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In recent months, a new discussion of an old question is taking place among some in the Protestant Reformed Churches. The fundamental doctrine of total depravity is the issue, and alleged error regarding this doctrine becomes another source of contention. In the present atmosphere of suspicion, an alleged denial of total depravity becomes further “evidence of apostasy” in the PRCA and another reason for division.

But rather than allowing the discussion to bring forth that fruit, let it produce the fruit of new commitment to study Scripture and the confessions and be strengthened in our faith. This “affliction” can be for our profit. Such is not only possible, but what we pray for daily.

The question: Is the Christian totally depraved?

The question is not whether the non-Christian is totally depraved. About that there is no doubt. Rather, the question is whether I, a regenerated child of God, am totally depraved. Is that label to be used for me, a Christian? In this answer we must be clear and distinct.

When I teach catechism to the youth, I always instruct them, “If someone asks whether you are totally depraved, do not answer with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Always explain your answer carefully because you do not know what the questioner means.”

On the one hand, the question could mean, “Are you—a Christian—dead in sin and slave to the devil? Are you blind to spiritual things, deaf to the Lord’s voice, unable to walk in any of God’s commandments, an enemy of God, incapable of any good…and is that all you can say about yourself—as a Christian?” If that is the question, then the proper answer is “No.”

But the question could mean something very different. It could mean, “Do you still have an old man, sinful flesh in which dwells no good, a corrupt nature about which you can say ‘depraved and only depraved’?” If that is the question, then the proper answer is “Yes.”

To the one the answer is “no” and to the other “yes” because they are different questions.

In my experience, this has been a perennial question, ever since my days in seminary when students would debate it. But discussion of it does not need to be contentious as long as we ask the question carefully, answer biblically with clear distinctions, and listen to one another. Then, when the Word of God is open and the confessions are at hand, the matter is not so difficult.

 

The regenerated believer’s present corruption

Those who want immediately to say “yes” to the question (Is the Christian totally depraved?), point to the present and ongoing sinfulness of the Christian. And rightly so.

In one versification of Psalm 51 we sing: “I am evil, born in sin.” A generation ago, in an attempt to deny the present depravity of Christians, some Reformed Christians wanted to change the song to “I was evil….” If we are honest with our own experience, we know that is a serious mistake, which is why we do not object to singing, “A mighty stream of foul transgression prevails from day to day…” (Psalter #419, from Psalm 65). From us, redeemed and renewed Christians, a foul stream of sin issues forth.

Believers sing that because the Bible teaches it. Apostle Paul, as a regenerated Christian, says, “I know that in me, (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing” (Rom. 7:18). He confesses, “I am carnal” (7:15). This is why, a few verses later, he says, “O wretched man that I am” (7:24). Not “I was” but “I am.” I am carnal; I am wretched.

The explanation for this carnality is the presence in every Christian of the “old man” of sin (Rom. 6:6; Eph. 4:22; Col. 3:9). Our new man is what Christ provides us in our second birth, in regeneration; our old man is what our parents provided us in our first birth. Ephesians describes this old man as “corrupt according to deceitful lusts” (4:22). Nothing more can be said about our old man than “corrupt.” For this reason, the old man must be daily put to death, or put off as a change of old clothes. In Galatians Paul speaks about the ongoing war between the flesh and the spirit (5:17). Until we die and our old man is abolished, the Christian lives with the painful and sad reality of his old man, the flesh.

This biblical testimony explains why the Reformed confessions can speak of the believer’s present corruption, and in the most severe ways. The Heidelberg Catechism confesses that the Christian battles against “corrupt inclinations of the flesh,” and has a “corrupt nature against which he has to struggle all his life long” (LDs 16, 43). He is “still inclined to all evil” (LD 23). For this reason, we must “all our lifetime learn more and more to know our sinful nature” (LD 44), “so that we may deeply humble ourselves” (LD 45). “Depravity always cleaves to us” (LD 51). We are “so weak in ourselves that we cannot stand a moment; and besides this…our own flesh cease[s] not to assault us” (LD 52). There is no lack of clarity in the Catechism.

