The question arises: what is the meaning of total depravity? The catechism answers: total depravity signifies “that we are wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all evil?” But it may be expedient at this point to ask the further question: but what is good and what is evil? It seems a rather severe judgment that all men are wholly incapable of doing any good, and if we look about us in the world and judge of men as we come into contact with them, we are, perhaps, inclined to doubt the truth of this statement. That there is a good deal of corruption among men of every station in life is evident. That men in their relation to one another are often motivated by covetousness, lust, pride, ambition, hatred and envy and the like no one can deny. But that, outside of regeneration, all men are always wicked and perverse, so that they never do anything that is good, is difficult to harmonize with actual experience. It is true that in the lower strata of society one may find men that are so deeply and hopelessly submerged in the mire of sin that one would not hesitate, perhaps, to consider them totally depraved; but is there not also a higher moral level on which one meets with men that give themselves wholly to the pursuit of the happiness and well-being of their fellowmen, and that are characterized by integrity and nobility in all their walk and conversation? And is it not a fact, too, that the same men who on some occasions and in some situations reveal themselves as being actuated by the meanest and most corrupt motives, will at other times perform the noblest and most unselfish deeds? Is, then, one not forced to the conclusion, either that Romans 7 gives us a picture of the natural man, or that there is, besides regenerating grace, some other kind of grace whereby men are somewhat improved, so that in actual life they are not wholly incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil?
It is not the testimony of Scripture, but that of this apparent conflict between our Confessions on this point and actual experience that led Dr. A. Kuyper to write his work on Common Grace. Writes he: “If one conceives of sin as a cause, indeed, of spiritual and physical deterioration, but not as a deadly and quickly operating poison that, unless it is restrained, leads to spiritual, temporal, and eternal death, there is no room for the restraint of sin, to which Calvin first emphatically called attention, and on which the entire doctrine of general grace is based. It is exactly because of this that the Reformed confession has always placed full emphasis on this deadly character of sin, and opposed every attempt to weaken the conception of sin. Incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil was the formula the Heidelberger used to express this truth. And if you take your position unmovably in this truth, then it is but natural that you will discover in the narrative of Paradise, and in all the rest of Scripture, and in human life round about you, and in your own heart, evidences of a divine operation, by which the quick and absolutely fatal operation of sin has been and still is restrained in many ways, even there where there is no question of saving grace. Or do you not find, even by heathen peoples and by unbelievers in your own environment, many phenomena that bespeak a certain inclination to good things, and a certain indignation over all kinds of crime? It is true, there is not found any inclination to saving good, but, nevertheless, a certain attraction for integrity and things of a good report. Are there not acts of meanness, dishonesty and perversion of justice, against which the public conscience, even of unbelievers, rebels? And can one not relate numerous deeds of philanthropy and charity, performed by unbelievers, by which they often put to shame the believers? When the daughter of Pharaoh rescued Moses from the Nile, did she do good or evil? And is it, then, not evident that the total corruption of our nature through sin, a truth which we unhesitatingly confess, is in conflict with reality? And do you, therefore, not clearly see that in such oases you stand before the alternative: either abandon your confession of the deadly character of sin; or maintain this confession with might and main, but then with the additional confession that there is an operation of general grace, whereby this deadly operation of sin in numerous cases is restrained” (De Gemeene Gratie, I, 248, 249).
The question that confronts us, therefore, is whether the life of the natural, fallen man in this world, as we observe it, must be explained as being the result of a certain grace of God, whereby sin within him is restrained; or whether all its impulses and manifestations are quite in accord with the statement of the Heidelberg Catechism that “we are wholly incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil.” This is not a purely scholastic question, but concerns the very heart of our Reformed truth on this point. For, if the life and walk of fallen, unregenerate man is to be explained as the fruit of grace, this fruit must certainly be good, the natural man is not wholly depraved; and the doctrine of total depravity becomes an abstraction that does not harmonize with actual experience. And again, if this is true, the truth of total depravity cannot be applied in actual life: a basis is established for the amalgamation of the Church and the world, for the cooperation of the believer and the unbeliever. In that case there is some concord between Christ and Belial. That this is the lamentable result of the doctrine of “common grace” may be seen in those churches that adopted and glorify (this doctrine. The antithesis is obliterated, and the “sons of God” are more and more lost in the world. The question, therefore, is one of great doctrinal and practical importance. And this question cannot be decided by taking our standpoint in experience and by proceeding from what we see in the world of the life of natural man, but must be answered solely in the light of the Word of God, and next, in that of the Reformed Confessions.
