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When the child of God opens the Scriptures and reads concerning sinful and fallen man as he is by nature, he is confronted with a woeful picture of the misery of man. He reads in Jeremiah 17:9 that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” and again in Genesis 6:5, “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” The Scriptures speak of the fact that the “imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21), that he is shapen in iniquity and conceived in sin (Psalm 51:5), and that he is, in fact, “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). 

In the light of this clear and simple teaching of Scripture, we as Reformed believers confess the truth of man’s total’ depravity by nature and his utter inability either to will or to do the good. Contrary to the idea that there is any good in man, we confess that the natural man is really and truly dead, a spiritual corpse, whose heart is a fountain of wickedness,. sin, and corruption. Natural man lacks any spiritual virtue or power; he is unrighteous, unholy, and stands at enmity with God and the neighbor. 

The Scriptures, in their description of fallen man, leave no doubt as to the extent of that depravity. They speak particularly of the heart, the spiritual center of man’s nature, out of which are the issues of life, and proclaim that its every imagination is only evil, and that continually. The natural heart is desperately wicked. Just as the physical heart circulates blood to every part of the body and sustains its earthly existence, so also spiritually, at the center of man’s nature, there beats a depraved heart that is a fountain of wickedness, rendering his nature utterly corrupt. This is why the Scriptures speak of unregenerate man as wicked and ungodly. The natural man does not merely commit sin, but he is a sinner. Thus our Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day III, 8) in answer to the question, “Are we then so corrupt that we are wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all wickedness?” responds, “Indeed we are; except we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.” The only way out for fallen man is a wonder of grace, rooted in the cross, in the death and resurrection of Christ, and applied by the Spirit of Christ to the elect through the grace of regeneration. 

This truth of the full extent of sin in man and our utter and total depravity by nature, the child of God confesses. It leaves him nothing of his own. He con tributes nothing to his salvation, but confesses that it is a work of grace from beginning to end. The truth of total depravity leaves no room for sinful pride, no place for boasting. It is not surprising, therefore, that this truth has been a battleground in the history of the church. Man’s sinful pride wants to keep the reins of salvation in his own hands. Some place must be left for man, that he might be the deciding factor in salvation. It is important that we understand the truth of total depravity is not itself the primary issue. Throughout the history of the church, it has been attacked with this’ end in view: that by preserving some good in man, some spiritual power or ability, a place might be found for man to be sovereign in his salvation. The issue is not first of all man’s sinfulness, but salvation by grace alone. If some remnant of good, spiritual power or ability can be found in man, then he and not God is the decisive element. 

At the time of the Reformation the truth of total depravity and the sovereignty of God was clearly set forth and incorporated into the creeds of the Reformation, such as Lord’s Day III of the Heidelberg Catechism and Article XIV of the Confession of Faith. But there were also those in the Reformed community who were not content with this. They wanted to retain some place for man in the work of salvation. Arminius was the leader of this group. He sought a conditional salvation. To accomplish this he had to corrupt the Reformed doctrine of sin and man’s depravity. The Arminians taught that man was depraved, yet not totally. They tried to limit the extent of man’s depravity. This error the Reformed churches rejected in the Canons of Dordt. 

In the third and fourth heads of doctrine, Rejection of Errors, Articles 2-4, you find the line of the Arminian argument and the fathers’ rejection of it. The Arminians began by reviving the semi-Pelagian idea that the image of God, particularly righteousness and holiness, did not belong to the will in man’s creation. They rejected the idea that man’s will could be described as either good or bad, but wanted a will which was merely neutral, which could choose either way, without any inclination in one direction or another. Thus man’s will could be the decisive factor in his salvation. Therefore they taught “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, and that these therefore could not have been separated therefrom in the fall” (Canons III-IV, B, 2). This our fathers rejected, rightly discerning that the Scriptures teach that holiness and righteousness belong particularly to the activity and inclination of the will, and that they were in fact spiritual qualities of the will of man. As these qualities belonged to the image of God, they were lost in the fall. They therefore refuted the Arminians by setting forth the Scriptural truth of the image of God and by rejecting the Arminian description of the will. “For such is contrary to the description of the image of God, which the Apostle gives in Eph. 4:24, where he declares that it consists in righteousness and holiness, which undoubtedly belong to the will” (Canons III-IV, B, 2).

