Book: The Five Points of Calvinism

Chapter 1 - Total Depravity


The doctrine of Total Depravity, with which this chapter has to do, is one of the "Five Points of Calvinism." It is not out of place, therefore, briefly to discuss the history of these five points.

Historically, the occasion for them is to be found in the Arminian controversy of the 16th and 17th centuries. At that time a certain man by the name of Jacob Arminius began to teach, in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands, doctrines contrary to the Reformed faith and to Scripture. In the early part of the 17th century, 1610 to be exact, his followers, known as the party of the Remonstrants, drew up five statements of doctrine in which they set forth their own views. They submitted these statements for the consideration of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands in the hope that these statements would be adopted and approved.

It was not until the Autumn of 1618 that a General Synod of the Reformed Churches was called to consider these statements of the Arminians. At this Synod were present, not only delegates from the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, but delegates from all the Reformed Churches on the continent of Europe After careful consideration, these five points of doctrine presented by the Arminians were found to be contrary to Scripture and were rejected. But as an answer to these statements, our fathers, at the Great Synod of Dordrecht, set forth five doctrines which they considered to be the Scriptural and Confessional answer to the position of the Arminians. These doctrines have been put into the five Canons of Dordt and have become known as the five points of Calvinism.

The very fact, however, that these doctrines were called the five points of Calvinism proves that our fathers at Dordrecht did not consider these doctrines to be original with them. They were not, at that Synod, making any claims to developing doctrine. They consistently maintained the position that the Arminians had set forth doctrines which were contrary to the historic faith. And they, in answer to these Arminians, simply reiterated what had been the position of the Reformed Churches since the time of the Calvin Reformation.

In fact, our fathers at Dordrecht knew well that these truths set forth in the Canons could not only be traced back to the Calvin Reformation; they could be traced back to the theology of Saint Augustine who lived almost a millennium before Calvin did his work in Geneva. For it was Augustine who had originally defined these truths. Calvin himself, again and again, pays tribute to the work of Augustine and points out that what he is saying has been said before him by the Bishop of Hippo. The Synod of Dordrecht was conscious of this.

This is worthy of note because we ought to understand that the truth of total depravity, with which this speech has to do, is not a novel doctrine. It has a long and illustrious history. It has been the confession of the church since the Fifth Century after Christ. The fathers at Dordrecht, after they had formulated these truths, made a note of this in the conclusion of the Canons where this statement appears:

This doctrine the Synod judges to be drawn from the Word of God, and to be agreeable to the Confessions of the Reformed Churches.

Now all this means that the truth of total depravity which has been confessed for a long time in the church of Jesus Christ has been part of the confession of the church because the church has always believed that this truth is founded upon the Word of God. This bears special emphasis. So often it happens that those who have serious qualifications about the truth of total depravity make these qualifications, not on the basis of the Word of God but on the basis of personal observation. They look about them at their fellow men and they notice in their observations that they find apparently a great deal of good which men succeed in accomplishing apart from the power of sovereign grace. And on the basis of these observations, they come to certain conclusions which, in effect, deny the truth of total depravity.

But this is incorrect. It must be emphasized that this truth must not be formulated on the basis of our own personal observations. Rather this truth must be set forth as Scripture itself sets it forth. In other words, we must bow before the sovereign infallible authority of Scripture. We must listen to God's sentence which He pronounces upon men and upon us. We must listen to what God has to say concerning our depravity. And only when we listen to what God has to say, shall we discover the truth concerning mankind in general and ourselves in particular.

There are three subjects which we must notice in our consideration of Total Depravity:

I. What Is Depravity?

II What Is Meant by Total Depravity?

III. What Is The Importance Of This Doctrine?


I. What Is Depravity?

Before we enter into a discussion of the meaning of depravity as it is set forth in Scripture, it is important to survey briefly the history of this doctrine from the time of Augustine to the time of the Synod of Dordt. This history perhaps holds for us some surprises.

