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Freedom and Depravity - Part I

The real point of dispute between Arminians and Calvinists is not so much the nature of God and his will, but the nature of man and his. This may sound strange, for earlier I suggested that the principal area of disagreement is the basis on which God makes his elective decision. Perhaps an illustration will clarify this point.

Consider the case of identical twin brothers Jerry and Ed. As much as is humanly possible they are the same in every sense: physical appearance, size, personality, IQ, athletic ability. They are raised in a Christian home and are equally loved by their parents. They receive the same education and the same opportunities to excel in life. They attend the same church and each week hear the same sermon. Both are hardened and cynical toward the things of God.


Then one Sunday, without fanfare or evident cause, Jerry finds himself inexplicably moved by the words of the pastor. The message of God’s holiness and his depravity begins to make sense. He feels a deep conviction over his sin and begins to weep. This Jesus whom the pastor incessantly mentioned suddenly appears altogether lovely to Jerry. He responds to the invitation and joyfully expresses his faith in the cross of Christ as his only hope for life. Ed is incredulous and quite angry with his brother. Ed remains hardened in his heart, resistant to the truth, and scorns his brother’s new found faith.


Our question is this: “Does God elect Jerry instead of his identical twin brother Ed because he knows from eternity past that Jerry, by an act of his own free choice, will believe in Christ, and that Ed, although he had the same education and opportunities, will not?” The Arminian says Yes. The Calvinist says that if God elects either Jerry or Ed, or perhaps both, he does so based on nothing done by either but solely because of his sovereign good pleasure. Neither Jerry nor Ed is able or willing to believe in Christ of his own unaided initiative. If God were to suspend or condition his elective act on the freewill decision of Jerry and Ed, neither would be chosen, for both men, indeed all men (women too!), loathe Christ and his gospel. You see, then, how it is that only by determining the nature of Jerry and Ed, that is, the nature of sinful people in their fallen state, can we determine the basis on which God makes his elective decision.


The question, then, is this: Does the Bible teach that people have the power and initiative within their own will to believe the gospel? The question is not, “Are people morally responsible for their actions?” The Bible declares that we are. We are responsible to God for every act of will and work that we perform. Neither is the question, “Do people have the opportunity to believe?” The Bible declares that we do. God has made himself known to all people, either in nature, conscience, or the gospel, so that all are without excuse (Rom. 1:18-23; 2:14-16; Acts 14:16-17). The question, rather, is this: Do people have a free and unfettered will by which they are able to believe? The Bible declares that they do not. The teaching of Scripture is that all people are born into this life corrupt in nature and therefore ill-disposed to the gospel and to the truth. This is the doctrine of total depravity, and it must be carefully defined to avoid the confusion that it often provokes.


According to this doctrine, man in his present condition since the fall is so polluted with a principle of evil that every aspect of his being and personality is affected by it. The term depravity refers to the moral disposition or inclination of fallen man’s nature toward evil and against good. This principle of sin and moral pollution is such that man is by nature opposed to what is true and righteous. The inclination of his heart, the delight of his soul, the orientation of his will is toward wickedness. Nothing compels him to sin. He sins because he loves it. He revels in it. He has no taste for God, but relishes evil and pursues it with voluntary zeal. This may sound grim, but I believe that Scripture affirms it. In a moment we will have occasion to examine the relevant texts.


But man is not only depraved in his nature and will, he is totally depraved. Some have preferred the term pervasive depravity or extensive depravity inasmuch as the term total depravity can be misleading and perhaps say more about man’s sinful condition than Scripture permits. The point of each of these terms, whichever one you prefer, is that man’s depravity is not restricted to just one or several parts of his personality and being. It is not that man’s mind is depraved but not his will. It is not that man’s emotions are touched by sin but his heart is somehow insulated. The moral pollution that sin brings has touched and affected the whole of the person, the totality of his being.


