Thursday, April 24, 2014

Depravity, or Inability?

(This post is the second in a series dealing with the difficult subject of Reformed theology.)

In our last installment on the subject of Calvinism, we discussed the issue of God’s sovereignty (or rather, Reformed theology’s definition of God’s sovereignty).  As we noted previously, the sovereignty of God is not in question, but the Reformed view of sovereignty – that God foreordains and is therefore the cause of every decision ever made by man – is in question, as it necessarily makes God the cause of sin.  Scripture tells us that the Lord is holy and commands His children also to be holy (Leviticus 11:44), that He is without sin (1 John 3:5), that in Him there is no deceit (Isaiah 53:9) or unrighteousness (Psalm 92:15), and that He does not even tempt anyone to sin (James 1:13), much less cause a person to sin.  Calvinism’s view of God’s sovereignty stretches well beyond the common understanding of the term and well beyond the plain teaching of the Scriptures on the subject.  Reformed theology’s peculiar view of sovereignty is made necessary, however, by its equally singular view of man's condition, expressed in Calvinist doctrine as Total Depravity, the “T” in the Calvinist TULIP.  Or, taken in reverse, Reformed theology’s view on man’s depravity is made necessary by Calvinism’s view of God’s sovereignty.

Now, most Bible-believing Christians would have little or no problem with the idea that man is totally depraved – in the sense that we are born wicked, and that sin touches every aspect of our lives. However, just as the Calvinist definition of sovereignty stretches beyond the common understanding of “having autonomy, supreme power or authority,” the Reformed definition of Total Depravity stretches beyond the common understanding of the idea as total “moral corruption.” 

As R.C. Sproul notes in his book What is Reformed Theology?:

“The Westminster Confession of Faith declares: ‘Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so, as a natural, 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.’
            If ever the Reformed doctrine of total depravity has been crystallized into one brief statement, it is here.” (R.C. Sproul: What is Reformed Theology, BakerBooks, 1997, P. 128).

On the surface, there does not appear to be much to quibble with in this Reformed definition of depravity.  Few students of Scripture would argue that man, left to his own devices, would seek out a relationship with the Lord (Romans 3:10-12), or that he could effect his salvation through any amount of works (Ephesians 2:8-9, Galatians 2:16).  But the definition of depravity offered by Reformed theology goes beyond the idea that all that we do is tainted by moral corruption and extends to the idea that, not only do we not seek God of our own volition, but that we cannot even respond to God of our own volition:

“Our wills are such that we cannot freely choose what we have no desire to choose.” (R.C. Sproul: What is Reformed Theology, BakerBooks, 1997, P. 135).

In other words, though God has given us the Law in order to convict us of our sin, and of our need for a savior (Galatians 3:24, Romans 3:20), and though He has written it on the hearts of all men – as well as an awareness of eternity, that we might be drawn to Him (Ecclesiastes 3:11, Romans 2:15), and though we are admonished that “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17), we are to believe that man is nevertheless unable to hear, comprehend, and believe the Gospel unless he is first regenerated by God. So in the Reformed view, a person is first regenerated, and then believes the Gospel (never mind that the logical progression found in Scripture invariably describes the opposite).  This view of man’s depravity necessitates a sovereign act of God apart from man’s will in order to accomplish salvation.

Now, we might reasonably ask; “even if man is wicked and would not seek after God of his own volition, could not the knowledge of sin and its consequences motivate the lost sinner to receive the Gospel, even if initially out of a desire to escape judgment?"  Therein lies the issue. Sproul’s argument (and that of Reformed theology in general) hinges on the assertion that, if man trusts in the Lord out of any other motivation than that of pure love for God, his conversion is not genuine:

“We draw the inference that, because people are seeking what God alone can supply, they must be seeking God Himself.  This is our error.  In our fallen condition, we desire the benefits that only God can give us, but we do not want Him…” (R.C. Sproul: What is Reformed Theology, BakerBooks, 1997, P. 125).

The clear implication of the text and the surrounding context is that, if one seeks or is drawn to God by something only God can provide (such as eternal life), rather than out of unselfish love for Him, that person remains lost.  As we will see in a future installment, it is this dogmatic assertion that makes the “I” in the TULIP – Irresistible Grace – necessary to the salvation of the individual (It also renders the Gospel essentially powerless in the eyes of Reformed theologians, though they will vehemently deny this).

