Ever since Adam ate of the fruit, a condition was given to him and all his descendents which theologically is called original sin. Original sin is the sinful inclination of the human heart to wickedness and rebellion against God that infects every descendant of Adam, hence all of mankind is born with original sin. The implications of original sin is a heart with the proclivity for lawlessness and a will that is in indefinite bondage to sin and folly. The will represents the affections, both positive and negative, that dictate who/what we value and treasure. Hence, if our will is in bondage to sin and folly, then we will only ever treasure (worship) sin, folly, and all the depravity that comes with it. Theologically, this bondage of the will to sin is called total depravity and is fully responsible for the chaos that consumes our world. The following definition of total depravity is imperative for the Christian to know and understand:
- Total Depravity: the natural man’s inability and unwillingness to come to God on His terms, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. (Solus Christus)
- Jesus captures both aspects of TD (inability & unwillingness) powerfully in John 5:40 and 3:19-21 and then in 8:36 gives the remedy to man’s depraved state: “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” In other words, one of the most pertinent fruits of salvation in Christ is redemption from sin and its dominion over the sinner. See Romans 6:1-14; Eph 1:4-13; Col 1:13-14; Gal 5:16-26.
The Bible teaches the following implications of total depravity:
- Born dead in trespasses & sins: Ephesians 2:1; Col 2:13; Titus 3:3-4
- Naturally children of wrath/Satan: Ephesians 2:3; John 8:43-47
- Spiritually dead & unreceptive to biblical truth: 1 Corinthians 2:14; Colossians 2:13;
- Enslaved to sin: John 8:34-36; Jeremiah 13:23
- Mind set on the flesh: Romans 8:6-7; Gal 5:16-21
- Unable to submit to God’s law/standard of righteousness: John 5:40; Rom 10:2-3; 1 Cor 1:18; 2:14
- Heart/will predisposed to evil: Genesis 6:5; 8:21; Jeremiah 17:9
- Naturally hostile to God: Romans 8:7; Colossians 1:21
- Naturally alienated from God: Ephesians 4:18; Col 1:21
- Naturally cannot do good or please God: Rom 3:12; 8:8
- Naturally prone to idolatry & works righteousness: Rom 1:22-25; 10:2-3; Galatians 3:10
The doctrine of total depravity is one of the most neglected doctrines in American Evangelicalism (which shouldn’t surprise anyone given the American obsession with self-esteem and self-reliance). The idea that we are inherently evil, broken, dead, and incurably sick just doesn’t seem to catch on these days. Shockingly, recent Gallup polls indicate that an overwhelming 77% of professing American Evangelicals believe that people are “basically good” (I say this is shocking not because these are Americans, but rather because they claim to be followers of Jesus and yet apparently are completely ignorant of the Bible’s view of mankind since the Fall.) Historically, there are have been 3 general positions on man from a salvific perspective–that is, man’s condition as it applies to salvation and redemption in Christ. I will highlight each three and then draw the implicational conclusions of subscribing to each:
- Pelagianism: named after the 4th century British monk, Pelagius held the view that man was good to his core. Pelagius and his followers denied original sin (sin is an universal human condition, but simply a choice that each individual makes) and subsequently, denied the bondage of the will, while affirming that man, by his own free-will, could choose either to follow Adam’s bad example or Christ’s good example. Grace, in Pelagius’ mind, was a bonus, not a necessity for salvation, as man inherently as it within himself to obey God perfectly, thus extirpating man’s need for salvation through Christ. Although it has been condemned by more church councils than any other heresy, Pelagianism has always been a perennial threat, because as theologian Michael Horton says, “It is our most natural theology.” (The idea that you can “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” is the theology of most people, particularly in America where the self is exalted and narcissism is the largest therapeutic religion). Implication: man saves himself, apart from any work or help from God or Christ.
- Semi-Pelagianism: seen as a halfway point b/w Pelagianism and Augustinianism, Semi-Pelagianism acknowledged the fall and original sin and its effects on man’s nature, SP nevertheless acknowledged that man still has the ability to accept or reject the salvific grace of God when offered to him. The will is weakened but is not enslaved. Man is dying but not dead. He is drowning but not below the proverbial water of his sin. God will toss you the life-preserver but you still have to grab hold of it or as Billy Graham has put it, “God does 99% of it but you still must do that last 1%.” Fact: It’s important to note that the Second Council of Orange in 529 A.D. condemned Semi-Pelagianism as heresy and even went so far as to condemn those who thought that salvation could be conferred by the saying of a prayer (sound like any modern-day evangelical revivalism or existential Christianity???), affirming instead–with ABUNDANT biblical references, that God must awaken the sinner and grant the gift of faith before a person can even seek God. Implication: man works along with God to save himself.
- Augustinianism: named after the 4th century church-father, Augustine, along with Martin Luther and John Calvin, is held to be the most influential theologian & philosopher outside of the Bible. Augustine taught that human beings, because they are born in original sin, are incapable of saving themselves. Apart from God’s grace, it is impossible for a person to obey or even to seek God. Representing the entire race, Adam sinned against God and in doing so, plunged all of his descendents with him into total corruption. The results are so devastating, that our very wills are in bondage to sin & idolatry, which makes it impossible for people to save themselves since they are in bondage to the very corruption they wish to be free of. Implication: man cannot save himself and is at the complete mercy of God for his salvation and redemption.