The occasion for Augustine's formulation of the truth of total depravity was the teaching of a certain Pelagius who appeared in Rome in the early part of the Fifth Century. He began to teach views which were totally at variance with Scripture. He taught that every child which is born into the world is born good, without any sin. In fact he insisted that every child was as good as Adam when he came forth from the hands of his Creator and before he ate of the forbidden tree. If you would ask Pelagius: "What is the explanation then for the fact that there is sin in the world?" he would answer: "That is to be determined by the choice which man is able to make either for good or for bad." His nature, Pelagius said, is inclined to the good. In fact there have been in the history of the world men who have lived their entire lives without sinning at all. But some people sin. And they sin because of the fact that they pick up from their fellow men bad habits. Sin therefore, in the view of Pelagius, is a habit. And as is true of any habit, the more a particular sin is committed, the stronger also the habit becomes. The more a man is guilty of one particular type of sin, the more deeply this habit becomes rooted in his nature. Nevertheless, sin always remains nothing more than a habit. And inasmuch as sin is only a habit, the solution to the problem of sin lies in the breaking of the habit. Nothing else. There is no need, Pelagius insisted, for salvation. There is no need for grace; much less for sovereign grace. All that a man has to do if he wants to break the habit of sin is have a firm enough resolve. By a choice of his own will he will presently succeed.

Augustine raised a long and loud protest against these anti-Scriptural views. Augustine himself knew better. And he knew better, on the one hand, because he had in his own life experienced something quite different. In his early life Augustine was very evil, even immoral. He had committed many grievous sins. He had learned from his own personal experience that sin was more than a mere habit. It was a vicious, destructive, and powerful force in man's very nature. And he had learned too, by the grace and mercy of God which he never ceased to extol, that the only possibility of deliverance from sin was through the power of sovereign grace.

And so, on the other hand, he found these truths set forth in Scripture. He insisted that while indeed Adam was created by God in a state of perfect righteousness, nevertheless the fall brought such consequences upon Adam and upon his posterity that man became totally incapable of doing any good at all - of any kind. Augustine was so insistent on this point that he included in his condemnation the apparent good deeds of heathen men - of heathen philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Cicero. He claimed that these deeds were not good in any sense of the word; that they were a perversion and corruption of the good; that the only power of doing good was to be found in the power of sovereign grace.

Now the views of Augustine did not prevail in the church of his time, except among a few. But there arose instead in the church a view which became known as Semi-pelagianism. The men who held these views did not want to go to the ridiculous and absurd extremes of Pelagius himself. And yet, at the same time, they did not want the system of Augustine either. They attempted a compromise. And as is true of all compromises, they only invented a new heresy. They taught that it is indeed true that a man who is born into the world is not good. He does not stand in the state in which Adam stood in Paradise before the fall. But while they insisted on that, they nevertheless also insisted on the fact that man was not totally depraved. They said he was sick. And indeed, while the kind of sickness which he had was a fatal sickness, so that if this sickness was not cured, presently it would result in death, nevertheless, in this period of sickness man was capable of accomplishing a great deal of good. Particularly, he was capable, by an exercise of his own will, to summon to his aid the Great Physician to come with the balm of healing grace to save him from his fatal disease. God on His part, said the Semi-pelagians, has prepared salvation for all men. He has prepared the cure for this malady which afflicts mankind. And God is also prepared to give this healing balm to all men. In fact, God even goes one step farther than this, and offers this balm to all men to be accepted or rejected by them. But beyond that, the Semi-pelagians insisted, God will not go. That healing balm will ultimately be applied to man to cure his malady if man himself wants it. The whole matter of his cure therefore, of his salvation, turns upon the choice of his own will.

If this position of the Semi-pelagians sounds somewhat familiar to you and appears to you to be characteristic of much of modern day preaching, be assured of the fact that it is indeed an ancient heresy.

This whole system of Semi-pelagianism became the foundation for the doctrine of Roman Catholic work-righteousness. The whole imposing structure of Romish work-righteousness was founded foursquare upon this modification of Pelagianism.

It was not until the time of the Protestant Reformation that the truths which Augustine set forth were once more truths publicly proclaimed in the Church. Martin Luther began this. In opposition to Roman Catholic work-righteousness he saw that the whole structure of Semi-pelagianism had to be torn away and that the firm foundation of total depravity had to be set forth once more. And he insisted that so complete is that total depravity that even the will of man itself is completely enslaved by sin. He wrote a book about it. It is available today. It is called "The Bondage of the Will."