While I do not take issue with Sproul’s assertion that unregenerate men are only drawn to God out of selfish motivations (self-preservation for one), the question I have for Sproul, MacArthur, Piper, Calvin, and the authors of the Westminster Catechism is this:

Where in the Scriptures are we taught that responding to God’s call out of selfish motives invalidates our conversion?

Indeed, if anything, Scripture seems to indicate the opposite.  When Christ is abandoned by the multitudes who cannot abide His teaching, He asks if His disciples will also leave Him.  Peter responds:

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68).

Similarly, Sproul’s reasoning would invalidate the conversion of the Philippian jailor who, in fear, asked “what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:29), or the righteousness imputed to Lot, who was “oppressed by the filthy conduct of the wicked” while dwelling in Sodom, and yet remained unmotivated to leave that rich city until warned of its impending destruction by the Lord’s angels (2 Peter 2:7, Genesis 19)

In fact, the Scriptures are replete with accounts of men and women who responded to the Lord out of seemingly selfish motives and yet are named righteous because they believed God. A quick survey of the Scriptures for passages dealing with selfish or carnal motives turns up none relating to salvation, though we do find passages indicating that God may deny wealth, power, or spiritual gifts to believers because their requests are selfishly motivated (James 4:3), or that God will judge the worth of works based on the motivation behind them (1 Corinthians 3:9-15).  Reformed teachers take professors of the emergent social gospel to task for omitting teaching about hell, but the question I have for Reformed teachers is: "Why teach about hell, if the motive of escaping the wrath of God doesn't lead to saving faith?"  In fact, Jesus and His apostles repeatedly warned sinners that they were storing up wrath for themselves.  Why would they do this, if such warnings are to no avail?

Beyond the issue of motivation, though, do the Scriptures teach that man is not only incapable of  doing good, but also incapable even of receiving good?  Consider the following passages:

For He is our God,

           And we are the people of His pasture,
And the sheep of His hand.
           Today, if you will hear His voice:
 “Do not harden your hearts, as in the rebellion,

           As in the day of trial in the wilderness,
(Psalm 95:7-8, New King James Version)

Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says:
“ Today, if you will hear His voice,
       Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion,
 In the day of trial in the wilderness,
       Where your fathers tested Me, tried Me,
And saw My works forty years.
(Hebrews 3:7-9, New King James Version)

Since therefore it remains that some must enter it, and those to whom it was first preached did not enter because of disobedience, again He designates a certain day, saying in David, “Today,” after such a long time, as it has been said:

      “ Today, if you will hear His voice,

      Do not harden your hearts.”

For if Joshua had given them rest, then He would not afterward have spoken of another day.
(Hebrews 4:6-8, New King James Version)

Now I ask: if man's depravity extends to total inability to respond to God's call, what need is there to warn us in Scripture not to harden our hearts?  According to Sproul and others, our hearts are already as hard as hard can be, and nothing short of a miraculous reprogramming of our nature can soften them.

Perhaps part of the problem lies in the common Calvinist misconception that faith is something that one “does,” rather than something that one has.  Calvinist apologists almost invariably define saving faith as something more than “knowing and trusting without seeing,” as it is described in Hebrews 11:1 (Calvinists are not alone in this.  Many Arminian and holiness teachers hold to this same position).  Saving faith, contends the Calvinist, is “obeying faith,” or “sin-fighting faith.”  Thus, most Calvinists define faith as commitment, or some combination of belief and commitment.  Understanding this, it is easy to see how the Calvinist would maintain that faith (e.g. commitment) must be preceded by regeneration, but this (Perseverance of the Saints, the "P" in the TULIP) is a weighty subject for another day.  For now, I'll leave you with the words of the Apostle Paul to help you decide whether reasoning with unbelievers and warning them of the coming judgment is of any value:

How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written:

      “ How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace,
      Who bring glad tidings of good things!”

 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “LORD, who has believed our report?” So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.
(Romans 10:14-17, New King James Version)