Also the Belgic Confession is clear and powerful. Article 15 teaches that the “corruption of the whole (human) nature” is a “hereditary disease wherewith infants themselves are infected in their mother’s womb” and “produceth in man all sorts of sin….” Since the Roman Catholic church taught the error that baptism did away with our sinful nature, the confession clarifies: man’s “vile and abominable” nature is not “by any means abolished or done away by baptism, since sin always issues forth from this woeful source.” Stop a moment to examine your own heart. Do you understand your sinful nature? Confess with the apostle: I am that woeful source. The vile and abominable nature is mine. It is my old man, my sinful nature, my flesh. “A sense of this corruption should make believers often to sigh….”

The Canons of Dordt echo this confession of the Christian’s present depravity. We are delivered from the dominion and slavery of sin, but “not altogether from the body of sin and from the infirmities of the flesh” (V.1). How is this explained? Our children derive a “vicious nature” from us believing parents as by “propagation” (III/IV.2). As the Canons come to a close in Head V, our confession becomes especially poignant. We confess that “the body of sin” produces “daily sins of infirmity” and mar our best works with “spots.” Therefore, we have “constant matter for humiliation before God…for mortifying the flesh more and more… and for pressing forward to the goal of perfection” when we will “at length be delivered from this body of death.” The “remains of indwelling sin” are shameful. For the Christian, presently.

Depravity, however, is not the only thing a Christian has to confess about himself. He not only has an “old man.” He is also a “new man.” Denial of this is denial of Scripture and the Reformed creeds.

 

The regenerated believer’s present goodness

Marvel of marvels, when God begins to apply to and work in the elect child of God what Christ earned for him, he becomes a “new creature.” “Old things are passed away, behold, all things are become new.” Christ is now in him and he is “in Christ” (II Cor. 5:17).

The marvelous changes that take place include these, each of which could take an article to explain: 1) He is not dead in sin, but alive in Christ (Eph. 2:1, 5). 2) His old, hard heart is removed, and replaced with a heart of flesh (Ezek. 36:26). 3) His will—that is, his power to wish and desire—before stubborn and enslaved to sin, is now good, pliable, free (Rom. 7:15-19: “to will is present with me”). 4) His mind is “renewed” and therefore can understand spiritual things (Rom. 7:25; 12:2). 5) His affections are again clean (Gal. 5:18-25; Col. 3:2). 6) Not to be forgotten is that the Christian is restored in God’s image (Col. 3:10; Eph. 4:24). And because the image of God was man’s original goodness, redeemed and renewed Christians must be described again as “good.” It is the goodness of God Himself. 7) Thus, the believing Christian does good. Once again, he is able to will and to do what is truly good (Phil. 2:12, 13; see also Ps. 34:14; 37:3, 27; Matt. 5:44; Gal. 6:10; etc.). Risen with Christ, Christians “seek the things above” (Col. 3:1).

To put this all in very practical terms, the believer says: I love God. I love my neighbor. I do not love God as I ought to love Him, but I love Him. My love for my neighbor is woefully weak, but I love him. God does not love my neighbor for me. God does not love Himself for me. By His marvelous renewing work in me, I love Him and I love my neighbor.

As clear as the Reformed creeds are about the believer’s present corruption, as we have seen, they are even more clear about the believer’s present goodness.1

In its opening and familiar Lord’s Day, the Heidelberg Catechism has me confess that God works in me such that I am “sincerely willing and ready to live unto Him” (LD 1). Though by nature I am “incapable of doing good and inclined to all evil,” the exception to this inability is regeneration, by which I am now capable (LD 3). As partakers of Christ’s anointing, I “fight against sin and Satan with a free and good conscience” (LD 12). The “corrupt inclinations of the flesh…no more reign in me.” Instead, I “offer myself unto Him a sacrifice of thanksgiving” (LD 16). Twice, Lord’s Day 24 speaks of “our good works.” Lord’s Day 26 teaches that by the Holy Spirit Christians lead “holy and unblameable lives” and Lord’s Day 33 that “with love and delight I live according to the will of God in all good works.” Thus, I begin to live “not only according to some, but all the commandments of God” (LD 44). Finally, the Heidelberg joins the other creeds by describing this work of God in and through the believer as progressing, increasing, growing, “more and more” (for two examples see Lord’s Days 26 and 44).

