Saturday, April 17, 2010

More on Total Depravity

First things first: What do we mean by these words, Total Inability? Or rather, what do we, by this term, mean to assert that the Scripture affirms? With this term we aver that man, in his natural (i.e., unregenerate state) is absolutely and completely unable to do anything tending to his own salvation. The first stirrings of the will and/or heart with a longing for salvation or a desire to come to Christ are always and in every instance preceded by an enabling act of God’s Spirit. Reformed theologians frequently use the term Total Depravity to denote such doctrine because it accurately informs us that the inability is due to the reigning power of sin in the life of the unregenerate.

That which we propose to discuss here is the doctrine of Total Inability. It is sometimes called Total Depravity. It is a natural corollary of an accurate conception of Original Sin. It would be rather easy to give a long list of Biblical references that state the doctrine in question and comment briefly on each one, but this has been done many times already by men far abler than me. Therefore, I will limit the subject matter of this paper to a few choice passages of Scripture with a more detailed analysis of each. I do have, however, in my possession a list of no less than 50 New Testament passages that explicitly proclaim man’s inability. This, of course, does not include all the other New Testament passages which either insinuate or presuppose this doctrine. Nor does it include the even larger number of Old Testament passages that teach the same truth.

A short amount of deliberation is sufficient to reveal why this doctrine is found only in the Reformed/Calvinist camp. When one draws forth the logical conclusions of such doctrine, the freedom of the will, so vociferously defended by Arminians (and as equally vociferously opposed by true Calvinists) is at once belittled. For if one accepts and believes on Christ as He is offered in the Gospel because God has preveniently enabled his will, then Arminians affirm that the decision cannot be valid or justifiably attributed to the repentant sinner. This is because they believe that all men have an innate ability to use their wills freely, even with regard to salvation. However, if Total Inability be true, as we will demonstrate, then the Arminian scheme of doctrine must be false, both to the Church and to Scripture.

What saith the Scripture? In declaring the state of the sinful unregenerate nature after the Fall (before the effectual operation of the Holy Spirit), the Scripture primarily insists on three things:

  • The corruption and depravity of the mind; which it calls by the name of darkness and blindness.
  • The depravity of the will and affections, which it expresses several ways, as by weakness or inability, and stubbornness or obstinacy.
  • The general name of death, which is extended to the condition of the whole soul.

All men, not enlightened by the Holy Spirit, not renewed in their minds, are in a state of darkness and blindness with regard to God and all spiritual truth. All men, be they ever so learned and skillful in other matters, in spiritual things are dark, blind and ignorant. This is a subject the world cannot bear to hear of. They immediately fly into a rage upon its very mention. They judge it a ploy invented by weak men to condemn them who are wiser than themselves. Thus did the Pharisees scornfully and insolently ask our Lord, “Are we blind also?” (1) While Christ let them know that their presumption of light and knowledge would only aggravate their sin and condemnation, He also told them plainly, on the authority of the Father, that notwithstanding their boasting they had “neither heard the voice of God at any time, nor seen His shape.” (2) Nothing angers the ignorant than being told of their ignorance!
In Ephesians 4:17-18, St. Paul says, “This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind, having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart.” In treating the subject of men in their natural fallen state the Apostle reduces all things in man unto three things:

the “mind,”

the “understanding” and

the “heart.”

These three comprise the whole of our moral and spiritual operations and are all affected with the darkness and ignorance we speak of. We shall now explicate each one briefly.

1. The“mind,” is the the ruling faculty of the soul. It is by this that we gain our first apprehensions of all things and whereby deductions are made to our carrying out in practice. Notice that unto this faculty is ascribed the term “vanity.” The word “vain” is used univocally in Scripture to denote things that are useless and fruitless. Now men’s minds abound in all manner of vain imaginations, which are declared by Scripture to be only “evil continually.” (3) In its pre-Fall condition, the mind had all the same cogitative faculties it has now under the power of sin, only then these were all orderly and regular, that is to say that the mind was able to direct them unto the end for which they were made. And God would have been the principal end of them all. But now, the mind engages them in nothing but confusion and vanity.

