However, if the theory that there is some other kind of grace than that which regenerates a man, must be rejected, the question returns: what is the implication of the doctrine of total depravity? How can the answer of the Heidelberg Catechism to its eight question be squared with many phenomena in the actual experience and everyday life in the world of men that appear to contradict the severe judgment of our instructor : we are incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil, unless we are regenerated by the Spirit of God? In order to give the correct answer to this question it is paramount that we bear in mind that the Catechism is speaking of ethical good and evil, and to ask ourselves: what is meant by this?
Sin did not and could not change man essentially, i.e., it did not change him into some other kind of being. By the fall he did not change into a devil or demon, nor was he degraded to the level of the animal. It is often alleged that man would have been changed into some kind of a devil immediately when he fell, had not God intervened at once through the operation of His common grace. But all such statements are erroneous. Sin could not change the being of man. It is moral, ethical corruption. Man was created a psycho-physical being, a creature consisting of body and soul, possessing intellect and will. And after the fall he still is such a psycho-physical, rational and moral creature. Sin did not cause mental derangement or intellectual incapacity in man. It is true, that even these natural gifts and powers are greatly marred and weakened through the fall; but they are not lost. Nor has his essential relation to the world about him been changed. It is true that the world bears the curse for his sake: the earth brings forth thorns and thistles, and the creature is in bondage to corruption; it is subject to vanity and it toils and labors in vain. But even so, man is still king of the earthly creation, and exercises dominion over all things. Although he rules in the sphere of vanity, so that no definite goal is to be attained by the “culture” of the world, man, nevertheless, reigns over the earthly creature. He “cultivates” that creation with all its powers and treasures and in every department of its existence and life. The result is that the natural man is able to perform and accomplish many things that are formally correct, and that are well-nigh perfect from a mechanical viewpoint. He makes the world about him, as well as his own existence and life, object of his scientific investigation; he discovers the ordinances of the Creator in all things, and arranges his own life accordingly; he brings to light the hidden wonders of the works of God, and presses them into his service. He can build a good house, and construct a wonderfully perfect machine; he understands the laws of the soil and of the seasons, of summer and winter, of heat and cold, of winds and rain, and he causes the earth to yield the best possible crop. He studies the laws of gravity and gravitation, of steam and electricity, of light rays and sound waves; his searching eye roams through the immensity of the firmament and he predicts the exact course of the heavenly bodies millions upon millions of miles distant from the earth; and he penetrates into the mysteries of matter, and discovers the ordinances of atoms and molecules. And he invents the telephone and telegraph, the radio and cinematograph, and causes his voice to be heard to the ends of the earth. He speeds along the road in his automobile, he flies through space in his aeroplane; he swallows up both space and time, and makes the world very small. He is able to make terrible instruments of destruction in the form of guns and tanks, submarines and torpedoes, bombs and shells; but he also heals the wounds and fights disease and death, prolonging human life and alleviating human suffering. And much he can do to enrich his earthly life and to make it more abundant. He surrounds himself with means that make his life both pleasant and comfortable: he eats and drinks, he plays and dances, and fills his heart with gladness. All these things the fallen sinner can perform quite well, in this sense he is not incapable of doing any good, or prone to do everything wrong. Sin did not change the being of man, nor his essential relationship to the world about him.
The natural man is even able to conform his external life and walk in the world to a certain extent to the moral law of God. He is not morally incompetent in the sense that he can no longer discern the difference between good and evil. As we have seen in our discussion of Rom. 2:14, 15, the natural man does by nature the things of the law, and by rather clearly discerning between good and evil and making his laws accordingly, he shows that he has the work of the law written in his heart. And there is even an attempt on his part to regulate his life and the life of the community in which he lives according to the law of God. A complexity of motives such as fear of punishment, vain glory, ambition, the urge of self- preservation, shame, and the like, govern him in this attempt. In general we may state that the natural man consents to the law that it is good, and that it is salutary for him to keep it, while the wages of sin is always death. Too much adultery and debauchery undermine the body and have a corrupting effect on society; too much greed and covetousness disrupt economic relations, cause revolutions and wars; too great a laxity in the laws governing marriage and divorce destroys the home and the nation; if the practice of deceit and dishonesty in business is not curbed the result is lack of confidence; the murderer and highway robber are detrimental to society. All this the natural man discerns very clearly. And the love of self and the desire for self-preservation urge him to curb his lust and to conform his outward life as much as he considers expedient to the precepts of God’s moral law. Ultimately he fails in this attempt, for the love of God is not in his heart, and he follows after his sinful lusts. But all this readily explains that in the world of fallen man there is a certain “regard for virtue and external orderly deportment” as the Canons express it.