But it was John Calvin who set this truth forth in connection with all the truth of the Word of God and formulated this truth as it was expressed at the time of the Synod of Dordrecht. It is not necessary to go into detail regarding the teaching of Calvin. Anyone who is at all acquainted with Calvin's writings (especially in his "Institutes") knows that this truth of total depravity is taught or presupposed on almost every page. One quotation will suffice for our purpose. In it he demonstrates his dependence upon Augustine. In discussing Augustine's use of the term "concupiscence" he writes:

...our nature is not only destitute of all good, but is so fertile in all evils that it cannot remain inactive. Those who have called it concupiscence have used an expression not improper, if it were only added, which is far from being conceded by most persons, that everything in man, the understanding and will, the soul and body, is polluted and engrossed by this concupiscence; or, to express it more briefly, that man is of himself nothing else but concupiscence. (Institutes, Vol. I, Bk. II, Chap. 1, Para. 8; Allen translation.)

It was this truth which Calvin so sharply set forth as he paid his tribute to Augustine. It was this truth formulated by our fathers at the synod held in Dordrecht.

What then is meant by depravity? What did our fathers mean? What does Scripture teach?

In the first place, depravity has to do, of course, with sin. This seems obvious; yet it is only to the extent that we emphasize the reality and true character of sin that we shall also be able to maintain the truth of total depravity.

Historically and today, those who deny the truth of total depravity are also those who soften the harsh realities of sin. This is why, for example, sin is not taken seriously any more today. Pelagius considered it only a habit. The Semi-pelagians considered it only a sickness. Today also it is easily shrugged off, lightly considered. The horror of sin as it is defined in Scripture is denied. On the far extremes of the ecclesiastical world are the liberal theologians who teach that sin is only a social affliction or a mental deficiency. The cure for sin is to be found then in social rehabilitation, in social do-goodism, in social reform, in outward character reformation. This is the cure for sin because sin is only a remnant of our animal ancestry which we have kept through the upward climb of evoluntionary processes.

But closer to home, to the extent that sin is considered to be only a habit or an illness, the horrible character of sin has been denied and the truth of total depravity has proved impossible to maintain.

Scripture gives us quite a different opinion of sin. Scripture emphatically informs us that sin is always committed in relationship to God. That is fundamental. God is the holy, sovereign Lord of heaven and earth. He is infinitely perfect. His holiness is so great and the glory of the brightness of His perfections so brilliant that before Him the angels cover their faces and sing all the day long: "Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty." It is against Him that all sin is committed. This must never be forgotten. Sin is a contradiction of His holiness. It is a rebellion against Him Who is the Lord of heaven and earth. Every sin, no matter how minor, no matter how insignificant, is always committed in relation to God. God created man and set him in Paradise. And the sole purpose of God's creating man was in order that man, who stood at the crown of God's creation, could glorify his Maker. There was not any other purpose why God set man in Paradise than that. With all his life, with all that he was, with all the creation over which he was placed, he had no other calling than to set forth the praise and the glory of God Who alone is worthy of all praise and glory.

Adam's sin of eating of the forbidden tree therefore, was a sin which he committed against God. It was the sin of disobedience against the express command of God. And inasmuch as it was a sin of disobedience against God, it was a deliberate, conscious, willful determination to cease to perform the purpose for which Adam was created. He wanted nothing to do with God and with His glory any more. He chose to cast his lot with Satan who tempted him. He chose to represent Satan; to aid Satan in Satan's nefarious scheme to steal this world from its Creator. He deliberately turned his back on the God of heaven and earth with that one act of disobedience. That made his sin so horrible. It was committed against God.

To this day, in all the history of this sorry world, there has never been a sin of a different kind. This we must understand. It will never do to talk of sin in terms of social relations, social maladjustment. Sin is against the God of heaven and earth. It is for that reason that the punishment for sin is so very great.

The punishment therefore is that God killed Adam. You can understand why this was necessary. God had formed Adam in order that Adam might represent God's cause in the world, that he might glorify his Maker. He did not have any other purpose for existence than that. He refused to do that. He chose to glorify the devil. That was Adam's desire. But because of this, there was no place for him any more in God's world. So God killed Adam. "The day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die."

