Rev. Key is pastor of the Randolph Reformed Church of Randolph, Wisconsin.
Because of the legal relationship between Adam and the whole human race, Adam’s fall brought us all under condemnation. As we learn in Romans 5:12-18, God established such a legal relationship for His own good pleasure. He did so in wisdom. It was His purpose from eternity to save to Himself a people in Christ (Eph. 1). Decreeing even the fall to serve that purpose, the sovereign God would redeem from that fallen human race in Adam a people who would stand in a similar legal relationship to their Redeemer, who is Christ, the last Adam and the Lord from heaven.
But if we are fully to understand the effects of Adam’s fall upon the whole human race, we must also realize that Adam stands not only in a legal relationship to those who would follow him, but also in an organic relationship as the first father of all mankind.
If it were possible, we could all trace our genealogies back to Adam and Eve. We stand in an organic relationship, a family relationship as it were, with Adam and Eve. And just as our own children bear our natures, so we also bear the nature of our parents, all the way back to Adam and Eve. Adam’s human nature is imparted by conception and birth to the whole human race.
The consequence, of course, is this: Because Adam’s guilt brought upon him the curse of death and the pollution of sin as its punishment, the same corruption is passed from generation to generation.
Our sin, therefore, is not merely in the act. It is a fundamental corruption of our whole nature!
From the moment Adam sinned, death was inflicted upon him.
And that death, the punishment of his guilt, is rightly described in our Reformed confessions. In the first article of the Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine in the Canons of Dordt, the corruption of fallen man is described. He brought upon himself “blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity and perverseness of judgment”; he “became wicked, rebellious, and obdurate in heart and will, and impure in his affections.”
In other words, his whole nature became corrupt.
That corruption was not only Adam’s. It has become ours. Adam, as the father of the human race, carried with him into that abyss of corruption and death every Adamite that would ever be born. In Adam our nature became so corrupt that we are conceived and born in sin (Ps. 51:5).
Dead in trespasses and sins that is what we mean by “total depravity.”
Spiritually dead! That is what we are as the children of Adam. And when you think of total depravity as death, it is not sufficient merely to liken the natural man to a corpse that has been buried. After all, we do remain active. A more accurate illustration would be that of a corpse that is lying out in the open under the heat of the sun, and that is rotting and casting off a putrid stink! A vivid illustration, indeed! And disgusting! But no more disgusting than you and I are in the sight of God as those fallen in Adam!
Bear in mind, this is part of the necessary knowledge that we must have, if ever we are to see our need for Christ.
Not only must we know ourselves as sinners, but we must also understand the extent of. our sinfulness and the horror of our sinful nature.
Scripture is very graphic in its portrayal of the extent of this sin in the human race and in every individual of the human race. Psalm 14:2, 3 and Psalm 53:2, 3: “The LORD looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one.”
In Romans 3:9-18 we are given another graphic display of the human race as it appears before the Holy God. I quote only part of that passage. “AS it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one…. There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
That is a judgment that falls upon all without exception, Jew and Gentile alike, church man and heathen. “They are all under sin!” Such is the dreadful and damnable corruption of man.
The question immediately arises, and it is expressed as a teaching tool in our Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 3: “Are we then so corrupt that we are wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all wickedness?” Is the situation that bad?! The authors of the Catechism stood before Scripture and gave answer: “Indeed we are, except we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.”
We are dead, totally depraved, corrupt through and through – unless by the Spirit of grace God regenerates us, gives us the new birth by which we are united with Christ by the bond of faith.
With this judgment of God revealed in the Scripture we must learn to agree, discovering first of all that which is applicable to our own heart and mind and life: God searches not only our outward life, but the deepest recesses of our hearts and minds. I say again, sin is not merely in the act. It is a fundamental corruption of our whole nature!
