Doctrines of Grace: Total Depravity and Unconditional Election
|From my visit to Amsterdam, 2007|
It has been said of the Reformers in
“ Cambridge grew them; Oxford slew them.” Hugh Latimer, Bishop of
scholar and preacher, royal chaplain to Henry VIII and Edward VI, was one of
those who died at the hands of haters of the Word of God and the Gospel.
Latimer was a preacher of Sola Scriptura,
the Bible alone, but concerned that some in England misread their Bibles, he
urged preachers and laymen alike not to “make a mingle-mangle” of the sacred
The Reformation was essentially a return to the sole authority of the Bible and an embrace of what it teaches about how a man is saved and becomes a part of the church.
had her teachings on these things, but Latimer and the Reformers found in the
actual words of the Bible that salvation was by grace alone. Sinners contribute
nothing--but their sins.
A young man who is serious about being a Christian will diligently search and know what the Bible teaches about salvation and the grace of God. He must be absolutely clear about the extent of his sins, about the roles of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in salvation, and about sanctification and the life of holiness God has called him to. In short, a real man must not make a mingle-mangle of the Bible’s doctrine of salvation.
In Luther’s great debate over free will with humanist scholar Erasmus, Luther thanked his opponent for going down to the root of the debate: the nature of man. In Bondage of the Will, Luther argues that the fundamental difference between the Roman Catholic view of sin and the Bible’s view is that man is in bondage to his sinful nature; this bondage includes his will. His depravity is so total it makes him not only unwilling but unable to come to God.
Most post-conservative American Christians agree that man is depraved, but not so totally that he is unable to come to God, to respond to the universal call of the gospel as an act of his free will. Wittingly or unwittingly, they agree with Jacobus Arminius, sixteenth-century divinity professor at the
University of Leyden
Well-meaning Christians who insist man is free and able to choose salvation, base it on passages like Revelation 22:17, “Whoever is thirsty let him come, and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.” Or on Paul’s call to the Philippian jailer to “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” The argument proceeds as follows: If the Bible invites whoever wishes to come, and if Paul tells the jailer to believe and be saved, then men must be able to come and believe as acts of their free will.
Notice carefully, however, that these conclusions are deduced by implication but not from an explicit statement in the text. In neither text, for example, does the author explicitly tell us that men have the ability to come, to thirst, or to believe. It is implicit, Arminians insist, but clearly it is not explicitly taught in these texts. If you genuinely want to know what the Bible is saying, take the explicit over the implicit; otherwise you will make a mingle-mangle of its teaching on total depravity.
Compare Scripture with itself on man’s depravity and you will find many explicit texts that clear up any confusion. There is nothing left to inference, for example, when Jesus tells his hearers why they refuse to understand him: “Because you are unable to hear… the reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God” (John 8:43-47). Clearly, Jesus was teaching that these men’s unbelief was based not on a lack of will but on a lack of ability. Turn back a page and Jesus’ consistent message is clearer still: “No one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him” (6:65).
Paul repeatedly makes the same point about the bondage of man’s will and his inability to believe as an act of his will: He says sinners “cannot know” (I Corinthians 2:14), that “none seeks” (Romans 3:10-12), they “cannot see” (II Corinthians 4:4), that “the sinful mind does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so,” and that man “cannot please God” (Romans 8:7-8).
The words “can” and “cannot” are words that indicate ability or inability; they have nothing to do with wanting or wishing. So when Jesus explicitly declares, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44), he is plainly telling his hearers that no one can come as an act of will; they’re unable to do so. Men come when God draws them.
If you genuinely want to know what the Bible teaches about total depravity, find it in the explicit passages. Don’t build a theology of free will and ability on implicit texts, especially when the deduced conclusions require you to defy explicit biblical statements.
Cavil at Calvin
We sinners, not surprisingly, chafe when the Bible exposes the depth of our total depravity. Still more, we particularly get our back up when it says that God unconditionally predestined some men to salvation and some to damnation. This goes too far.
When Paul lists predestination, “according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will,” as chief among the blessings we have in Christ in the heavenly realms, we modern American Christians are sure that the text just can’t mean what it says.
