No less explicit and clear are the Canons of Dordrecht on the truth of the depravity of the natural man. In III, IV, 1, 3 we read: “Man was originally formed after the image of God. His understanding was adorned with a true and saving knowledge of his Creator, and of spiritual things; his heart and will were upright; all his affections pure; and the whole man was holy: but revolting from God by the instigation of the devil, and abusing the freedom of his own will, he forfeited these excellent gifts; and on the contrary 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. . . . Therefore all men are conceived in sin, and by nature children of wrath incapable of saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage thereto, and without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, they are neither able nor willing to return to God, to reform the depravity of their nature, nor to dispose themselves to reformation.” It is true that in the first half of Art. 4 of the same chapters of the Canons they declare that “There remain, however, in man since the fall the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment.” But that the fathers of Dordt did not mean by this declaration to attribute any good whatever to fallen man, may be seen from what immediately follows in the same article: “But so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God, and to true conversion, that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. Nay further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and holds in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God.”
This was the doctrine that was developed and defended over against the enemies of the truth by the great men of God throughout the history of the Church. It was this truth that was emphasized by Augustine over against the polished and superficial Pelagius and other opponents. According to him the will of fallen man is free only in the sense that it does not act by compulsion from without. Man still acts as a free agent: he considers, prefers, chooses, and acts according to the choice of his will. But this does not mean that the will is free to choose and to do that which is good. Fallen man is not free to choose both good and evil. We must remember, thus he teaches us, that the will itself is either good or evil, and that the ethical condition of the will determines its choice for good or for evil. Sin or grace determines the condition of the will. And in the natural man it is the sin of Adam that determines his will for evil. Fallen man does not even have a remnant of the original righteousness of Adam in the state of integrity. All righteousness he lost. He is free from righteousness, even as in the state of integrity he was free from sin. He is nothing but a peccati servus, a slave of sin, Ench. ch. 30. He does, indeed, serve sin according to the choice of his own will, but never can he choose anything else than evil. He has, therefore, indeed a liberum arbitrium, a free will, but only in malis, ad peccandum, to evil and to sin, not ad agendum bonum, to do the good.
It might be expected that Pelagius c.s. pointed to the virtues and noble deeds of the heathen and ungodly, in opposition to the doctrine of total depravity as defended by Augustine. Highly these virtues of the ungodly were extolled by him, even as is often done today by those that defend the theory of “common grace.” But Augustine explained that these virtues were in reality nothing but vices and sins. In the ungodly there is often a conflict of sinful motives and desires, so that one sin restrains another. This is very evident by such men as misers, but may even be discovered among the great Romans. When often they repressed their sinful lusts and accomplished things that are praiseworthy in the estimation of men, they were motivated by their love of honor and sinful ambition. The so-called virtues of natural man may better be called vices. Sin is not checked, “sed aliis pecmtis alia vincuntur,” some sins are chained by other sins.*
Calvin emphasizes the same truth. It is true that the defenders of the common grace theory often appeal to Calvin for their view that the natural man is able to do good by virtue of the influence of a common, nonregenerating grace. They do this in order to defend their right to the name of Calvinists! And it may readily be granted that the term “common grace” is often found in Calvin, while at the same time he explains the so-called virtues of the ungodly in the Augustinian way. The fact that man after the fall retained his reason and the remnants of natural light, he ascribes to the general grace of God. It is true, he writes, that some are born idiots and stupid, but this does not obscure the general grace of God: “Nam quod nascuntur moriones quidam vel stupidi, defectus ille generalem Dei gratiam non obscurat,” Inst. II, 2, 17. He even designates as special grace the fact that in these natural gifts one is more excellent than another: “Unde enim alius alio praestantior, nisi ut in natura teommuni emineat specialis Dei gratia, quae multos praeteriens, nemini se obstrictam esse clamat?” He even seems to teach a certain grace whereby corruption in the sinful nature of fallen man is somewhat restrained, so that it does not break forth in all possible sin and violence. He notes that in every age there were some that throughout their life strove to be virtuous. By this they furnished proof that there was an element of purity in their nature: “honestatis studio documentum ediderunt, nonnihil fuisse in natura sua puritatis.” But to explain this, we must remember that in the corruption of the human nature there is still a little place for the grace of God, not to remove, but to restrain the corruption: “Sed hie succurrere nobis debet, inter illam naturae corruptionem esse non-nullum gratiae Dei locum, non quae illam purget, sed intus cohibeat,” Inst. II, 3, 3. However, we must remember: 1. That Calvin never teaches, that any positive good proceeds from the fallen and corrupt human nature. In this respect his use of the term “common grace” has nothing in common with the modern conception under that name. With Calvin the natural man remains corrupt in all its parts; it is never improved. Man has lost all his excellent gifts. Only of his natural powers he retained a remnant, so that he is still a rational being. But even these natural gifts are corrupted. These natural gifts as such are ascribed by Calvin to the Holy Spirit, who distributes all gifts and talents even as He will. But he agrees, nevertheless, with Augustine, that the natural man corrupts and defiles even these natural gifts, so that he derives no praise from them for himself: “ita naturalia haee quae restabant, corrupta fuisse docet (i.e. Augustinus, H.H.). Non quod per se inquinari possint, quatenus a Deo proficiscuntur: sed quia polluto homini pura esse desierunt, ne quam inde laudem consequatur,” Inst. II, 2, 12-17. 