In our day, most evangelicals do not use the above terms but do recognize and use the two below which are modern forms of the teachings of Pelagius and Augustine:
- Arminianism: named after the late 16th century Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius, Arminianism is a modern form of Semi-Pelagianism that the majority of American Evangelicals subscribe to–though I would argue that most are much closer to holding Pelagius’ view of man in their affirming man’s basic goodness. Arminianism was a response to the teachings of John Calvin and the Reformers who held unshakably to the biblical view of total depravity and man’s inability to come to God on his own, much less save himself. Interestingly enough, it was the rise of Arminianism and its emphasis on self-determination in colonial New England in the 18th century that planted the seeds for various unorthodox and outright heretical views of God including Unitarianism, Universalism, Arianism (Jehovah’s Witnesses), and in the 19th century it was revivalism & frontier individualism–both which derived from Arminian theology–that led to an explosion of cults and sects. Self-proclaimed “prophets” drew many people away from traditional Protestant churches and established their own churches: the Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, Pentecostal groups, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, and a slew of others. Fact: be very vary of any church or group that originates from a self-proclaimed prophet/prophetess. The Apostle Paul adamantly warns against any prophet or angel that would proclaim any gospel other than Jesus Christ and Him crucified–Gal 1:7-9. The true Church of Jesus Christ is built on 2 things: “where the Word is rightly preached and the sacraments are rightly administered.” What this means is the person & work of Jesus is the central focus of the preaching of the Word and the sacraments(sacred ordinances) of baptism & the Lord’s Supper are rightly administered to those of the covenant community. The most essential & important question to ask yourself is this: Is this a place where God and His revelation in Christ’s person and work is clearly proclaimed, and are people serious about growing in Christ through the Word, sacraments, prayer, evangelism, and missions?
- Calvinism: named after the 16th century Bible expositor & Reformer, John Calvin held to an Augustinian view of man after intense study of Scripture. Indeed Calvin’s Institutes quotes Augustine more than any other church father or theologian outside of the Bible. The notable 5 Points of Calvinism: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance of the Saints–are generally associated with Calvin, though they were actually postulated nearly a century after Calvin in response to Arminius and his followers rejecting Reformed Soteriology. Historically, those who embrace the soteriology of Calvinism have been some of the biggest names in church history: Augustine, Tyndale, Wycliffe, Knox, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Owen, Bunyan, Whitefield, Edwards, Spurgeon, Warfield, among others. Though since the Second Great Awakening it has been vehemently rejected by most in evangelicalism, Reformation theology, particularly the soteriology of Calvinism, has been resurging among the younger generations as historically Reformed Theology as held a high view of Scripture and the Gospel. As part of that young generation that has embraced Reformed Theology, I still stand amazed at the direct correlation between one’s view of Scripture and one’s view of salvation. In other words, generally speaking, those who have a high and mighty view of Scripture, God, and the Gospel, are usually those who embraced Reformation Theology because of its emphasis on God’s glory and the centrality of Jesus in preaching & teaching.
In order to understand the doctrines of original sin and total depravity better, I think it’s important to examine the metaphysics behind the nature of man and his freedom in light of his proclivity to sin and wickedness. Augustine postulated four stages of redemptive anthropology, namely four distinct periods of man’s relationship to sin:
- Posse Peccare/Posse Non Peccare: (freedom of Adam) this refers to Adam’s pre-fall state where he possessed both the ability to sin and the ability not to sin. Yet Adam chose to sin and in doing so lost the ability not to sin. In other words, he and all of his progeny after him fell into the second state:
- Non Posse Non Peccare: (freedom of the sinner) this is the condition that characterizes the overwhelming majority of mankind which is the inability to not, not sin. In other words, the condition of fallen man is that he not able to not sin. ALL he does is sins and ALL he wants to do is sin (live autonomously apart from God and any sort of accountability). Jonathan Edwards, in his classic The Freedom of the Will, was quick to defend the Calvinistic/Augustinian view of man’s fallenness by making the astute observation that man’s will is inextricably connected to his unregenerate & depraved heart and therefore all the desires and affections he gets, pumps from that depraved and spiritually dead heart. Therefore, Edwards says, the unregenerate only find themselves with sin-inclined, deceitful, pernicious hearts, which give birth to depraved inclinations and enslavement. Subsequently, he says, “the unregenerate do not want to do God’s will or submit to His law.” This is exactly why Jesus taught the necessity of the new birth (regeneration) in John 3 and went so far as to say that people cannot see or enter the Kingdom of God.
- Posse Non Peccare: (freedom of the regenerate) this is the freedom granted to fallen sinners by the power & grace of the Holy Spirit to change the disposition (nature) of the born again believer in Jesus Christ. With regeneration, man recaptures what was lost in the fall, namely the ability to not sin. But not only does he regain what was lost in the fall, God actually changes his disposition so that he actually desires to obey God, worship, and delight in Him above all things. This is one of the clearest indicators of true conversion: redemption from sin and the sensus suavitatis–taste & longing for God and His holiness.
