The Doctrine of Depravity and Preaching

The principal mark of the three that distinguish the faithful and true church of Jesus Christ is the pure preaching of the gospel. Proper preaching is not to be equated with making speeches or being eloquent. Proper preaching of the gospel is to be distinguished by the content of that which is presented. What must the preaching of the gospel proclaim? And where does a doctrine such as “total depravity” fit within this preaching of the gospel? Some might insist that it has no place in the preaching. Others might claim that sin and depravity must be the principal point of emphasis in the preaching.

Proper Preaching of the Gospel 

Preaching of the gospel involves the proclamation of Christ crucified. The great apostle Paul wrote in I Corinthians 1:17-18, “For Christ sent me . . .to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect. For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” And again he writes in I Corinthians 2:2, “For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” 

There can be no doubt, therefore, that preaching must present the cross in all of its fullness and glory—no matter that men speak of such as foolishness and weakness. But that preaching of the cross can not and does not exclude other subjects. Were the attempt made to present the cross while excluding certain Scriptural doctrines, the obvious conclusion would be: the cross has not been correctly set forth. One can not ignore any Scriptural truth-yet present Christ crucified according to the Word of God. 

Paul declared again to the elders of Ephesus (Acts 20:27), “For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God.” When the cross is set forth, then the whole of God’s revelation is involved. One can not ignore, or declare irrelevant, the truths of reprobation, or depravity, or providence. Many have sought to do so. Reprobation is considered untrue, or demeaning, or debasing—therefore to be omitted from the preaching. Or, depravity is viewed as producing Christians “who are walking cases of uptight, defensive, angry, fearful, neurotic meanies” (Robert H. Schuller, Self-esteem: the New Reformation). In this same book by Schuller, reviewed by the editor of this magazine a few months ago, one finds the statement (page 150):

So I contend and plead for a full-orbed theological system beginning with and based on a solid central core of religious truth—the dignity of man. And let us start with a theology of salvation that addresses itself at the outset to man’s deepest need, the “will to self worth.” Then we will see how additional, second-generation theologies are born—like healthy children from healthy parents. . .

Schuller wants not the cross as the “solid central core of religious truth,” but rather the “dignity of man.” He would have the church proclaim man’s “self worth” rather than to make any references to depravity which produces “neurotic meanies.” 

Over against such false doctrine, we must insist that the preaching of the cross must involve the whole counsel of God—including the fact of the depravity of natural man.

Depravity—and the Address of the Gospel 

One must note, first, that a proper understanding of depravity is essential unto a correct address of the gospel to the hearers. Other articles in this issue of theStandard Bearer point out the meaning of the Scriptural truth concerning depravity. I need but apply this to the activity of preaching of the gospel. 

Consider what an erroneous view of depravity must do in the address of the gospel. There are those advocating “common grace” who make a distinction between “total” and “absolute” depravity. Though totally depraved, the sinner is not absolutely depraved. Therefore there is in natural man some remnants of good-the result of the “common grace” of God. This same erroneous view makes the “well-meant offer of the gospel” to be understandable. If one were to offer a steak dinner to a person completely dead, the offer would be meaningless and hardly “well-meant.” But if a person had death affecting every part of him, yet that death had not absolutely. taken over, such an one could respond favorably to an offer of a steak dinner. He at least might express interest, and perhaps might be encouraged to try it. The “offer” would be “well-meant” because some kind of response was possible. So also with the sinner. If he is not completely dead in sin in all of his parts, one might reasonably make to him an “offer” of salvation. A positive response would at least be conceivable. However, when “total depravity” is properly understood to refer to the complete deadness of the sinner, an “offer” of salvation would be the height of foolishness. 

The same may be said about the “invitation” as this is commonly given in our day. The invitation presumes the ability to accept. It presumes some ability, some grace, in every man so that he may respond. But invitations to those completely dead in sins are nonsense. 