We realize that this clear teaching of Scripture concerning man’s total depravity presents us with an apparent problem. It is true that the natural eye observes many actions of men that appear to be good and commendable. In times of disaster, for example, we see unbelievers reaching out to help their neighbors. We see acts of kindness, acts that are commendable and helpful to fellow men.
How are we to harmonize this apparent good in the natural man, at least in some who are unbelievers, with the clear teaching of God’s Word that man is totally depraved and that none does good?
That is one of many apparent problems that should compel us to search the Scriptures.
One of the many solutions to that problem has been presented in the theory of common grace. One side of that many-sided theory says that God’s grace is at work in the heart of the ungodly, so that even though inwardly the sinner remains full of darkness and corruption, outwardly he does much good in God’s sight. Though an evil tree, a man is able to bear good fruits. So says the theory of common grace.
That theory, from a practical point of view, has devastating consequences. Ultimately it causes (and has caused) the lines between the church and the world to be totally obliterated. To our grief we have seen the theory of common grace used as the ground for those who called themselves Christians to surge into the world to participate in all sorts of ungodly activities and to find fellowship with unbelievers.
After all, if it is true that the ungodly can do much good, then there is a measure of good to be found in every aspect of society. Then even the most perverse movies and television programs can be enjoyed by Christians and can be reviewed by religious magazines, for, after all, “there is at least a measure of good in all these things. ”
But when we face the question, “What about this outward appearance of good in the natural man,” common grace is not the answer – because common grace is not to be found in the Bible, but only in the imaginations of men.
Christ Himself says (Matt. 7:16-18), “Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?” The answer is obvious. Of course not! “Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.”
So what about this problem of what we see?
The problem is with our perception of things. What we may call good is not necessarily what God calls good.
Scripture speaks only one language when it comes to the so called good of the natural man. God expresses one judgment, and that is that there is no good. We may refer to Romans 14:23 as one example. “For whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” Whatever work or whatever thought that does not have its root in Christ is forever rotten in God’s sight, corrupt through and through.
That is fundamental to our own life, to our own faith. We must understand that outward actions mean nothing in God’s sight, except they are rooted by faith in Christ. Our only hope is Christ, nothing in ourselves, absolutely nothing.
If you want to talk about outwardly good works, there is a passage in Matthew 7 that is absolutely devastating. That is Matthew 7:21-23.
There Jesus refers to those who confess the name of the Lord. They belong outwardly to the church. He speaks of those whom we would view as exemplary citizens. They are those who do all kinds of good outwardly. They even prophesy in Christ’s name! Among these people are preachers, mind you! There are those who even cast out devils in the name of the Lord. Let’s apply that. They cast out the devils of drunkenness and drug abuse, adultery and fornication. They help others clean up their lives.
These are wonderful people! They are – from an outward point of view.
But Jesus says, “I never knew you.” And that means that they never knew Him. They didn’t know Him by faith. They didn’t know Him as the Majestic God, before whom we must bow the knee in repentance and prayer. They didn’t know Him as the One who alone could save them.
And Jesus says, “Depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” Amazing! Though they did all these things that society marks as outstanding works of good, the judgment of Christ is that they are nothing but “workers of iniquity”! Their works, which were judged so good by man, are condemned by God, because they had not faith.
That is a devastating text to the sinner who is not yet regenerated by the Spirit of God. For except we are born again, we cannot see the kingdom of God. We are dead in sin, wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all wickedness.
The extent of our corruption therefore is such that there is no room for salvation apart from the sovereign, irresistible grace of God and the efficacious, particular atonement of Christ.
Our Heidelberg Catechism speaks clear language that is biblically accurate and true. We are wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all wickedness- except we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.
And here is our comfort too. For when we confess this from the heart, when we recognize that “we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away” (Is. 64:6), then we may also make this humble confession: we have fallen upon Christ, and Christ paid for our guilt. And He renews us by His Holy Spirit, and assures us of eternal life and glory.
“And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins…. For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:1, S-10).
That alone is our salvation.