which have bearing upon our understanding of sanctification and how we approach the ministry of counseling one another.

  1. Love may be regarded in two different conditions. “The first is when its object is at a distance, and when it becomes love in a state of desire. The second is when its object is in possession, and then it becomes love in a state of indulgence.”
  2. Love is a powerful movement toward one engrossing interest. “Under the impulse of desire, man feels himself urged onward in some path or pursuit of activity for its gratification. The faculties of his mind are put into busy exercise. In the steady direction of one great and engrossing interest, [by this] is the machinery of the whole man kept in a sort of congenial play.”
  3. Man was created to be occupied with the machinery of desire. In other words, all desires are not evil. All ‘natural’ desires (those of the ‘natural,’ unregenerate man) are tainted by sin, but there are godly desires—indeed, the one chief desire of love for God that becomes the believer’s new affection. If “the machinery were to stop [by love for the world being merely put away], and to receive no impulse from another desire substituted in its place, the man would be left with all his propensities to action in a state of most painful and unnatural abandonment….It is quite in vain with such a constitutional appetite for employment in man, to attempt cutting away from him the spring or the principle of one employment, without providing him with another.”
  4. Put Off must be followed by Put On. “The ascendant power of a second affection will do what no exposition, however forcible, of the folly and worthlessness of the first, ever could effectuate.”
  5. Release from the bondage of love for the world is only accomplished by the heart being turned to a new, more charming affection. “You must address to the eye of his mind another object, with a charm powerful enough to dispossess the first of its influence, and to engage him in some other prosecution as full of interest and hope and congenial activity as the former…. If to be without desire and without exertion altogether is a state of violence and discomfort, then the present desire, with its correspondent train of exertion, is not to be got rid of simply by destroying it. It must be by substituting another desire, and another line or habit of exertion in its place, and the most effectual way of withdrawing the mind from one object is not by turning it away upon desolate and unpeopled vacancy, but by presenting to its regards another object still more alluring.”
  6. Desires, once gained, build upon each other because of the grasping tendency of the human heart. “There is not one of these transformations in which the heart is left without an object. Its desire for one particular object may be conquered; but as to its desire for having some one object or other, this is unconquerable…. Such is the grasping tendency of the human heart, that it must have a something to lay hold of—and which, if wrested away without the substitution of another something in its place, would leave a void and a vacancy as painful to the mind as hunger is to the natural system.”
  7. The human heart craves worship and, thus, often creates idols to cling to. “The heart must have something to cling to—and never, by its own voluntary consent, will it so denude itself of all its attachments that there shall not be one remaining object that can draw or solicit it.”
  8. Moralistic “putting away” of worldly affections cannot transform a person because it merely exchanges one inmate for another. “The moralist who tries such process of dispossession as this upon the heart is thwarted at every step by the recoil of its own mechanism. You have all heard that nature abhors a vacuum. Such, at least, is the nature of the heart, that thought the room which is in it may change one inmate for another, it cannot be left void without pain of most intolerable suffering…. So to tear away an affection from the heart as to leave it bare and hopeless undertaking, and it would appear as if the alone powerful engine of dispossession were to bring the mastery of another affection to bear upon it.”
  9. It is folly to call the unregenerate man to leave his sin without giving him the gospel. “To bid a man into whom there is not yet entered the great and ascendant influence of the principle of regeneration, to bid him withdraw his love from all the things that are in the world, is to bid him give up all the affections that are in his heart.”
  10. To succeed, the new affection must be greater, more valuable. “[T]here is something more than the mere displacement of an affection. There is the overbearing of one affection by another.”
  11. It is not enough to demonstrate the worthlessness of sin. “The love of the world cannot be expunged by a mere demonstration of the world’s worthlessness… But may it not be supplanted by the love of that which is more worthy than itself? The heart cannot be prevailed upon to part with the world, by a simple act of resignation.”
  12. For putting off sin to be effective, Christ must be perceived as the greatest treasure, worthy object of love. “In a word, if the way to disengage the heart from the positive love of one great and ascendant object is to fasten it in positive love to another, then it is not by exposing the worthlessness of the former, but by addressing to the mental eye the worth and excellence of the latter, that all old things are to be done away, and all things are to become new.”

There is so much more that could be said about, and from, Chalmers’ sermon. Suffice it to say that everything he has to say, about the key to sanctification being the replacement of a love for the world with a greater love for God, expounds on that great, sacred text on Christ-beholding sanctification: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18).

As we counsel one another toward the goal of making progress in Christlikeness, let us be ever so careful we do not fall into the devilish trap of moralism—thinking we can become holy by the mere avoidance of that which constitutes love for the world. Instead, we must pursue the infinitely greater affection—love for God.

[If you are interested, you may read a summary of the life of Thomas Chalmers at the Christian History[2] site.]

  1. “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection”:
  2. Christian History:

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