When we get to the concern of the
doctrine of total depravity or the T in TULIP invariably we are catapulted into
the arena of the debate over free will. In fact, the historic controversy over the
degree of original sin that infects us really focuses on that question of free
will. You can’t have a five-minute conversation on the doctrines of grace or
on the doctrine of election without somebody raising the question what about
free will? And so often the debate or the discussion over free will is placed in two
different frameworks. On the one hand the question of human freedom is struggled
with vis-à-vis the relationship between God’s sovereignty and our responsibility
and our power to act as volitional creatures. But the other place in which
the discussion of free will is framed has to do with the question of the
relationship between the fall and original sin and the power of human freedom. Let me
take a moment to read a confessional summary of this dispute as we find it in
the “Westminster Confession of Faith, ” which is the 17th Century British
statement of Reformation theology where we read these words: “Man by his fall into a
state of sin hath wholly” –that’s w-h-o-l-l-y– “hath wholly lost all
ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation. So as a natural
man, being altogether averse from that good and dead in sin is not able by his
own strength to convert himself or to prepare himself thereunto. ” Now what this
confession is saying points to the radical character of this doctrine in that it
affirms that man’s freedom in a certain area has been wholly or completely lost by
the fall; not that man has completely lost his power of choosing or of making
decisions but his moral power to do certain things has been completely lost.
And that certain thing that is in view here is that man has lost the ability to
convert himself or to will on his own steam any spiritual good. Now therein is
the crux of the matter of the doctrine of total depravity. It translates into the
doctrine of what is called moral inability. I want to take a little time to
explain this concept. And again we can go back to Augustine’s view of the inherited
corruption. Pelagius disagreed with this and Pelagius said that Adam’s fall
affected only Adam that there is no consequence to future generations, and the
seed of Adam sin only by imitation not because of some transferred or transmitted
fallen human condition. Now after Pelagius was condemned by the church a moderate
position emerged that was called semi-Pelagianism which taught yes, there
was a fall, that man, the whole human race, mankind has been affected by Adam’s
sin, and that we all are born with a corrupt nature but that corrupt nature
leaves what I’m going to call a kind of island of righteousness by which there
still remains a vestigial remnant of the original righteousness that though this
person needs the help of divine grace in order to be saved, in order to be made
holy, nevertheless there remains a power within the will of the creature that can
cooperate with the grace or God or reject the grace of God. So that in the final analysis the reason
why some persons will come to Christ and others will not, some will be redeemed and
some will be lost, will be rooted ultimately in human decision and in that
power that remains in the will after the fall. Now again Pelagius said that a
person can live a perfect life without grace. And he said that grace facilitates
redemption but it’s not necessary. People can be perfect, and in fact Pelagius
argued some have achieved perfection without any assistance from God. The
semi-Pelagians differ with Pelagius at this point by saying, no, grace is
absolutely necessary. It’s a pre-condition for anyone’s being redeemed. You can’t be
saved without grace. However, grace is not alone. It is grace plus something
else–grace plus the exertions of the human will in the strength that remains in
tact after the fall. Augustine was one of the principal architects of the idea that
was recovered in the 16th Century Reformation in one of the Solas of that
time, the so-called idea of Sola Gratia, by grace alone. Augustine was saying that
the fall is so profound and that the power of sin is so strong in the human heart
that only God, by His grace and by His grace alone, can change the disposition of
the human soul to bring that person to faith. So at issue here is whether fallen
man has the ability in tact, the moral power in tact to incline himself or to
embrace in his own strength the offers of help and assistance that come to us from
God. Or is it necessary for God to do the initial work of re-creation in the soul
before the fallen person has the moral power to say yes to the Gospel. So what
we’re talking about here is what is called the divine initiative. Augustine would say
this: that before a person comes to Christ God works unilaterally, monergistically,
independently, and sovereignly by changing the soul of the sinner by rescuing that
sinner from the prison house of moral bondage by which he is by nature dead in
sin and trespasses and in that state of spiritual death is morally unable to
resurrect himself that God has to come and breath new spiritual life and power into
the soul of that person, and as, to use Paul’s language, to quicken him from a
state of spiritual death and produce faith in the person’s heart before that person
has the power to come to Christ. Now those people do come to Christ, and they choose
Christ. They come willingly and cheerfully and all the rest, but not before or until
God does His work of sovereign grace in bringing that person from spiritual death
to spiritual life. We call that monergistic rebirth or
monergistic regeneration that it is the work of God alone, and since there is
nothing I can do to earn it, to deserve it, to merit it or to provoke it, I must
rest my case ultimately on the grace of God and on the grace of God alone. Now one
of the important Biblical texts that speaks to this is found in the Gospel of
John in which Jesus makes the somewhat astonishing statement. He says in verse
63, “It is the Spirit who gives life. The flesh profits nothing. The words that I
speak to you are Spirit and they are life. But there are some of you who do not
believe for Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe and who
would betray Him. And he said, therefore, I have said to you that no one can come to
Me unless it has been given to him by My Father. ” Now we remember earlier in
Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, who came to Him at night, Jesus talked about
the necessity of a person’s being reborn before they could even see the kingdom of
God, not to mention enter the kingdom of God. And in that discussion with Nicodemus
Jesus said to him, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born
of the Spirit is Spirit. ” And just as Jesus makes this strong contrast between
flesh and Spirit, so the Apostle Paul does the same thing when he talks in the
metaphor of warfare that goes on between the flesh and the Spirit in the person who
has been converted. Even when you are born of the Spirit the flesh is not completely
annihilated, and there’s this ongoing struggle. But until the Holy Spirit
changes your life all you are is flesh. This is what Jesus is saying to Nicodemus.
