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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:So great a fall -- so great a salvation!
Text:CD 3/4 Articles 1-3 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Our Salvation

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 135:1-3

Psalm 51:1,2

Hymn 28:1-4

Hymn 1

Hymn 28:5-7

Scripture reading: Ephesians 2

Catechism lesson:  Canons of Dort 3-4.1-3

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

Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus,

This afternoon we’re considering the doctrine of total depravity.  The “T” in TULIP.   There’s no shortage of illustrations when it comes to this doctrine.  Consequently, it’s always easy to introduce the topic.  Sin and sinful people are everywhere.  Look in your own life experiences and you can also find plenty of examples of people being cruel and evil, sometimes to a lesser and sometimes to a greater degree.  Sin and wickedness are plainly here, all around us.

Now historically speaking, the Arminians would have agreed.  They would agree that there is a lot of sin and wickedness in the world.  But they wouldn’t agree with the Reformed explanation of the impact of this fact upon the salvation of human beings.  They would not agree that the presence of sin and wickedness in the world necessarily means that people are incapable in themselves of taking steps towards God.  No, the Arminian position is captured in the Rejection of Errors 4 (p.561).  This is a literal quote from Arminian writings:  “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.”  That is what the Arminians believed and that is what many Christians today continue to believe.  They believe that fallen human beings are merely sick. 

We confess that the Bible teaches something different.  We confess that the fall into sin did not merely make human beings sick.  It made us dead.  The fall was not a mere foot or two.  Rather, the fall was from awesome heights to a terrible depth.  And when you fall from awesome heights, there is an awful impact nobody walks away from on their own.  The doctrine of total depravity teaches us that the fall is great, its impact is great – but then it also points to the other truth that as our fall is great, so is our salvation in Christ.  And so I preach God’s Word as it’s been confessed by the Church in the Canons of Dort with this theme:

So great a fall – so great a salvation!

We’ll consider:

  1. The biblical basis of this doctrine
  2. The godly outcome of this doctrine

If the book of Ephesians were the only book in the New Testament, we would still have the doctrines of grace.  Of course, many things are clarified with the other 26 books, but yet you can find all the doctrines of grace in some form in Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus.  So, it’s no big surprise that also the doctrine of total depravity, or better put, total inability, is also found here.

It’s in our reading from Ephesians 2, particularly in verses 1-3.  In that passage, Paul describes what a person looks like before regeneration and before faith.  There are four things we can draw out of this. 

In verse 1, Paul says the unregenerate are dead in transgressions and sins.  Again, the most popular view is that people are merely sick.  Some will take the more optimistic view that humanity is actually generally healthy, but has a few struggles now and then.  But most people are realistic and they realize there are awful things like war, disease, starvation and poverty.  So, they say, people are not healthy.  There are good things around too, so man is not dead, just sick. 

Paul reads the human condition differently.  Inspired by the Holy Spirit, he says humanity is dead in transgressions and sins.  As far as his relationship to God is concerned, man is a corpse.  He is unable to make any movement towards God.  He cannot respond to God.  Apart from God, he’s a hopeless case.  So, that’s the first thing:  dead in sin.

The second thing almost seems contradictory.  The second verse says that the unregenerate live in transgressions and sins.  They are dead to righteousness, but alive to wickedness.  The unregenerate actively practice evil.  Evil is their daily habit.  Dead, but alive.  Someone once compared Paul’s description here to what old horror movies and stories would call a zombie.  Zombies are people who’ve died but still walk around and carry out all kinds of mischief.  It’s a gruesome, ugly idea.  But it’s even worse because this walking, active human corpse is rotting away – which is pretty disgusting if you stop to think about it.  In this way, the unregenerate are the spiritual walking dead.  They’re active in one sense, but definitely not towards God.  So, dead in sin, alive to wickedness, now the third thing…

Verses 2 and 3 speak of the unregenerate following a certain path.  They follow the ways of this world.  They follow the prince of the power of the air – that’s another way of saying they follow Satan.  They follow their sinful desires and thoughts.  To sum it up, the unregenerate are enslaved.  Enslaved to the world, to the devil, and to their own sinful wants.   The unregenerate are captive to sin, and the strange thing is they like it that way and want to keep it that way.  Even though their slavery will kill them for eternity, even when their slavery brings hard times upon them in this life – in spite of all that, they would rather be a slave to sin, than a son of God.  What could be worse than a slavery where you think this is as good as it gets and so never dream of freedom?       

