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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
 
Preached At:Langley Canadian Reformed Church
 Langley, B.C.
 
Title:Total Depravity
Text:LD 3 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Our Salvation
 
Preached:2006-10-08
Added:2006-10-09
Updated:2008-01-01
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 124:1-3
Hymn 47:6 (after the law)
Psalm 143:1
Hymn 55:1-5
Hymn 5:1-4

Readings: Psalm 53, Ephesians 4:17-32
Text: Lord's Day 3
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved brothers and sisters in our Lord Jesus Christ,

Let’s begin with a quote:

“The doctrine of total depravity is irresponsible, unintelligent, and destructive. It is contrived by human theologians and is not Scriptural. If people are totally depraved, they ought to be shot, gassed in the chamber or hanged by the neck ‘till dead.” The man who wrote this claims to be Reformed. His name is Robert Schuller and perhaps you’ve heard of him in connection with his Crystal Cathedral in California. He’s well-known in broader Christian circles as a leading prophet of the self-esteem movement. In fact, he has written his own definition of sin: “sin is anything which gives you low self-esteem.” With that in mind, you can see why he finds the teaching of total depravity to be repulsive. If we’re totally depraved that means we get knocked down a notch and we will inevitably suffer from low self-esteem – in other words, the doctrine of total depravity will lead us to sin.

So we see that in Christian circles the doctrine we find in our Catechism is under attack. The attack comes from more than one direction. For we also have the people who don’t see Genesis 1-3 as giving us a factual account of what happened at the beginning of the world. They think total depravity is foolishness because they don’t believe that man ever really fell into sin. There never was a person named Adam. The story just represents what happens to all of us – we have to make our choice and most of the time we fall. But there is the possibility that someday we will learn from our mistakes and we will find peace and goodness in this world. It is not inevitable that every man sins. Man is not totally depraved, he is just weak and needs some help. We can expect things to get better for mankind.

Against this type of thinking and against the self-esteem false prophets, we confess man’s total depravity. We confess that man is dead in sin and totally corrupt. We do not believe in the good which lays within man – that every person is basically good in his heart and only needs the right circumstances to find his good potential. No, brothers and sisters, we confess from the Scriptures that apart from God we are wicked and perverse. Our Catechism already made this point in Lord’s Day 2, but in Lord’s Day 3 we see this worked out further.


So I preach God’s Word as it’s summarized in the Catechism with this theme:

We confess our total depravity.

We’ll see:

1. Depravity’s origin
2. Depravity’s extent
3. Depravity’s solution

1. Depravity’s origin

We confess that man is depraved. To be depraved means to be corrupt. In fact, the word comes from the Latin word pravus which means “crooked.” So to say it another way, man is crooked. He is not the right shape that he should be. That point was already made in Lord’s Day 2: “I am inclined by nature to hate God and my neighbour.” I cannot keep God’s law perfectly the way that I should. This is obviously a serious problem for it means that man’s destination is utter God-forsakenness. How can we get out of such a serious problem? Well, perhaps there is a way out if someone else is to blame.

If the blame can be levelled somewhere else, then man isn’t responsible for being out of shape, for being crooked. And the most natural place to point the finger is at the One who created man. Man didn’t come into this world on his own after all – there was a Creator who formed him and placed him on this earth. So in one sense it’s completely natural that the question is asked. For if God created man with this defect, this crookedness, then how can He expect man to keep God’s law perfectly? That would be completely unreasonable and God would be unjust.

But is God like that? The Scriptures testify otherwise. Take Job 34:10 for instance. There we find Elihu speaking these words of truth, “Far be it from God to do evil, for the Almighty to do wrong.” Then he goes on in verse 12, “It is unthinkable that God would do wrong, that the Almighty would pervert justice.” It’s clear: God cannot be blamed for anything evil in this world and that includes man’s wickedness. The same thing is found in Canons of Dort 1.15 when we confess that the thought that God could be the author of sin is blasphemous. That’s strong language! That might even make us inclined to slap the wrist of our catechetical question-asker. But this is the kind of thinking that people try to use to excuse their behaviour. I can’t help it – I was made this way. If I was made this way, then you can’t blame me for what I do. I’m just a helpless victim in a divine tragedy. And no one blames a victim – it’s always someone else’s fault.