2. The “understanding” is the the discerning faculty of the soul that leads it unto practice. It guides the soul by the notions it receives from the mind. On the groundwork of the preceding point, the understanding is seen to be more corrupt that the mind. The nearer things come to practice, the more prevalent in them is sin’s power. In our passage, the understanding is said to be “darkened.” This indicates that without supernatural illumination, all attempts at discerning spiritual things are vain pretensions. The Light of the Gospel shines into this darkened understanding of men, but it “receives it not.” (4)

3. The “heart” is, in Scripture’s usage, the practical principle of operation, and so includes the will also. It is the actual compliance of the will and affections with the mind and understanding with respect to the things proposed by them. Light is received by the mind, applied by the understanding and used by the heart. The Apostle says that this faculty is afflicted with “blindness.” It is therefore not a mere ignorance of the notions of truth that Paul intends, but rather, a stubborn resistance to light and conviction. The heart is obstinate and obdurate and thus rejects all influences that come to it from the notions of the truth. This is why the unconverted are said to be in darkness. (5)

In his volume on Pneumatology, John Owen states, “There may be degrees in a moral privation, but when it is expressed in the abstract, it is a sign that it is at its height, that it is total and absolute. And this is spoken with respect unto spiritual and saving light only, or a saving apprehension of spiritual truths. There is not in such persons so much as any disposition remaining to receive saving knowledge, any more than there is a disposition in darkness itself to receive light. The mind, indeed, remains a capable subject to receive it, but hath no active power nor disposition in itself towards it; and, therefore, when God is pleased to give us a new ability to understand and perceive spiritual things in a due manner, he is said to give us a new faculty, because of the utter disability of our minds naturally to receive them, 1 John v. 20. Let vain men boast whilst they please of the perfection and ability of their rational faculties with respect unto religion and the things of God, this is the state of them by nature, upon His judgment that must stand forever.” (6)

We are now in a position to demonstrate that this is the state of all unregenerate men. Following the Apostle Paul, we shall divide all humanity into two camps: in Adam and in Christ. Those who are in Adam are also called “natural,” “without the Spirit” and “without the life of God.” (7) Paul uses the term “carnal” to distinguish its unspiritual character. It is “slow of heart to believe” (8) and “heavy in hearing.” (9) The mind of a natural man, that is, a man in the state of nature, however it may be excited and improved under any education it may have received, is yet not able, without any of its own power spiritually and savingly, to receive, embrace and assent to spiritual things unless it be renewed and acted upon by the Holy Spirit. This is asserted in no uncertain terms by St. Paul in these words: “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (10) 

The subject of this passage is the “natural man.” Scripture uses this term in opposition to “spiritual.” The foundation of this distinction, which A.W. Tozer calls the “once-born” and the “twice-born,” is laid down in Paul’s declaration: “The first Adam was made a living soul.” (11) So everyone who is of him is called no more than “a living soul.” But “the last Adam was made a quickening spirit.” So everyone who is of Him, as a partaker of His nature, is a “a spiritual man.”

The passage currently under consideration plainly refers to all who are merely derived from Adam – the natural man endowed with a rational soul. Paul divides all mankind in this chapter into two camps: natural and spiritual. Therefore, all who are not spiritual, i.e., regenerated by the Holy Spirit, be they ever so cultured and dignified, are naught else but “natural” men. The supposition of a third state of men is destructive to the design of Paul’s whole discourse. Besides, ψυχικος (natural) is the softest term Scripture gives to unregenerate men. St. Peter designates them as “natural brute beasts.” (12) The Goldenmouth says, “The natural man is he who ascribes all things to the power of the reasonings of the mind, and doth not think that he stands in need of aid from above: which is madness; for God hath given the soul that it should learn and receive what he bestows, what is from him, and not suppose that it is sufficient of itself or to itself. Eyes are beautiful and profitable; but if they would see without light, this beauty and power will not profit but hurt them. And the mind, if it would see” (spiritual things) “without the Spirit of God, it doth but ensnare itself.” (13)

In treating of the natural man, the Apostle makes it quite plain that he does not, indeed cannot receive nor discern the things of God. It is a piece of mere sophistry then to assert that men, in sin, can exercise their wills in spiritual things, seeing that the “carnal mind is enmity against God.” (14) An unregenerate man can no more use his will to move toward Christ than a dead man can will his own resurrection! Imagine a scene, like an altar call, where a corpse is asked to “raise his hand” if he would like to be resurrected. Such is the foolishness of asking those who are “dead in sins and trespasses” (15) if they would like to be alive in Christ.
If any one of any age should, by natural ability, have had access to the “life of God” by the proper use of the mind, it should have been the great philosophers and sages of the past. But both the Apostle and the experience of the first ages of the Church teach otherwise. (16) If spiritual things were attainable by the proper use of the natural mind, then those with the most cultivated minds would have certainly attained them. Hence the great minds of the past should be our surest guides in all matters spiritual. But such is not true. It was the wise, the knowing, the rational, - the learned men of the world that made the greatest and longest opposition to spiritual things.

