When I told a friend of mine that I was speaking on the subject of the depravity of man, he assured me that in addressing this topic I would have little difficulty in convincing my audience, especially if I “spoke from my heart.” One illustration from my past will prove the truth of my friend’s words.
I come from a family of school teachers and in fact, I have taught school for several years myself. It was with very little effort, therefore, that as a high school student I immediately recognized Miss Bellman as a novice. Now this innocent and naive young woman had been educated, I believe, in private, all-girl schools. I don’t know how anyone from such a sheltered past could have ended up facing a class with the likes of me in it. But there she was, on her maiden voyage, launching out into the uncharted waters of Irene S. Reed High School.
Years later, I had the opportunity of teaching for a summer in the state penitentiary near my home town. It was there that I taught side by side with some of my teachers from high school. Only then did I realize how I had devastated poor Miss Bellman. Every day these teachers had sought to build up her eroded self-confidence. And every day she had come to my class, like Daniel entering the lions’ den. One day her colleagues got to the heart of her problem—she simply had to get tough. And so that day she worked up all of the courage that remained and marched into the classroom. She gave a lecture that struck fear in the heart of everyone but me. I perceived that under her paper-thin veneer of courage was a heart of fear. When she finished her speech, and while everyone else was awestruck, I blurted out, “Thank you, Miss Bellman. Now get back to your cage and I’ll rattle your bars when I want you.” Needless to say, her heroic effort was shot down in flames.
It makes me sick to recall how cruel I was to that woman. The only justice in this is that I have had to face classes with students nearly as terrible as myself. If I could locate that woman (she left after that year), I would have to tell her how sorry I am for making her first year of teaching so miserable. But if my cruelty to Miss Bellman causes your stomach to tighten up, let me hasten to say that, whether by word or deed, many Christians treat God no better than I did Miss Bellman. We want God to stay up there in His heaven and leave us alone, unless, of course, we decide that we could use His help. Then, through prayer, we rattle the bars of heaven and expect God to come to us on the run.
One reason for our defective and diminished view of God is an overestimation of ourselves. Nothing is more humbling to man than to gain a fresh grasp of how we stand before a holy and omnipotent God. To a large extent the way we view humanity shapes our view of a wide variety of other matters. Because of this we must give careful attention to the subject of the helplessness of humanity.
The early church did not find it necessary to precisely define biblical doctrines until such time as doctrinal deviations arose. Doctrinal positions were thus more carefully defined as a refutation of specific and erroneous positions.1 In general the early church held that all of humanity are sinners at birth. This state of sinfulness originated with the sin of Adam. Man, it was believed, could only be saved through Christ, assisted by the work of the Holy Spirit. Infants, too, were lost sinners who needed regeneration.2
Early in the fifth century, Pelagius, a Briton, began to depart from the view of the early church. Pelagius was neither an infidel nor an immoral man. He was, in fact, devout and troubled by the laxity of those who professed faith in Christ, but who used man’s inability as an excuse for indifference.3 The starting point for Pelagius was the assumption that man could not be held responsible for obedience unless he were capable of obedience. In his mind obligation implied ability. Thus, if God commanded men to do good or refrain from evil, man must have been given the innate ability to do so. Man therefore, has the freedom to decide for good or evil, to accomplish it or avoid it.
At best Adam’s sin in the garden had no adverse effect upon his progeny. At worst it only set a bad example for humanity. Society, evil as it is, provides an environment which is not conducive to doing righteousness; it is still possible, only more difficult. Those born into the world as the offspring of Adam enter into life in the same state of innocence which Adam did. Like Adam they are free to obey God or to disobey. Men are constituted sinners only by an intelligent, willful, act of rebellion against God. Men are saved by reforming themselves and doing what is right. Redemption, as the Bible describes it, is therefore unnecessary. With the light of the gospel, a sinless life is only made easier.4 For this Pelagius was condemned by the council at Carthage in A.D. 412, and again, in A.D. 418, this decision was confirmed. In A.D. 431 the Eastern Church joined in censuring the Pelagians in the General Synod at Ephesus.5
Augustine, who was a contemporary of Pelagius, along with others, recognized Pelagianism as heresy and as a contradiction to the teachings of the Word of God. He crystalized a doctrinal position strongly antithetical to Pelagianism, stressing the sinfulness of man, the sovereignty of God and the necessity of grace and redemption through the work of Christ. Some who rejected Pelagianism also found Augustine’s position too much to swallow. The result was a doctrinal system known as Semi-Pelagianism founded by John Cassian, whose cause was also taken up by the presbyter-monk Vincentius of Lerinum and Faustus bishop of Rhegium. They attempted to formulate a mediating position between that of Pelagius on the one hand and Augustine on the other.