With the final thing, we get God’s perspective on this sorry state of affairs.  The unregenerate is by nature a child of wrath.  That expression hearkens back to the fall of Adam and Eve.  The fall led to God’s wrath and judgment.  The curse of sin produced children of wrath.  God’s wrath is not simply a future reality, but a present fact.  Just as we experience eternal life in a small measure now already, so also the unregenerate experience God’s wrath and judgment in this life already.  God’s wrath past, present and future is the lot of the unregenerate so long as they are not converted to Christ. 

The picture painted by Paul in Ephesians 2 is therefore very dark.  There are no grey shades here.  It’s all darkness and death.  Of course, there are a couple of other aspects to consider from elsewhere in Scripture.  First off, there’s the height from which we’ve fallen.  According to the biblical story in Genesis, humanity was created good and in God’s image.  We hear that expression so often we might take it for granted that we know what it really means.  The Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 3 tells us it means man was created in true righteousness and holiness.  That’s a direct quote from Ephesians 4:24, so there’s no arguing with that.  The Canons of Dort affirm the same thing and even expand on it.  This is the moral sense of the image of God.  In this sense, fallen man has lost the image of God.  We can also speak about the image of God in the natural sense.  Man reflects God’s image in the fact that he is spiritual and rational – man, like God, has a mind and a will.  In this sense, fallen man retains the image of God.  But because he is fallen man, his mind and will and all those things that make him the image of God – those things have been polluted and stained with sin.  Though man was created awesome and wonderful, he has fallen from those great heights and the impact isn’t pretty.

Article 1 of Chapter 3-4 tells us that Adam rebelled against God and by so doing he robbed himself of all the excellent gifts from God.  You could say he traded in a t-bone steak for a bowl of putrid thin soup.  Adam brought upon himself all sorts of terrible things:  blindness, darkness, vanity, evil, rebellion, and every other word you can associate with wickedness.  Think of what the Spirit says in Ephesians 4:19, “They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.”  Apart from Christ, this is our condition. 

It’s our condition because it’s been passed on to us.  In article 2, the Canons summarize biblical teaching about what we call the imputation of Adam’s sin.  Romans 5:12 tells us that death and sin came to all men because of Adam’s sin.  The corruption of Adam’s nature was passed on through the generations.  Some might look at this and wonder:  is there a sin gene?  Is this something to do with biological heredity?  The Scriptures lead us in a different direction.  It is a spiritual condition passed to Adam’s descendants.  Adam was the head of the human race and as such took an action that had consequences for all of us.  We might not like it and we might not think it’s fair, but it’s the way it is.  And we do see that sort of thing happening more often in our lives.  I’ll use an illustration that I’ve given the catechism students.  Let’s say you’re in a school band.  You go to a concert and the band leader or perhaps somebody else announces that the band has decided to play this or that song.  Now it could be you hate that song and if you’d really had a say in it, you wouldn’t be playing it.  But you’re part of the band, so you play.  It happens with other things too.  Adam was our head and he did something that affects all of us.  He brought all of us under God’s righteous judgment.

Because of Adam’s sin, we’re all conceived and born in sin.  Article 3 says “conceived in sin.”  That expression comes from Psalm 51:5, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”  Reading that verse clears up any misunderstandings we might have about the concept of being conceived and born in sin.  Some people have had the idea this is somehow connected with the morality of reproduction.  As if the thing which leads to the birth of children is somehow sinful.  Psalm 51:5 says it plainly:  David confesses that even when he was born he was already sinful.  And even before he was born – in fact, right from the moment of conception!  Human beings are stained and polluted with sin from the moment they are human beings.  We call this original sin.  Original sin is a fact of life for all people.     

