Friday, April 11, 2008

Limited Depravity Leads to an Earned Eternity

There is a very dangerous and deadly error that creeps into theology when natural man is not seen as utterly, completely, and totally sinful in both nature and desire. Not all natural men manifest the same degree of evil as others do; some are morally and socially good, even very good, but all men in their own natural state are utterly and completely sinful in both their desires and their actions.

This doctrinal understanding is commonly known as total depravity, total inability, or something along those lines. It is my contention that the Bible unquestionably teaches this truth in detail starting in the time of the Great Deluge (Genesis 6:5; 8:21) throughout the narrative of the nation through the psalms and prophets of the Old Testament (Isaiah 64:6), and from the teachings of Jesus (Matthew 19:17) through the New Testament letters (Romans 1-3). I also believe that great harm is done to the gospel and the cohesive nature of the Scriptures when the Bible is contorted and over-contextualized so as to say that if the specific audience of a prophetic writing or psalm was a certain group of people, then nothing, not even the inspired writers of the New Testament, can clearly articulate a fuller meaning that was missed by the original audience for centuries.

This ugly error has two sides that disturb me in different ways. The first problem with the rejection of total depravity is the thought and staunchly held belief that man is not completely bad; that he has not been utterly ruined by sin. The second error, which is the true nature of this objection, is that man is truly good or righteous in some way and to some degree.

I was listening to the respective debaters’ own radio shows the day after the debate between James White and Steve Gregg when I heard a most astounding thing come out of the lips of Mr. Gregg. A caller named David, who seemed to be fairly ambivalent and didn’t hold to a Calvinist position or Mr. Gregg’s position (I would suggest that this type of person, by default, would usually be in Mr. Gregg’s camp), asked Mr. Gregg about the doctrine of total depravity. David made the statement that no one, not even Godly men in the Old Testament, were righteous apart from the imputed righteousness of Christ and that, if they were truly saved, they too were saved by faith. Mr. Gregg then responds by saying,

“But there are men in the Old Testament who are described as righteous; people like Job.”1

In the exchange that followed, the caller goes on to make a point that men can seem good or righteous in comparison to the world system if they are “graded on a curve”, but this is not equivalent to the righteousness of God.2 And in a further attempt to defend his doctrine of limited depravity, Mr. Gregg said the following,
“[Paul] is not making absolute statements about all people. Although the language sounds absolute, they are coming from poetic passages that are full of hyperbole; exaggerations. The same Psalm that says there are none who seek after God, the psalmist says these bad people; they eat up my people like bread. Well, that’s a poetic non-literal statement. Even later on in one of these quotes he says the poison of asps is under their tongues. These people don’t have snake venom in their mouth, its hyperbole and also it says in this passage “their feet run to shed blood”. Well, I don’t have very many non-Christian friends whose feet are running to shed innocent blood. Its true that some people do, but this is not describing every person.”3

David, the caller, then asked a very important and clarifying question. He said that if, in fact, Job really was righteous, would he then have had the need to be saved through faith? It was Mr. Gregg’s response to this part of the question that literally took my breath away,
“Well nobody is totally righteous, and if the psalm is simply saying that nobody is as righteous as they should be and nobody seeks God as much as they should, nobody does it all the time, then of course that would be true of all people.”4

In essence, what Mr. Gregg is saying here is that no one is totally righteous, but everyone has the possibility of being somewhat righteous apart from God. I don’t know how else to interpret the context of his entire answer to this line of questioning. His first few comments about Job and his being called righteous slid right on by me the first time I heard them. I didn’t really like some of the way that he phrased his thoughts, but they weren’t overly alarming in and of themselves. But, when taken in the same context as his statement that “nobody is totally righteous” implying that there is a degree of righteousness that some people do have on their own, this is a clear affirmation of human ability which he would call libertarian free will.

The problem with the type of mindset that goes along with libertarian free will is this: in this system, the individual sinner then cooperates with God, with the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and with Christ in His atoning work to end up being saved. So that the result will be that this same individual will then be able to look across the chasm that separates heaven and hell and legitimately say,
“I am so thankful to me that I was not as foolish and stubborn as those fools. I was wise enough to see the light. I was open enough to the gospel. I chose to make Christ my Lord. I did this because I was smart enough to understand the issues, weigh the evidence, and make a choice. They were not. Those fools had just as much of a chance as I did, but they were to stubborn, they were too foolish, and they were too lazy to really apply themselves. I am now in the inheritance that I deserve because of my own aptitude for understanding God and His plan.”

Whether or not Mr. Gregg would ever say this, and I don’t believe that he would, in fact I think that he would be appalled at the very thought of saying this, I still submit that this fact remains the same; a view of man’s sin that is one of limited depravity logically leads to the view that the same person earns their own eternity with God in heaven.

May it never be.

1 Steve Gregg, The Narrow Path Radio Program (TNP) 4/10/08 30 (or so) min in

2 “Graded on a curve” was an inserted comment by Steve Gregg during his caller’s comments. TNP 4/10/08 30 (or so) min in.