The Catechism, following Scripture, is not going to validate the blame game. The first answer of our Lord’s Day is direct: No, on the contrary. In other words, scarcely anything could be more wrong than to say that God is responsible for man’s crookedness. No, rather God created man good. He created him in His image, in true righteousness and holiness. That means that God created man to be like God in a certain way. Man was created to reflect God’s likeness. Man was created so that he would love the right and shun all evil, keep himself separate from it. To say it another way, man was created morally straight.

That’s the way man was created. Then we can quickly ask a question which doesn’t receive a lot of thought nowadays: is it Biblical to say that any given person today is created in the image of God? Does man in his fallen state retain the image of God? Here we have to make a careful distinction. To understand this, you’ll have to listen carefully. There is a sense in which all people retain the image of God, even in their fallen state. People are capable of reasonable and rational thought – that reflects God in whom all things live and move and have their being, the God of order. People are capable of being creative – that reflects God the Creator. So, there is this sense in which all people still have aspects of the image of God – though we must hasten to add that these things too have been affected by the fall into sin. If you want a word to hang this on, we could call it the ontological sense of the image of God. Ontological is a philosophical word that refers to everything that has to do with existence and being.

But there is another sense in which fallen man has completely lost the image of God. We can call this the ethical sense of the image of God. As far as God’s moral qualities are concerned, fallen man does not retain the image of God. This is what Zacharias Ursinus, one of the authors of the Catechism, was talking about when he wrote: “Man lost this glorious image of God…and became transformed into the hateful image of Satan.” It’s this ethical sense that the Catechism is speaking about. Of himself, man no longer reflects God’s image as far his moral qualities are concerned. He rather reflects the image of his new lord and master. It is only when the Spirit is working in the life of a person that he or she begins to show what ought to be there: God’s image. If you think about it, this makes sense. How can the one who is alienated, separated from God by his sin, how can such a person reflect God’s image in this sense? But with the Spirit of God working in the heart, then a person is brought near and a reflection can definitely be seen. .

That’s the point that Paul makes so clearly in 2 Corinthians 3:18. He says there, “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness [or image] with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” Notice how it said, “being transformed into his likeness.” That means that coming to reflect God’s image in this ethical sense is a process.

We can see the same thing in our reading from Ephesians 4. In that passage, Paul very vividly illustrates the life of man apart from God. And notice too, how he emphasizes that the Gentiles are “separated from the life of God.” How can they be the image of God when they are separate from Him? Apart from God, man is clearly wicked – the Scriptures stand clear against someone like Robert Schuller. Man is wicked apart from God. But this has changed and is changing for the Ephesian believers. They are called to put off their old nature, their old self and put on the new. Do you know what Paul is speaking about here? It’s about sanctification. Sanctification leads believers to increasingly reflect the image of God. Sanctification is the process by which people are led to rightly know God, heartily love Him to the end that they might live with Him in eternal blessedness. That was the original purpose of man’s creation and now it continues to be the purpose of man’s spiritual re-creation. God is leading us upward to have a new nature (NIV: self), in His image, in true righteousness and holiness. And that, brothers and sisters, is why we find all these commands at the end of Ephesians 4: put off lying and falsehood, work faithfully, avoid unwholesome speech, being kind and compassionate and so on.

Through the new life we are clearly called to live as a new creation. Though we weren’t created wicked and perverse, we have become this way. And though we weren’t born righteous and holy, we are called, even commanded, to become this way. God created us good to enjoy rich blessings in communion with Him in paradise. In all of this, we see so clearly that God is good beyond measure and so how can we blame Him for our fallen condition?

Well, if God isn’t to blame, then who? Here too the Catechism is very direct. There’s no escaping the fact that our crooked, depraved nature comes from our first parents, Adam and Eve. The first three chapters of our Bibles tells us how all that happened, and I’m sure most of us are familiar with that. But we should ask ourselves: how do we know that these are the facts and not just a nice story, like the Greek myths? Well, we read from Psalm 53 and we saw there very clearly that man’s depravity is a given fact. Obviously David took Genesis seriously – and that’s very weighty when we consider that David himself was inspired by the Spirit. And then we have a passage such as Luke 3:38. There we find the genealogy of our Lord Jesus Christ and Adam is placed there along with many other historical figures. If we hold to the Scriptures as the Word of God, we cannot reach any other conclusion other than that man’s depraved nature originates with man, in particular with a historical man and woman named Adam and Eve in paradise. Only man is to blame for his sinful nature.