Semi-Pelagians believe that Adam’s sin did have a universal effect on all men resulting in a weakened state, not one of total inability to do good. Man is, therefore, “sick” but not “dead” in his sins. He cannot heal himself, but he is able to “call the doctor,” so to speak, to obtain healing. Fallen man can either accept the doctor’s advice or reject it. Man is thus born with an inclination to sin, but not a compulsion to do so. Man cannot be saved apart from the grace of God, according to the Semi-Pelagian. God’s grace, mediated through the sacrificial death of Christ, is usually, though not necessarily always (e.g. the apostle Paul’s conversion), initiated by man first seeking God. To the Semi-Pelagian salvation is something like power steering. As we apply pressure to the steering wheel of religious effort, divine assistance is added to our efforts and the desired end is obtained, but always at our control. It is this system of thought which today seems to have swept evangelical Christianity off its feet.
One would have to say that these two systems of thought dominate theology today. Humanistic religion, which has long ago forsaken sin and the need for personal redemption, sees man as fully capable of saving himself and his society. God (if indeed there is a God) created man with an inherent ability to do good or to reject evil. Man simply needs to be educated as to what is right, and society needs to be improved to provide many with the right environment for doing it. On the other hand, there are man sincere and devout Christians who have come to faith in Jesus Christ as Savior. They recognize the sinfulness of man and his need for the redemption that only comes through the gospel. But they do not view God as fully in charge of His universe. They see Him as more remote and less intimately involved in the daily affairs of life. They see men as sinful, but not hopelessly so. Man simply needs to be convinced of his spiritual need and to call upon God for the help provided in the cross of Calvary. Man cannot be saved apart from God, but neither can God be expected to save apart from man’s initiation (most often, at least) and cooperation.
Sadly, it is a weak, almost anemic, Savior that is portrayed by such a gospel. We sing about it in songs which speak of the God of the universe standing expectantly, helplessly by with baited breath to see if anyone will accept His offer of eternal salvation. We proclaim His glorious gospel either pleadingly, pathetically, or apologetically, as though an honest presentation of man’s condition would offend the sinner and keep him from coming to the cross. “If you’ll take one step toward the Savior, my friend, you’ll find His arms open wide.” By this we inform men that it is he who takes the first step and God Who thereafter responds with great relief and joy. That portrays a Christ vastly different from the Savior of the scriptures. That gives fallen man an elevated status, which the scriptures do not know.
What, then, is man’s spiritual state? No one passage states man’s condition so precisely as Paul does in Romans chapter three. Here, he draws together a collection of Old Testament quotations which pictures man as a helpless, hopeless sinner, not sick, but dead in his sins, not in need of a doctor, but a mortician.
… as it is written, “There is none righteous, not even one; There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one. Their throat is an open grave, With their tongues they keep deceiving, The poison of asps is under their lips; Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; Their feet are swift to shed blood, Destruction and misery are in their paths, And the path of peace have they not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:10-18).
Romans is a systematic exposition of the gospel of Jesus Christ as it relates to both Jews and Gentiles. In the first three chapters of this epistle, Paul lays a foundation by establishing a universal need for salvation. His conclusion is found in the expression “all have sinned” (3:9, 23). The pagan is rightly under divine condemnation because God’s creation reveals His “eternal power and divine nature” (1:20), but man has willfully exchanged this truth for a lie and has chosen to worship the creature, rather than the Creator (1:23, 25). Man is further condemned because he fails to live according to the standard by which he condemns others (2:1-3).
The Jew is even more culpable, because he has received the written revelation of God contained in the Old Testament. Some not only hold God’s word to be authoritative, but are teachers of it, and yet fail to live by its commands (2:17ff.). All men, then, from the pagan who has never heard of Christ to the Jewish Rabbi who teaches from God’s word, are under divine sentence of death. And this must mean that those of us who now have the revelation of God contained in both the Old and New Testaments are even more responsible before God. Our difficulty is surely not the shortage of revelation, but our failure to live by it.
