Total Depravity: The Third Main Point of Doctrine
When we think of the Canons of Dort and their five main points of doctrine, we usually organize our thoughts according to the sequence of letters in the acronym "TULIP." We begin, accordingly, with the letter "T" which stands for "total depravity."
Though this is not the order in which the authors of the Canons of Dort presented their confession of the Biblical teaching concerning salvation by grace alone, the five main points of doctrine followed the order of the five points of the Remonstrance or Arminian position — there is an important sense in which this point is first. The Biblical teaching concerning man's condition as a sinner, unable and incompetent to save himself, is the setting within which the Biblical teaching of salvation by God's grace alone flourishes. This point of doctrine illustrates: the close connection and interrelationship of each of the five points set forth in the Canons. Only God's unconditional election and saving work in Christ on behalf of His people answer to the needs of a totally depraved sinner. But for the grace of God toward us in Christ, our situation would be utterly hopeless.
It is to this that the third main point of doctrine, total depravity, speaks. Here the Canons of Dort set forth a Biblical view of man in his sin before the face of God. And they do so in service of the one great theme — God's grace alone answers to our plight.
The Position of the Canons
When you read the Canons of Dort, you will immediately notice that the third and fourth main points of doctrine are treated together (the fourth main point is the doctrine of "irresistible grace").
This is so for an obvious reason. How you understand man's condition has everything to do with the way you understand God's saving work. If sinful man is simply wounded or sick spiritually, but not wholly dead, he will not require the kind of redemption geared to the circumstance of one altogether dead. It does not take the same kind of work to resuscitate someone whose pulse is weak and whose breath is short, as it does to grant new life to a dead corpse. Because of the close relationship then, between these two points of doctrine, the one dealing with man's sinful condition and the other with the Spirit's saving work, we will not be able to avoid touching upon the fourth main point of doctrine as we proceed.1
The position of the Canons on the plight of sinful man is starkly portrayed in the first five articles of this section of the confession.
In the first article, a sharp contrast is drawn between man's original state of integrity as he was created by God, and his sinful state after the fall.
Man was originally created in the image of God and was furnished in his mind with a true and salutary knowledge of his Creator and things spiritual, in his will and heart with righteousness, and in all his emotions with purity; indeed, the whole man was holy. However, rebelling against God at the devil's instigation and by his own free will, he deprived himself of these outstanding gifts. Rather, in their place he brought upon himself blindness, terrible darkness, futility and distortion of judgment in his mind; perversity, defiance and hardness in his heart and will; and finally impurity in all his emotions. (Article 1)
Any consideration of the human predicament before God must be founded upon a clear understanding of this contrast. Though man was originally created good and perfect, bearing God's image and able to live in unbroken communion with his Creator, he has become through the fall into sin a rebel against God, unable and unwilling to live in that communion with his Creator for which he was first created.
In Articles 2 and 3 of this section of the Canons of Dort, the spread of this corruption of sin to the whole human race (Article 2) and the consequent total inability of the sinner to save himself (Article 3) are affirmed. All of the children of Adam bear a "family likeness," in the sense that "man brought forth children of the same nature as himself after the fall." With the single exception of Christ, who was born "of Adam" (Luke 3:38), yet without sin, all members of the fallen human race share in a common corruption or hereditary depravity. This corruption is not to be understood as having been spread by "imitation," as the Pelagians teach, but by "the propagation of his perverted nature."
This corruption renders sinful man incapable of saving himself. Because of the importance of this consequence of man's sinful condition, the language of the Canons requires careful consideration:
Therefore, all people are conceived in sin and are born children of wrath, unfit for any saving good, inclined to all evil, dead in their sins, and slaves to sin; without the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit they are neither willing nor able to return to God, to reform their distorted nature, or even to dispose themselves to such reform.2Article 3
The remainder of the Canons' statement of the depraved condition of sinful man stresses the inadequacy of any means or resource available to him by which he might partially contribute to, assist or cooperate with God's grace in his own salvation. Neither "the light of nature" (Article 4) nor the law of God (Article 5) is adequate to sinful man's need. With respect to the former, sinful man only distorts the truth and renders himself without excuse before God. With respect to the latter, sinful man only demonstrates the "magnitude of his sin" and increasingly convicts himself of his guilt before God. The natural man is incompetent to profit from whatever "light of nature" is available to him, or to obtain life through works done in obedience to the law.
