Canons of Dordt, Head III: Fallen man’s total depravity

The title of the third and fourth heads of doctrine in the Canons of Dordt is “Of the Corruption of Man, His Conversion to God, and the Manner Thereof.” In the familiar acronym used to summarize the five main doctrines treated in the Canons, “TULIP,” the third and fourth heads explain the “T,” total depravity, and the “I,” irresistible grace. This article will cover the first part of these heads, treating the subject of fallen man’s total depravity (Arts. 1-5; rejection of errors, Arts. 1-5).

Before explaining the content of this opening section of Heads III/IV, a question worth asking and answering is: Why are Heads III and IV combined into one section in the Canons of Dordt? The doctrines of uncondition­al election, limited atonement, and the preservation of the saints are each treated in a distinct chapter in the Canons. Total depravity and irresistible grace are com­bined into one section. Why?

I offer a twofold answer.

First, there is a close theological relationship between the doctrines of the corruption of man and the conver­sion of man by God’s irresistible grace, which natural­ly brings these two doctrines together into one section. The nature of man as totally depraved is the necessary background to understanding the nature of God’s work in conversion. God converts totally depraved sinners, which conversion, on account of man’s complete corrup­tion, must necessarily occur by God’s effectual grace.

Second, and more significantly, the two doctrines are treated together in order more clearly to expose the Arminian error concerning the subjects treated in this section. Quoted below in full is the third head of “The Remonstrance” (the Arminian statement of 1610):

That man has not saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free will, inasmuch as he, in the state of apostasy and sin, can of and by himself neither think, will, nor do anything that is truly good (such as saving Faith eminently is); but that it is needful that he be born again of God in Christ, through his Holy Spirit, and renewed in understanding, inclination, or will, and all his powers, in order that he may rightly understand, think, will, and effect what is truly good, according to the Word of Christ, John xv.5 ‘Without me ye can do nothing.’1

As it stands alone, the Arminian article on man’s depravity is Reformed and biblical, a faithful explana­tion of the corruption of fallen man. Consider now the Remonstrants’ fourth head on the grace of God, which reads toward the end of the article: “But as respects the mode of the operation of this grace, it is not irresistible.” In no uncertain terms, Arminian soteriology teaches man’s ability to resist God’s grace. Upon whom, then, does salvation depend? Not God, but man. And if that is true, man is no longer totally depraved. The Arminian error concerning the depravity of man only becomes plain when viewed directly next to and in light of the Arminians’ view of God’s grace. Thus, the synod combined its treatment of man’s corruption and man’s conversion in order more sharply to reveal the Arminian error.

I call your attention now to several main elements of the Canon’s teaching on man’s corruption over against the errors of the Remonstrants.

In the first place, the Canons teach the origin of man’s corruption. Most significantly, Heads III/IV, Ar­ticle 1 makes clear that the source of the depravity of man is not found in God: “Man was originally formed after the image of God.” The Reformed faith, while maintaining the absolute sovereignty of God, cannot be charged with making God the source of man’s corrup­tion, for in His own image God created man. In harmo­ny with the Heidelberg Catechism (Q&A 6) and the Belgic Confession (Art. 14), the Canons identify the image of God in Adam as his true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. The source of man’s corruption, rather, is found wholly in man himself: “…revolting from God by the instigation of the devil and abusing the freedom of his own will, he forfeited these excellent gifts (Art. 1).”

In this connection, the Canons reject the error of those who teach “that the spiritual gifts, or the good qualities and virtues, such as goodness, holiness, righteousness, could not belong to the will of man when he was first created” (Canons III/IV, B, 2). At all cost the Arminians must protect their precious doctrine of free will. By maintaining that original goodness did not extend to the will of man as created by God, the Arminians were able to insist that there was no change in the will of man after the fall of Adam into sin. Regarding his will, man could not lose in the Fall what his will nev­er had. Thus, according to Arminian theology, both be­fore and after the fall of Adam, man’s will remains neu­tral and free, able to choose or not to choose that which is good or evil. Over against this error, the Canons teach that the original goodness with which God created man “undoubtedly belong[ed] to the will,” which in turn was utterly lost by man’s Fall.

In the second place, the Canons explain the nature of man’s depravity as a result of Adam’s sin. Losing the image of God with which he was created, man took on the opposite, that of the image of the devil (John 8:44). The description at the end of Article 1 of man’s depravity leaves the reader no doubt what the Reformed fathers taught concerning man’s corruption: man “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.” Later, Article 3 says that men are by nature “children of wrath, incapable of any saving good.” The result of the Fall is not that man is now morally neutral or merely spiritually sick. Rather, man is spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1).