In your natural birth, in your natural state, you were born in the state of sarx
or the Biblical concept of flesh in this fallen condition where the desires of your
heart are only wicked continuously and which the apostle says that you walk
according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of
the air and that you are dead in your sin. That’s the condition of the flesh. Now
here in John 6 Jesus says, “The flesh profits” what? “nothing. ” In his debate
with Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam Luther in his perhaps most famous work on
the “Bondage of the Will, ” labored his exposition of this Biblical text and kept
jibbing at Erasmus for having the flesh do something in the process of salvation not
only that is significant but it is pivotal and not only does it profit something but
it profits everything, because if in the final analysis we rest upon this innate
moral power within us that is not touched or incarcerated by the fall and that the
power here of the flesh is to incline ones self to spiritual good and one exercises
the proper inclination what that profits him is eternal life. And Luther never
tiring of debating with Erasmus says that that nothing is not a little something.
And he said Jesus is serious when He says, “The flesh profits nothing. ” Then he goes
on to make this statement, “No man can come to Me unless it is given to him by
the Father. ” Now that text is very important because it begins with the
statement, “No man, ” and if you are students of the grammar
stage of logic you will recognize that statement or that concept, “no man, ” as
what is called a universal negative proposition. It describes something
negative of everybody in the class “man. ” Now I would like to be able to say that
this is used in a gender specific way and only refers to the inherent moral
inability of males. Unfortunately the usage here in the Greek is that it is
shorthand for mankind. What Jesus is saying is that no human person, He’s
saying something about everybody, something negative about everybody. Now
again the next word is crucial. “No man can. ” Not no man may. You know the
difference about … between may and can, talked about that many times. I remember
when I was in grade school and I asked the teacher can I go sharpen my pencil? And
she said, I’m sure that you can, but you mean may I go sharpen my pencil. And I
have since discovered that that teacher got around. In fact she was ubiquitous.
And that everybody I’ve ever met had the same teacher at some time in their lives.
Haven’t you? That teacher says I’m sure you can; the question is may I? We’re not
talking here about permission, but the word can describes ability or
power–posse. And what Jesus is saying here is that no human being has the power
or the ability to do something. Now these are strong words coming from the lips of
our Lord. This isn’t Augustine or Calvin or Luther. This is Christ Himself saying
something about man’s ability. And he says no man is able; no man has the power to do
what? To come to Me. So that there is an inherent lack of ability of some kind for
human beings to come to Jesus in some way. Now obviously when He says come to Me,
He’s not talking spatially or geographically. Obviously none of us have
the ability to come to Him in His earthly presence in Palestine because He’s not
there anymore, and He wasn’t saying that no man could come and find out where He
was living. The coming to Me is the way in which He calls people to embrace Him in
faith for their salvation. I don’t think there’s any Biblical scholar that would
dispute that that’s what Jesus is talking about here with respect to coming to Him.
No man can come to Him unless–unless. Now unless indicates a necessary condition
that has to be met before a desired consequence can possibly follow. So that
unless points to some sine-qua-non, some absolutely essential thing that has to
take place before a person can come to Jesus. And what is it? Now here He simply
says, “No one can come to Me unless it is given to him by the Father. ” Earlier in
the text He talks about no one can come to Me unless the Father woos him, or lures
him, although the word that is used there is the word that most dictionaries
translate by the English word compel, not just an external enticement like trying to
lure people to come to Him. The idea here is that something, God has to do something
at this point. God has to enable a person to come. That’s the key point–that we,
according to the doctrine of total depravity have lost our natural human
ability to come to Jesus. We still make choices, but we make our choices according
to our desires. That’s the essence of freedom–to be able to choose according to
your own desires or inclination, but it’s a double-edged sword. Not only are we free in the sense that we
choose according to our desires, but we cannot not be free at that point. We not
only may choose what we want, but the only kind of a choice that is a real choice is
the choice that is made according to what you want. And so we are all still free
people in the sense that we can do what we want, but that’s not the royal liberty of
which the New Testament speaks. It doesn’t address the problem of moral bondage. And
what original sin teaches in the doctrine of moral inability found under the rubric
of total depravity means that we are slaves to our own desires, and by nature
we have no desire for Christ or for the things of God. And so we freely reject Him
insofar as we choose what we want, and what we don’t want is Him–unless God
changes the desire of the heart. You see, that’s why it’s not called natural
inability. It’s called moral inability. We don’t have the power or the ability to
love the good. For that to happen, we have to be changed. God has to intervene, and
in His grace He must rescue us from spiritual death and the other metaphor
spiritual bondage. He has to give us the gift of faith by creating a spiritual
resurrection in the heart and in the soul. And so that’s the first point of the
acrostic of total depravity. It refers to the degree of corruption that is so severe
that there is no island free from the bondage of corruption found within the
deep recesses of the human soul. But until we’re born of the Spirit we are flesh, and
the only way we can ever come to faith is that if God in His grace and His grace
alone liberates us by causing us to be born a second time by the creative power
of the Holy Ghost.