The Exegetical Basis for Total Depravity and Total Inability (Murray)

Epistle to the Romans One aspect of the doctrines of grace is the insistence that man, by nature, is unable and unwilling to come to Jesus in repentance and faith. Apart from saving grace, a sinner is corrupt in every part of his being and morally incapable of doing good in God’s sight.  Although he isn’t as wicked as he could be, he is dead in sin and his will is in bondage to sin.  Of course, the Reformers taught these things, as did other in history before them.  But is there a biblical basis for these teachings?  Yes.  For one of several examples, consider Romans 8:7-8, which says, “…The mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (NASB).

Here are some of John Murray’s helpful comments on these verses:

“Verse 7 gives the reason why the mind of the flesh is death [v.6].  It is ‘enmity against God.’  …It defines the mind of the flesh, the mind characterizing those who are ‘after the flesh’ and ‘in the flesh’, as one that is conditioned and governed by ‘enmity’, enmity of which God is the object.  Enmity towards God is the actuating principle and governing propension of the mind of the flesh.”

“…The last clause, ‘neither indeed can it be’, points to the impossibility that resides in the mind of the flesh and means nothing less than it is a moral and psychological impossibility for those who are ‘in the flesh’ to have any disposition of obedience with respect to the law of God.”

“…The apostle…expressly states what is to the effect that it is a moral and psychological impossibility for those who are in the flesh to do anything that elicits the divine approval and good pleasure.  Here we have nothing less than the doctrine of the total inability of the natural man, that is to say, total inability to be well-pleasing to God or to do what is well-pleasing in his sight.”

“…In the whole passage we have the biblical basis for the doctrines of total depravity and total inability.  It should be recognized, therefore, that resistance to these doctrines must come to terms not simply with the present-day proponents of these doctrines but with the apostle himself.  ‘Enmity against God’ is nothing other than total depravity and ‘cannot please God’ nothing less than total inability.”

John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, p. 286-7.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 45015




Freedom of the Will? (Horton)

The Bible teaches that the human heart is deceitful above all things and that everyone who sins is a slave to sin (Jer. 17:9; John 8:34).  It teaches that apart from grace, a person is dead in sin (Eph. 2:1).  These texts and others like them are where Reformed theology gets the doctrines of total depravity and bondage of the will.  That is, apart from grace we are depraved in every part (extensively): heart, mind, body, and soul.  Apart from grace, it is impossible for a sinner to come to faith in Christ since he is dead in sin.  Yet every human still has a will and ability to choose to some extent. Michael Horton describes this topic well:

“Before the fall, humankind had the natural and moral ability to obey God with complete fidelity and freedom of will.  After the fall, we still have the natural but no longer the moral liberty to do so.  When it comes to our fallen condition, we all have the natural ability to think, will, feel, and do what we should.  None of our faculties have been lost.  We have all of the ‘equipment’ necessary for loving God and our neighbors.  Nevertheless, the fall has rendered us morally incapable of using these gifts in a way that could restore us to God’s favor.  I could choose to dedicate myself to becoming a marathon runner, but I cannot choose to dedicate myself to God apart from his grace.”

“Even in our rebellion, we are exercising the very faculties that God created good, yet we are employing them in a perverse way.  …The fall has not taken away our ability to will in the least, but only the moral ability to will that which is acceptable to God.  It’s not a question of whether we choose, but what we choose.  …If we are bound by sin, then it is not a natural ability that we have lost but a moral ability.  We can only choose sin and death – and we really do choose it (John 8:44) – until God liberates us from this bondage. …It is not that the will that is rendered inactive by sin, but that it is bound by sin until grace restores it in a one-sided, unilateral, and unassisted divine act.”

Michael Horton, For Calvinism, p. 45.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church
Hammond, WI

Lewis Got it Wrong

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed many of C.S. Lewis’ books.  I’m not overly enamored with his work, but his writing is thought-provoking and quite helpful in many areas.  In other areas, however, he’s not so helpful.  One of those areas is the doctrine of sin and depravity.  Here are some quotes from an otherwise decent book, The Problem of Pain.

“The doctrine of Total Depravity – when the consequence is drawn that, since we are totally depraved, our idea of good is worth simply nothing – may thus turn Christianity into a form of devil-worship (p. 29).”

“This chapter [on human wickedness] will have been misunderstood if anyone describes it as a reinstatement of the doctrine of Total Depravity.  I disbelieve that doctrine, partly on the logical ground that if our depravity were total we should not know ourselves to be depraved, and partly because experience shows us much goodness in human nature (p. 61).”

I think it is safe to say that Lewis did not rightly understand the doctrine of total depravity.  What he is reacting against is not total depravity, but absolute depravity.  While hyper-Calvinists may teach some form of absolute depravity, the Reformed creeds and confessions do not teach it.  Lewis mixed the two up.  Here’s how the Reformation tradition describes this aspect of total depravity:

“There remain…in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light, 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” (Canons of Dort, III/IV. 3).

“[Through Adam’s sin man] has lost all his excellent gifts which he had received from God, and retained only small remains thereof…” (Belgic Confession article 14).

In other words, the “total” of total depravity means that sin has spread to the entire person – mind, heart, body, soul.  “Total” doesn’t mean that we’re as sinful as we possibly could be.  Romans 1:18ff is important here.  Total depravity doesn’t mean everyone is absolutely depraved in such a way that they have absolutely no idea what is true and good; it doesn’t mean man has absolutely lost the image of God.  But it does mean that our “total” selves are infected with sin in such a way that we fight against the truth and goodness God has clearly shown us.

C.S. Lewis misunderstood this.  He got it wrong.  He wasn’t really a theologian – much less a Reformed theologian – so we can charitably disagree and use this occasion to remember the right definition of total depravity.

rev shane lems
hammond, wi

Problem with Election – or Depravity?

 Boice’s commentary on Ephesians is a masterpiece.

“When people have trouble with election – and many do – their real problem is not with the doctrine of election, although they think it is, but with the doctrine of depravity that makes election necessary.”

“The question to settle is: How far did the human race fall when it fell?  Did man fall upward?  That is the view of secular evolutionists….  Did man fall part way but not the whole way, so that he is damaged by sin but not ruined?  That is the view of Pelagians or Arminians.  It affirms that we are affected by sin but insists that we nevertheless possess the ability to turn from it and believe in Christ when the gospel is offered – by our own power.  Or did man fall the whole way so that he is no longer capable of making even the smallest movement back toward God unless God first reaches down and performs the miracle of the new birth in him?  That is the view of Scripture.”

“The Bible says that we are ‘dead in…transgressions and sins’ (Eph. 2:11).  It says, ‘There is no one…who seeks God’ (Rom. 3:11).  Jesus declared, ‘No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him’ (John 6:44).  It is written in Genesis: ‘The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time’ (Gen. 6:5).”

“What good could God possibly foresee in hearts that are dead in transgressions and sins and inclined only to evil all the time?  What good could God anticipate in people who cannot come to him and do not even seek him unless he first draws them to himself.  If that is the situation, as the Bible says it is, then the only way any man or woman can be saved is by the sovereign election of God by which he first chooses some for salvation and then leads them to faith” (p. 16-17).

J. M. Boice, Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997).

rev shane lems
hammond wi

Why Preach/Teach Sin?

  In a pastoral way, I feel sorry for Christians who sit under preaching that doesn’t clearly, consistently, and convictingly discuss sin (total depravity, radical corruption, etc.).  If you think about it from a human perspective, I can understand why one might avoid the topic of sin, for it is hard to hear that our anger, lust, and pride offend the living God.  However, if you think about it from a biblical perspective, there are tremendous benefits in knowing what the Bible teaches about sin and misery (including our own dark hearts).  Here’s how puritan Ralph Venning stated it.

