Foundations of Grace: Total Depravity

Our congregation is Presbyterian and Reformed. What does that mean? The words attached to our church buildings and congregations entail a particular tradition or set of beliefs. Every church has them whether they wish to admit them or not. Even the non-denominational church follows models of belief common among other non-denominational churches. What does it mean then that we are a Presbyterian and Reformed church?

We recognize that the Christian faith has a content to it. It’s not a feeling. It’s not a vague emotional something or another. Reformed Presbyterianism finds its substance in the life and teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. Now, any decent church should posit the same thing. However, we affirm that the best summaries of what the Bible teaches is found in our Reformed Confessions and Catechisms (e.g., the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Westminster Catechisms). These faithful summaries are designed to help unite churches and pastors for their teaching and identity. Often when answering the question “What is Reformed theology?” a particular teacher comes forward: John Calvin.

Calvin is himself a worthy figure of study. He was a brilliant scholar and faithful pastor who labored among the people of Geneva. He helped mobilize thousands for missions in Europe and even into South America in the mid-1500s. But the teaching so often attached to his name, was not all that unique to him. I am speaking of what is often called Calvinism. The Reformed and Presbyterian world is bigger than this one figure. But the contents so often placed under the banner of “Calvinism” only deal with one aspect of Reformation theology; namely, how men and women are saved from their sin. Calvinism usually looks chiefly at this item and has often been summarized under five points. This is why people can sometimes speak of the Five Points of Calvinism.

The first thing to note, is that Calvin did not create the Five Points of Calvinism. They are in fact a response to the protests in the Netherlands by those disciples of a theologian named Jacob Arminius. His followers have often been called Arminians. The Five Points of Arminianism proved the groundwork for the response of Reformed theologians gathered in the city of Dort in the Netherlands in 1618-1619. This council of pastors and theologians gathered to respond to this crisis of faith. This Synod (or Assembly) of Dort produced a famous document called the Canons (or rulings/teachings) of Dort; this is another Reformed confession. The Canons of Dort codified the Five Points of Calvinism in response to the Five Points of the Arminians.

Why on earth should you care? The very first point for our consideration is immediately practical and relevant. How would you answer this question: When the Bible says that all men are spiritually dead because of sin, how dead are they? This sounds rather silly on our first read. Dead things are simply dead whether they are a dead fly, or a dead battery, or even a dead person. Dead people don’t tie their shoes or go for walks on the boardwalk. Dead people do nothing because dead people can do nothing. Their abilities are robbed from them because of their deathly state. We do not speak of degrees of death. We can speak of degrees when discussing quality of life, or even of general suffering. But death is a state that naturally persists. Death is something we know all too well.

Let’s return to our question: When the Bible says that all men are spiritually dead because of sin, how dead are they? Our response ought to be: entirely dead. Wholly dead. Thoroughly dead. This is why the Apostle Paul wrote, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world.” (Ephesians 2:1-2 ESV)

What are the implications of this reality? The Apostle Paul makes it clear in Romans 3:10-11, “None is righteous, no, not one, no one understands; no one seeks for God.” He doesn’t speak concerning bad people, or criminals, or human traffickers, adulterers, liars and the like. His language is all encompassing. The reality of our spiritual death because of sin leaves all people naturally unrighteous in God’s sight. In other words, sin’s corruption impacts every person; not one of us is free from this stain. To go back to the language of Ephesians 2, we are dead in our sins. Spiritually dead people can do no spiritually honoring thing. They cannot choose God or believe on their own because Paul said, “no one seeks for God.” That “no one” is as all-encompassing as the deathly spiritual effects of sin.

As we begin a short study on the doctrine of salvation known as the doctrines of grace or Calvinism, we are desiring to see the Word of God as it is and not as we wish it to be. Let us then begin with recognizing the bad news of sin’s corruption so that we might understand the plan of salvation mapped out for us in the Scriptures in the weeks to come.