In the history of the Reformed churches, there has been a great deal of debate about the Canons' position on total depravity. Most readers of the Canons have rightly observed that their teaching does not claim that sinful man is absolutely depraved, in the sense that his sinful nature expresses itself in the fullest and worst possible manner. The point of the Canons is to say that sinful man is pervasively depraved; no part of his nature remains uncorrupted or unaffected by sin, so that in all his affections and actions he is a slave to sin.
In connection with this emphasis upon the pervasiveness of man's depravity, the question has also been posed whether sinful man is capable of doing any "good," short of contributing to his own salvation. Appealing to Article 4 of the Canons, most Reformed theologians have maintained that the natural man is able to do some relative good in certain areas. In the language of the Canons,
There is, to be sure, a certain light of nature remaining in man after the fall, by virtue of which he retains some notions about God, natural things, and the difference between what is moral and immoral, and demonstrates a certain eagerness for virtue and for good outward behavior.
However, nothing of this enables the sinner to come to a knowledge of God and conversion to Him. Nor does it enable the sinner to do anything "good" in the strict sense, that is, as a fruit of true faith, to the glory of God, and in accordance with the standard of God's law.3
Thus, the argument of the Canons is that, though sinful man is not absolutely depraved, and though he may be capable of some limited, relative "good," he is in no condition to do any saving good.
The Scriptural Support for this Position
The confession of man's total depravity or inability to save himself is amply supported in the Scriptures. This is evident from the Scriptural descriptions of the sinner's spiritual deadness, blindness and enslavement to the dominion of sin. It is also evident from those Scriptural passages which teach that the sinner is lost, apart from the sovereign initiative and working of God by His Spirit in regeneration.
When the condition of the sinner is described in Scripture, this condition is often described as one of spiritual "death." Through the sin of Adam, all men have been born in sin and are by nature in a situation of spiritual death (Genesis 2:16, 17; Romans 5:12; Psalm 51:5). Only by means of a new beginning, a new creative work of the Holy Spirit, are sinners able to become God's children through adoption and enter the kingdom of heaven (John 3:5-7). One of the more striking affirmations of this is found in Ephesians 2:1-3, where the apostle Paul, describing the circumstance of all believers apart from God's grace in Christ, says:
And you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air...
Similarly, in Colossians 2:13 we read, "And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with [Christ)..."
Without the life-giving work of God's Spirit, the condition of sinful man, including those who are numbered among the people of God (compare the vision given the prophet Ezekiel of the people of God as a heap of dry bones, Ezekiel 37), is one of death.
Consistent with this condition of spiritual deadness, the Scriptures also describe the sinner as one who is spiritually blind and unable to hear the truth of God's Word. Not only is the "heart" of the sinner, out of which are the issues of life, corrupt and evil (compare Genesis 6:5; Genesis 8:21; Ecclesiastes 9:3; Jeremiah 17:9), but also his mind is by nature darkened and incapable of receiving the things of God (John 3:19). In Romans 8:7, 8, the apostle Paul writes that "the mind set on the flesh is hostile to God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God." In another passage, describing the natural man's blindness to the things of the Spirit, we are taught that "a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Corinthians 2:14). Apart from the illumination of the Spirit through the Word, sinners can only walk in the "futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding..." (Ephesians 4:17-19; compare Ephesians 5:8; Titus 1:15).