- Non Posse Peccare: (freedom of the glorified) there will come a day for the redeemed where they will experience the complete liberation and redemption from sin, namely salvation from the presence of sin. When the Redeemed of God are finally all gathered into His presence, they will lack the complete ability to sin. Not only that, but they will lack any desire to sin any longer. Why? Because that which they have hungered and thirsted after has finally been revealed to them and they will be fully known by God. It’s important to note that the Holy Spirit is the guarantee or down payment of this future glory. In other words, if you have experienced regeneration and redemption from the dominion and bondage to sin in this life, you can know for certain of the glory that will be revealed to you in the next!
Crucial to understanding biblical anthropology is the biblical doctrine of covenant. Covenants in Scripture are either unilateral or bilateral depending on whether or not they are law-based or gospel-based. The concept of covenant in the Bible is juxtaposed with the concept of contract that many evangelicals hold to in America today. Contract implies bilateral terms that both parties agree to and if one fails to keep the terms, the contract can just be either amended or extirpated altogether. Such a view of salvation is inherently shallow and completely foreign to the character of salvation in Scripture and how it is presented to us in terms of covenant that God enters into with us, not vice versa. Understanding your salvation in terms of covenant deepens one’s appreciation, adoration, wonder, and worship of the God who would go to such links to include us in His Story of Redemption. The Psalmist said it well in Ps 8:3-4, “When I look at Your heavens…which You have set in place, what is man that You are mindful of him…care for him???”
Biblical covenants may be characterized under the titles of works & grace. In other words, the covenants that God established with Adam, Noah, Abraham, the Israelites at Sinai, David, and Christians (the Christian’s covenant is the New Covenant as prophesied in Jeremiah 31:31-34 and 32:40) fall under the headings of “Covenant of Creation” or “Covenant of Grace”. Theologically, these, along with the “Covenant of Redemption”, form the soteriology (doctrine of salvation) of Reformed Covenant Theology. I will briefly introduce each since I will be writing an entire post over Covenant Theology.
- Covenant of Creation: this is the covenant God made with Adam when He made Adam from the dust of the earth and set him in the Garden of Eden to tend to the garden & animals, lead his wife in fulfilling their creation mandate to be fruitful & multiply and fill the earth, and to worship the LORD only by obeying His command not to each from the Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil. Yet Adam chose to disobey God by seeking His own goodness & well-being apart from God (idolatry) and therefore, the consequences of breaking the covenant were enforced on the man and all his seed after him. Implication: every single person is born under the curse of the COC and therefore is in need of the covenant of grace.
- Covenant of Grace: God’s promise to the woman in Gen 3:15 was that from her Seed would come on that would crush the serpent’s head and accomplish redemption for mankind. This is the central theme & focus of the book of Genesis. Genesis means “origins” or “beginning” which is in reference to the origin/beginning of redemption and gives the promises of how God would accomplish redemption for all who will receive it. The covenant of grace is most clearly seen in the Abrahamic Covenant that is stipulated from Gen 12 to the end of the book as it is reestablished with Abraham’s seed: Isaac, Jacob…and ultimately, with Jesus Christ. All who hold fast to Jesus Christ by faith alone are included in the blessing of the Abrahamic Covenant as Paul argues in the book of Galatians. Therefore, the Covenant of Grace is one of the central themes in Scripture, and all sound & faithful hermeneutics (interpretation disciplines) should start with the COG as that which all other Scripture should be deduced from since it is ultimately the Gospel of Jesus that comes from the covenant of grace.
- Covenant of Redemption: this is the unfolding plan of redemption that the Trinity seeks to accomplish from Genesis 3 to Revelation 22. The main idea is that the Scripture teaches that before the foundation of the world, the Father chose those for whom the Son would die for and pay their ransom and it is these elect that the Spirit comes and calls to faith in the Son to the glory of the Father. Hence, the entire Godhead is involved in the salvation of sinners and greatly desires to rescue their elect from their sins. The Christian’s response to such a revelation is awe-struck worship and adoration, with the deep desire to get lost in the majesty of the saving, gracious, and loving God of the Bible. See Eph 1:3-14; 2 Tim 1:9; 1 Peter 1:18-20; Rev 13:8; John 1:1-18; Rom 8:29-30.
It should go without saying, that theology matters. That doctrine matters. That what the Bible says about God, about mankind, and the world greatly matters because it revelation from God about the way things really are. The American Evangelical church would do well to heed God’s warning to those who thought themselves to be His people merely because they are born “Christian” or surround themselves with Christians by attending church:
“My people perish for a lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.”-Hosea 4:6
One of the most important marks of a true church is the view it has on man and the place sin has in either man’s goodness or man’s wickedness. The Bible is crystal clear that man has a terminal problem called sin and that those who ignore it or openingly do not preach/teach on it should be avoided at all costs because without addressing the problem of sin, the solution of the Gospel makes no sense and there will be no desire to receive it as the treasure that it is.