From this, we see that there is a two fold weakness, or rather, inability, in the minds of men with regard to spiritual things. The first is a natural inability, whence it cannot receive them for a lack of light in itself. The second is a moral inability which affects the will and affections and by which the things of God cannot be received because it will not. For this reason also, they are foolishness unto it.
Because of this natural inability the natural man is absolutely unable to discern and know spiritual things in a saving manner. Through this inability the faculties of the mind and understanding are depraved. This inability is said to be natural because it consists in the deprivation of the light and power which were original faculties of our minds and understandings – and because it can never be cured except by an immediate communication of a new spiritual power and ability to the mind by the Holy Spirit.
The aforementioned moral inability assures us that the mind of the unregenerate never will receive spiritual things. They will always and unchangeably refuse and reject them. And because of various lusts, corruptions and prejudices invincibly fixed in them, spiritual things to appear as foolishness. Therefore, no man will be condemned on Judgment Day merely on account of his natural inability. Everyone to whom the gospel has been preached, and by whom it is refused, shall be convinced of positive actions in their minds, rejecting the gospel from the love of self, sin and the world. Thus our Savior tells the Jews that “no man can come unto him, except the Father draw him.” (17) In fact, in another place, Christ tells them, “Ye will not come to me, that ye may have life.” (18) The issue in question was not the power or inability of their minds, but the obstinacy of their wills. And it is for this that men will primarily be judged at the last day. Light has come into the world, “and men loved the darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” (19)
Therefore, the proper meaning of “receiveth not,” is given in the following reason and explanation of it: ου δυναται γνωναι, “He cannot know them,” – that is, unless he is enabled spiritually by the Holy Spirit. And this is confirmed in the reason subjoined: “They are spiritually discerned.” Many an Arminian would wrest this passage to his own destruction and make the Apostle say that men “will not” know spiritual things. But Paul’s explicit statement is that the natural man cannot receive them. Chrysostom gives Paul’s meaning in these penetrating analyses of the passage: “A natural man is he who lives in or by the flesh, and hath not his mind as yet enlightened by the Spirit, but only hath that inbred human understanding which the Creator hath endued the minds of all men with.” (20) And, “The spiritual man is he who liveth by the Spirit, having his mind enlightened by him; having not only an inbred human understanding, but rather a spiritual understanding, bestowed on him graciously, which the Holy Ghost endues the minds of believers withal.” (21)
The final passage I wish to refer to, and briefly at that, is Ephesians 2:1, where it is said that those who are not made alive by God’s Spirit are “dead in trespasses and sins.” This needs little explaining, so self-explanatory is its import. Not only are the unregenerate blind, but they are, in fact, dead to all things of God. Hence I noted the ludicrousness of asking a corpse to “raise his hand” if he wished to be resurrected. A man who is dead cannot wish anything at all! It is simply foolishness to assume that the natural man can do anything spiritual. Just as it is not in the eagle’s nature to peck around for worms in the chicken pen, neither is it in the chicken’s nature to soar effortlessly in the arboreal expanse. One might sooner expect a lion to eat grass or a cow to devour a lion. If a man does in fact exercise his mind in an act of saving faith in Christ, it is only because that man has first been so enabled by the Holy Spirit by a renewing of his whole nature, thus making him a “spiritual man.”
This truth is opposed and denied by all Arminian schemes – as well as the modern infiltration of the Church by psychology. Original Sin, though affirmed in word, is denied in practice and, so far from being viewed as death, sin is seen as a sickness. The Arminian sinner is not dead in trespasses and sins – he is merely sick. Men reject the light because they are evil, not because they are sick. No amount of psychotherapy can duplicate the regeneration of a man’s nature by the quickening of the Holy Spirit. (22)
I close with the pertinent sentence of the great John Owen. “We do conclude that the mind in the state of nature is so depraved, vitiated, and corrupted, that it is not able, upon the proposal of spiritual things unto it in the dispensation and preaching of the gospel, to understand, receive, and embrace them in a spiritual and saving manner, so as to have the sanctifying power of them thereby brought into and fixed in the soul, without an internal, especial, immediate, supernatural, effectual, enlightening act of the Holy Ghost. “

1. John 9:40

2. John 5:37
3. Genesis 6:5
4. John 1:5
5. Ephesians 5:8
6. John Owen, Pneumatologia, Bk. 3, Ch. 3
7. 1 Corinthians 2:14, Jude 19, Ephesians 4:18
8. Luke 24:25
9. Hebrews 5:11, 12
10. 1 Corinthians 2:14
11. 1 Corinthians 15:45
12. 2 Peter 2:12
13. Chrysostom, on 1 Corinthians 2:15
14. Romans 8:7
15. Ephesians 2:1
16. 1 Corinthians 1:22, 23, 26–28
17. John 6:44
18. John 5:20
19. John 3:19
20. Chrysostom, on 1 Corinthians 2:15
21. ibid.
22. John Owen, Pneumatologia, Bk. 3, Ch. 3

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