Yet, in all this the natural man performs no good in the ethical sense of the word. It must still be said of him that he is incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil. For what is good? It is the perfect keeping of the law of God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength. But what is the law of God? As we have seen in our discussion of question 4 of our Catechism, it is the expression of the living will of God that man shall love Him. To love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our mind and with all our soul and with all our strength, to love Him in all that we do, to be motivated by that love of God in all our thinking and willing and desires and actions,—that is good, and nothing else is good. All that is not of the love of God, however noble and charitable and beautiful it may appear as far as the outward act is concerned, is certainly evil. And the natural man does not love God, nor is he capable of loving God. On the contrary, he hates Him. For “the carnal mind is enmity again God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (Rom. 8:7). Hence, all he does is motivated by enmity against God, by love of self apart from God. He seeks his own glory instead of the glory of God. And because of this evil motive and purpose, all he does is always sin. He may be honest in business, he may refrain from drunkenness, he may lead a clean life, he may be charitable to his neighbors, he may be scrupulously correct in his dealings with others, he may even be religious, attend church, give liberally to the poor and to the cause of God’s kingdom,—but he is incapable of doing any good and inclined to evil nevertheless. For always he seeks himself and does not love God. If a superintendent of a factory were to expel his employer and propose to run the shop for his own benefit, he might do so very efficiently, but in all he does he sins against his employer. He may very ably manage the establishment, so that production increases and the work he delivers receives highest praise; he may treat his employees kindly and pay the highest possible wages; but as long as his attitude against his employer is one of rebellion, he sins in all he does. The same is true of man in relation to God. He was created to be God’s servant- friend. And he was appointed superintendent over all the works of God’s hands, to develop them, to rule over them in the name of God and in love to Him, in order that God might receive all the glory. But he became a rebel, proposed to expel God from his heart, and now intends to run God’s establishment as God’s enemy and for his own pleasure and glory. He may still be an efficient superintendent, but all he does in that position of rebellion against God is certainly evil. And total depravity means principally that man is incapable of doing anything from the love of God, and that he is always prone to hate Him. In his inmost nature he stands opposed to the law of God.
And this deepest principle of enmity against God also reveals itself in all his life and conversation. For, let us not imagine that man can hate God and love the neighbor, that he can violate the first table of the law and keep the second. He cannot expel God from his life and for the rest live in moral rectitude. God will give His glory to no other. He cannot be mocked. He is terribly displeased with all the ungodliness of wicked men that hold the truth in unrighteousness. And He reveals His wrath from heaven by giving over the ungodly to the lusts of his flesh. And so, ultimately his attempt to show regard for virtue and for an orderly external deportment always fails. Very really the natural man corrupts all life and destroys the earth. The enmity against God that is in his heart becomes a foul fountain of all manner of iniquity. From this corrupt fountain gushes forth spiritual darkness that envelops his mind, so that he loves the lie and pursues it. From that source of enmity against God there issue forth evil desires that corrupt the will, and cause him to pursue after the things of the flesh. From that fountain of evil in his heart proceed not only actual sins against God directly such as idolatry, profanity, rejection of the Word of God, worship of man’s wisdom, ungodly philosophy, cursing and swearing, pride and rebellion, rejection of Christ and hatred of His people; but also those sins that corrupt all of human life in every relationship, such as malice and envy, greed and covetousness, lying and deceit, strife and contention, war and destruction, murder and robbery, fornication, adultery, divorce, love of pleasure, faithlessness, and the like, of all which the world of today is a living testimony.
To be sure, there is difference between one man and another, just as there is difference between one age and another. Not every man commits all sin. Each individual is but a branch in the organism of the human race, and he bears that particular fruit of the root-sin of Adam which is in harmony with his place in the organism. Men differ as to character, power, gifts and talents, means and circumstances. One man is bloodthirsty by nature, another is afraid to see blood; one is a spendthrift, another is a miser; one is weak, another is strong; one has great intellectual capacity, another is dull of mind; one loves pleasure, another loves the honor of men; one is poor while another is rich. And there are coarse sins, but there are also sins that are very refined. Some sins are done in secret, others are openly displayed and extolled on stage and screen. There are individual sins and group sins, social and national sins. There are sins that are punished by the government, and there are sins that are committed by the magistrates. But always the natural man commits iniquity. He is incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil. Motivated by enmity against God he is corrupt in all his ways. There is no fear of God before his eyes.
Nor is the world improving. On the contrary, there is an organic development of sin, that is, sin develops and increases even as the organism of the race develops. Even as there is no restraint of sin in the heart of the individual sinner, so there is no check on the process and progress of sin in history. As the race develops in “culture” and civilization, sin grows in proportion. It is for this reason that it is possible that in the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for one generation than for another. More tolerable it will be for Sodom and Gomorrah than for Jerusalem, for Tyrus and Sidon than for Capernaum, for the “world” that crucified Christ the first time than for the “world” that crucifies Him afresh. And thus the development of sin continues until the day of the culmination of the antichristian power. The measure of iniquity must be filled. For sin must become fully manifest as sin in all its horror, that God may be justified when He judgeth, when He casts all the wicked into the pool that burneth with fire and sulphur, where their worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched, and the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever!