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About This Issue

This is the third in our series of special issues devoted to the so-called Five Points of Calvinism. It is devoted in its entirety to the doctrine of Total Depravity. 

You will immediately notice again that we are not following the popular-and, perhaps, expected—order in our treatment of the Five Points. Instead we are following the order of our Canons of Dordrecht. And, as we have already noted in connection with the doctrine of definite atonement, the order of our Canons was historically determined by the order of the Five Points of Remonstrance. The third article of the Arminians was concerning man’s depravity; therefore the third chapter of the Canons, in reply to it, is also concerning man’s depravity. But there is more. Anyone who is acquainted only casually with the Canons of Dordrecht will know that Chapters III and IV of the Canons are combined into one; and although the numbers are retained, the single chapter is referred to as “Canons III, IV.” There is a reason for this. The third article of the Arminians, though very brief and certainly inadequate as a full statement of the doctrine of the depravity of the natural man, was in itself not heretical. Yet, when one reads the fourth article of the Remonstrance, which makes the grace of salvation utterly dependent upon the free will of natural man, he discovers that the Arminians did not really hold to the total depravity of the natural man at all. For this reason, the fathers of Dordrecht treated the two doctrines of man’s depravity and his conversion to God (Total Depravity, the T of T-U-L-I-P, and Irresistible Grace, the I of T-U-L-I-P) in a combined chapter, entitled, “Of the Corruption of Man, His Conversion to God, And the Manner Thereof.” And while the first few articles of Canons III, IV furnish us a very adequate statement of the depravity of natural man and, in fact, of the origin of our sin, the fact remains that the Canons deal with total depravity only from the rather limited point of view of its relation to the doctrine of man’s conversion to God, or, irresistible grace. 

It is not the purpose of this issue to follow the more restricted point of view of our Canons. For one thing, we purpose to treat the doctrine of total depravity as such and as a whole. We shall certainly take into consideration in this connection the Arminian view of sin; and two of the assigned articles will be devoted to this. Also the subject of the origin of our depravity is important in this connection, and two more assignments concern this aspect. From our distinctive Protestant Reformed point of view, the entire area of Total Depravity and so-called Common Grace is important, and to maintain the truth of Total Depravity over against the errors promulgated by Dr. Abraham Kuyper and by the Second and Third Points of 1924 belongs to our heritage. Two more assignments were in this area. Nor did we leave out of consideration the practical aspect of this doctrine. One assignment concerned the doctrine of total depravity and preaching; and another, total depravity and the antithetical life. In addition, the Meditation in this issue is related to its theme; and it fell to your editor to introduce the subject. 

We left it to the various writers to choose the actual titles of their articles; we only assigned their subjects and added a brief statement in some instances with a suggestion or two as to the specific area of discussion assigned to them. 

In behalf of the Staff’s committee, I hereby express sincere thanks to all those who contributed to this special issue. 

It is our hope that the reader will profit.

Total Means Total

Today almost everyone who is at all to be classified even in the broadest sense as “evangelical” professes to believe the doctrine of total depravity. Those who hold to the Kuyperian doctrine of common grace nevertheless claim to believe this doctrine, although they have so compromised it that in their view there is in reality nowhere to be found in this world a totally depraved man: common grace prevents this. Many a modern day Arminian evangelist will also profess—even as the Arminians of old—that man is totally depraved. A man like Billy Graham in his book, World Aflame, freely professes that man is totally depraved; yet his totally depraved man is able to pray to God and ask Him for the new life, for the gift of regeneration. Almost everyone today gives lip service to the doctrine of total depravity. 

What does this mean for Reformed people? 