Common Grace


Some may find this assessment of human nature objectionable for the simple reason that it conflicts with what they see in the world and what they experience in their relationships with other people. There are quite a few extremely evil people in society. However, most of us have close friends and relatives who are not Christians but who are, what we would feel justified in calling, “good” people. They are honest, civil, generous, loving, and show little if any sign of being “totally depraved.” We enjoy their presence and would vouch for their character.


But the doctrine of total depravity is not meant to deny that there are people like this in the world. The Calvinist, who affirms total depravity, also affirms common grace, according to which God not only restrains the full manifestation of the evil tendencies of the human heart but also, on a more positive note, enables the non-Christian to perform deeds of relative “good”.


The verdict of the apostle Paul on the universal condition of humanity is, to say the least, a bleak one. Drawing upon the testimony of the Old Testament, he writes: "There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one" (Rom. 3:10-12). Such is the predicament of people apart from Christ. But, as John Murray has observed, this apostolic assessment of human nature forces us to deal with a series of very insistent questions:


"How is it that men who still lie under the wrath and curse of God and are heirs of hell enjoy so many good gifts at the hand of God? How is it that men who are not savingly renewed by the Spirit of God nevertheless exhibit so many qualities, gifts and accomplishments that promote the preservation, temporal happiness, cultural progress, social and economic improvement of themselves and of others? How is it that races and peoples that have been apparently untouched by the redemptive and regenerative influences of the gospel contribute so much to what we call human civilization? To put the question most comprehensively: how is it that this sin-cursed world enjoys so much favour and kindness at the hand of its holy and ever-blessed Creator?" (Collected Writings, II:93).


I believe the answer to these questions is to be found in the distinction which the Bible draws between God's common, or non-saving, grace and his special, or redemptive, grace. The common grace of God has been variously defined. According to Charles Hodge, the Bible teaches that


"the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of truth, of holiness, and of life in all its forms, is present with every human mind, enforcing truth, restraining from evil, exciting to good, and imparting wisdom or strength, when, where, and in what measure seemeth to Him good. . . . This is what in theology is called common grace” (Systematic Theology, II:667).


Abraham Kuyper defines common grace as


"'that act of God by which negatively He curbs the operations of Satan, death, and sin, and by which positively He creates an intermediate state for this cosmos, as well as for our human race, which is and continues to be deeply and radically sinful, but in which sin cannot work out its end” (279).


A simpler and more direct definition of common grace is given by John Murray, Common grace, he writes, "is every favour of whatever kind or degree, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God” (II:96). With this as a working definition we may proceed to describe the varied manifestations of common grace as they occur in both the creation and the creature.


The first aspect of common grace is what we might call negative or preventative. Its essential characteristic is that of restraint. Although the restraint that God places upon sin and its effects is neither complete (else no sin would exist at all) nor uniform (else all men would be equally evil or good), it is of such a nature that the expression and effects of human depravity are not permitted to reach the maximum height of which they are capable. There are several areas where the notion of common grace as restraint is operative. As already noted, God exercises restraint on the sin of man. Murray explains:


"God places restraint upon the workings of human depravity and thus prevents the unholy affections and principles of men from manifesting all the potentialities inherent in them. He prevents depravity from bursting forth in all its vehemence and violence” (II:98).


See, for example, Gen. 4:15; 20:6; 2 Kings 19:27-28; 2 Thess. 2:6-12.


Besides placing restraint upon the ungodly tendencies of the human heart, God freely suspends the immediate manifestation of His divine wrath due unto sin. That is to say, in common grace God not only restrains the sin of man but also the ready execution of the full measure of judgment which sin demands. This latter element of restraint is especially evident in such texts as Genesis 6:3; 1 Peter 3:20; Acts 17:30; Romans 2:4; and 2 Peter 3:9.