What does that mean, that God killed Adam? He didn't drop dead at the foot of the tree, as we well know. It means, in the first place, that God poured out upon Adam the fury of His wrath and hatred. God hated Adam. It couldn't be any different from this if God was to maintain His own holiness as He always does and must do for His own name's sake. He could not any longer love anyone who sinned and was not holy as He was. You understand that this is now apart from Christ. We know that in Christ Adam was saved. But as far as this death which came upon Adam is concerned, God poured out upon Adam His wrath. It was in the nature of God Himself to do so. Adam was alienated from God. As he was driven out of the garden of Eden, so he was driven from God's face. Where once his life was filled with the sunshine of God's favor, it now was filled with the lowering clouds of God's wrath. Where once he knew peace and joy and happiness and life in fellowship with his Maker, now all that he knew was unrest, alienation, wrath, trouble, affliction, distress, and death.

In the second place. that God killed Adam means that God made Adam totally depraved. That is what death is. Death and total depravity are synonymous. How does the apostle Paul express it in Ephesians 2:1? "But you hath he quickened who were dead in trespasses and sins." The punishment therefore, for Adam's awful transgression was that God brought upon Adam the horror of total depravity. He made him a slave of sin with the whole of his being and nature. That was the punishment for sin. And it is in terms of the punishment for sin that we must consider the truth of total depravity. Because sin is so terrible, it deserves such terrible punishment. That punishment is the total depravity of man's nature. All men therefore are totally depraved.

How is it possible that all men are totally depraved? We must briefly mention two reasons.

In the first place, all men are in Adam responsible for the sin which Adam committed. Because Adam was the head of the whole human race this is true. This is true even as Christ is the Head of His elect people. The apostle Paul expresses that in these words: "For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." I Corinthians 15:22. Adam was the head of all men, and all men are therefore responsible with Adam for Adam's transgression.

In the second place, Adam was the father of the whole human race so that from Adam proceeded a human race as corrupt and depraved as he was. It was David who plaintively sang long ago in Psalm 51:5: "Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me."

And so depravity has come upon all men.


II. What Is Meant by Total Depravity?

This depravity, Scripture and our Confessions teach us, is total.

Before we enter into a more detailed description of that, I must call your attention to some distinctions that have been made and have become increasingly popular. These distinctions are evidently intended to soften the truth of total depravity. There is, e.g., the distinction which is sometimes made between total depravity and absolute depravity. This distinction is intended to mean that while man is totally depraved, he is not absolutely depraved. The following quotation will serve to elucidate what is meant by this distinction. (It is taken from The Banner and is found in an article which is explaining the Canons of Dordt, especially Canons III & IV, Article 4.)

The result of the fall is total depravity or corruption. By this is meant that every part of man is rendered corrupt. The Canons say that man "became involved in blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity, perverseness of judgment; became wicked, rebellious, obdurate in heart and will and impure in his affection." There was no part of his nature that was not affected by sin. The word "total" must not be taken in the absolute sense as though man is completely depraved. Man is not as bad as he can be. Article 4, which we hope to consider more fully later in this series, speaks of "glimmerings of natural light which remain in man since the fall." God does restrain the working of sin in the life of man on earth. And sinful man still has a sense of right and wrong. His corruption is total in the sense that there is no part of his being that is pure and holy; and the good he does is done for God and for His glory.

In this quotation the distinction is made between total depravity and absolute depravity. Total depravity means that man is depraved in every part of his being. But while he is depraved in every part of his being, at the same time there remain in every part of his being remnants of good. Absolute depravity means that every part of his being is wholly bad. This distinction therefore is intended precisely to leave room for some good which man is able to perform. And this good is particularly the good of accepting with his will the offer of the gospel. That is precisely what our Canons do not mean by total depravity.

Another distinction which is oftentimes made is a distinction between the inward motive of the heart and the outward deed. There are some who maintain that, while indeed man is, as far as his nature is concerned, depraved, nevertheless, as far as his outward deeds are concerned, he is still capable of a considerable amount of good. He can perform works that are externally in harmony with the law of God. He doesn't live a totally adulterous life. He doesn't go around shooting his fellow man with a gun - every man he meets on the street. He is capable of conforming his life and conduct in an external manner to the law of God and of performing a great deal of good even though within he is corrupt.

That too is something which our fathers did not mean. They spoke of total depravity. And indeed they meant that man is just as bad as he can be. And this is what Scripture teaches.

