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Total Depravity: The Human Will

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
January 2, 2023 12:01 am

Total Depravity: The Human Will

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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January 2, 2023 12:01 am

The power of sin is so strong that only God can rescue us from spiritual death and bring us to faith. Today, R.C. Sproul discusses the effects of the fall on the human will.

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Jesus said, ''No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him.'' And what Jesus is saying here is that no human being has the power or the ability to do something. Now these are strong words coming from the lips of our Lord, saying something about man's ability. No man has the power to do what?

To come to Me. Well, those are strong words from Jesus, and they have sparked heated debate among Christians regarding the human will. At the center of the debate is this question. When Adam fell, did we lose our ability to make free choices, particularly when it comes to our salvation?

Today and all this week on Renewing Your Mind, we're focusing on R.C. Sproul's series, What is Reformed Theology? And today's topic hits right at the core of this theological system. When we get to the concern of the doctrine of total depravity, or the T in TULIP, invariably we are catapulted into the arena of the debate over free will. In fact, the historic controversy over the degree of original sin that infects us really focuses on that question of free will. You can't have a five-minute conversation on the doctrines of grace or on the doctrine of election without somebody raising the question, what about free will? And so often the debate or the discussion over free will is placed in two different frameworks.

One is the relationship between God's sovereignty and our responsibility and our power to act as volitional creatures. But the other place in which the discussion of free will is framed has to do with the question of the relationship between the fall, an original sin, and the power of human freedom. Let me take a moment to read a confessional summary of this dispute as we find it in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which is the 17th century British statement of Reformation theology, where we read these words.

Reformation is the reality of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation. So as a natural man, being altogether averse from that good and dead in sin, is not able by his own strength to convert himself or to prepare himself thereunto. But what this confession is saying points to the radical character of this doctrine in that it affirms that man's freedom in a certain area has been wholly or completely lost by the fall. Not that man has completely lost his power of choosing or of making decisions, but his moral power to do certain things has been completely lost. And that certain thing that is in view here is that man has lost the ability to convert himself or to will on his own steam any spiritual good. Now therein is the crux of the matter of the doctrine of total depravity. It translates into the doctrine of what is called moral inability.

I want to take a little time to explain this concept. And again, we can go back to Augustine's view of the inherited corruption. Pelagius disagreed with this, and Pelagius said that Adam's fall affected only Adam, that there is no consequence to future generations and the seed of Adam sin only by imitation, not because of some transferred or transmitted fallen human condition. Now after Pelagius was condemned by the church, a moderate position emerged that was called semi-Pelagianism, which taught, yes, there was a fall, that the whole human race, mankind, has been affected by Adam's sin, and that we all are born with a corrupt nature, but that corrupt nature leaves what I'm going to call a kind of island of righteousness by which there still remains a vestigial remnant of the original righteousness, that though this person needs the help of divine grace in order to be saved, in order to be made holy, nevertheless there remains a power within the will of the creature that can cooperate with the grace of God or reject the grace of God.

So that in the final analysis, the reason why some persons will come to Christ and others will not, some will be redeemed and some will be lost, will be rooted ultimately in human decision and in that power that remains in the will after the fall. Now again, Pelagius said that a person can live a perfect life without grace, and he said that grace facilitates redemption, but it's not necessary. People can be perfect, and in fact, Pelagius argued, some have achieved perfection without any assistance from God. The semi-Pelagians differ with Pelagius at this point by saying, no, grace is absolutely necessary.

It's a precondition for anyone's being redeemed. You can't be saved without grace. However, grace is not alone. It is grace plus something else, grace plus the exertions of the human will in the strength that remains intact after the fall. Augustine was one of the principal architects of the idea that was recovered in the 16th century Reformation in one of the solas of that time, the so-called idea of sola gratia. By grace alone, Augustine was saying that the fall is so profound and that the power of sin is so strong in the human heart that only God by His grace and by His grace alone can change the disposition of the human soul to bring that person to faith. So at issue here is whether fallen man has the ability intact, the moral power intact to incline himself or to embrace in his own strength the offers of help and assistance that come to us from God. Or is it necessary for God to do the initial work of recreation in the soul before the fallen person has the moral power to say yes to the gospel? So what we're talking about here is what is called the divine initiative. Augustine would say this, that before a person comes to Christ, God works unilaterally, monergistically, independently, and sovereignly by changing the soul of the sinner by rescuing that sinner from the prison house of moral bondage by which he is by nature dead in sin and trespasses and in that state of spiritual death is morally unable to resurrect himself. So the divine initiative is that God has to come and breathe new spiritual life and power into the soul of that person and to use Paul's language, to quicken him from a state of spiritual death and produce faith in the person's heart before that person has the power to come to Christ. They come willingly and cheerfully and all the rest, but not before or until God does His work of sovereign grace in bringing that person from spiritual death to spiritual life.