If depravity is total, there is also the inability to respond. If depravity is total (and what other kind of depravity can there be?), then one understands too the approach of Scripture. Paul answered the Philippian jailor by commanding, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house” (Acts 16:31). The “command” is in harmony with the righteousness of God. He created man capable of obedience. When Adam transgressed, and all his posterity with him, he lost the ability to serve and to obey. Yet the command of God remains. Now that command demands obedience to Christ. The dead sinner hears with his ears, but continues to reject that command to his damnation. But where God is pleased to regenerate a dead sinner, there the command falls upon hearing ears and a responsive heart. 

With awareness of this truth, the preacher can boldly ascend to the pulpit. He need not “count” how many souls he has saved. He need not believe that it is the persuasiveness of his speaking, or the novelty of his approach, which brings sinners to their knees. He brings the gospel: the cross of Christ. He commands, as does Scripture, to repent and believe. God powerfully uses that proclaimed word to bring regenerated sinners to conversion. Such do repent and believe—so that all those given of the Father to Christ, shall come to Him (John 6:37). Wonderful it is for the preacher to be assured that the sinner can not even come—except the Father draw him (John 6:44); Then one can boldly preach, confident that proper preaching has its desired effect.

Depravity—and the Comfort of the Gospel 

Some insist that the preaching must emphasize the joyof the salvation. Since we have been delivered from sin, why dwell upon depravity or the sins which still remain in us? If only we point to the joy, Christians will be inspired to seek more and more the kingdom of heaven. Why even mention depravity to joy-filled saints? 

Yet it would be very wrong to neglect the fact of depravity in the preaching. There must be the preaching of the full counsel of God. And Scripture itself never neglects to mention the depravity of the sinner. Examine, for instance, Romans 3. There, the depravity of the sinner, Jew and Gentile, is starkly set forth. Nor do the epistles fail to warn the church concerning the sins which remain in us. The joy of salvation must indeed be set forth together with proper instruction concerning depravity of the nature of man. 

The preaching must include the truth concerning depravity as a proper backdrop for the cross. The wonder of the cross can never be understood correctly unless one also sees the depths from which Christ must deliver His people. Our Heidelberg Catechism recognizes this when, in Lord’s Day 2, it asks, “Whence knoweth thou thy misery?” A proper knowledge of misery points to the great need of the cross. The proper presentation of total depravity sets forth the depths out of which Christ must lift His people. He saves not from some minor difficulty. He does not seek to contribute to our self-worth. Rather, He deliversdead sinners! He grasps those who were hell-bound. He pays for the sins of those who were utterly corrupt. He does not save willing, struggling, sinners—butdead sinners. 

Even as Christ raised Lazarus from physical death, so must He deliver His people from spiritual death. In the instance of Lazarus, Christ commanded Lazarus to come forth from the tomb. He had been dead four days already. His body was in the process of decay. He had no ears which could hear. He had no willingness to depart from the tomb with proper encouragement. He was dead. But the command of Christ caused him to come forth from that place of corruption. Wholly by the power of Christ, without any cooperation of Lazarus, the man arose from the dead and came forth. From stinking corruption, he came forth to renewed life. So it is with dead sinners. The awfulness of the “tomb” of sin and death must be set forth. The complete hopelessness and helplessness of the sinner must be seen. Then one can know the wonder of grace that the power of Christ can and does deliver such from sin and death. Let that be heard in the preaching—that the glory of salvation may ever be God’s and not man’s. 

There is another, related, fact. The joy and thanksgiving for salvation can be adequately expressed in proportion to our understanding of that from which we are delivered. If we do not properly understand total depravity, how can the joy of salvation fill our hearts? Therefore the child of God rejoices in repeating and hearing repeated the wonder of deliverance from sin and death. Into what horrible depths we had fallen! Unto what glorious heights we have been raised! Let the people of God know and understand what God hath wrought! 

In conclusion, total depravity is not a subject to be presented by itself in isolation from the rest of the Word of God. But depravity must be a part of the total picture of salvation. The cross of Christ must be preached—the cross which delivers from a depravity from which no mere creature can extricate himself. Glory, then, be to God alone.