There is another distinction which is made between what is called spiritual good and natural good. The quotation above also suggests this distinction. By spiritual good is meant good which is a possible basis for salvation. It is a tentative step in the direction of heaven. These insist that, while man is indeed incapable of such spiritual good, nevertheless he is definitely capable of natural good. By natural good is meant something very much like external goodness which is an external conformity to the law of God. Those who maintain this will point to the world in which we live where much of this natural goodness is to be found.

All of these distinctions, in one way or another, are intended to soften the hardness of the doctrine of total depravity.

When Calvin and the fathers of Dordt insisted that depravity was total, they knew what words mean. And they knew that "total" means precisely that. They intended that the expression "total depravity" be a description of what Scripture calls "death". The sinner is dead; spiritually dead. He comes into this world from his mother a spiritual still-born. He is not sick. He is not afflicted with a malady or a disease no matter how fatal. He is dead. And this is the emphatic teaching of Scripture. Always the Scriptures insist that the sinner is dead.

What does this mean?

This means that his nature is so thoroughly corrupted by sin that it is incapable of producing anything good. There is nothing which the sinner can do which is pleasing in the sight of God. His heart is dead. Does not Solomon say, "Out of the heart are all the issues of life?" Prov.4:23. Yet the heart, the source of all man's life, is dead. Man's mind is dead. It is so darkened by sin that man cannot with his mind know any spiritual good. He can, of course, in a formal sense understand the truth. When a wicked man reads the Scriptures, he can understand what words mean. He can understand the thoughts in these words. This is not the point. But his mind is so thoroughly darkened that every time he sees the truth concerning God he hates it and turns against it. He rebels against its clear teaching. He pushes it away from him. So true is this that Jesus tells Nicodemus (John 3:3): "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." His mind is so filled with the darkness of the lie that there is no room for the truth in it.

The same is true of man's will. The bondage of the will describes man's state precisely. His will is bound - bound by sin. Man cannot even will the good. The sinner does not, but also cannot will the good. This is his nature. He is dead. Can a dead man think? Can a dead man will? Can a dead man give evidence of life? The spiritually dead man is incapable of any spiritual good.

This is what our Canons express in III & IV, Article 1:

Man was originally formed after the Image of God. His understanding was adorned with a true and saving knowledge of his Creator, and of spiritual things; his heart and will were upright; all his affections pure; and the whole man was holy; but revolting from God by the instigation of the devil, and abusing the freedom of his own will, he forfeited these excellent gifts; and on the contrary entailed on himself blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity and perverseness of judgment, became wicked, rebellious, and obdurate in heart and will, and impure in his affections.

I cannot think of a worse description of man than that. You object perhaps, and say: "Yes, but the Canons also speak of glimmerings of natural light." This is true. They speak of glimmerings of natural light whereby man retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the differences between good and evil. These glimmerings give man some regard for virtue, for good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment.

But two points must be made in this connection.

In the first place, when God brought death upon man as the punishment for sin, God did not make man a devil. God did not make man an animal either. Man remained man. And this is what our Canons mean. He was totally depraved; but he was emphatically a totally depraved man. It is sometimes objected that if God had not preserved some remnants of good in man, man would have become a demon or a beast. This is absurd. Man would not have become a demon or a beast if some elements of goodness were not preserved in him. He was created a man. As a man God punishes him. As a man God drives him out of His world. As a man God puts him in hell. But he remains a man. This is what the Canons mean.

In the second place, the Canons explain themselves what these glimmerings of natural light are; and the Canons in the same article (III & IV, 4) show clearly that they do not mean that man is still good.

But so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God, and to true conversion, that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. Nay further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and holds it in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God.

This is the sorry picture of man which our Canons make as they defend the truth of total depravity. And the point is then that if man's nature is dead, one cannot expect that out of that dead nature there will proceed good works. How is this possible? Can a dead man do good? natural good? external good? good by whatever name it is called? Can a rotten tree bring forth good fruit? Can an impure and foul fountain bring forth sweet water? Can a dead corpse bring forth life? If man's nature is depraved, not simply in all of its parts, but in such a way that each part is thoroughly corrupt, then there is no good at all which man can perform in any sense of the word which is pleasing in the sight of God, He cannot do natural good. He cannot do spiritual good. He cannot do civil good. He cannot conform his nature to the law of God. He cannot will his salvation. He is bound hopelessly in the shackles of sin.