We call that monergistic rebirth or monergistic regeneration, that it is the work of God alone and since there is nothing I can do to earn it, to deserve it, to merit it, or to provoke it, I must rest my case ultimately on the grace of God and on the grace of God alone. Now, one of the important Biblical texts that speaks to this is found in the Gospel of John, in which Jesus makes a somewhat astonishing statement. He says in verse 63, it is the spirit who gives life, the flesh profits nothing.

The words that I speak to you are spirit and they are life, but there are some of you who do not believe. For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe and who would betray Him. And He said, Therefore, I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been given to him by My Father. Now, we remember earlier in Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus, who came to Him at night, Jesus talked about the necessity of a person's being reborn before they could even see the kingdom of God, not to mention enter the kingdom of God. And in that discussion with Nicodemus, Jesus said to him, That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. And just as Jesus makes this strong contrast between flesh and spirit, so the Apostle Paul does the same thing when he talks in the metaphor of warfare that goes on between the flesh and the Spirit in the person who has been converted. Even when you are born of the Spirit, the flesh is not completely annihilated, and there is this ongoing struggle, but until the Holy Spirit changes your life, all you are is flesh. This is what Jesus is saying to Nicodemus. In your natural birth, in your natural state, you were born in the state of sarx, or the biblical concept of flesh, in this fallen condition where the desires of your heart are only wicked continuously, in which the Apostle says that you walk according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, and that you are dead in your sin. That's the condition of the flesh. Now here in John 6, Jesus says the flesh profits what?

Nothing. In his debate with Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, Luther in his perhaps most famous work on the bondage of the will, labored his exposition of this biblical text and kept jibing at Erasmus for having the flesh do something in the process of salvation, not only that is significant, but it is pivotal, and not only does it profit something, but it profits everything, because if in the final analysis we rest upon this innate moral power within us that is not touched or incarcerated by the fall, and that the power here of the flesh is to incline oneself to spiritual good, then one exercises the proper inclination. What that profits him is eternal life.

And Luther, never tiring of debating with Erasmus, says that that nothing is not a little something. And he said Jesus is serious when he says the flesh profits nothing. Then he goes on to make this statement, no man can come to me unless it is given to him by the Father. Now that text is very important because it begins with the statement, no man. And if you are students of the grammar stage of logic, you will recognize that statement or that concept, no man, as what is called a universal negative proposition. It describes something negative of everybody in the class man. Now, I would like to be able to say that this is used in a gender-specific way and only refers to the inherent moral inability of males. Unfortunately, the usage here in the Greek is shorthand for mankind. What Jesus is saying is that no human person.

He's saying something about everybody, something negative about everybody. Now again, the next word is crucial, no man can. Not no man may.

We know the difference between may and can. I've talked about that many times. I remember when I was in grade school and I asked the teacher, can I go sharpen my pencil? And she said, I'm sure that you can, but you mean may I go sharpen my pencil? And I have since discovered that that teacher got around.

In fact, she was ubiquitous and that everybody I've ever met has had the same teacher at some time in their lives, haven't you? And that teacher said, I'm sure you can. And the question is, may I? We're not talking here about permission, but the word can describes ability or power, posse. And what Jesus is saying here is that no human being has the power or the ability to do something. Now these are strong words coming from the lips of our Lord.

This isn't Augustine or Calvin or Luther. This is Christ Himself saying something about man's ability. And He says, no man is able.

No man has the power to do what? To come to Me. So that there is an inherent lack of ability of some kind for human beings to come to Jesus in some way. Now obviously when He says, come to Me, He's not talking spatially or geographically. Obviously none of us have the ability to come to Him in His earthly presence in Palestine because He's not there anymore.