The Belgic Confession teaches that the believer is “capable in all things to will according to the will of God” (Art. 14). Faith is fruitful in the believer to the “practice of” good works, which works “are good and acceptable in the sight of God.” Then, as though to make the point emphatic, the article says three times: “we do good works… we do good works…the good works we do.”

What these two creeds say clearly enough, the Canons of Dordt says with a power and clarity that no one who reads them can gainsay the goodness of the renewed believer.

Read Head III/IV.12-16 so that you can make this personal confession with the fathers of Dordt: God powerfully illumines my mind by His Holy Spirit, that I may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God. He pervades my inmost recesses; opens my closed heart and softens my hard heart. His regeneration of me is a work most powerful and most delightful, not unlike creation or the resurrection from the dead. He infuses new qualities into my will, which before was dead but is now alive. He makes my will good, obedient, and pliable. He activates and strengthens my will so it brings forth the fruits of good actions. My will is not only activated by God but becomes itself active. So, I am permitted to say that I believe, I repent, and I love my Savior by virtue of that grace received. Wonder of wonders, my will is no longer bound, but free.

So marvelous is this wonder work of God that the new man is victorious over the old. I do not endure a lifelong stalemate. “Sin shall not have dominion over you!” (Rom 6:14).

 

Conclusions

This is the confession of a Reformed Christian: In my old man, my flesh, I am corrupt and only corrupt. But I have not only an old man and flesh. I am a new creature in Jesus Christ. Thus, if you ask me, “Are you totally depraved?” I answer: “In my flesh, yes, for I confess with Paul that, in me, that is, in my flesh, dwells no good thing.” I experience that and know that about myself. But I will add to the answer: “If you ask about me in my entirety, no! Christ dwells in me and has changed me, restored me in God’s own image, and I am not permitted to say about His goodness in me, ‘evil and only evil’.”

Second, as Reformed believers, let’s use the language of the Scripture and the creeds when discussing the important questions about man’s present condition. The creeds are an important court of appeal in our discussions. Of course, Scripture is our final authority, but as we discuss the meaning of a doctrine or of any passage, go to the creeds. As confessing members of a Reformed Church, we swore that we believe what they teach. As officebearers, we are bound to them. Sadly, some well-intentioned Christians make statements that betray a very serious ignorance of the creeds. Let us take this discussion as a call from God to become well versed in Scripture and our Reformed confessions.

Third, as Christians, rejoice in these beautiful truths.

On the one hand, I willingly embrace the knowledge of my present depravity. 1) It humbles me, and every day furnishes me with reasons to be more humble. Insofar as I am not humble, I betray the sad truth that I do not know myself (or the Scripture) very well. “In me, that is, in my flesh, dwells no good thing.” So I need Jesus Christ every day and I love Him for His grace to me, sinner. 2) Knowing my present depravity puts me on my guard against myself. There is a source of such evil in me that I must be terrified of my own potential to sin shamefully. 3) Knowing my present depravity is a safeguard against despair: when I find such terrible thoughts in my mind, such ability to sin horribly, I do not conclude that I must not be a Christian. Rather, I remember Paul’s warning not to allow sin to reign in me (Rom. 6:12) and then remind myself of the deliverance that yet must come when this old man is abolished by death.

On the other hand, I embrace the knowledge of God’s good work in me through Christ’s Spirit. This is reason for greatest joy. Rescuing me from my sin and death, He not only forgives me, but He also gives me a life and joy incomparable to any other. I will not fail to recognize this work of Christ in His people. I will not dishonor this “new creation” that He made me to be, any more than I will dishonor His first creation of the heavens and the earth. I will live in the victory that is mine through Christ. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Rom. 7:25)


1 See also, e.g., the Westminster Confession of Faith (ix, xiii, xvi ).