Nor must some good he found among the heathen. It is often pictured in our day as if the heathen earnestly crave to be delivered from their idols; earnestly long to escape from the shackles of dark heathendom. And, so it is told us, they would indeed serve the true God if only they knew Who He was. They wait in eager anticipation for someone to tell them about the true God, about Christ, because all their yearnings are in the direction of the true religion. And so it is that when the gospel is preached, this gospel brings to them words which they have long desired to hear; and which now they readily embrace.

But all this can never be. We must not soften the harsh sentence of Scripture. Man is totally depraved. In him is to be found no good thing.

I suppose there are some who would object to all this and insist: "Yes, but when I go out and observe the conduct of my fellow man, I observe something quite contrary to what you say. I see in the world a great deal of love--love between man and wife; love between parents and children; love of man for man. There is a great deal of compassion, philanthropy, desire to help one another in the world of the wicked. There are marvelous accomplishments, which stagger the imagination, on the frontiers of science, technology, and industry. There are wonders of healing performed in medicine. What mighty deeds man can perform! What great things he is capable of! Are not you being unduly harsh? Is not your sentence unjust? Are not you closing your eyes to obvious realities which surround you? Go into the world and you will find that your judgment of man is too severe."

What must we say of this?

There are three points which need to be made.

In the first place, we must be reminded of what was said in the very introduction. We are not formulating the truth of total depravity on the basis of observation. If we do, we shall fail. We must not pay attention to the sentence of man pronounced upon man. We must rather listen to the Word of God -- God's sentence upon man. God Who knows the heart. We have one calling, and that is to bow before the Word of God. And God says that man is dead.

In the second place, we must say something about these apparent good deeds.

That problem, strikingly enough, arose already at the time of Augustine. There were those who objected to Augustine's doctrine on the same ground. But Augustine made this very pointed comment: the apparent good which men do is the result of the fact that, in their lives, one kind of lust represses and restrains another kind. He used the example of a man whose whole life is dominated by the lust for money. Such a man is so completely absorbed in acquiring to himself an abundance of material things that this lust is dominant, all-encompassing in his life. It is a completely driving force which banishes all other lusts. In the pursuit of gain, he foregoes all other pleasures. He does not want to squander his money in gluttony, drunkenness, riotous living. He eats sparingly and drinks in moderation. He does not waste his precious hoard of silver and gold in an adulterous life. He thinks this foolish, for he seeks money for its own sake. This is the explanation for the apparent good which men do. One lust restrains another. This was Augustine's answer. And this is true.

Can you call these things the man does "good"? Can you call it good when a man foregoes the pleasures of adultery in order to accumulate for himself greater riches of gold? Is this good in the sight of God? Of course not. The same is true of the so-called apparent philanthropy of men and their many works of mercy. The one driving force in man's life is his lust for honor and recognition. Sin is pride. And man is always attempting to exalt himself before the eyes of his fellow man. In this lustful, dominating drive for honor and fame he is willing to spread his largesse abroad. He is willing to share his riches with his fellow men in order that they may praise him and he may hear, ringing in his ears, the acclaim of those with whom he lives. Is this good? How can it be?

