~ by Scotty Park, guest blogger
I’m twelve years old, sitting in the back of one of my first youth group lessons with my friends. Our pastor is teaching on Total Depravity and God’s Sovereignty over conversion. In other words, I was finding out about my complete inability to turn from my own sin and follow Christ in my own strength (heavy stuff for junior youth, I know). For the first time my faith is shaken. Surely there was something good in me that caused me to put my faith in Christ, right?
I remember going home to my dad that night, troubled by what I had been taught. I’ll admit my objections were not based on scripture but because these doctrines did not fit into how I thought God should interact with His creation. My dad patiently opened up Romans 9 and Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology and worked through my objections with me.
And thus began my journey into studying what are, in my opinion, some of the most precious, God-glorifying, and Man-humbling truths found in scripture.
The foundational importance of ‘Sola Scriptura’
Before we begin diving into a theological study of the doctrines of Total Depravity and Election, I think it would be of merit to look at another doctrine that was central to the Protestant Reformation. That is, the doctrine of ‘sola scriptura’ or ‘scripture alone’. I’m going to pause here to say that I am far from a history buff or even an intelligent person by any measurable standard for that matter (see high school transcript), so you’ll have to forgive me for a very crass explanation here.
A major point of contention between the Roman Catholic Church and the Reformers was regarding who and what had ultimate authority for Christian belief. The Roman Catholic position held to the belief that Scripture, Church tradition, and the Pope, were equally authoritative for the believer. In the 1995 Catechism of the Catholic Church Section 82 we read; “[the Church] does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honoured with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence”.
The reformed position however holds firmly to the belief that Scripture alone has ultimate authority over matters of God and the church. To be clear, there are many other things that influence what we believe, such as logic, science, history, and personal experience. These will all offer some level of influence in how we perceive the world around us. However, Sola Scriptura ensures that they are all being constantly evaluated by the foundational truth of the ultimate authority of God’s word and thus should never decisively influence our understanding of doctrine.
Chances are you already believe in the truth of Sola Scriptura (perhaps without knowing it by that name or its historical significance in the Protestant Reformation). The application of this belief is what’s more challenging though. When push comes to shove, and my conscience and scripture are at odds with one another, when God in the Bible acts differently than how I think he should act, the issue is not with scripture, and it certainly isn’t with God. The issue is with me. On this issue, RC Sproul writes “…every Christian has the right to interpret the Bible for himself or herself. However, this right does not include the freedom to misinterpret Scripture. Before God, we do not have the right to be wrong. With the right of private interpretation comes the responsibility to interpret the Bible correctly, not turning the Bible into a lump of clay that can be twisted, shaped, and distorted to fit our own biases.”1
Our condition prior to conversion
Now, on the foundation of our belief in the authority of Scripture Alone, let’s see what the Bible teaches about our condition prior to conversion. Often, this is referred to as Total Depravity. The Bible teaches that we:
– are born in sin, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5)2
– all commit sin, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23)
– are corrupted by sin, “to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure; their very minds and consciences are corrupted” (Titus 1:15). Our sin has infected every part of us from our hearts and minds (Jeremiah 17:9, 10:7-8,14), (Ecclesiastes 9:3), (Matthew 15:19), (Genesis 6:5, 8:21), to our affections and desires (Romans 1:24-27), (Ephesians 2:3), (Proverbs 21:10), (John 3:19, 8:44).
– (Apart from God) cannot do good, “there is no one who does good…All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:1-3).
Wayne Grudem uses the term ‘Total Inability’ to describe our lack of “ability to do anything that will in itself please God…[or] to come to God in our own strength”3 We see this in Romans 7:18 “I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh”
Later, in Romans 8:8 we read, “those who are in the flesh cannot please God”.
In John 15:5 regarding bearing fruit and doing good Jesus says, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” We are diseased trees unable to bear good fruit (Matthew 7:18).
In Genesis 6:5 we read “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” Later, after the flood God says, “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination from the human heart is evil from childhood.” (Emphasis added)
Even our ‘righteous deeds’ cannot please God, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isaiah 64:6), “If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination” (Proverbs 15:8)
– do not seek God, “There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you” (Isaiah 65:1), “no one seeks for God.” (Romans 3:11)
– cannot change, “can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard his spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil” (Jeremiah 13:23).
– We are described as “slaves to sin” (Romans 6:17),
– “Dead in our trespasses…[and]…children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:1).