In addition to the manifestation of common grace in the relationship God sustains to His creatures, He also holds in check the destructive tendencies that are part of the curse of sin upon nature, Murray elaborates:


"Sin introduces disintegration and disorganization in every realm. While it is true that only in the sphere of rationality does sin have meaning - it originates in mind, it develops in mind, it resides in mind - yet sin works out disastrous effects outside the sphere of the rational and moral as well as within it. God places restraint upon these effects, he prevents the full development of this disintegration. He brings to bear upon this world in all its spheres correcting and preserving influences so that the ravages of sin might not be allowed to work out the full measure of their destructive power” (II:101).


See, for example, Gen. 3:17 and 9:2-5.


The second aspect of common grace is more positive in thrust. God not only restrains the sinful operations and effects of the human heart, He also bestows upon both nature and humanity manifold blessings both physical and spiritual. These blessings, however, fall short of redemption itself. The grace of God displayed throughout the created order is marvelous indeed:


"You care for the land and water it; you enrich it abundantly. The streams of God are filled with water to provide the people with grain, for so you have ordained it. You drench its furrows and level its ridges; you soften it with showers and bless its crops. You crown the year with your bounty, and your carts overflow with abundance. The grasslands of the desert overflow; the hills are clothed with gladness. The meadows are covered with flocks and the valleys are mantled with grain; they shout for joy and sing” (Ps. 65 :9-13).


Similar descriptions may be found in Psalm 104:10-30; 145:1-16; and 136:25.


Furthermore, God not only restrains evil in unredeemed men but also endows them with


"gifts, talents, and aptitudes; he stimulates them with interest and purpose to the practice of virtues, the pursuance of worthy tasks, and the cultivation of arts and sciences that occupy the time, activity and energy of men and that make for the benefit and civilization of the human race. He ordains institutions for the protection and promotion of right, the preservation of liberty, the advance of knowledge and the improvement of physical and moral conditions. We may regard these interests, pursuits and institutions as exercising both an expulsive and impulsive influence. Occupying the energy, activity and time of men they prevent the indulgence of less noble and ignoble pursuits and they exercise an ameliorating, moralizing, stabilizing and civilizing influence upon the social organism” (Murray, II:102-103).


We read about this manifestation of common grace in Genesis 39:5; Acts 14:16-17; Matthew 5:44-45; Luke 6:35-36; 16:25. It is because of such operations of common grace that the unregenerate may be said to perform "good" (cf. 2 Kings 10:30; 12:2; Matt. 5:46; Luke 6:33; Rom. 2:14-15). However, Murray reminds us that "the good attributed to unregenerate men is after all only relative good. It is not good in the sense of meeting in motivation, principle and aim the requirements of God's law and the demands of his holiness” (II:107), and thus can in no way commend them to the righteousness of the Father. We must never lose sight of the fact that all such operations of "grace" (so-called because undeserved) are non-saving, being neither in design nor effect such as would produce new life in Christ.


Consequently, when I speak of total depravity I do not mean that all men are as depraved as they possibly can be, nor that the depravity of their heart will always manifest itself equally in all respects at all times. Total depravity simply means that the whole of the individual, his heart, soul, spirit, and will, is affected by and enslaved to sin, thereby rendering him odious in the sight of God.


What this means in terms of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that if left to himself a person will invariably, inevitably, and without pause reject the truth. Total depravity means that no matter how “civil” or “compassionate” or “industrious” or “law-abiding” he might otherwise be in his dealings with other people, he is utterly and willfully indisposed to all that Christ is and says. Merely preaching to that person will profit nothing. “I might preach to you for ever,” declared Charles Spurgeon, “I might borrow the eloquence of Demosthenes or of Cicero, but ye will not come unto Christ. I might beg of you on my knees, with tears in my eyes, and show you the horrors of hell and the joys of heaven, the sufficiency of Christ, and your own lost condition, but you would non of you come unto Christ of yourselves unless the Spirit that rested on Christ should draw you. It is true of all men in their natural condition that they will not come unto Christ” (Free Will a Slave [reprint ed.; Allentown, Penn: Sword and Trowel, 1973], pp. 17-18).


To be continued . . .