And then we may state without fear of contradiction that the Scriptures never speak of a restraining grace to explain the activity and development of the natural, man in the world. Neither the term nor the idea is found in the Bible. The life of the regenerated is, indeed, presented throughout the Word of God as the fruit of grace; the life of the natural man never. It is true, of course, that also the activity and development of the wicked and of the devils are strictly under God’s control, so that, as Art. 13 of the Netherland Confession teaches us, “nothing can befall as by chance, but by the direction of our most gracious and heavenly Father; who watches over us with a paternal care, keeping all creatures so under His power, that not a hair of our head (for they are all numbered), nor a sparrow, can fall to the ground, without the will of our Father, in whom we do entirely trust; being persuaded that he so restrains the devil and all our enemies, that without His will and permission they cannot hurt us.” But this overruling providence of God, whereby He holds the wicked in His power and controls all their actions, is quite different from a certain restraining grace by which the unregenerate are inwardly somewhat improved and enabled to do the good. Of this the Bible never makes mention.
The passages from the Bible on which this doctrine is supposed to be based are not to the point, A few of them we will examine by way of illustration. All of them are mentioned in Kuyper’s De Gemeene Gratie. There is, first of all, the case of Abimelech in relation to Sarah, Abraham’s wife, quoted by Dr. Kuyper as proof of the proposition that there is a general restraining grace of God operative in all the unregenerate. Let us read the account of it in Scripture: “And Abraham said of Sarah his wife; She is my sister: and Abimelech king of Gerar sent, and took Sarah. But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night, and said to him, Behold, thou are but a dead man, for the woman which thou hast taken; for she is a man’s wife. But Abimelech had not come near her: and he said, Lord, wilt thou slay also a righteous nation? Said he not unto me, She is my sister? and she, even herself said, He is my brother: in the integrity of my heart and innocency of my hands have I done this. And God said unto him in a dream, Yea, I know that thou didst this in the integrity of thy heart; for I also withheld thee from sinning against me: therefore suffered I thee not to touch her” (Gen. 20:2-6). Now Dr. Kuyper concludes from this passage the following; “mention is made here, therefore, of a direct operation of God upon the person of Abimelech, whereby a sinful passion that was aroused is restrained, an impelling sin is checked, a premeditated evil is frustrated; and that, too, of such a direct operation as affected alike his sensuality and his soul, so that he became sensually a dead man, and in his soul the passion was broken. It was necessary to (explain this here somewhat elaborately, because Scripture here explains and God Himself interprets to us the operation of common grace more broadly than usual” (De Gemeene Gratie, II, 58).
But is this conclusion of Dr. Kuyper’s the true interpretation of the text as found in Gen. 20? That it is not shall be evident from the following considerations, 1. Whatever may be the correct explanation of Abimelech’s case, it is at all events a very exceptional occurrence, from which no general conclusions may be drawn with respect to a possible operation of God restraining sin in all men. Sarah was the covenant mother of the promised seed, and for her sake God does not permit Abimelech to touch her. 2. That Abimelech was an unregenerate man is presupposed by Dr. Kuyper’s interpretation, but is by no means an established fact. In those days, relatively soon after the flood, when Shem was still living, when a God-fearing king like Melchisedec is still found in the land of Canaan, and when there must have been thousands of children of God outside of Abraham and his house, a man like Abimelech may very well be classified with those that feared the Lord. In fact, the text does not at all leave the (impression that he was a wicked person. God speaks to him in a dream, and with evident reference to himself he answers: wilt thou slay a righteous nation? Moreover, he says to God: “in the integrity of my heart and innocency of my hands have I done this;” and God Himself corroborated this statement. 3. It certainly is quite contrary to the plain statements of the text when Dr. Kuyper explains that there was in Abimelech’s case a direct (operation of God “whereby a sinful passion that was aroused is restrained, an impelling sin is checked, a premeditated evil is frustrated.” There was no sinful passion, and surely no premeditated evil on the part of Abimelech. He acted on the supposition that Abraham and Sarah spoke the truth, and that he had the perfect right to take Sarah to wife. And God Himself seals the statement of Abimelech that he had done this in the integrity of his heart. It is true, of course, that the act of intercourse with Sarah was prevented by an act of God, but this was no restraint of sin, no influence of a certain grace whereby Abimelech’s nature was somewhat improved, for the simple reason that there was no intention of sin in Abimelech’s heart at all.
4. Finally, let us also note, that the act of God whereby the deed of intercourse with Sarah on the part of Abimelech was prevented, was not an operation of grace, but such an influence of God upon the body of Abimelech that intercourse with Sarah became a physical impossibility. This is evident from the text itself: “Behold, thou art but a dead man, for the woman which thou hast taken.’’ For all these reasons it may be considered quite evident that Abimelech’s case cannot be quoted in proof of the doctrine of a general restraining grace in the nature of all unregenerate men.
The second passage from Scripture to which we must call attention in this connection is Rom. 1:18ff. Especially verses 24, 26 and 28. We read there: “Wherefore God also gave them up unto uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves,” vs. 24. And again: “For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural, use into that which is against nature.” vs. 26. And once more: “And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over unto a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient.” vs. 28. To understand how the doctrine of a restraining grace is elicited from these passages, we must let Dr. Kuyper speak. He explains these passages as follows:
“This fact (that the nations developed from bad to worse, H.H.) the apostle attributes to this, that it pleased God gradually to cause His ‘common grace to shrink (te doen inkrimpen).’ Common grace was extended after the flood, now again its influence was cause to shrink, and this shrinking of common grace the apostle pictures to us in these words, that it pleased God “to give them over to a reprobate mind. . . .”