In verses 10-18 man’s desperate and damnable condition is depicted by the citation of a series of quotations from the Old Testament. Here, the extent of the depravity of man is underscored in such a way as to force us to conclude that man is not sick but dead. First, Paul proves that when viewed corporately man, without exception, is found to be unable to do that which God views as righteous. And second, we shall find that when man is viewed individually he is found to be rendered helpless by sin in every part of his nature: intellect, emotions, and will.
When it comes to the subject of sin, all of us would like to think of ourselves as the exception to the rule. If Paul had said that most men were sinners, we would likely place ourselves among the few who are not. Thus, Paul must show that all men, without exception, fall under the wrath of God and need the salvation provided only in Christ. Four times in these nine verses Paul uses the word “all” to describe man’s fallenness. To prevent any misunderstanding, twice he clarifies his point by affirming that “not even one” is righteous in God’s eyes. So far as God’s righteousness is concerned, “there is none righteous, not even one” (3:10).
Paul spoke as a historian in these verses, not limiting man’s sinfulness to one particular age or culture. Throughout the history of mankind the truth of these verses can be amply illustrated. By referring to the Psalms and Isaiah, this broad historical perspective is accented. When Paul reminds us that “destruction and misery are in their paths” (verse 16), we know that this is as true today as it was in Paul’s day or-the prophet’s. In a day when a president and a pope can be shot within weeks of one another, we need not be urged to accept the fact of the violence of man.
Having established from the scriptures that man, without exception is a sinner, Paul also proves irrefutably that every dimension of a person’s nature is tainted by sin, incapacitating every person so far as righteousness is concerned.
In verses 13-18 Paul speaks from the perspective of a physician, showing that every organ in our body becomes the instrument of sin due to our depravity. Beginning at the head, Paul deals with the organs which generate speech. The throat is a grave, corrupted and defiling, and the tongue is deceitful (verse 13). The lips of man, much like the viper, conceal deadly poison; they are instruments of destruction. The mouth is full of curses and bitter words (verse 14). The feet hasten man to deeds of evil (verse 15). The sum and substance of this anatomical analysis of man is that from head to foot man is dominated by sin. His organs are instruments of sin (cf. 6:12, 13).
Morally, every man falls short of the standard of righteousness which God has set. In the words of scripture, “there is none righteous” (verse 10), “there is none who does good” (verse 12). By this we do not mean to say that man cannot do anything that his fellow man considers good. It is obvious that some who do not profess to know Christ personally at times live by a higher standard than some who do know the Savior. Unbelievers may be kind to their wives, give to the poor, and help the helpless … all commendable deeds. But the Bible teaches that no one will ever be justified that is, be declared righteous, by his works:
Because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20).
The Law was not given to save men but to condemn them, to show them their sin and the need for a savior. Legal righteousness could only be earned by obedience to the whole Law, without any violation, ever:
For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them” (Galatians 3:10).
For whoever keeps the whole Law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all (James 2:10).
And so, anyone under the Law is obliged to keep it completely, lest the Law condemn him. Further, the Law, while it provides the standard of righteousness, does not give the strength to do what is righteous:
Does He then, who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? (Galatians 3:5).
Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a Law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law (Galatians 3:21).
For we know that the Law is spiritual; but I am of flesh, sold into bandage to sin (Romans 7:14).
For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit (Romans 8:3-4).
Righteousness, then, cannot be earned by good works or the attempt to keep the Law of God, for fallen man is incapable of overcoming sin apart from divine enablement. Beyond this, those deeds which may appear to be righteous in the eyes of man may be evil because they are accomplished out of evil motives. Good deeds, if they are done to earn God’s approval and blessing (that is, righteousness), are based upon an evil motive. God has said that we cannot please Him by our works, for they are as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). Most often we do good deeds in order to obtain man’s approval and acclaim, which negates any possibility of divine approval:
“When therefore you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full” (Matthew 6:2).
Unsaved man may perform deeds of human kindness and charity. Man may do those things which win the approval of others. But men, apart from God, cannot please God. They cannot do anything which God calls righteous or has merit in His eyes.
The unsaved man’s will is always contrary to God’s. It can thus be said that no man seeks God (Romans 3:11). Frequently man willfully turns from God for Paul reminds us, “all have turned aside” (3:12) so as to become useless. Man is born in sin (Psalm 51:5), and is thus an enemy of God by nature:
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest (Ephesians 2:1-3).