2. That Calvin explains this so-called restraining grace in a way with which we can heartily agree, and which makes the term grace a misnomer. For at the end of the same paragraph in which he speaks of this restraining grace, he explains that some are restrained by shame, others by fear of the laws from breaking out in all kinds of corruption, even though for the most part they do not try to cover up their pollution (uteunque suam magna ex parte impuritatem non dissimulant); some lead an honest life because they consider it profitable for themselves; still others rise above the common level in order that by their majesty they may keep others into subjection. And thus God by His providence restrains the corruption of the nature, that it does not break out in iniquity. But He does not purge the nature from within, Inst. II, 3, 3. All this quite agrees materially with the views of Augustine, even though one may object that the use of the term grace is to be condemned as improper in this connection. For it certainly cannot be called grace when one is restrained by his own sinful and selfish motives from breaking out into certain sins. 3. That with Calvin this explanation of the “virtues” of the ungodly, which he, too, like Augustine, ultimately condemns as vices (see Inst. II, 3, 4: the more excellent one was, the more he was motivated by his carnal ambition, so that all the so-called virtues of the ungodly loose their pleasantness before God. Therefore whatever appears praiseworthy in ungodly men must be considered of no worth: pro nihilo ducendum est quicquid laude dignum apparet in hominous profanis.), never occurs as a main doctrine, but only as an appendix to his doctrine of total depravity. Anyone who reads the Institutes will admit that Calvin would never have thought of deposing ministers from their office because they insisted that the natural man is incapable of doing any good, as did the Christian Reformed Church in 1924! 4. That, as far as the employment of the term “grace” by Calvin is concerned (communis, generalis, specialis, specialissima!), we must not forget that our reformer was still in his twenties, and not long out of the Catholic Church, when he wrote his Institutes, and that it was hardly Calvinistic blindly to adopt even the terms which he employed, especially since these terms with him have an entirely different meaning from their present connotation! We conclude, therefore, that Calvin taught the truth of total depravity in all its implications, and that the modern emphasis upon the goodness of natural man is certainly not Calvinistic.
Calvin was not the only reformer who emphasized this doctrine of the total depravity anew in the sixteenth century. Nor are the teachers of this truth at that time limited to his associates. Martin Luther taught the same truth with equal emphasis, and with all the vehemence of his ardent nature defended C against opponents. This may be shown from his polemic against Erasmus’ “Diatribe”: “The Bondage of the Will.” Writes he: “As to the other paradox you mention,—that, ‘whatever is done by us, is not done by Free-will but from mere necessity’—Let us briefly consider this, lest we should suffer any thing most perniciously spoken, to pass by unnoticed. Here then, I observe, that if it be proved that our salvation is apart from our own strength and counsel, and depends on the working of God alone (which I hope I shall clearly prove hereafter, in the course of this discussion), does it not evidently follow, that when God is not present with us to work in us, everything that we do is evil, and that we of necessity do those things which are of no avail unto salvation? For if it is not we ourselves, but God only, that works salvation in us, it must follow, whether or no, that we do nothing unto salvation before the working of God in us. But by necessity I do not mean compulsion; but (as they term it) the necessity of immutability, not of compulsion; that is, a man void of the Spirit of God, does not evil against his will as by violence, or as if he were taken by the neck and forced to it, in the same way as a thief or cut-throat is dragged to punishment against his will; but he does it spontaneously, and with desirous willingness. And this willingness and desire of doing evil he cannot, by his own power, leave off, restrain, or change; but he goes on still desiring and craving. And even if he should be compelled by force to do anything outwardly to the contrary, yet the craving will within remain averse to, and rises in indignation against that which forces or resists it. But it would not rise in indignation, if it were changed, and made willing to yield to a constraining power. This is what we mean by the necessity of immutability:—that the will cannot change itself, nor give itself another bent; but rather the more it is resisted, the more it is irritated to crave; as is manifest from its indignation. This would not be the case if it were free, or had a ‘Free-will’ Ask experience how hardened against all persuasion they are, whose inclinations are fixed upon any one thing. For if they yield at all, they yield through force, or through something attended with greater advantage; they never yield willingly. And if their inclinations be not thus fixed, they let all things pass and go on just as they will,” pp. 72, 73.