Furthermore, the Scriptures often portray the sinner as one who is no longer free to seek God, but a slave to sin. Confronting the unbelief of many who did not receive Him in faith, Jesus speaks in the Gospel of John of those who, as children of their father the devil, will to do their father's desire (John 8:44; compare 1 John 3:10). In 2 Timothy 2:25, 26, the predicament of impenitent sinners is compared to those who have been ensnared by the devil and "captured by him to do his will." Frequently, unbelieving sinners are compared to slaves, those who are not masters of their own destiny but witting or unwitting bondservants to sin (compare 1 John 5:19; John 8:34; Titus 3:3). In an extended comparison in Romans 6, the situation of the unbeliever is contrasted with that of the believer; the unbeliever is one who is a slave to sin and unrighteousness, whereas the believer is one who has been "freed from sin and enslaved to God" (Romans 6:22).4
Corresponding to these various metaphors, describing the condition of the sinner as one of spiritual death, blindness, and enslavement, the Biblical language employed to describe God's saving work underscores its sovereign graciousness and power. Only God through the Spirit can grant the "new birth" required for the sinner to see and enter the kingdom (John 3:5-7). Only God can take an otherwise dead sinner and make him live again (Romans 8:5-11; Ephesians 2:4-7). Only God can do a work such that we become a "new creation" in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 2:10). Only God has the means required to save totally depraved sinners (compare Job 14:4; Jeremiah 13:23; Matthew 7:16-18; Matthew 12:33; John 6:44). No more than a dead man could walk, no more than a blind man could see, no more than a slave could free himself — no more could a sinner, apart from God's saving recreation of him in Christ by the Spirit, save himself!
Misrepresenting the Position of the Remonstrants?
One objection often registered against the framers of the Canons of Dort is this: Did they misrepresent the position of the Remonstrants or the Arminians in this third main point of doctrine? Did the Remonstrants actually teach that sinful man is able to do some saving good or exercise some power of "free will" to choose to cooperate with the grace of God? Some have cited the statements of the Arminians on this third main point of doctrine, in order to maintain that, on this point at least, there was really no difference between the Reformed and the Arminian parties.
Though the Remonstrants or Arminians did present the Synod of Dort with some statements concerning the total depravity of the sinner that appear unobjectionable,5 their primary emphasis fell upon the capacity of the sinner, helped to be sure by the general or common grace of God, to resist or not resist the working of the Spirit through the gospel. According to the "Opinions" of the Remonstrants, it is most important to recognize that sinful man must predispose himself to receive and cooperate with the grace of God in order to be saved. Speaking of the former, the sinner's predisposition to receive God's grace, the Remonstrants declared that "to hear the Word of God, to be sorry for sins committed, to desire saving grace and the Spirit of renewal (none of which things man is able to do without grace) are not only not harmful and useless, but rather most useful and most necessary for the obtaining (emphasis mine) of faith and of the Spirit of renewal." 6Though acknowledging the necessity of some working of God's grace to enable this predisposition, the Arminians insisted that this was the sinner's contribution and help, without which the grace of God would be of no effect to save.
Furthermore, the Remonstrants insisted that the grace of God in the gospel is a general or common working of God which enables all who hear the gospel to believe or not believe, repent or not repent. Thus, the salvation of some sinners who believe and repent at the preaching of the gospel is ultimately based upon the sinners willingness or unwillingness to believe. The decisive step in the process of salvation, God having provided a sufficient grace to all men without distinction enabling this step to be taken, lies with the sinner. Whether a sinner is saved or not depends finally upon whether he wills to run and to do, not upon the sovereign-grace, initiative and provision of salvation by the Triune God.
But for The Grace of God
Lest anyone conclude that the difference between Reformed and Arminian on this point too subtle or inconsequential, it is necessary to remember what I said by way of introduction. Much depends upon our diagnosis of man's condition before God.
Because the Biblical teaching of salvation by grace alone answers to man's need, it can only flourish where this need is clearly and honestly acknowledged. Consequently, in this third main point of doctrine, total depravity, the whole matter of salvation by grace alone once again hangs in the balance. Rather than make this point in my own words, I would like to conclude with a fitting statement of James I. Packer. In this statement, Packer nicely shows how our understanding of God's saving work and the sinner's miserable condition are intimately joined:
For to Calvinism there is really only one point to be made in the field of soteriology [the doctrine of salvation —? cpv]: the point that God saves sinners. God — the Triune Jehovah, Father, Son and Spirit; three Persons working together in sovereign wisdom, power and love to achieve the salvation of a chosen people, the Father electing, the Son fulfilling the Father's will by redeeming, the Spirit executing the purpose of Father and Son by renewing. Saves — does everything, first to last, that is involved in bringing man from death in sin to life in glory; plans, achieves and communicates redemption, calls and keeps, justifies, sanctifies, glorifies. Sinners — men as God finds them, guilty, vile, helpless, powerless, unable to lift a finger to do God's will or better their spiritual lot.7