The Arminians, having separated the image of God from the will, wanted at the same time to sound Reformed and were therefore willing to speak of man’s depravity. This is why they spoke of a form of spiritual death, but excluded the will from this. By excluding the will they could not properly speak of a man’s depravity in terms of his nature as such, as an organic whole. Instead they divided that nature up into compartments. Thus depravity extended to man’s faculty of understanding, which was darkened, and to his affections, those natural and earthly desires which were irregular, that is, disorderly. These factors hindered the will in its operation, so that it was difficult for man to choose the good. The Arminians were willing to make some room for grace, a grace which by presenting that which is good to the will, assisted it. With this assisting or helping grace, the will of man was able to cooperate in choosing the good. The final decision lay with the will of man and not with the grace of God (Canons III-IV, B, 3). Thus the necessity of grace was reduced to a mere assisting influence. Man needed reformation and instruction, but man’s problem was principally one of ignorance and bad habits. 

To this our Reformed fathers replied by pointing out that which Scripture says concerning the heart of man. They went to the spiritual center of man’s existence and from Scripture showed its depravity, as set forth inJeremiah 17:9 and Ephesians 2:3 (Canons III-IV, B, 3). 

The Arminians, having attempted to preserve the will incorrupt, were compelled to teach its wholesome influence in the life of fallen man. Man then was completely dead, but only affected by spiritual death; man was merely sick. He could still long after the good and desire it, such that “he can yet hunger and thirst after righteousness and life, and offer the sacrifice of a contrite and broken spirit, which is pleasing to God” (Canons III-IV, B, 4). In this way they destroyed the reality of sin, teaching that man was not only able to will the good, but also by his good desires was capable of meriting the assisting grace of God. 

This our fathers rejected utterly, for it denies that man is dead in sin and makes him not only alive in part, but the active agent in salvation. Because Arminians reduce sin in the life of man to merely the acts which he does, they deny that man is himself truly sinful, so that he is dead in trespasses and sins. This theory of the Arminians the Synod of Dordt rejected by pointing to the spiritual state of the unregenerate, as set forth in Ephesians 2:1, 5 and Genesis 6:5Genesis 8:21, and by showing that the qualities spoken of belong only to the regenerate, as shown in Psalm 51:10, 19 and Matthew 5:6(Canons III-IV, B, 4). 

This same error still confronts us as Reformed people today. It does not always come in the same guise. In its neo-Evangelical form it comes to us in spiritual self-improvement books or by so-called evangelists who cleverly explain how to be regenerated or born again, as if that which is spiritually dead could make itself alive by means of a sort of spiritual do-it-yourself manual. In its simpler form it calls upon man to make his decision for Christ and pictures fallen man as one who is drowning, to whom is cast the life-line of the gospel. In its most modernistic form, sin is conceived of merely as something which one does, and a sinner merely as one who commits sin, and who can therefore by proper training be re-educated. Sin can be cured by social reform, prisoner rehabilitation, and counseling. 

Against this corruption of God’s Word we are called to stand fast and to contend for the truth that man is dead in trespasses and sins, not merely sick or dying, but dead by nature, drowned, not drowning. His heart is corrupt and depraved, sinful not merely because of what he does, but because of what he is, a sinner. His nature viewed as an organic whole is depraved, and the extent of that depravity total. This truth is a precious comfort to the Reformed Christian for it means that His salvation is of God alone. The only way out is by a wonder of grace which proceeds from God alone, finds its center in the shed blood of Christ and the power of His resurrection and is wrought in us by the quickening Spirit of Christ in our regeneration. As Jesus Himself says (John 3:5), “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven.”