Sin: Intensive and Extensive
A study of “total depravity” should include the realization that the natural (unregenerate) man is not as bad as he could be in his actions. If that were the case then the unbeliever would be constantly in an open physical rebellion and confrontation with the church all of his days. We can see that this is not the case. Many unbelievers can be “good neighbors” to Christians. Many discoveries by the heathen in science, medicine, and learning have been beneficial to Christians. Sin is not totally intensive, but is held in check by God.
This is a part of what is sometimes called God’s “common grace” (not to be confused with “saving grace”) whereby God restrains the heathen from being as bad as they could be, and actually are, in their fallen nature. For example, an unbelieving heart surgeon may be given abilities from God to benefit many. Likewise heathen nations are held in check from performing all the evil they are capable of. God may even use them as He did in the Old Testament to instruct or discipline His people. Notice just a few examples: Deut. 32:21; Judges 3:1-4; I Kg. 11:14ff.; Jer. 5:15; 6:22,23; Luke 19:41ff.
By restraining unbelievers from doing what is really in their hearts, carnal men are even able to obey some of the letter of the law (howbeit for the wrong reasons since they do not seek to give glory to God in this). See Romans 2:14-16. God restrains this evil in order that the gospel may have free course, and His elect people may have a measure of physical peace in this life. See Matthew 24:22-24.
We should never conclude that if the unbeliever is able to perform some things which appear to be good in the eyes of men, that these same actions are good or glorifying in the eyes of God. The good things that God gives to all men–sunshine, rain, and various pleasures–require a proper response. They should be used to serve God out of thankfulness. This the unbeliever cannot and will not do. In the end, the unthankfulness and unfaithfulness of the unbeliever in the things God has given to him will be called into account. He will be shown to be a sinful steward–using his time, talents, and God’s gifts only for his own selfish purposes, the end of which is condemnation (see the Parable of the Talents in Matt. 25, especially vv. 24-30; cf. 25:41-46).
We might add here that the believer is not as good as he should be either, even though he is reborn by the Spirit of God and in Christ he is declared to be totally righteous. In reality his life falls far short of the new nature that is his in Christ. See how Paul describes this struggle in Romans 7 when he admits “For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do,” and again, “For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice” (Rom. 7:15, 19). What this says is that our old sinful nature still cleaves to us as long as we are in this body. Yet, the believer does not have this sin imputed to him, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity, And in whose spirit there is no guile” (Ps. 32:1,2), but rather the righteousness of Christ is imputed to him (see Rom. 4:8; 5:18-21; II Cor. 5:19, 21).
The other aspect of total depravity is the extent to which man is depraved. This is total. We speak here of two areas. First, it extends to all the offspring of Adam, and, secondly, sin has corrupted the entire nature of man, in all of its aspects. In this regard it is worth looking at the clear teaching of Romans 3:10-18, 23:
“As it is written: There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God. They have all gone out of the way; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no, not one. Their throat is an open tomb; with their tongues they have practiced deceit; The poison of asps is under their lips; Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; destruction and misery are in their ways; and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.” “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Emphasis mine)
Man’s entire nature is completely corrupt, perverse, and sinful throughout. He is naturally prone, inclined, and bent on sinning against both God and his neighbor. Man’s nature is depraved (literally, “crooked”). Every part of man is adversely affected by this sinful nature which he inherited from Adam (Rom. 5:12)–his heart, mind, soul, and strength. His will or desire is not free to act either in a good or a bad way. It is totally enslaved to do evil in and of itself. In other words, there is not some small spark of good that remains after the Fall–no small light that was not extinguished by sin. Heidelberg Catechism Q. 8 asks, “But are we so depraved that we are completely incapable of any good and prone to all evil?” To which it answers, “Yes, unless we are born again by the Spirit of God.” (See also Heidelberg Catechism Q.’s 5-7.) Fallen man’s ears cannot hear and understand; his eyes cannot see and perceive. He is dead in his trespasses and sins as Ephesians 2:1 says. Man is not sick unto death as the Arminian would have us believe, but really, spiritually dead.
We should say a word, however, about an often misunderstood teaching in the Canons of Dort (3rd and 4th Heads of Doctrine, Article 4) which states, “There remain, however, in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural understanding, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior.”
Some have wrongly interpreted this to mean that man is not totally depraved, but there remains in him a glimmer of goodness. That would be to miss the intended meaning of this article. What the writers are speaking about is Romans 1:19-21 which tell us that God reveals his eternal power and divinity to all men: “because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”
All men are able to observe the hand of God in the world in which they live, yet, the unregenerate person will deny that it is of God. This knowledge of God is present because man was created in the image of God. John Calvin calls this retention of the knowledge of God, “sense of divinity” (Latin: “divinitatis sensum”; see Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, Ch. 3-5). This is based on the teaching of Rom. 1:21 where, in addressing the condition of all men, Paul says, “Because, although they knew God…”)
The Canons of Dort point out that this “glimmering of understanding… so far from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion” actually demonstrates the totality of man’s depraved nature and renders him without excuse before God. While unregenerate man still has this knowledge of God, he denies God and refuses to glorify or thank Him (Rom. 1:21). Instead of teaching that man has some good in himself, it teaches just the opposite–it underscores the totality of man’s depravity. Man’s corruption in sin is so severe that even when he knows God, he still rebels against Him. Read all of Romans 1:18-32 and also Articles 4-6 of the Canons of Dort.
It is this “sense of divinity” which gives the believer and the unbeliever a “point of contact” (which Dr. Cornelius Van Til called the “Anknöpfungspunkt”) or a sort of “common ground.” Both know that there is a God. However, all similarity ends there, because the believer confesses, glorifies, and serves God while the unregenerate denies and rejects God.
Blog post content is taken from Rev. Paul Treick’s book, Faith of Our Fathers, Living Still: A Study of the Five Points of Calvinism, available for purchase. It is posted with the gracious permission of the author.
If you’d like to read the blog series from the beginning, start here.