It means that in our profession and in our preaching, in our catechizing and teaching, in our spreading abroad of the truth of the gospel on the domestic or on the foreign mission field, it is no longer enough merely to say that we maintain the doctrine of total depravity. The mere term total depravity is no longer some kind of magical badge of distinction of a Calvinist. Common grace men wear this badge. Arminians wear this badge. In fact, they even go so far as to deny the badge of “total depravity” to us and to others who have the only right to wear it because we insist upon the full, biblical, confessional, historically correct meaning of this doctrine. They will say, for example, that our badge is the badge of “absolute depravity” instead of the badge of “total depravity.” This, of course, is a favorite ploy of heretics and deniers of the truth. They attempt to use the language of Scripture and the language of the confessions, the language of orthodoxy, as a cover for their doctrinal corruptions; and meanwhile they attempt to deny the use of that language to those who have the only right to use it.

Positively speaking, it means that we must be specific. We must spell out in clear, bold, unmistakable, sharply defined, black-and-white lines what is meant by this doctrine of total depravity. We must do this antithetically, that is, with specific rejection of every error repugnant thereto. We must not hesitate to point out that many who use the terminology of total depravity in fact deny the depravity of natural man and are Pelagian. We may never be satisfied to do lip-service to the doctrine by merely asserting, “We believe total depravity.” In the pulpit and in the catechism room, at home and on the mission field, on the air waves and in the printed page we may not be satisfied to refer to the doctrine merely by the term itself and then to assume that those who hear and read actually understand what is meant. There is a real danger of failure in this respect. There is a real danger that through the mere force of tradition, particularly with those doctrines which have become more or less popularly known by certain names, such as “The Five Points of Calvinism” or “Sovereign Predestination” or “Total Depravity,” etc., we tend to assume that everyone knows what is meant and that everyone understands what is truly meant and what we, Reformed, mean. Operate on this assumption in the catechism room, and you bring up a generation of doctrinal ignoramuses. Operate on this assumption in the congregational pulpit, and you train a congregation to have itching ears that cannot stand sound doctrine. Operate on this assumption on the mission field, at home or abroad, and you will gather perhaps generally conservative churches, but not distinctively Reformed flocks. In fact, it may safely be said that if our loyalty to the truth is no deeper and no more specific than such traditionalistic lip-service to certain code-words of the truth, we are just one among many generally conservative churches and have no real right of existence. 

This is a matter of history. 

There was a time when it was sufficient simply to speak of the depravity of man’s nature. After all, if man’s very nature is depraved, corrupt, in heart and mind and will and all his affections, it is not possible to speak of any good in such a man. It may be possible to have an otherwise good apple with a rotten spot in it; and if the bad spot is removed, you have an edible apple. But it is not so with man’s nature. If his heart is corrupt, and if all the issues of life are from that heart, then the whole man is corrupt, dead in trespasses and sins. But because of various attacks upon the truth concerning man’s depravity, it became necessary to underscore that totality and to add the term which is really repetitious, total

As I have already suggested, since that time other devices have been used by opponents of the truth. The one used by Billy Graham, for example—and, I may add, very commonly used by others—is that total depravity means that the whole man, all the parts of his nature, are depraved; but that this does not mean that every part is totally depraved. Result? There is enough good in man that he can still make the first move: he can ask God to regenerate him. Total depravity? No! Pelagian and Arminian denial of total depravity! The same is true of the misuse that is made of an otherwise proper distinction between total and absolute depravity. It is used to cover up the denial of the Scriptural and confessional doctrine of total depravity. 

We must be specific, therefore. 

And to be specific we must speak the language of our Reformed creeds. 

Probably best known in those creedal statements is the brief statement of our Heidelberg Catechism in Q. and A. 8. After making it clear in Question 5 that our sin is a matter of our very nature, the Catechism teaches in Q. and A. 8 the following: “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.” Notice: the single exception to the universal rule of total depravity is that of regeneration; and regeneration is by the Spirit of God. 

But our other creeds, the Belgic Confession of Faith and the Canons of Dordrecht add to this brief description, and they do so in clear and unequivocal terms. Consider the language of Canons III, IV, 1: “. . .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.” Or read Article 3: “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.” 

Specific language! Do you believe it! And confess it?