Intellectually, man’s ability to comprehend spiritual matters is nullified by the effect of sin. As Paul would have us understand, “there is none who understands” (Romans 3:11). Man has made great strides in the fields of science and medicine, but even the most elemental spiritual truths are beyond the grasp of the most brilliant person, who is still in his sin:
But 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 appraised (1 Corinthians 2:14).
This I say therefore, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart (Ephesians 4:17-18).
We are therefore driven to the conclusion that all men are sinners by nature and by practice. Man is not sick in sin, but dead. He does not need a doctor, but a mortician. He does not need God’s help; he needs life. In the words of Steele and Thomas:
The natural man is enslaved to sin; he is a child of Satan, rebellious toward God, blind to truth, corrupt, and unable to save himself or to prepare himself for salvation. In short, the unregenerate man is dead in sin, and his will is enslaved to his evil nature.6
The Westminster Confession of Faith states this same truth:
Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man, being altogether averse from good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.7
A truth as crucial as that of man’s depravity has many implications for the Christian. Let me begin by suggesting what the doctrine of total depravity is not intended to mean.
(1) Total depravity does not mean that man is as bad as he could be. The adjective “total” in the term “total depravity” does not mean 100% so that every man is said to be completely corrupt, totally evil. In fact, some men are more wicked than others. It is this reality that necessitates degrees of eternal punishment (cf. Luke 12:47-48; Matthew 10:15; 11:21-24). It will not be until the time of the great tribulation that men will be given the liberty of pursuing their wicked desires without restraint (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:6-10). Total depravity refers to the condition of man whereby every aspect of his nature—intellect, emotions, and will—have been tainted by sin. Total depravity does not mean that a glass of water is 100% poison but that only one drop of poison in a glass of water contaminates every drop of that water.
(2) Total depravity is never intended to reinforce sinful psychological self-abuse. Many Christians fail to appreciate who they are in Christ. They demean themselves as unlovable and unworthy. They morbidly delight in songs which refer to themselves as “worms” (… “for such a worm as I”). We are unworthy of God’s grace—that is what makes it grace. We are worthy of condemnation. But we are also divinely created and fashioned by God in the womb (Psalm 139:13ff.). God valued man enough to send His Son to die for us, while yet sinners (Romans 5: 6-8). If we are true believers, we are in Christ, and He is in us. Every Christian has a spiritual gift, which equips that saint for a function and calling within the body of Christ, the church (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:1ff.). When the Christian is self-demeaning, he or she is depreciating the work of God, a serious sin in my estimation. If you will remember, it was the steward who thought he had the least to offer his master who was inclined to be slothful with what he was given (cf. Matthew 25:14-30).
(3) The doctrine of total depravity is never an excuse for sin in the life of any Christian. Too often, I have heard Christians excuse the sin in their life with a flippant, “But I’m totally depraved; what did you expect from me?” The answer to such a statement is, “No, if you are a Christian, you are not totally depraved.” No Christian is, for the Apostle Paul did not write to the Ephesians, “You are dead in your trespasses and sins,” but “You were dead in your trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). In the sixth chapter of Romans, Paul again addresses the subject of sin in the life of the Christian. The rhetorical question has been raised; “Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase?” (Romans 6:1) Paul emphatically answers, “God forbid!” The reason that a Christian must not continue to live in sin is because he has died to sin:
Now if we have died with Christ we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin, once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:8-11).
From Romans 6 we learn the necessity of leaving the old life of sin behind and living a new lifestyle of righteousness. In Romans 7 we find that while we may have a strong desire to shun sin and practice righteousness, we cannot do so in the power of the flesh for sin’s influence is stronger. In Romans 8 we find that no Christian must live in sin because God, through His Son, has brought forgiveness, and through His Spirit, has brought power to live according to His righteous requirements.
Total depravity means that man will always choose to do evil, because that is his disposition. Since, in Christ, “old things passed away” and “new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17), we now are able to choose righteousness and flee evil because of God’s enablement. No Christian must sin in the sense that total depravity speaks of the condition of lost men and women.
We who were dead in sin are now alive in Christ, free from sin and forgiven of its penalties (Ephesians 2:1-10). We are presently being conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). Our lives are being transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). The Holy Spirit enables us to comprehend spiritual realities (1 Corinthians 2:6-13). The Spirit of God gives us power to live according to His demands (Romans 8:1-4).
