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)

1 comment:

steph said...

hey sweetie,
Great post, I would love to listen to the debate. Would also love to write more, but here come the kiddos...

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