Noteworthy in the Canon’s description of man’s cor­ruption is what it says concerning the will of man: fallen man is “wicked, rebellious, and obdurate in heart and will.” The whole Arminian system of doctrine depends upon the freedom of the will. Therefore, the Can­ons in both its positive explanation and in its rejection of errors (errors 3 and 4) teach the biblical truth of the bondage of the will. Man’s will after the Fall is not free, possessing the ability to choose spiritually that which is good. Instead, fallen man’s will is bound, a slave to sin and evil, incapable of choosing any good and only able to choose what is contrary to the precepts of God. The Canons, generally with respect to the whole of fallen man and specifically with respect to the will of fallen man, teach his total depravity.

In the third place, in addition to teaching the source and nature of man’s corruption, the Canons at the beginning of Heads III/IV in Article 2 teach the effect of Adam’s fall upon the whole human race. This is the Reformed doctrine of original sin. In this connection I call the reader’s attention to one unfortunate omission in our English translation of the original Latin of the Can­ons of Dordt. While faithfully explaining that the corruption of man’s nature is passed down to Adam’s pos­terity (“A corrupt stock produced a corrupt offspring”), the article as we read it in English fails to speak about the guilt of Adam’s sin. The Reformed doctrine of original sin is twofold: original pollution and original guilt. As our first father, Adam passed down his pollution to all his posterity. In addition, Adam was the represen­tative head of the human race, so that the guilt of his sin is imputed to all men, which guilt makes all men liable to the just wrath and punishment of God (Rom. 5 and I Cor. 15). It is this second part of the doctrine of original sin that the English translation of Article 2 does not address. In the original, however, the end of Article 2 reads: “…by the just judgment of God.” The just judgment of God is His punishment of those who stand before Him as guilty. What this phrase makes clear is that God justly punished the whole human race with the original pollution that is propagated to all men. How could the just judgment of God come upon the whole human race for the sin of Adam? Scripture’s teaching in Romans 5 and I Corinthians 15 is clear: All men are guilty in Adam, the legal head of the whole human race.

Last, a brief word is in order concerning the oft-mis­understood phrase in Article 4 of Heads III/IV that there remain “in man since the fall the glimmerings of natural light.” Space does not permit a thorough expo­sition of the phrase and the article in which it is found. The following is but a brief explanation.

The Canons explain the content of the “glimmerings of natural light.” First, by them man “retains some knowledge of God,” which is not a saving knowledge but one that leaves man without excuse. Second, by these glimmerings man possesses a knowledge of “nat­ural things,” that is, he is able to study the world created by God, not to glorify God thereby but as a totally de­praved sinner. Third, by this “light” man has a knowl­edge of “the difference between good and evil, and discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment.”

Though possessing a conscience, knowing the differ­ence between right and wrong, and living outwardly a law-abiding life, the sinner does not do so out of true faith from the heart to the glory of God, but for some sinful, selfish, man-centered purpose, only deepening his guilt and rendering him all the more inexcusable be­fore God.

The qualifying statements to each of the three points above arise out of the Canons’ own explanation in the second half of the same article on the “glimmerings of natural light” (as well as the Rejection of Errors, Art. 5). The article further states what the “glimmerings of natural light” cannot do for man and what man, in fact, does with them. On the one hand, the glimmer­ings cannot “bring him to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion.” On the other hand, man “is incapable of using it [natural light] aright even in things natural and civil,” and with regard to the natural light man renders it “wholly polluted, and holds it in unrigh­teousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable be­fore God.” This is unmistakably clear: the Canons’ teaching concerning the “glimmerings of natural light” in fallen man does not compromise the biblical truth of fallen man’s total depravity, but is in harmony with it and even strengthens it.

I end with a brief note of application. I express it by two words: humility and thanks! May the teaching of the Word of God expressed in this section of the Can­ons of Dordt humble you, dear reader. May it lead you all the more to a personal knowledge of your own sin and guilt by nature. May it humble you in such a way that you are led daily, with a believing heart, to Jesus Christ. And may it fill you with thanks for the gospel that the Canons go on to expound, that of an irresist­ible, powerful, particular, grace of God in Jesus Christ, by which you are delivered in full from this guilt and sin and brought into and preserved in everlasting life with our covenant God.


1 Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1983) 3:546-47.