And He wasn't saying that no man could come and find out where he was living. The coming to Me is the way in which He calls people to embrace Him in faith for their salvation. I don't think there's any biblical scholar that would dispute that that's what Jesus is talking about here with respect to coming to Him. No man can come to Him unless, unless. Now unless indicates a necessary condition that has to be met before a desired consequence can possibly follow. So that unless points to some sine qua non, some absolutely essential thing that has to take place before a person can come to Jesus.

Now what is it? Well here He simply says, no one can come to Me unless it is given to Him by the Father. Earlier in the text He talks about no one can come to Me unless the Father woos Him or lures Him.

Although the word that is used there is the word that most dictionaries translate by the English word compel. It's not just an external enticement like trying to lure people to come to Him. The idea here is that God has to do something at this point.

God has to enable a person to come. That's the key point that we, according to the doctrine of total depravity, have lost our natural human ability to come to Jesus. We still make choices, but we make our choices according to our desires. That's the essence of freedom, to be able to choose according to your own desires or inclinations.

But it's a double-edged sword. Not only are we free in the sense that we choose according to our desires, but we cannot not be free at that point. We not only may choose what we want, but the only kind of a choice that is a real choice is the choice that is made according to what you want.

And so we are all still free people in the sense that we can do what we want. But that's not the royal liberty of which the New Testament speaks. It doesn't address the problem of moral bondage. And what original sin teaches in the doctrine of moral inability found under the rubric of total depravity means that we are slaves to our own desires, and by nature we have no desire for Christ or for the things of God. And so we freely reject Him insofar as we choose what we want and what we don't want is Him unless God changes the desire of the heart. You see, that's why it's not called natural inability.

It's called moral inability. We don't have the power or the ability to love the good. For that to happen, we have to be changed. God has to intervene, and in His grace He must rescue us from spiritual death and the other metaphor, spiritual bondage. He has to give us the gift of faith by creating a spiritual resurrection in the heart and in the soul. And so that's the first point of the acrostic of total depravity.

It refers to the degree of corruption that is so severe that there is no island free from the bondage of corruption found within the deep recesses of the human soul. But until we are born of the Spirit, we are flesh, and the only way we can ever come to faith is that if God in His grace and His grace alone liberates us by causing us to be born a second time by the creative power of the Holy Ghost. As the Apostle Paul tells us in Ephesians chapter 2, we are dead in our sins and trespasses. To use the analogy of a man who fell overboard and is out in the middle of the ocean, he's not waving his arms looking for somebody to rescue him.

No, he's face down in the ocean with no ability to signal anyone to come help him. And that's why we say that it's only through the power of the Holy Spirit that our hearts can be quickened. You're listening to Renewing Your Mind on this Monday.

I'm Lee Webb, and thank you for being with us today. More than 30 years ago, I have to tell you, this was all new to me. I was raised in the church, but I had never heard of Reformed theology, and I've met many of you who've told me the same thing.

And that's why R.C. Sproul taught this series. It's titled simply, What Is Reformed Theology? It's an overview of what Charles Spurgeon called, nothing short of biblical Christianity. The Reformers of 500 years ago returned to a biblical understanding of salvation, and now a half millennium later, we stand on their shoulders. If you'd like to continue this study on your own, this series is available to you on three DVDs. There are 12 messages, nearly six hours of teaching, and we would be happy to send it to you for your donation of any of our deligatier ministries.

This is an online offer only today, so we invite you to go to And we are thankful for your generosity. Our desire is to make the glory of God known, and through your gifts, we can continue producing teaching series like this one. And as we watch churches capitulate to the culture, it becomes clear why good, sound theology is so important.

Dr. Sproul says in this series, if the theological foundation is off, then the structure is off as well. And that's one of the main reasons this ministry exists, to help you know what you believe, why you believe it, how to live it, and how to share it. With that in mind, let me also recommend that you explore the many resources available on our free app. Reformed theology is taught in many of the articles and audio and video clips that you'll find there.

Just search for Ligonier in your app store. And if you value what we do here at Ligonier, I hope you'll consider giving a generous donation to this ministry today. Thank you. Well, today R.C. covered the T in the acrostic tulip, total depravity. