The doctrine of the depravity of man is central to Christian theology. The correct understanding of this doctrine is absolutely necessary for a pure understanding of the redemptive work of Christ, the most central doctrine of Christianity. The Protestant Reformer John Calvin starts his Institutes of the Christian Religion by treating the importance of the knowledge of oneself (including one’s depravity) and of God.1 This doctrine is the starting point of orthodox Christian soteriology, and has also been the source of division between the true and false church throughout church history (e.g. Augustine’s polemic against Pelagius in the early 5th century, and the Synod of Dordt’s refutation of the Remonstrants’ heresies in 1618-1619).
Man’s sinfulness is taught emphatically and clearly in the divine Scriptures (Gen. 6:5; Jer. 17:9; Mark 7:21-23; Rom. 3:11-20). All men are sinful and their hearts evil. The apostle Paul calls the natural man a slave to sin (Rom. 6:20). No one deserves God’s grace or favor; a just punishment from God on every man who ever lived, save Christ, would be an eternity under His wrath in hell. This wickedness of mankind is seen throughout history, as they tend to distort every pure thought about God and turn it into idolatry. The selfishness even of newborn babies virtually knows no bounds. The history of the world is characterized by evils committed by virtually every generation of mankind; all morality needs to be learnt by every generation, while sinning comes naturally to everyone. The natural state of man is rebellion against God and His ordinances – we are by nature children of wrath (Eph.2:3), while it is only though the inward working of the Holy Spirit that man can come to God and be made willing to live a life of obedience to Him (Rom. 5:6-11; Gal. 5:16-17). Contrary to the Arminian heresy which teaches that man has a free will and is capable to choose God of himself, Scripture teaches that no one can come to Christ unless he is drawn by the Father (John 6:44). Outside of Christ, man is completely incapable of doing anything that is pleasing to God (Heb. 11:6). Even if unregenerate people were to conform outwardly to God’s laws to a certain degree, even their best works are still to be considered “filthy rags” before God (Isa. 64:6) .
Original sin is the reason for this corrupt state of man. The historical narrative of the original sin and the consequent fall is recorded in Genesis 3. The Westminster Confession summarizes the doctrine as follows: “By this sin they [our original parents] fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed; and the same death in sin, and corrupted nature, conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by original generation” (Chapter 6, sections 2-3).
Since all men are the offspring of Adam (Acts 17:26a), all are equally in need of redemption from this helpless estate (Rom. 5:6-21). Concerning this redemption, Scripture teaches the (unfortunately) controversial doctrine of sovereign predestination, by which God in eternity freely elects out of mankind a people unto Him and also in due time calls, regenerates, sanctifies and eventually glorifies them by His grace (Rom. 8:28-30; Eph. 1:3-13; 2:8-10).
The only element of this ordo salutis done in eternity is predestination. The inward calling, regeneration, and sanctification are done within the bounds of time in this material creation, wrought by the Holy Spirit. Every person created by God being unique, it is quite obvious and evident that every individual elect child of God’s calling is also unique. One of the most prominent examples of this in Scripture is found in Galatians 2:7-8, where Paul writes that God equipped both him and Peter in their respective callings as apostles, but in differing ways and with differing purposes. The same Spirit called and continuously sanctified both Peter and Paul, but the practical outworking of His work had a differing effect on the lives of the two great apostles of the church. The reason for this is, of course, the sovereign providence of God, by which He works all things according to His purposes. Likewise, the natural depravity of each of the elect serves the purpose of glorifying God’s grace in the unique way God regenerates and sanctifies them. This necessarily entails that, while all men are indeed radically depraved, we are not all utterly depraved, i.e. we are not all as depraved as we could be. Had this been the case, mankind (mostly unregenerate) would constantly be murdering and molesting one another until all have perished. This is most clearly implied by Romans 1:24, where the apostle shows us that God sometimes ceases to restrain wicked behavior and gives men over to indulge in their wicked desires even more. Thus, even though all the works that unregenerate men do are inherently sinful, they are not always as sinful as they could be. This necessitates that the depravity of men differ with regard to its nature and degree.