We have our original sin, but this also produces actual sins in our life.  And we not only sin in what we do, but also in what we fail to do.  Our nature is such that we are totally unable to do any saving good.  Saving good would be anything that we could do that would result in our salvation.  “Saving good” is to be distinguished from “civil good.”  Through God’s kind restraint in this world, unregenerate people can do many outwardly good things – things that are good for society.  One of the kindest people I’ve ever known was a lapsed Roman Catholic nun turned New Age agnostic.  She did much civil good for the people in the community where I lived as a missionary in Canada.  But the good she did was not a saving good.  So far as I know, she was dead in sins and a slave of sin.  She did not cling to Christ’s blood as the only basis for her salvation.  Yet she tried so hard to help so many people and she showed so much kindness.   

All of this is to say that the doctrine that we’re looking at does not say that people are as evil as they possibly can be.  That’s why it’s better not to use the term “total depravity.”  “Total inability” is better.  “Total inability” captures the thought of Scripture better, namely that the fall into sin is so great as to make people completely unable to return to God apart from the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit.  Apart from him, people can’t even begin to think about returning to God or even to change their ways so as to be able to please God.  Humanity has fallen so far and so great, that we cannot lift even a finger for our salvation.

If that was all we could say, life and existence would be depressing.  But there is good news.  And the good news is only so good because the bad news is so bad.  The good news of salvation in Christ becomes even better when we realize what it is exactly that Christ has saved us from.  Scripture tells us in 1 Peter 1:18 that believers have been redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to them from their forefathers.  That empty way of life is all about human existence in the grip of sin.  It’s about death, vanity, and darkness.  It’s about slavery.  Romans 5:9, “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!”  We are saved by Christ from God, particularly from God’s wrath.  Why was God angry at us?  Because of who we were apart from him!  Without his Spirit living in us, without Christ for us, we are children of wrath, we are rebels and traitors who deserve the eternal death penalty.  We are saved from God’s wrath.  The good news is only so good because the bad news is so bad.  If we were to somehow weaken what the Bible says about our fallen condition, like the Arminians did, we would also be weakening what the Bible says about the greatness of our salvation.  You see, our fall is great, but so is our salvation in Jesus Christ.  Recognizing this has a powerful impact on how we live.

I don’t want there to be any doubt about this one fact:  we have a more awesome salvation in Christ than we often realize.  We come from a fallen race, but we have a Saviour who became one of us and lovingly brought us back to the Father.  He restored us already in a certain measure and someday he will restore us fully in every possible way.  But there’s more.  When we talk about restoration, we’re thinking about the Second Adam making us like the First Adam before he fell into sin.  But Christ’s work means more than just making it like it was at the beginning.  He is going to make us even more grand and glorious than the First Adam before the fall.  God’s grace in Christ and its effects are far greater than sin and its effects.  We see this in Romans 5:20, when God tells us that grace increases far more than sin.   What we have in salvation far exceeds that which we lost through the fall into sin.  In Christ, we’re not only restored to what Adam was, the way is also opened for us, by God’s grace, to become all that Adam could have been if he had not fallen into sin.  This is all a part of our future hope, but its effects begin right now.   

We have union with Christ by faith now.  In so many ways, we are already experiencing the greatness of a life with him.  Part of that is that, like Paul after the Lord grabbed him on the way to Damascus, like Paul, the scales fall away from our eyes.  Having our identity in this great Saviour gives us new eyes to see.  We see reality the way it is.  We see ourselves the way we really are.  We begin to see two truths:  we are at the same time justified in Christ, and yet still sinners.  Martin Luther and others had a Latin expression that captured that truth:  simul justus et peccator.  It means:  at the same time just and a sinner.  Now that word “sinner” can be used at least two different ways in the Bible.  One way is as a synonym for unregenerate.  A sinner is somebody who is unconverted and living in sin, under God’s judgment and wrath.  But that word can also be used in the Bible to refer to converted people who sin.  It’s used in that sense in Lord’s Day 51, when we say (in the context of the Lord’s Prayer), “do not impute to us wretched sinners, any of our transgressions, etc.”  In that sense, we are sinners and as long as we remain on this earth, we will be sinners.  This is the case even as we have our identity in our union with Christ.  

When we’re honest with ourselves, we know that what the Scripture says is true.  The fall into sin continues to affect us.  Total inability is a fact of our personal history.  If you ever write your autobiography, or someone else writes your biography, it can and should be mentioned that total inability to contribute anything to your salvation – that was a historical fact of your life.  Do you see where this is going?   

Our identity brings us to open eyes and honesty.  Honesty brings us to humility.  The tree of total inability produces the fruit of a humble and godly heart and life.  When we know the great fall from which we’ve been saved, and when we realize we could never contribute even a breath to our salvation, then we’re going to be humble before God and one another.   

And look, this is a completely counter-cultural notion.  You know, traditionally Christians spoke of seven deadly sins.  They were:  lust, laziness, gluttony, anger, greed, envy and finally pride.  Most of these seven deadly sins are still recognized as being something bad, though they’ve been transformed.  For instance, gluttony is still a problem, but now we might call it an eating disorder.  But of the seven deadly sins, only one has been completely rehabilitated so that it is no longer a sin at all.  And that’s pride.  Today, our culture tells us pride is virtuous.  Pride is a good thing.  If you have no pride, that’s a bad thing.  We live in a time where pride is no longer seen as a sin. 

And if we’re honest with ourselves, the same is often true in our Dutch immigrant subculture.  Perhaps not always and not with everyone, but to a large degree it seems to be the case.  I’m not going to give my theories about why this is so, but it often seems like the Dutch immigrant subculture also regarded and perhaps still regards pride as a virtue.  Keeping up appearances is very important.  Don’t let down your guard and show any weakness.  Always be aware that people are watching and judging you.  What are people going to think?  It doesn’t make any difference whether these Dutch immigrants are Christians or not, whether they’re Reformed or not.  It just seems like that’s the way it often is.  And at any rate, man always slides towards pride, no matter where he comes from, no matter what his background may be. 

But, getting closer to home, in our churches, this pride often gets translated into works righteousness or a practical form of Arminianism.  Perhaps it happens through some tragic misunderstanding of the doctrine of the covenant, whereby we think that God does his part and we do our part.  And then, we think, this is how God will accept us and even save us.  Saved by grace alone in theory, but we have to do our part in practice.  And then maybe we wonder why it seems like God is so far away.  Could it be that our pride has led us to think that we can and must do something for our salvation?  Those who would find their lives must lose them.  

The biblical doctrine of total inability confronts our pride.   It reminds us that the Bible repeatedly condemns pride, not only in connection with our salvation, but with everything in life.  The Bible never teaches us to think of pride as a good thing.  Instead of pride, we live out of our union with Christ, we think of ourselves as we are in him, and so we have the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus:  humility.  And humility leads to thankfulness. 

Pride may or may not be at the root of the Arminian errors. It’s very difficult to say anything meaningful about what was in the hearts of theologians who lived hundreds of years ago.  But we can say this:  the Arminian error fosters and encourages pride and when followed consistently (which thankfully it hardly ever is) it produces human pride. Believers have something to boast about in their salvation.  But when the doctrines of grace are embraced, the end result is humility and godliness.  The sovereign God will not have any boasting from us, especially when it comes to the matter of making a contribution to salvation.    

Do you see what the godly outcome of embracing this doctrine is?  It’s a life humbly lived before God and our neighbour.  We become thankful people.  Thankful people constantly live with their eyes directed upwards to the one whom they thank.  This results in praise for God.  Humility and godliness result in relationships characterized by peace and love.  We get a glorious foretaste on this earth of the age to come!  All this because our salvation in Christ is so great and so deep and so wonderful.

Now after all that, let me ask you:  does it seem odd to call this teaching a doctrine of grace?  Well, what I have been saying other than the fact that God graciously saves those who are unable to save themselves?  This is really a doctrine of grace.  God sovereignly saves helpless, dead sinners through Christ.  He saves them, he saves us, because he will be praised by us.  The doctrines of grace, including the teaching on total inability, these doctrines were designed by God himself to humble us.  They were designed by the sovereign God so that we would place our eyes on him and on absolutely no one or nothing else.  God reveals these teachings to us in his Word so that we would exalt him and him alone in this age and in the glorious age to come.  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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