– While we are still in the flesh our mind “does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Romans 8:7)
John Piper writes that this is “…not a bondage that keeps us from doing what we really want to do – namely, submit to God. Rather it is a bondage created by the strength of how much we really don’t want to submit to God. Our good will is not imprisoned from the outside; our rebellious will IS the prison from the inside. Our bondage is the overwhelming force of our heart’s preference for self-exaltation over submission to God.”4
Similarly, Martin Luther writes “Man…does not do evil against his will, under pressure, as though he were taken by the scruff of the neck and dragged into it, like a thief… being dragged off against his will to punishment; but he does it spontaneously and voluntarily. And this willingness or volition is something which he cannot in his own strength eliminate, restrain, or alter.”5
Picture my best impression of a tele-marketer saying, “but wait! There’s more!” Because of this condition, the Bible also teaches that we deserve God’s wrath (Romans 1:18, 6:23) (Nahum 1:2-6). God is perfect and just; and therefore, it is necessary to his nature to punish all sin.
So, to recap, we are sinful and corrupted to the point of not only being unable, but also unwilling to turn from our sinfulness. AND because of this, we are deserving of God’s eternal punishment.
I said this was a humbling doctrine, didn’t I?
Some much-needed good news
Thankfully, Christ became the perfect sacrifice in order to satisfy God’s judgment for our sins. God takes our sin and attributes it to Christ and takes Christ’s righteousness and attributes it to us (2 Corinthians 5:21). We refer to this as imputation. In order to receive this ‘double transaction’ we must respond to God’s call through Faith (in Christ’s redeeming work on the cross) and Repentance of our sins (Romans 10:9) (John 3:16).
Now we know that we are saved through faith in Christ and repentance from our sins, but what does the Bible say about how we acquire this? How are totally depraved, totally incapable sinners able to achieve this saving faith?
In Ephesians 2:4-10 Paul writes, “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
Notice how active God is portrayed in this passage. Paul says that God “made us alive”, “raised us up”, “seated us in the heavenly realms”, and that we are God’s “handiwork”, that he “created us in Christ Jesus” and that he “prepared [our good works] in advance for us to do.” In contrast, Paul says that we “were dead”, that our faith is “not from yourselves”, that we have not been saved “by works – so that no one can boast”.
Paul tells us that even our faith is “the gift from God”. Hebrews 12:2 similarly refers to Jesus as “the author and finisher of our faith”.
Earlier in Ephesians 1:4-6,11-12 we read “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will – to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves…In him we also were chosen having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.”
Paul makes some very important remarks here. We see that God “chose us” and that he did so “before the creation of the world”. Before we were born, before we had “done anything good or bad” (Romans 9:11), God secured our salvation for us in Christ by predestining us for “adoption to sonship”. Why did he do this? We read that God predestined us not because of anything good in us but “in accordance with his pleasure and will…which he has freely given us” and that he did this ultimately “to the praise of his glorious grace”.
So not only did God make our salvation possible through Christ’s death on the cross, he also achieved our salvation for us by decisively causing our faith in Christ’s atonement. We see that God did this according to his will before the creation of the world, before we had “done anything good or bad – in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls” (Romans 9:11-12). We owe God all the praise and glory for our salvation because we brought nothing but our own sin and depravity into the equation. As Jonathan Edwards put it, “you contribute nothing to your salvation except the sin that made it necessary.”
Driving this point home, C.H. Spurgeon quotes Martin Luther in his sermon, “Free Will, A Slave” as he preaches; “I will go as far as Martin Luther, in that strong assertion of his, where he says, ‘If any man doth ascribe aught of salvation, even the very least, to the free-will of man, he knoweth nothing of grace, and he hath not learnt Jesus Christ aright.’ It may seem a harsh sentiment; but he who in his soul believes that man does of his own free-will turn to God, cannot have been taught of God, for that is one of the first principles taught us when God begins with us, that we have neither will nor power, but that he gives both; that he is ‘Alpha and Omega’ in the salvation of men.”7
A springboard for love and patience
So, now that we’ve established these important truths, what is our response from here? I’ll offer two applications I think these doctrines should draw out of us.
First, our response should be to dedicate our lives to praising God and bringing Him glory. Humbled by our sin and “in view of God’s mercy… offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship.” (Romans 12:1)
Secondly, have patience with others. Let us not slip into the bad habits of judging others simply because they have embraced less of God’s grace than us. In a time when the world seems so impatient and ungracious toward government, neighbours, and those with opposing views, may we not forget our own helplessness to do good apart from God.
Let a daily meditation on our total depravity apart from God’s grace be the springboard by which we show love and patience to our neighbour.
As Martin Luther once said “Resolved: that every man should live to the glory of God. Resolved second: that whether others do or not, I will.”
1 Sproul, RC. Are We Together? – A protestant analyzes Roman Catholicism. Reformation Trust Publishing 2012. p.28
2 see also, (Psalm 58:3) (Genesis 8:21)
3 Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology – An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Zondervan 1994. p.497
4 Piper, John. Providence. Crossway 2020. p.526
5 Luther, Martin. The Bondage of the Will. Revell 1957 p.102
6 Spurgeon, C.H. Free Will, A Slave. 1855
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