“This “giving over” of the nations by God may not be understood in the sense of a common hardening. Obiduration and hardening incites to rebellion and enmity against God, while ‘to be given over’ in itself merely implies that the evil of sin is no longer restrained so forcibly as before, so that as a result the evil worked through in a most dangerous manner. Hence, as a result of this ‘giving over’ the apostle points as often as three times, not to an audacious
God-provoking presumption as that of Pharaoh, but constantly to the corruption of morals, i.e. to the being swallowed up of what is human by bestiality” (De Gemeene Gratie, II, 412).
The “giving over” of which the apostle speaks in this passage, therefore, is explained as referring to such a withholding of the operation of common grace, that man is left to himself, to his own lust, sin is no longer restrained, and the world is left to develop in corruption to its own destruction. And this presupposes that there was a period in which God did restrain the process of corruption and the breaking out of sin by restraining grace. Romans 1:18ff. does not directly teach common grace, but presupposes it. However, against this explanation several objections may be raised. 1. Certainly the text in Romans 1 does not speak of restraining grace, but of the very opposite: of a wrath of God that delivers the ungodly over to their own corruption. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness.” In these words of the eighteenth verse the theme of the entire section to the end of the chapter is announced. And the apostle explains first of all just how men hold the truth in unrighteousness, in order then to show how God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against such ungodliness of men. Their ungodliness and unrighteousness consists in this: a. They know God, for the invisible things of God from the creation of the world are clearly seen, and that which is known of God is manifest in them. b. They glorify Him not as God, neither are thankful. This is their iniquity, and against this is the wrath of God revealed. Now, let us note that the apostle does not write that there was a time when this was different, as Dr. Kuyper presupposes. Always God made Himself known as God; and always men held this truth in unrighteousness. Hence, the wrath of God of which the apostle speaks in this chapter was always revealed. And how was this wrath of God revealed? First of all in this, that God made them foolish, who professed themselves to be wise, so that they bowed themselves before man and beast and creeping things. And secondly in this, that God cast them into the mire of utter moral degradation. The section, therefore, does not speak of restraining grace, but of delivering wrath by which men develop in sin and corruption. 2. The word that is used for “giving over” may not be rendered by the merely passive “letting go,” as Kuyper would explain. Three times the apostle uses the word paredooken. And that this word has a very positive and active meaning may be gathered from other instances where the same word is employed in Holy Writ. It occurs in Matt. 10:21: “And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child.” It is plain that here the meaning is not: “the brother shall let go, or abandon the brother to die’’ but that a positive act is meant whereby the brother is put to death. In Acts 8:3 we read: “As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering into every house, and hailing men and women committed them to prison.” The word in the original that is rendered by “committed” in this verse’ is the same that is translated by “gave over” in Rom. 1. Yet it is plain that the meaning is not that Saul let them go into prison, but that she actively made them prisoners, led them into bonds. In the same sense the word occurs in Matt. 17:22: “The Son of man shall be betrayed (delivered up) into the hands of men.” And again in Matt. 24:9: “They shall deliver you up to be afflicted.” These examples might easily be multiplied. And they shed light upon the meaning of the word as the apostle employs it in Rom. 1. No more than it can be said that anyone is delivered upon into prison or unto death, into the hands of anyone or unto affliction and tribulation, by an act of mere passive abandonment, no more can the words “he gave them up” have that passive denotation in the first chapter of the epistle to the Romans. It denotes a positive act of God, whereby in His holy wrath God cast the ungodly that would not glorify Him, neither were thankful, deeper into the mire of sin and corruption. To be sure, this act of God does not destroy or ignore the moral nature of man. He gave them up through their own lusts. Rut the fact remains that the words “he gave them up” denote an active delivering up on the part of God. But if this is true, then it must also be plain that this term does not at all presuppose a previous period of restraining grace. Were the meaning of the term “to let go” it would have sense to say that such a previous restraint was presupposed. I let go that which I withhold or restrain first. But now the word denotes a positive act of delivering up, this divine act of restraint is not at all presupposed. 3. Resides, the question arises: why should God cause His common grace to “shrink”? Dr. Kuyper answers: because men increased in unrighteousness and ungodliness. The shrinking of common grace was a punitive measure on the part of God. But how could men develop in corruption and break out in iniquity, as long as God by the operation of common grace restrained sin in their nature? It is evident that thus we are reasoning in circles: the cause of the shrinking of common grace is the breaking out into sin on the part of the ungodly, and the cause of the latter is the shrinking of common grace. The cause is the effect and the effect is the cause! But apart from this, it should be quite clear that Romans 1 cannot be referred to as a proof for the doctrine of a restraining grace. It teaches the very opposite.