The depth of God’s Grace can be found in His…
The depth of God’s Grace can be found in His sovereignty and in how he holds man responsible. Biblically both are true and can be difficult to understand at the same time.
The dialogue over God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility goes back through to the early history of the church.
Pelagius and Augustine went back and forth over the nature of man. Could someone come to God on his own and do good works, or was he a slave to sin from birth and in need of a special work of God’s grace?Augustine’s position on human sinfulness re-emerged in the reformation against the Semi-Pelagianism of the Catholic Church.
A few generations after early reformers, another stream appeared in the Augustinian tradition. That of Jacobus Arminius; which many have identified as a moderate return to Pelagianism.
One of the key differences between the two sides is the nature of God’s grace in salvation.
Both affirm man’s inability as a result of the fall in that apart from God’s grace man cannot come to God in faith.
One side teaches us that God reaches out to man in mercy to change their hearts, which gives them the ability and desire to come to Him in faith.
One side teaches that God gives grace to all human beings at birth, enabling them to either resist this grace, damning themselves, or cooperate with it to let God save them. This is prevenient grace. Here God still takes initiative as His grace precedes any form of human response.
The common ground: understanding the effect of the fall.
Total depravity was a main theme of protestant reformers. It has since fallen into dispute.
Renaissance humanism and the enlightenment placed emphasis on human ability to live a good spiritual life. This presupposition became central to western thought in the 20th – 21st centuries.
The question is this. Is depravity obsolete, a strange belief from medieval times, or is it a Biblical doctrine that exposes the need of a savior?
God created everything and gave man dominion over it. Genesis shows that it is not good people corrupted by a dark world, but fallen people ripping apart a good creation over which they were to have dominion.
God created man in His image. Man rebelled against the creator and the fall manifested itself as sin in the nature of mankind. The first naturally born men displayed the ugliness of the fall in the first fratricide (Gen 4:1-15).
God enters into various covenants with His people and consistently His chosen people fail to live up to their covenant relationship.
Adam and Eve eat of the fruit
Noah gets drunk
Abraham seeks to fulfill God’s promises with Hagar.
Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers.
The Israelites make a golden calf and continually fall into idolatry.
Despite God’s presence as a pillar of fire by night and a cloud of smoke by day they still rebel and want to turn back to Egypt.
Israel demands a King.
David is overcome by lust with Bathsheba causing him to write Psalm 51: Create in me a clean heart oh God, and renew a right spirit within me.
Solomon is tempted by strange women to worship false idols.
Kings are evil, even sacrificing babies to false Gods.
The people kill and silence the prophets.
All of the significant characters of the Bible other than Jesus are surrounded with failure.
Proverbs 20: 9 Who can say, “I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin”?
No man naturally could or can do what God required through the Old Testament Covenants.
Proverbs 20:12 The hearing ear and the seeing eye, the LORD has made them both.
In Ezek 18:31 Ezekiel commands the house of Israel to make themselves a new heart and spirit, that they might live and not die. This is something that Israel is unwilling and unable to do themselves. How could people so determined in their rebellion obey a command for submission and obedience?
Jeremiah answers in Jer 13:23, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil.”
Deut 29:4 to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.
They were unable in themselves to change their sinful nature.
Man’s fallen nature since the garden and the history that we see throughout the Old Testament leads to the hope that He will act to give them a faithful and obedient heart. This is a central theme throughout scripture.
Deut 30:6 the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul, in order that you may live.
Isa 54: 13. All your children shall be taught by the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children. In righteousness you shall be established; you shall be far from oppression, for you shall not fear; and from terror, for it shall not come near you.
Jer 31:33-34. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord.
Ezek 11:19-20. And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.
Ezek 36:26-27 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
As we see that God’s people are unable to follow Him without Him acting on their life first, we arrive at the New Testament.
We see in Jesus’ ministry, God’s fulfillment of the Old Testament.
Luke 22:20. And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.
With it comes regeneration.
John 1:11-13 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
V12 places emphasis on human responsibility in salvation, but v13 shows that it is by God’s will and not man’s that anyone is able to come to salvation.
In this we do not see that it is man’s free will that causes belief, but the will of God.
John 3 verifies the concept that salvation is by the will of God.
John 3:3. Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” V5. Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. V8. The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
To be born again with new eyes and new ears is the only way that anyone could understand that Jesus was and is the King reigning over God’s Kingdom to pierce the darkness of the age. The thought of the time was that the messiah would come to bring victory either politically or militaristically. It is not naturally intuitive to understand the Kingdom of God without the new birth.
Although we are called to receive Jesus and prepare room in our hearts for God, the new birth confirms that regeneration must come before faith which is the only way anyone could receive Him.
John 6 is key in the discussion of prevenient grace.
Jesus feeds the 5,000. He walks to the disciple’s boat in the sea.
We arrive at v41-42. “So the Jews began to grumble about Him because He had said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” And they were saying, “Is this not Jesus the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How is he now saying, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”
Despite the miracles, the Jews were still unbelieving that he was God’s provision for their need.
