Total Depravity (2)
March 26, 2023 / No. 4186
Last time we observed that the Lord Jesus taught the utter spiritual inability of man to believe in or accept Christ for salvation. Among other places, the Lord taught that in John 6:65: “And He said, Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father.”
The reason that no man can come to Him is that the nature with which a man is born is spiritually dead. And that dead nature enslaves a person so that he cannot think, will, or act except under the total domination of sin. “You hath he quickened who were dead in trespasses and sins.”
It is striking that, after the Lord Jesus teaches total depravity and the bondage of the will to sin, the reaction of the crowds is less than enthusiastic. In John 6:65, again, He said, “Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father.” And then we read in the very next verse (v. 66): “From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.” Why is that? Why did they leave? It is not that it is hard to understand what the Lord is teaching. It is not that it is unclear. It is not even that it does not match reality. Instead, it is the fact that it was understood and that it was made clear. It is because one of the expressions of that dead nature is pride. The main expression of that dead nature is pride, and pride does not want to believe that, without Christ, I can do nothing. I cannot do some things? OK. Even most things? All right. But nothing? Nothing? That pride wants me to be in charge of my own salvation. And because this teaching of the Lord so clearly shows that I am not, pride rises up in protest and walks away.
It always has in history, apart from God’s grace. Here in John 6 when Jesus taught it. and again in the fourth century when there was a monk from the British Isles named Pelagius who could not abide the notion that man could not save himself of his own will and working. Therefore he taught that the fall of Adam did not do anything to affect the natures of the people who came after Adam. Basically ripping Romans 5 out of the Bible, he taught that all men are born neutral. If they sin, it is not because they have a sinful nature that is enslaving them, but it is merely because they have seen bad examples—other people, who, with their neutral nature, have made bad choices. And they follow those bad examples. Probably that is what most people in the world believe today: man’s nature is neither good nor bad, it is neutral. And if a man sins, it is merely because he has followed bad examples.
It was Augustine who was the man whom God raised up to battle the influential Pelagius. Augustine had, in fact, himself once believed what Pelagius taught. But, after studying God’s Word, Augustine came to the conclusion that man is, in fact, totally depraved, apart from God’s sovereign, irresistible grace, that sin is not just something people do sometimes, but that they are conceived and born enslaved to sin, that they have a nature that puts them in bondage. The fact that Augustine at one time did not believe this and then came to believe it points out something very important—that Augustine realized that he did not get to believe whatever he wanted—that whether he liked this, or did not like it, did not really matter. It was the Word of God, and the Word of God was true. It does not help to live in denial about what is true.
So, too, we do not get to believe whatever we want. Our conscience is captive to the Word of God. Cancer is hard to face and hard to believe, too. But, if it is there, you had better face it. So too here. If it is true, the teaching of the Word of God, you must submit to it.
A while after Augustine brought God’s Word out to slay the teaching of Pelagius, pride in theology rose up again. In the Middle Ages, in the Roman Catholic Church, the teaching rose up (and still is there in that institution) that man has spiritual good and bad in him. His good is not good enough to completely save him all on his own, but his bad, at the same time, is not bad enough to stop him from saving himself if God helps him out. So, if man chooses to use his natural goodness within and climb his way up to God, God will recognize that, and that will earn (merit) God’s grace. And the grace that God gives him will boost him the rest of the way to earning his place in heaven. God only helps those who help themselves. Use what goodness you have to come to God and God will give you a boost of grace. With that boost of grace, if you use it, you can reach heaven. Man is not totally dead in trespasses and sins and, therefore, he only needs God to help him. He does not need a miracle of regenerating grace.
It was Martin Luther and the rest of the Reformers whom God raised up to call the church back to the biblical understanding we have been expounding. When Erasmus wrote a book entitled On the Freedom of the Will, it was Luther who responded with On the Bondage of the Will, setting there the groundwork for the biblical doctrine of salvation that would be recovered in the Reformation. After all, is not this the central point about the doctrines of salvation? If this is embraced, the rest will follow.
Tell me what someone believes about the sinfulness of man and I will tell you what he believes about the rest of the doctrines of salvation. Because if man is completely and utterly spiritually bankrupt, then it is going to take an irresistible grace of God to save him. And if it takes an irresistible grace of God to save him, and not all men are saved, God must have made some decision as to whom to give this irresistible grace. And if God gives an irresistible grace to those ones, then Christ must have died for those ones so that there would be a grace earned
for Him to give to them. And, if that grace is irresistible, it will irresistibly preserve those same ones to the end.
But if man is not totally devoid of spiritual ability, then there is an island of goodness from whence he can save himself, and salvation will not be of the Lord. That is why, when Luther wrote that book On the Bondage of the Will, he said to Erasmus that, at least, you have had the sense to attack at the very heart of the matter. I quote: “I give you hearty praise on this account, that you alone, in contrast with all others, have attacked the real thing, that is, the essential issue.” Is man well? Is he weak, or is he dead? The Reformers were all agreed on the total spiritual inability of man.
Later, however, before the time of the Synod of Dordt, a minister whose name was Jacobus Arminius, and his followers called Arminians and later Remonstrants, wanting to leave salvation in man’s hands at the decisive point, said, “No!” While the fall of man was not like Pelagius said it was, that it did not affect man’s all, it was a fall that affected man’s intellect and affections and other parts of him but did not affect his will. The will is free from the dominion and bondage of sin. The will, said Arminius, was an island of freedom left in man after the fall. So, when God’s grace comes to save a person, that man himself, from that island of freedom, has to choose to let that grace save him or to reject it. It was not a grace that came first and liberated him, but man remains liberated and decides if he wants to let himself be saved. So, to quote the position: “It remains in man always to be regenerated or not.” Salvation is not ultimately of the Lord.