Thus, we raise two standard objections to predestination: “It makes God unfair,” and, “How could God blame me for my sins?” After all, if predestination is true, then everything happens “according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will,” just as Paul wrote. Paul’s statement sounds too undemocratic, and it, frankly, offends us.
It offends us because, deep down, we agree with poet William Ernest Henley who declared, “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” More than two thousand years before
Henley, Greek dramatist Sophocles observed that, “Man
desires to be more than man, to rule his world for himself.” It’s in our fallen
nature to entertain exaggerated notions about having god-like power over our
own lives. Predestination requires a “steepling plunge,” and we desperately
squirm and writhe when confronted with it.
John Calvin wrote, “The predestination by which God adopts some to the hope of life, and adjudges others to eternal death, no man who would be thought pious ventures simply to deny, but it is greatly caviled at.” To cavil is to make frivolous objections to something, objections without foundation.
The most common cavil goes like this. “If predestination is true then why witness or send missionaries to heathen lands?” Notice, again, how this objection sets aside the clear words of Scripture in favor of a line of human reason.
So long as men cavil, the debate rages on, but it’s not because the Bible is unclear about predestination. Read Paul in Ephesians and wherever the Bible speaks about God’s sovereignty and grace you will find explicit teaching consistent with what has come to be called Calvinism. The debate rages precisely because the Bible is so clear, and because what it says is so contrary to what we naturally think about ourselves.
Calvin is correct: biblically informed Arminians cannot deny predestination by name; the word and its parallels appear throughout the Bible. They do, however, redefine the clear meaning of the word and shift the bases of election to God’s foreknowledge. They insist that God merely foresaw that some would choose him, so on the basis of men’s choice, he chose them. Believe this and you’re forced to redefine the clear meaning of words, and you’re left scratching your head at why, if predestination wasn’t true, the Bible would bother giving specific answers to man’s cavils at it.
Love and hate
Perhaps there is no more unadorned statement of predestination than Paul quoting Malachi in Romans 9:13, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” The careful reader is forced to reject the theory that by predestination Paul meant that God passively foresaw that men would choose him and then he chose them. He is forced to reject this theory because of Paul’s own words in the Bible. Paul knew his teaching on predestination would raise this question: “What then shall we say? Is God unjust” (9:14)? Paul anticipates the standard human objection: Predestination makes God unjust; things just wouldn’t be fair if election were true.
If Arminianism were true, however, Paul would immediately say something like this: “Hold everything! You’ve misunderstood my entire meaning. When I speak of predestination, I don’t really mean predestination. I mean God just sees that you will have faith and “chooses” you based on you having already chosen him.” Paul says nothing of the kind. In fact he raises the bar: “It does not depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy… Therefore, God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (9:18).
Read your Bible with integrity and there’s no mingle-mangle here. It’s abundantly plain. Nevertheless, men continue to cavil at predestination, and Paul anticipates their next objection: “One of you will say to me: ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will’” (9:19)? Paul is saying in effect, “I know what you’re thinking: You think that if what I’m teaching about predestination is true then God can’t blame you, or hold you responsible for your sins. You’re thinking that if he sovereignly hardens one and chooses another, then it’s not fair for him to judge you for your sins.”
Again, if Arminianism were correct, Paul would immediately protest, “Hold the phone! That’s not what I mean at all!” But he doesn’t say this. He is working through a carefully crafted inspired argument based on his certain knowledge that predestination is vein-bulgingly objectionable to proud human beings like you and me.
Here is the ultimate test of whether you’ve got the Bible’s understanding about predestination: Paul’s teaching provokes men to object and say that it makes God unjust. Therefore, any theology of salvation that does not prompt that objection is not Paul’s teaching and is, therefore, a mingle-mangle of the Bible’s teaching about predestination.
Why do men have so much trouble here? It goes back to total depravity. We don’t like predestination because we don’t think we need it. We’re not such terrible sinners that we can’t make our own choices about our life. Besides, we’re Americans and we believe in self government, you know, in ruling our world for ourselves. No, this predestination stuff might work in ancient
or in Geneva, or in Scotland, but it’s not for us
It’s not just Henley or Arminius. Nobody likes predestination. No fallen sinner likes facing the harsh reality of how utterly lost he is and how impossible it is for any of us to be saved by anything we can will, or believe, or do. Jonah got it right: “Salvation is of the Lord,” but we, like Jonah, resent the fact.
