The question quite naturally is raised: Is it possible to preach human depravity from the pulpit, and, more specifically, on the mission field? Is it the proper approach to tell the unconverted sinner who is brought under the preaching of the Word that he is dead in trespasses and sins, incapable of any good, and prone to all evil? Still more, is it proper to declare to the unconverted that God does not offer salvation for man to accept, and that it is impossible for anyone to believe the gospel except by the regenerating and saving grace of God?
One might even want to argue that this doctrine of total depravity and moral inability should be kept in reserve until the unconverted sinner is able to digest the more solid foods of doctrine. Possibly it might be suggested that the sinner be allowed the impression that he can accept the salvation, which is freely offered to him, and then after conversion he may be brought into a clearer insight into the truth of his depravity.
Yet Scripture requires of the sincere minister of the gospel that he proclaim “the whole counsel of God.” In fact, it is the truth that makes one free, and not the error. It is the pure, unadulterated milk of the Word that is food for our souls, and not the philosophies of men. For it is God Who saves us by the work of His Spirit in our hearts, and not man, who at best is but an instrument through whom God works. And God has given the pure preaching of the Word as the sole means of grace used by the Holy Spirit to work and strengthen faith in those who are saved. Therefore the Word of God, and that Word alone, in all its purity is the power of God unto salvation to those who believe. But besides all that, Scripture itself leads the way in proclaiming the truth of man’s depravity, and therefore anyone who preaches Scripture as the Word of God must necessarily also preach depravity, whether from the pulpit or on the mission field.
Scripture does not hesitate to call sin SIN. The Bible uses many different words to describe sin in all its wicked corruption. The most common word that appears both in the Old and the New Testament means “to miss the mark.” The idea is not that the sinner aims at the target but often misses or falls short. The idea is rather that we are so perverse that we deliberately aim our lives in the opposite direction. The sinner always deliberately misses the mark. For God demands that we love Him with our whole being, and we are prone by nature only to hate; every imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth. (Gen. 3:21.)
There are many other words describing sin in Scripture. Sin is “a passing over the boundary”, a transgression of God’s law, a wandering away from the living God to follow vain idols. Or sin is described as open rebellion, a perversion or distortion of the nature, deception, unrest, toil, vanity, emptiness, and ruin. Therefore Scripture compares us to sheep which have gone astray, every one in his own willful way wandering off to destruction. Or again, the sinner is described as a leper, cast out of God, given over to the ravages of death in soul and body. For he who sins is made sin’s slave, according to the apostle Paul. And from another aspect, sin is described as spiritual separation from the living God, death. No more than a dead corpse can arise and eat, no more can a dead sinner arouse himself to accept a proffered salvation. But God is mighty to cleanse the leper and to raise the dead by the Word of His power, even as Jesus revealed that power while He was with us in the flesh. Therefore He told Nicodemus, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3.)
Obviously this description of sin and the sinner applies to every single member of the human race. Human considerations, mere sentiment, or outward appearance cannot change that estimation which God gives of us. There are various degrees of sinfulness and guilt; but that does not change the fact that there is none righteous, no, not one. There is none that doeth good, not a single one. Every mouth must be stopped and all the world must be declared guilty before God. (Rom. 3:10-19.) There may be an outward appearance of virtue, that even makes quite an impression upon us; yet Scripture is very definite in declaring that the imagination of man’s heart is only evil continually. When God lays bare the inner recesses of the heart and mind, even the secret springs of life, God declares that “every desire and purpose” which arises in man’s mind is corrupted, twisted, perverted, because the heart is evil, perverse, corrupt. And that condition prevails even from our “youth,” since we are conceived and born in sin.
Now this was told to Noah before the flood. And Noah, the preacher of righteousness (II Peter 2:5), was called to proclaim just that to the wicked world of his day. Many years before him Enoch had spoken of the impending judgment of God upon ungodly men for all their ungodly deeds and hard speeches. (Jude 1:14, 15.) And now Noah was called to proclaim that the time was at hand that God would execute His righteous judgment upon that first world.
After the flood the situation was actually no different. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob declared by word and deed that they could have no fellowship with the wicked idolaters of Canaan, because they served Jehovah Who alone is God. Moses stood before Pharaoh to demand in the name: of his God that Pharaoh let His people go that they might serve. Him. The Psalms and the book of Proverbs speak repeatedly of the sin and guilt of the wicked, testifying that God is angry with the wicked every day. The prophets never ceased from condemning the sins, of carnal Israel and prophesying of God’s certain judgment. God made Naaman the Syrian a leper and sent him to Elishah, who scorned the Syrian’s high position, refused his gifts, and simply told him to wash in the river Jordan, that Naaman might realize that salvation is the sovereign gift of God to His people in Christ Jesus. Jonah preached the judgment of God against the sins of Nineveh, upon which many repented.
These are but a few isolated examples that could readily be multiplied; And also the New Testament concurs in every respect with the Old in proclaiming the depravity of man. Jesus states that “Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, false witness, blasphemies.” (Matt. 15:19.) And He did not hesitate to tell the Pharisees, “Ye are of your father, the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do.” (John 8:44.)
Paul in his epistles speaks the same language. These are sometimes referred to as missionary epistles, because they are addressed to newly established churches. But this is the more reason to read carefullyRomans 1, which speaks of the wrath of God that is revealed from heaven upon the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. God gives them over to vain idols and to all the abominations that are always associated with idolatry. And also Romans 3:10-18, and Ephesians 2:1-3, as well as other passages, too numerous to mention, describe the depravity of man in all its corruption.
This belongs to the preaching of the gospel! How could it be otherwise? The Holy Spirit does not approach a sinner with the formula, “God loves you, Christ died for you,” but proclaims the gospel of Jesus Christ. He uses the Scriptures to speak of sin, righteousness, and judgment. He calls sinners to repentance. He convicts of sin, so that the prodigal son “comes to himself,” realizing that he craves the husks that the swine eat. The Holy Spirit causes him to arise and go to his Father, only to discover that Father’s love has never faltered, but draws His own unto His bosom. (Luke 15)
That is entirely in harmony with the gospel call of our Lord, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Although many hear the proclamation of the gospel, only those who are convicted of sin and guilt will “labor and be heavy laden.” They, in turn, will know that this voice is calling them, and they will come to Jesus in sorrow and repentance to find rest for their souls.
But then, how about these other passages of Scripture that seemingly teach a desire and willingness of God to save every individual, if he will but accept Christ? To that we turn our attention next time.