Now that we have seen depravity’s origin, let’s move on to our second point:



2. Depravity’s extent

Up to now you won’t have too hard a time finding people to agree with us. They’ll say, “Oh sure, man is crooked and depraved.” Look at the biker gangs, look at the prisons, look at the Stalins and the Hitlers of history, not to mention the Clifford Olsons and Paul Bernardos and so many others. Man can do some pretty wicked things – for sure. But there are also a lot of good people, they’ll say. There are tons of people who do good things to help others. People who volunteer at the hospital and at the hospice. People who get donations for the Heart and Stroke Foundation or the Canadian Cancer Society. And so we could go on and on. Man may be depraved, but is he really totally depraved? What exactly is the extent of man’s depravity?

Well, the Catechism says that with the fall and disobedience of Adam and Eve, “our nature became so corrupt.” How corrupt did it become? So corrupt that we are all “conceived and born in sin.” It wasn’t the case that Adam and Eve’s sin only affected them, that it was just a private affair between them and God. It wasn’t that their sin just alienated them from God. No, Scripture says that their sin was so serious that it impacted the whole human race. That’s one of the important points that Paul wants to make in Romans 5. He says in verse 18 of that chapter that “the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men.” We can compare the situation to an apple tree. If you have an apple tree which is of the Golden Delicious variety, then you wouldn’t expect to find Granny Smith apples growing on the branches. You find Golden Delicious. Now of course, the apples growing in the human race are anything but Golden or Delicious, but I hope you get the point. Adam’s sin was so serious that it didn’t just poison his relationship with God, it poisoned the whole tree of the human race. Everybody, without exception, inherits this poison.

Every baby that comes into this world is infected with this poison. We may find it hard to believe when we see a little baby. How can such a sweet little creature be an heir of such a horrible inheritance? But this is the clear testimony of God’s Word brothers and sisters: the language of the Catechism is taken right from Psalm 51:5, we are all “conceived and born in sin.” We should be clear on what this means. It doesn’t mean that the act of conceiving a child is sinful. Some people in the history of the church have thought that way. They made sex between married people out to be a dirty and sinful thing. But the Scriptures glorify it and show it to be truly beautiful – you only have to read the Song of Solomon to see evidence of that. Rather, being conceived and born in sin means that from the moment we are conceived we are polluted and poisoned with sin, in particular with original sin. What is original sin? It’s defined quite neatly by the Belgic Confession in Article 15, “It is a corruption of the entire nature of man and a hereditary evil which infects even infants in their mother’s womb.” That’s what it means to be conceived and born in sin! It means that even before you were born, you were filthy with sin.

And that corruption affects the entire nature of man according to the Belgic Confession. It’s not the case that we’re just sick or weak. Scripture paints a very clear picture of man in his sin. We see that when Paul says in Ephesians 2:1, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins…” Dead. This is a total corruption. There is no part of man that has not been corrupted – body and soul, mind, heart and will – everything has been fatally poisoned with sin.

In this connection, I’d like to read a short quote from our Canons of Dort to underline what I’m saying here. The quote runs as follows, “The unregenerate man is not really or totally dead in sins, or deprived of all powers unto spiritual good. He can yet hunger and thirst after righteousness and life, and offer the sacrifice of a contrite and broken spirit which is pleasing to God.” This is NOT what we confess. Rather this is what the Arminians taught, the followers of Jacob Arminius, those opponents of the Reformed faith in the 17th century. What I was reading was error 4 in chapter 3-4. It’s important that we realize that this is plainly unscriptural. “These things militate against the express testimony of Scripture.” Man is dead in sin, period. There is no hope for man at all unless God makes him a new creation. Both Scripture and our Confessions are clear on this point!