(4) Total depravity does not mean that an unsaved person has no choice to make, but it does mean that fallen man will always choose to go his own way rather than submit to God. In the first three chapters of the book of Romans, Paul demonstrates that all men are worthy of God’s eternal wrath, not just because Adam sinned, but because all men are given some revelation about God, which they must accept or reject, and, given this choice, men always choose to reject God. The lost must be confronted with the gospel of Jesus Christ, for apart from a hearing of the word, men cannot be saved:
… for “Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring glad tidings of good things!” (Romans 10:13-15)
All men are faced with the choice of submitting to God or rejecting Him, but man’s nature determines man’s decision. Man, in his lost state, has the same free will to become a Christian that a lion has to become a vegetarian. This is why salvation is always initiated by God and not by man:
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:12-13).
For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. … For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, … (Philippians 1:6, 29).
(5) Man’s total inability in spiritual things does not mean that it is futile to proclaim the gospel to the lost. Man will never respond positively to the gospel in his own strength, but the Bible makes it clear that those who are saved have been the recipients of divine enlightenment and enablement.
And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed. … And a certain woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul (Acts 13:48; 16:14).
Because it is God Who saves men, we may proclaim the gospel boldly knowing that those whom He has chosen will be saved. And when we pray, we need not pray that men will have the intellectual ability to believe, or that their wills may be open to divine instruction, but that God will give them life, effectually call them, and draw them to Himself. If it is ultimately God Who saves men, then we can plead with Him for the souls of men, knowing His desire to save (cf. 1 Timothy 2:4), knowing He delights to answer our prayers (1 John 5:14-15), and knowing He is able to save any whom He chooses (cf. Acts 9:1-22).
And even when men do not believe the message of the gospel, God is glorified by its proclamation:
Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?" Then I said, “Here am I. Send me!” And He said, “Go, and tell this people: ‘Keep on listening, but do not perceive; Keep on looking, but do not understand.’ Render the hearts of this people insensitive, Their ears dull, And their eyes dim, Lest they see with their eyes, Hear with their ears, Understand with their hearts, And return and be healed” (Isaiah 6:8-10).
In evangelism, as in every area of Christian living, we are never commanded to be successful, but only to be submissive to His will and obedient to His word.
Having discussed a number of misconceptions of the doctrine of man’s total inability (or total depravity, if you prefer), let us now press on to some of the things this doctrine does imply.
(1) Because man is totally depraved, salvation is, of necessity, a supernatural phenomenon. Those who are “dead in their trespasses and sins” do not normally or naturally become alive in Christ. Many of us are not convinced of this. We suppose, for example, that if only the gospel were explained clearly enough (as some boldly say), then anyone would turn to Christ for salvation. How then, do we explain the “failure” of our Lord to convert all but a few of his hearers? Intellectually, man is so affected by sin that a totally convincing argument will fall on deaf ears. The gospel is not logical to the lost, but foolishness:
For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18, cf. vss. 19-31).
If there are some who suppose that we can reason the lost into heaven, there are others who believe that we can nag them into eternal life by breaking down their resistance to the point of surrender. That is why we play 29 stanzas of “Just As I Am” and plead with the lost. That is why some wives persist at trying to wear down their husbands with the message of salvation, over and over, sneaking in a tract here, setting up a meeting with the preacher there, and so on. Others will try to use the emotions to scare one into a decision for Christ by threatening them with the fires of hell.
Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean to say that the gospel can be sloppily and haphazardly explained. We should make the message of salvation as clear as possible. We should address the whole person—intellect, emotions, and will. But after we have done the best possible job of proclaiming the gospel, it is only God Who can bring a dead man to life. And because salvation is a supernatural experience, we must not rely upon our own strength or our own devices. If men are to be saved, it must be because God has used us and our words. We must continually be dependent upon Him for success in evangelism.
(2) Even children are totally depraved. I know that statistics reveal that most people are converted in their youth. I do not wish to refute these figures. But I must insist that if we are born in sin and in a state of rebellion against God, children are just as dead as adults. They are no more inclined to trust in Christ than anyone else. Granted, they have not become hardened in their sins (cf. 1 Timothy 4:2), but they are nonetheless dead. All that we have said above applies to children, as well as to adults.
Children, because of their lack of subtlety and their desire to please, will often go through the motions of conversion, but that does not save them. Children, like all others, must be convinced of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8). They must be born again. Unclear statements of faith, such as “having Jesus in your heart” often lead to professions without any concept of what salvation means.