“…It cannot but be extremely useful to let men see what sin is: how prodigiously vile, how deadly mischievous, and therefore how monstrously ugly and odious a thing sin is.”

He then explained the benefits of knowing sin and its vile aspects:

1) It helps us better admire the free and rich grace of God.

2) It makes us flee – by faith – to our Lord Jesus Christ.

3) It vindicates the holy, just, and good law of God and his justice in condemning those who break his law.

4) It leads us to hate sin, repent from it, and take a holy, just, and good revenge on it and ourselves.

5) It helps us love and serve God better than we did before we understood the depth of depravity.

6) Seeing sin’s ugliness and darkness makes God’s incomparable and transcendent beauty of holiness stand out all the more.

Of course we shouldn’t take sinful pleasure in talking about sin, but avoiding the issue isn’t the biblical and Christian way.  If we do avoid or downplay the doctrine of sin, we will not understand the other truths of Scripture: God’s holiness, the justice of his law, the amazing aspect of his grace, the work of Jesus, true repentance and faith, and growing in godliness (plus several more).  In the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, before we truly know what it  means to live and die in the comfort of the gospel, we must know how great our sin and misery are (cf. Q/A #2).  In other words, if we don’t know the depths of our depravity, we won’t know the greatness of grace displayed on the cross.  God, have mercy on me, a sinner!  Where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more!

For the above Venning quotes (which I slightly edited), see page 18 of The Sinfulness of Sin.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

Sin’s Sinful Sinfulness

This is a tough book.  Reading 284 pages of a Puritan’s discussion about sin’s hideousness is neither fun nor enjoyable.  It was hard to read.  There were even times in this book where Ralph Venning (the author) basically said “This is tough for me, and I simply cannot write any more on this area of sin.”  Here’s one of his difficult summaries (from p. 172-173).

“That which sin is accused of and proved to be guilty of is high treason against God.  It attempts nothing less than the dethroning and un-godding of God himself.  It has unmanned man, made him a fool, a beast, a devil, and subjected him to the wrath of God and made him liable to eternal damnation.  It has made men deny that God is, or affirm that he is like themselves.  It has put the Lord of Life to death and shamefully crucified the Lord of Glory.  It is always resisting the Holy Spirit.  It is continually practicing the defiling, the dishonor, the deceiving, and the destruction of all men.  What a prodigious, devilish thing sin is!”

“It is impossible to speak worse of sin than it really is, or even as badly of it as it really deserves, for it is hyperbolically sinful.  There are not enough words; we need more, and stronger ones to speak of its vileness.  And if we were to say that it is worse than death and the devil, the very Hell of Hell, this would not be to rail at it, but tell it only the truth about itself.  Sin is the quintessence of evil; it has made all the evils that there are and is itself worse than all the evils it has made. …It is not only ugly but ugliness, not only filthy but filthiness, not only abominable but abomination.  There is not a worse thing in Hell itself….”

While this book isn’t a joy to read, it is necessary.  Probably many of us are accustomed to speaking of depravity, bondage, guilt, and corruption, but it is tough to explain those truths in a “deep” way that people haven’t heard a hundred times.  This book will help you explain and view sin in a deep way, a way that draws out its vileness in a biblical manner.  Of course, we shouldn’t do this because we have a perverse joy in telling people they are sinners or to show off (pride!) our orthodox doctrine of sin.  We uphold and teach the biblical emphasis of sin’s sinfulness because of Paul’s great statement: Where sin abounds, grace does all the more!  The Heidelberg Catechism captures this well by saying that we need to know sin/misery and deliverance from it so we can live in die in the comfort of belonging to Jesus in body and soul.

Read this book, be shocked by it, and then meditate on the truth that Jesus came to save sinners.

Quotes taken from Ralph Venning, The Sinfulness of Sin (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth).

shane lems

sunnyside wa