V43-45. Jesus responded and said to them, “Do not grumble with one another. No one is able to come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him, and I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘and they will all be taught by God’: everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me.
Those who God the Father draws are the ones who will come to Him, and only these are able to do so.
In John 12, Jesus answers the question of unbelief again.
V36-40. When Jesus had said these things, he departed and hid himself from them. Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him, so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.”
They did not believe because the arm of the Lord had not been revealed to them. They had not been granted new hearts, or been drawn, or been given ears to hear and eyes to see or been reborn.
Paul provides some clarity in the state of the natural man and the regenerated man.
1 Cor 2:14-16. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.
Without the Spirit, an unbeliever cannot understand the gospel or the things of God. There is an inability to grasp the things of God.
The scripture portrays man’s inability to seek Him as spiritual death.
Rom 5:12. Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.
James 1:15. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
Eph 2:1-5. And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience- among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ- by grace you have been saved-
Colossians 2:13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses.
It is important to understand the spiritual death in the natural man because it describes the inability to move to God, to receive God, to prepare our hearts for God, or to be Holy as we ought to.
In contrast to the commonly preached message of free will, the Scripture portrays man’s inability to seek Him as slavery to sin.
Jesus offended the Jews when he told them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:45).
Paul refers to the natural man as the old man and the natural man’s inability as slavery to sin.
Romans 6:6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.
In Romans 8:2 we read that believers are set free in Christ from sin.
Every unregenerate person is a slave to sin; they are under the orders of sin and obey it to the exclusion of God; they are completely sold out to sin and their sinful actions only ever increase their slavery and their rebellion against God. They are fixed completely on sin, unable to obey the law of God, not even able to please Him, and are in open hostility by their servitude. We do not find that man’s will is free.
The doctrine of total depravity is affirmed since God needs to give people a new heart to believe, since people are unable to believe without Him. Literally every generation of humankind has failed to be obedient to God. Every natural human being is so hardened in the sinfulness of their hearts that they are unable to come to God and believe His truth, unable to obey Him. That is, until the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit gives them eyes to see and hearts to obey, ears to hear and minds to understand.
Spending time in scripture, it’s easy to see sin and the need for salvation. However, does this mean that man is fallen with just a little bit of good or faith or ability in and of themselves?
In Gen 6, God looks on His creatures and sees corruption. V5. “that every intention of the thoughts of their heart was only evil continually.”
All of humanity is destroyed in God’s wrath.
In Gen 8, God reaffirms His covenant with man, even though he knows that still “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth (v21).” There’s no change in the state of man.
Ecclesiastes 7:20 Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.
Psalm 14: 1-3. The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good. The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.
Romans 3:23 For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
1 John 1: 8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
1 John 1: 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
Romans 10:10-12 “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
We could ask, don’t unbelieving people do good every day?
In order to answer honestly we have to understand the standard by which good is done.
For an action to be good by God’s standard it cannot just benefit others but must come from a pure heart with pure motives as defined by God.
Jesus described good and bad trees. Good trees bear good fruit while bad trees are unable to bear good fruit (Luke 6:43-45). The evil nature of an unbeliever only brings forth evil even if (like the Pharisees) it is done in the guise of righteous altruism.
Isa 64:6 We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment (the word in Hebrew is menstrual cloth). We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
Romans 8:7-8 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
John 15:5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
Every natural human being, without exception is under the power of sin and so hardened in the sinfulness of their hearts that they are unable to come to God and believe His truth or obey Him apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. The hardness of heart is akin to death and slavery; every human being needs new life to be able to do good. Despite that free will is not mentioned in the scriptures, if there is a such thing, then man is free only to fall unless they have been born again. Only believers will find relief when the Spirit moves in them.
Prior to regeneration, every human being is darkness, corrupt, a child of disobedience.
Total depravity is such a difficult and offensive message to give in a western culture. Natural men find it reprehensible. Just because it’s difficult for unbelievers doesn’t mean that it’s not necessary or true. It is only when we understand our fallen nature do we truly understand and appreciate the need for a savior.
Arminians agree with the reformed faith that man is depraved. They disagree on God’s answer to the fallen condition.
For Reformed Christians the answer is the giving of a new heart to those whom God has chosen to save so that they will believe in Him.
For Arminians the answer is prevenient grace, God’s work in the lives of all human beings so that their wills are freed to choose or reject him. The picture presented by Arminian theologians is that of God reaching out to fallen humans who have wandered astray, wooing them back to Himself. Those that reject this picture don’t see that a sovereign God would wait around and hope for men to choose him or accept him. God does not hope in men. Men hope in God.
Reformed theologians see it that dead men can’t hear, see, or accept until they have been made alive. The reprobate man could never choose that which he hates. It is through love that Jesus took our place, saved us, gave us His spirit, and made us new.
1 John 4:19 We love because He first loved us.