I have a friend who lived for a time in California. He happened to teach a Sunday School class in which the sons of a prominent Christian leader were enrolled. One Sunday one of the two boys proudly stated that he had asked Jesus into his heart. Pleased at this testimony and hoping to draw out a clearer statement, the teacher asked, “And how did Jesus get into your heart?” The boy thought about this question for some time and then with a sudden flash of inspiration, he exclaimed, “I guess it was through the hole in my sock!” Children must be supernaturally saved, just like anyone else. While children’s wills may be weaker than adults (sometimes I question this), none is ever saved by the adult imposing his will upon the child.
(3) Because salvation is a supernatural matter, no one is ever too lost to be saved. Some people are far more aggressively opposed to the gospel than others. Because of this, we conclude that an agnostic is more likely to be saved than an atheist. This is not necessarily true. Who could have been more opposed to the gospel than Paul, who referred to himself as “chief of sinners” (cf. 1 Timothy 1:15)? Salvation rests with the ability of God Whose power is infinite. No man is less dead than another. The most hardened and resistant sinner is no obstacle to the grace of God. No one is beyond God’s salvation.
(4) The bad news of total depravity is really the good news. The most difficult aspect of salvation is not getting man saved, but getting him lost. After all, who needs to be saved who is not hopelessly lost? Total depravity means that man cannot save himself and must look to another for salvation. Christ came to the world to save sinners. He did not come to heal those who are well, but those who are sick (cf. Mark 2:17). If you are lost in sin, there is hope, there is help, for Christ died to save sinners. When men come to the point of despair, realizing their own inability, it is also the point of hope, for now they must look to the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation and deliverance. To under emphasize man’s total inability, then, is not to hasten the process of salvation, but to hinder it.
(5) We must be careful not to cushion the consequences of sin so as to minimize the desperate condition of the sinner. The prodigal son, you will recall, came to himself in the pig pen, far from his father in a foreign land, eating the pods which were pig food. As much as that father loved his son, he realized that he would not be reconciled to him until he saw the folly of his ways. He had to be lost before he was found; he had to be dead before he could receive life (Luke 15:32). Many of us are tempted to build a pig pen in the back yard, trying to soften the blows of sin. While we must surely grieve at the sins of those we love, sometimes we must allow hard times to come upon them before the seriousness of sin is recognized.
(6) If man is totally unable to save himself or to contribute to it in any way, then all of the praise and glory for our conversion must go to God.
But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, that, just as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:30-31).
Perhaps it is in our prayers that we are most likely to confess the fact that our salvation is solely from God. As B. B. Warfield has put it,
He who comes to God in prayer, comes not in a spirit of self-assertion, but in a spirit of trustful dependence. No one ever addressed God in prayer thus: “O God, thou knowest that I am the architect of my own fortunes and the determiner of my own destiny. Thou mayest indeed do something to help me in the securing of my purposes after I have determined upon them. But my heart is my own, and thou canst bend it. When I wish thy aid, I will call on thee for it. Meanwhile, thou must await my pleasure.” Men may reason somewhat like this; but that is not the way they pray.8
To God be the glory, great things He has done!
1 So far as the early Church is concerned, the doctrine respecting sin was stated only in general terms. In almost all cases the explicit and discriminating doctrinal affirmations received their form as counter statements to erroneous views. So long as the truth was not denied the Church was content to hold and state it in the simple form in which it is presented in the Bible. But when positions were assumed which were inconsistent with the revealed doctrine, or when one truth was so stated as to contradict some other truth, it became necessary to be more explicit, and to frame such an expression of the doctrine as should comprehend all that God had revealed on the subject. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977, Reprint), II, p. 150.
3 “Pelagius, a monk from Britain, was a popular preacher in Rome A.D. 401-9. He sought to stir to earnest moral endeavor lax Christians who sheltered behind the frailty of the flesh and the apparent impossibility of fulfilling God’s commands, by telling them that God commanded nothing that is impossible and that everyone may live free from sin if he will.” David Broughton Knox, “Pelagianism,” Baker’s Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1960), pp. 399-400.
4 “Another consequence of his principles which Pelagius unavoidably drew was that men could be saved without the gospel. As free will in the sense of plenary ability, belongs essentially to man as much as reason, men whether Heathen, Jews, or Christians, may fully obey the Law of God and attain eternal Life. The only difference is that under the Light of the Gospel, this perfect obedience is rendered more easy.” Ibid, p. 154.