3 Steve Gregg, TNP 4/10/08 30 (or so) min in

4 Steve Gregg, TNP 4/10/08 32 min in

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Definitive Mover

After listening to a debate over the sovereignty of God in salvation, I am more convinced than ever about the fact that the doctrine of sin and man’s condition in sin is absolutely fundamental to having a correct perspective of and theology of salvation. The reason that this is so fundamental is, I believe, because the doctrine of sin must be understood before salvation can truly be understood. I am not saying that someone is not saved or cannot be saved if he or she has an inconsistent or a less-than-totally-true understanding of man’s state in sin. At the very least we must understand our sinful condition enough to see our dire need for the grace of God in Christ. All true Christians must understand, believe, and confess that all people everywhere are sinners and need God’s unmerited favor received on the basis of faith alone in Christ crucified.

That being said, I have many brothers and sisters in Christ today, as well as throughout the ages of faith, who ardently disagree about the extent of natural man’s fallen state. One side of the disagreement hold that man is totally dead in sin and unable to do anything at all, even have and express saving faith in Christ, to effect his eternal life, apart from a distinct and effectual act of God on this man’s behalf that God does not do for all men. The other side drifts away from the previous positions to varying degrees, but would hold (on some level) that man is truly sinful and justly under the condemnation of God, but he possesses the inner ability to savingly believe in Christ on his own accord apart from a specific work of God in his own life that is not present in everyone else’s life.

I believe that the root issue here is not God’s election of some men to salvation and not electing others. I don’t believe that the root issue is even the effectual nature of God’s grace that He bestows upon those whom He saves. The root issue is the sinful nature of man insofar as much as it is this doctrine that makes the statement of who is the definitive mover in the salvation of the individual.

I said above that there are, and have been, many godly men and women who would not understand man’s sinful state in the same brilliant colors and contrasts that the Bible paints it in. However, the fact that there are godly men and women bought by the blood of Christ who don’t see the complete sinfulness of man and his utterly corrupt and depraved nature that totally effects every fiber of his being in an ultimately definitive way does not for one second boast as a proof that their view on the sinfulness of man is correct. Likewise, the fact that so many pillars of the faith, both in antiquity and in modern times, believe and have defended the totally depraved nature of man in sin that holds his will utterly under the yoke of the slave master of sin does not act as the ultimate trump card for the validity of this view.

And it is in light of this conviction that some of the comments on the debate between Steve Gregg and James White on God’s sovereignty in salvation were truly shocking. During one of the least productive exchanges in the fourth installment of the debate, Mr. Gregg is attempts to show a problem with the doctrine of total depravity as traditionally understood in Calvinist and reformed camps by looking at the first chapter of Romans.

“I would think that Dr. White’s view is that all unbelievers are born with their hearts darkened. He describes them as dead in sin and darkened in their hearts, there imaginations and so forth. I don’t find anywhere in the Bible that states that this is the birth condition of every man. I do see Paul saying that there are certainly many men, and he’s talking about them right here, who have known the truth and they’ve rejected the truth and as a result, darkness has come upon their hearts. I believe this is true in virtually all of the passages that talk about total depravity, at least that are used. The reason that I wanted to ask some specific questions about a passage, and in my opinion why Dr. White didn’t want me to do so, is because it does not allow the Calvinist to simply rattle off passages and say “see there”. For example, when Dr. White gave his original argument, he talked about the state of the antediluvian people, that the thoughts and imaginations of their heart were only evil continually…. He used a lot of Scriptures, which the Bible directs towards certain audiences and says, “this is true of them”. But if we look at the context of each of these, we find that it’s a specific group of people. If we want to exegete the passage, we can’t go to Genesis 6, or Jeremiah, or these passages and find a place where it is saying that all human beings fit this category.1

Quite frankly, I am not sure how one can actually read the context of the first eight chapters of Genesis and come to the conclusion that “the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5) or “the intent of man's heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21) are anything less than a comprehensive statement about the whole of humanity. I’ll grant that the first statement was made about the pre-flood people who were virtually totally rotten and unredeemed, so I can understand how someone could take the universality of Genesis 6:5 and think that it referred to all “unsaved” people, even if that conclusion is wrong. But when Genesis 6:5 is put next to 8:21, I think that the sweeping statement made by God concerning man’s condition is an utter condemnation of all individuals. God even makes the point of noting that the intent of man’s heart, not just his action, is evil from youth.

Again, I say, that I am utterly convinced that one of the most important and fundamental theological issues that Christians need to understand rightly is that of man’s state in sin. Getting that right doesn’t ensure that your other theologies will always be correct. However, getting it wrong virtually ensures that you will be incorrect on other very vital theologies. I don’t think that getting the doctrine of the depravity of man wrong, saying that he’s not totally depraved from birth, will lead you away from understanding justification by grace though faith alone; but without properly understanding the depravity of man, then there is no need for the complete and utter grace of God in salvation because faith can, and does (in their view), come from the individual and is not a gift of God Himself (cf. Phil 1:29). If man is not depraved, then I am the definitive mover when it comes to my salvation, and not God. This is a horrible and grace-destroying belief that is a scourge inside the body.

May God open the eyes of the Body, not simply as a whole, but as individuals, to the truth of our depravity and the glorious pervasiveness of His grace and His glory.

1 James White vs. Steve Gregg, Debate day 4, 4/8/08 (emphasis mine)

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