Or consider the following from the same work: “Where are you now, friend Erasmus! you, who promised ‘that you would freely acknowledge that the most excellent faculty of man is flesh, that is, ungodly, if it should be proven from the Scriptures V Acknowledge now, then, when you hear, that the most excellent faculty of man is not only ungodly, but ignorant of God, existing in the contempt of God, turned to evil, and unable to turn towards good. For what is it to be ‘unrighteous’, but for the will (which is one of the most noble faculties in man), to be unrighteous? What is it to understand nothing either of God or of good, but for the reason (which is another of the most noble faculties’ of man) to be ignorant of God and good, that is, to be blind to the knowledge of godliness? What is it to be ‘gone out of the way,’ and to have become unprofitable, but for men to have no power in one single faculty, and the least power in their most noble faculties, to turn unto good, but only to turn unto evil! What is it not to fear God, but for men to be in all their faculties, and most all in their noblest faculties, contemnors of all the things of God, of His words, His works, His laws, His precepts, and His will! What then can reason propose that is right, who is thus blind and ignorant? What can the will choose that is good, which is thus evil and impotent? Nay, what can the will pursue, where the reason can propose nothing but the darkness of its own blindness and ignorance? And where the reason is thus erroneous, and the will adverse, what can the man either do or attempt, that is good!”, pp. 334, 335.
The same teaching is found in Ursinus’ “Schatboek,” who under Question 8 of the Catechism discusses various degrees of freedom, and writes of the freedom of the natural man as follows: “The second degree or step of freedom of the will is the will in fallen man, born of corrupt parents, before regeneration. In this state the will acts indeed freely, but is only led to evil and can do nothing but sin. The reason for this is that the fall of man was followed by the loss of the knowledge of God in man’s intellect, and of the inclination to obedience in the will and in the heart; and that instead he entailed on himself blindness and aversion to God, which man cannot put off unless he is regenerated by the Spirit of God. In short, after the fall there is in man only the capability of choosing evil.” p. 82.
Here follows an objection to the doctrine of total depravity, answered by Ursinus:
“Objection 1: Nothing is easier, Erasmus says to Luther, than to refrain the hand from theft. Yea, even Socrates, Aristides and others did many virtuous things. Hence, there must have been with them a free will to do good before regeneration. Answer: 1. The description of the free will as freedom to do a good work, or the power to exercise obedience well pleasing to God, is erroneous. This freedom the unregenerate do not possess. Even though they refrain from committing external sinful acts, within them rage the evil passions. 2. God by His providence directs also the hearts of the unregenerate; but from this it does not follow that they can easily perform inner obedience. This cannot be present with them, seeing they were not regenerated,” p. 83.
Ursinus, too, discusses the so-called “virtues” of the unregenerate, and in some instances uses language which we would avoid, but he never hesitates to declare that these “virtues” are sins. He distinguishes between acts that are as such sinful, and acts that are sinful through “secondary causes.” These latter are: “the deeds of the unregenerate and the hypocrites; and they are indeed commanded by God, but they displease Him nevertheless, because they are done without faith and conversion to God; thus also the adiaphora that give offense. ‘And all that is not of faith is sin,’ Rom. 14:23. ‘But unto them which are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure,’ Tit. 1:15. ‘But without faith it is impossible to please God,’ Heb. 11:6. All the virtues, therefore, of the unregenerate, such as the chastity of Scipio, the courage of Julius, the faithfulness of Regulus, the righteousness of Aristides, etc., even though they are in themselves good deeds commanded by God, become sins through something additional and they displease God; both, because the persons that perform them do not please God, and because they are not done in the way and with the purpose required by God, viz., not out of faith and not to the glory of God; and these certainly are the requirements for any good work; without these even the best deeds are sins; so that it is sin when an ungodly man or hypocrite prays, gives alms, offers sacrifices, etc., because he does not do these things out of faith and to the glory of God. ‘The hypocrites do alms in the synagogues and on the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily, I say unto you, they have their reward.’ Matt. 6:2. ‘He that killeth an ox is as if he slew a man; he that sacrificeth a lamb, as if he cut off a dog’s neck; he that offereth an oblation, as he that offereth swine’s blood; he that burneth incense, as if he blessed an idol. Yea, they have chosen their own ways, and their soul delighteth in their abominations,” Isa. 66:3.’ p. 61.
The most faithful of the leaders and teachers of the Church, therefore, have always emphasized the truth that after the fall man is totally depraved. And when, by way of answering objections, they spoke of the so-called “virtues” of the ungodly, this part of their teaching was considered so accidental and unimportant, that no trace of it can be found in the Reformed Confessions! And it was considered quite sufficient to declare: “Are we then so corrupt that we are wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all wickedness? Indeed we are; except we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.” But in 1924 the Christian Reformed Church extolled the virtues of the wicked, and did not hesitate to depose ministers that refused to join in the praise of what is an abomination before God!
* De Predestinatie-leer van Aug. Thom. v. Aquino en Calv. Dr. A. D. R. Polman, p. 77.