And that’s why the last question and answer puts it so point-blank. Are you saying then that man is so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined to all evil? Is the situation really so bad? And then the answer is yes. Again we have to say that the Scriptures are so clear on this point. Rather than building up man’s self-esteem, the Bible often points us to our desperate situation apart from God. Satan does not have a problem with self-esteem! And by nature, neither do we. Adam and Eve chose the wicked way because they believed themselves to be above God. Their problem was thinking too highly of themselves. Our root problem is no different – we are totally inclined to all evil when we are alienated from God. We place ourselves above the law and also the Law-giver. Crooked to the core. That is how we are as we sit by ourselves. Then what can we do? Can we pull ourselves up? Being dead in sin, obviously that’s an impossibility. We need a solution from above. That’s what we see in our third point.

3. Depravity’s solution

The Catechism is relatively brief on this point and so we’re going to be brief as well. The reason for the brevity is that the Catechism deals much, much more with this in other Lord’s Days. However, in this Lord’s Day there is a particular approach that is taken. The Catechism connects total depravity with good works and regeneration.

The way it does this is rather intriguing. First we have the question, is man’s corruption so bad that he can’t do anything right? And then the answer, which we already looked at: yes. But there is an important exception. “Unless…” A small word, but very important. This “unless” shows us a doorway, a way out of this hot and hellish room. There is a way to do good and NOT to be inclined to all evil. But the way is not found with man. It’s not found here on earth. It is not found in finding ourselves, self-help books, or building up our self-esteem. Rather, the way comes from above.

The solution to the problem is found in regeneration by the Spirit of God. Now this concept is not entirely new in the context of the Catechism. It was implied already in the first Lord’s Day. There we confess that the Holy Spirit, He works the new life in us and makes us heartily willing and ready from now on to live for God. The Holy Spirit regenerates us and works sanctification in us. He enables us to do the good and avoid evil. If an answer is to be found for our crookedness, He must work in us.

The Lord Jesus made this plain when he met Nicodemus the Pharisee in John 3. The Saviour stated that to enter the kingdom of God, it is necessary to be born of water and the Spirit – it is necessary to be born again. It is only with the new birth through the Spirit that we can be led to do good works and begin to keep God’s law. Only through that way can we be led to praise and glorify God in our lives, being renewed in His image in true righteousness and holiness.

The Scriptures tells us that regeneration by the Spirit of God is absolutely necessary. We must be born again. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve had a remarkable experience in your life, a Damascus road-type event. It could be and likely is the case with many of us that we, like Timothy, have been raised to fear the Lord and believe in the Lord Jesus from earliest childhood. The important point is that we must be regenerated. And how do you know if you’ve been regenerated or born again? The Canons of Dort summarize the Scriptural teaching on that in 5.10. Assurance comes by “faith in the promises of God” -- do you trust the covenant promises He made to you, believing with all your heart in the Lord Jesus? Assurance also comes by “the serious and holy pursuit of a good conscience and good works” – is godliness a priority in your life and are you conscientious in your pursuit of it? We must examine ourselves whether we can indeed answer with a hearty affirmative to both of those questions. Do we look to the solution from above?

As Reformed believers, we must and we will. We also recognize that we, as a Reformed church, are virtually isolated with our regular preaching and teaching of man’s total depravity. However, this isolation is not a bad thing. Why not? Because it arises from our confession of the truth. The Scriptures teach that man was created in a very good way with rich blessings, but he senselessly turned his back on God. Without understanding the depth of our fall, we will never fully appreciate what Christ has done for us. When we don’t appreciate Christ, we diminish the glory we give to him. Brothers and sisters, the glory of Christ is at stake with this doctrine! At the same time, we have to remind ourselves not to be pessimistic navel-gazers, morbid narcissists who never get beyond our own sin and wickedness. The Catechism goes beyond our sin and misery and so must we! Nevertheless, we must be Biblically realistic as we evaluate the world around us and also our own lives and experiences.

As such we also realize that the trend of rank wickedness that we presently see in ascendance will not continue forever. For there is the promise of God for those who believe; the promise that even though man be so wicked, yet through Christ there will be a new creation which will exceed the glory and splendour of paradise before the fall into sin. Those who are in Christ are destined for greater things to the praise and glory of the Creator. However, the fulfillment of this destiny will not originate with this earth. It will come from above. And so we too must always look above where Christ is and from whence He pours out His Holy Spirit. Pray eagerly and earnestly for the Spirit to work and continue working in your heart and life with the Word. For it is by that divine means that you will know both the assurance and the reality of an eternal blessedness in which you may praise God forever. AMEN.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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