It was the Synod of Dordt, that momentous gathering of over a hundred theologians from all over Europe, who rejected this teaching of Arminius, instead saying: “And that all men by nature are dead in sin, in bondage to it, and without the sovereign regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit they are neither able nor willing to return to God, to reform the depravity of their nature, nor to dispose themselves to be reformed.”
Friends, this is something that God wants us to know. It is something the Lord Jesus wanted us to know. It is something the apostle Paul and the other apostles wanted us to know. As we saw last time, this was their explicit teaching. It is something ultimately that the Holy Spirit wants us to know. God will not have us boasting of our own goodness in any respect. God will not have us glorying in ourselves, how our will was the deciding factor, how we saved ourselves at the end of the day. “It is not of him that runneth,” says the apostle Paul. But he says also this, “it is not of him that willeth, but of God that showeth mercy.” God will have us know ourselves in the mirror of His Word. Only on the black velvet backdrop of our totally depraved nature will the diamond of the sovereign grace that saved us light up in brilliance. Only this doctrine of man’s natural inability leads the apostle to cry out: “O, wretched man that I am!” Only this doctrine of our natural depravity proclaimed to us humbles us so that, by grace, we look for a salvation that is wholly of God and not of us. Only this doctrine leads a child of God to say in the depth of true humility: “Why, then, God, did You save me? Why did you choose to save me, to give me grace, to raise me from the dead?”
Do you know the defender of free will never makes that cry, because the answer to the question Why me? is always “Me, because of me.” Why am I saved? Because I was good enough to use my ability to save myself, and the other person who did not was not. It traces back to me in the end. I do not have to ask God, Why me? because I am the answer. I have done it.
Ironically, only that knowledge of my absolute inability gives me assurance of my salvation once I am His child. Martin Luther said it this way in the book On the Bondage of the Will: “I openly confess that I should not wish free will to be granted to me, even if it could be so.” Now, why would he say such a thing? Luther goes on to explain that the reason why he says that is because, if he thinks about it, the chances of him using his free will unto salvation are really pretty slim. Just at first glance, it is fifty-fifty at best. But then, if you start thinking about it a little more, the chances are even slimmer. Remember, God is not in control of all things. I am unhinged from His sovereignty. So, here I am in the world. Then, you throw the devil into that world with all of his power as a free agent, and then you throw the wickedness of the world into it, too, who knows what the odds really are that I would believe, that I would accept His grace. So Luther says, “Since God has
put my salvation out of the way of my will and has taken it under His own will and has promised to save me, not according to my working or manner of life or willing but according to His own grace and mercy, I rest fully assured and persuaded that He is faithful. And no one can pluck me out of His hand.” As His child, I know it is not up to me. It is not fifty-fifty. It never was fifty-fifty or twenty-eighty. It was a hundred percent and it still is a hundred percent. I do not have to wonder if I will keep using my free will aright tomorrow or the next day, as it depends upon Him. He saved and He saves.
You can only think of it this way as a child of God looking back, of course. But, as a child of God looking back, have you ever thanked God for your total, spiritual inability to save yourself? It sounds strange, but do so, because it is the thing that makes it so that God sovereignly saves, secures your salvation and preserves you in it, which is the only ground of assurance.
When I realize that He has done this for me, worship, praise, songs of adoration explode out of me to Him alone for His saving grace. It is the difference between a cancer patient who recovers and a dead person who recovers, is it not? If a cancer patient recovers, who gets the praise? The praise is split, it is divided. Some goes to the doctor, of course, who prescribed the chemotherapy. But some of it goes to the person himself who fought, to the one who beat the cancer and overcame. But if a dead person recovers, if he is raised from the dead, to whom are praises sung? Only to the one who raised him from the dead, for the dead person played no part. So, too, this doctrine brings the swelling note of singular praise to God for His saving grace.
Whose praises are you singing for your salvation, child of God? Are you splitting your praises up between God and yourself? Or do they go to God, and God only, all the way? What is your salvation song, child of God? Does it go like this (God is speaking in this song): “I own the cattle on the thousand hills. I write the music for the whipper-wills, control the planets with the rocks and rills. But I give you freedom to use your own will. And if you want Me, I will make you whole. I will only do it though if you say so. I will never force you, but I love you so. I give you freedom to say ‘yes,’ or ‘no.’” Or, is this your salvation song, the song of the redeemed in sacred Scripture, the song of the spiritually dead raised to spiritual life, the song of all of God’s own in heaven, fully aware of how they have been brought there, the song of Revelation 5:9 and 10: “And they [that is, all the company of God’s own, gathered and glorified] sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy [not Thou art worthy and we are worthy because you did your part, but we said yes, but Thou art worthy]…for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation; and hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth.”
That is the praise that the biblical doctrine of salvation brings about.
Shall we pray?
Father in heaven, hard to face this, but we do. And we even know then that it is only grace that puts us on our knees to see our total inability to save ourselves. And we praise Thee alone for giving us the grace that has saved, for raising the dead to life, and for granting hope and salvation. We look forward to being a part of that number, and our song will be then as it is now: Thou art worthy, for Thou hast made us unto God kings and priests. In Jesus’ name, Amen.