In the broader sense of the word, this is true of the entire history of this sorry world. When God created Adam in Paradise, God set Adam in the midst of this beautiful world only that Adam might love his God with all his heart and mind and soul and strength. He was given the world to glorify his Maker. This was the sole reason for his existence. But Adam refused and bent his ear to the devil. He listened to the devil's whisperings: "You shall be as God, knowing good and evil." Adam took the side of the devil. But it was the devil's purpose -- his unwavering purpose to drive God from His throne and steal this world from God. He enlisted the aid of man to accomplish this. Sin means therefore (from this point of view), that man who stands on the side of the devil, is driven in all that he does to pursue the evil goal of making this world the kingdom of Satan. This determines everything. This is what sin is all about. It is hatred of God. It is rebellion against the Most High. And it is, therefore, a desperate, undying attempt on the part of man to seize this world in which he has been placed and make it his own; to drive God out of His world; to depose Christ from His throne; to make this universe subservient to the cause of sin. And, in order to accomplish that goal, he is willing to bend every effort at his disposal. He is willing to use every means available. And if he must, in the pursuit of this goal, forego for a little while certain other pleasures in order to accomplish this, he is willing to do it. He knows then that if government is not instituted to make laws and enforce them, anarchy will prevail. And anarchy will prevent him from attaining his goals. And so he not only makes laws, but also conforms his life to them. That is, he will do this as long as is necessary to drive God out of His world. Just as soon as he believes he can safely escape the fury of God's wrath, the consequences of sin, he will do as he pleases. He will sit back in his pride and say: "The world is mine. God is gone. I can do as I please -- sin all I want. There is no need any more of bearing sin's consequences. God is banished from His throne." Everything man does, therefore, (all this apparent good) is determined by this overriding desire. He may stand on the frontiers of space. He may make marvelous inventions in the fields of science. But it is because he is engaged in a desperate struggle to wrench this world from the hands of the Creator. He will not rest until that goal is reached. This is the deepest principle of his life. This is why all the human race's sin culminates at last in that man of sin, the Son of Perdition, Antichrist. In Antichrist he thinks he has attained his goal.

Indeed man's depravity is total.


III. What Is The Importance Of This Doctrine?

There are two remarks which we must make by way of conclusion.

In the first place, the importance of this doctrine is theological.

This means two things.

First of all, the truth of total depravity is not an isolated doctrine. It is closely connected to and interwoven with the other four points of Calvinism. And because this is true, this doctrine is closely connected with the whole truth of Scripture. It is with good reason that our beautiful Heidelberg Catechism begins its entire discussion of the truth with the significant statement of total depravity:

Are we then so corrupt that we are wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all wickedness?
Indeed we are; except we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.

It is on this foundation that the Catechism erects the whole structure of the truth. The truth of total depravity is part of the whole truth of Scripture. If this truth is denied, softened, vitiated in any respect, it becomes impossible to preserve any of the truth of God's Word. Historically this has proved true. And this lies in the nature of the case. And so this is true also of the five points of Calvinism. A denial of total depravity leads to a denial of sovereign grace. This in turn leads to a denial of limited atonement and unconditional election. And the preservation of the saints necessarily falls by the wayside. This cannot be demonstrated in detail in this chapter. This shall be amply made clear in the chapters to follow. But it ought to be clear that if man is not totally depraved, then grace cannot possibly be sovereign. To the extent that he is not totally depraved, he is capable of doing good. And to that extent he is capable of participating in the work of salvation. And to that extent grace is not sovereign at all. The two truths stand or fall together. And so it is with the whole of the truth.

Secondly, all this means (and this is most serious) that the truth of total depravity is the only truth which preserves intact the glory of God. To the extent that good is ascribed to man, glory is taken away from the only adorable God. To the extent that man is said to be other than the awful sentence of Scripture. God is no more the glorious sovereign and holy God of heaven and earth.

And this brings us to the last point. This truth is also important as far as the life of the child of God is concerned.

The doctrine of total depravity is not cold and abstract dogma. It is the living confession of the people of God. But even that confession is not something which they make of themselves. It is the fruit of grace. For characteristic of the sinner is that he exalts himself in pride, haughtiness and arrogance. In his frightening conceit he refuses to admit his total depravity and boasts of his own goodness before the face of the Most High. But when the shining light of God's holiness and the sovereign power of grace penetrates into the heart of God's elect child, and he sees himself standing exposed before the face of Him Who searches the hearts, then he hears thundering in his ears the awful sentence of Scripture. He sees himself as worthless, corrupt, depraved, incapable of doing any good. And the words of the saints of all ages ring in his own heart: "Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me." "God be merciful to me, a sinner." "Oh, wretched man that I am. Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?"

This is the living confession of the child of God. And when that confession grips his soul and he sees himself as he truly is, as God's Word describes him, then, with tear-filled eyes, he can also see the cross. Only then. For in the consciousness of sin he can see the wonder, the power of the cross; the mercy and grace revealed there; the infinite splendor and love of God manifested in that blood-spattered tree. And seeing this, he sees the wonder of sovereign grace; and from his heart arises a doxology of praise and glory to God - the God of his salvation.

Last modified on 29 March 2013

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