Other troubles with election
Though it is less likely today, some may have another kind of difficulty with predestination. The devil may raise doubts in a sinner’s mind by suggesting to you that there’s no use in seeking the Lord, no use in calling out to the Lord to have mercy, because you’re probably not elect anyway. So what’s the use of attempting to come to God if he has, from all eternity, barred you from his salvation and forgiveness?
The tempter tried this one on John Bunyan, and for a time it worked. But only for a time. Bunyan longed to bask in the sunny side of the mountain that seemed to bar his way from peace with God. Others in
seemed to have found the warm, refreshing pastures of grace and salvation,
while he sank in the miry bog of his unworthiness. And when hints of light
shone through the narrow passageway to the warm side of the mountain, he was
“assaulted with fresh doubts.” These doubts came in the form of a question:
“Was I elect?” The Scripture seemed clear about these things, but it trampled
on all his desire when he read, “It is not of him that wills, nor of him that
runs, but of God that shows mercy” (Romans 9:16).
Satan fanned the flames of his doubt with relish. “How can you tell if you are elected?” the tempter whispered in Bunyan’s ear. “And what if you are not?” Bunyan had no answer but his groans of despair. “Why then,” Satan persisted, “you might as well stop now and strive no further.”
Holy Mr. Gifford, pastor of
St. John’s parish church in Bedford, had taught the
poor tinker the whole counsel of God. Bunyan knew his biblical theology. “That
the elect only obtained eternal life, I without scruple did heartily agree; but
that I myself was one of them, there lay my question.”
Then Bunyan heard, as it were, the Lord speak, “Begin at the beginning of Genesis, and read to the end of Revelation, and see if you can find that there was ever any that trusted in the Lord and was confounded.” With those words his confusion and perplexity began to vanish:
Take heart in divine sovereignty and predestination. If you are to be saved it will be God’s doing, first to last. But no man who has ever seen his sins and felt his need, who has longed to have peace with God, has ever been turned away. After all, the knowledge of your sins and the desire to be rid of them is also a gift from God. Bunyan took encouragement from this knowledge, and so ought you.
We might be tempted to think that a man like
last New England Puritan--was a copper-bottomed Calvinist from birth. But not
so. He confesses early doubts and objections to God’s sovereignty and
predestination in his Personal Narrative. Jonathan Edwards
My mind had been full of objections against the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, in choosing whom he would to eternal life, and rejecting whom he pleased; leaving them eternally to perish and be everlastingly tormented in hell. It used to appear like a horrible doctrine to me.
Eventually, Edwards became “convinced, and fully satisfied, as to this sovereignty of God, and his justice in thus eternally disposing of men, according to his sovereign pleasure.” He credits the “extraordinary influence of God’s Spirit,” for the change. “My mind rested in it; and it put an end to all those cavils and objections.”
The next stage of Edwards’ understanding he described as “a wonderful alteration in my mind, with respect to the doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty and justice, with respect to salvation and damnation; [sovereignty] is what my mind seems to rest assured of.” His early conviction deepened into “quite another kind of sense of God’s sovereignty. I have often since had not only a conviction, but a delightful conviction. The doctrine has appeared exceeding pleasant, bright, and sweet. Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God. But my first conviction was not so.”
A man who claims to love God and his word, is not at liberty to begrudgingly concede to any biblical doctrine. The young man who wants to be set free by truth, will strive for that maturity that lays aside flawed notions about God and his ways and seeks to find all of God’s self-disclosure “pleasant, bright, and sweet,” though truth may not look so at first blush.
If you find yourself still kicking and squalling at the sovereignty of God, do as young Edwards did: seek and know the Lord as he is revealed in the Bible. “The first instance that I remember of that sort of inward, sweet delight in God and divine things that I have lived much in since, was on reading those words, I Timothy 1:17 ‘Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory forever and ever, Amen.’”
Finally, if what you conclude about predestination gives glory to God alone, then you have embraced what the Bible teaches on this grand subject. Soli Deo Gloria!
Douglas Bond, author, speaker, tour leader, hymn writer, publicist. Listen to Bond's podcast at bondbooks.net/the-scriptorium-podcast