Firstly, concerning the nature of man’s depravity, it is evident from the Scriptures that the outward deeds of men are reminiscent of the inward condition of their heart (Gen. 6:5; James 2:18). Therefore, man ultimately does what he most desires. This is the main philosophical objection to the doctrine of the free will of man: since man is a slave either to sin or to God, his desires are also governed by either of these factors. The great philosophical theologian Jonathan Edwards wrote in his treatise on the freedom of the will: “So that in every act, or going forth of the Will; there is some preponderation of the mind, one way rather than another; and the soul had rather have or do one thing, than another, or than not to have or do that thing.”2 Man’s will cannot be self-determined, since it is determined by its own inclinations. Man is free to do what his will inclines him to do, but never free to act contrary to his inclination, determined by either the working of the Spirit or one’s own sinful nature.
When taking into consideration that all acts flow from the desires of the heart, it becomes evident that people are not depraved in the same way. A child-molester acts in accordance with the desires of his depraved nature when he molests a child, while a cannibal does the same when he eats human flesh. Likewise, on the same night, the gambler’s inward desires are obviously different from that of the drunkard, the nature of the sinful desires of their depraved hearts obviously being very different, though both living out their rebellion against God and His law.
Having established how man’s depravity differs with regard to its nature, let us proceed to analyze its differing degrees. Some sins are undoubtedly greater than others and anger God more than others. For example, if an unbelieving husband cares for his wife and treats her well, even though it is still sinful before God, because it is not done out of love for God (Matt.22:37) and a desire to keep His commandments (1 John 5:2), it is far better than the unbeliever who beats and molests his wife. Should both be reprobates and receive their eternal lot according to their deeds on Judgment Day (2 Cor. 11:15), the wife-beating husband’s punishment for this act would be graver than the caring husband’s. People with more sin are also worse off than those with less sin. A non-believing pagan who never encounters the truth of Christ will receive punishment in hell will be much less than that of a renowned atheist scholar who spent a life of seventy years attempting to disprove the existence of God. Likewise, some people, because of greater depravity, indulge more freely in sin than others. Only in man’s equal need of redemption is there equality with regard to his total depravity.
When a damnable sinner (which all men are apart from Christ) is regenerated by the Holy Spirit, the necessary result will be one of sanctification. To be holy is both a biblical command (Lev. 19:2) and the essential characteristic of the believer (1 Pet. 2:8-9). Depravity necessitates sanctification. The Westminster Confession states in chapter 13, section 1: “They who are effectually called and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, by his Word and Spirit dwelling in them: the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified; and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.” The Christian life begins and ends with repentance, a repentance which must be true and honest; every man must acknowledge his particular weaknesses and repent accordingly. Only if this is done can sanctification proceed on a real and personal level.
This difference in depravity with regard to nature and degree applies on a corporate level to families, tribes, nations, and races as well. Personal sanctification does not only mean individual sanctification, as there are also corporate sins that require repentance in a personal manner. A clear example of this would be the act of fornication. This is not merely an individual sin. Two parties are involved, and both need to repent together for this particular dishonorable act. Granted, it might happen that in reality only one of the two parties may actually repent, but the sin itself has corporate implications and needs to be addressed on a corporate level. A second point to be made concerning this issue is the fact that God sometimes punishes sins on a familial level (Joshua 9:11-26) and visits the iniquities of ancestors upon their descendents (Ex. 20:5). The same principle applies also to His blessings (Ex. 20:6).
In the next part of the series, I will continue to discuss the effect and nature of man’s depraved and fallen state as it applies to the distinct races within mankind. I will point out that nations and races, much like individuals, have their own particular weaknesses with regard to total depravity, and in doing so, I will identify the practical implications this has for the real and personal sanctification of these races.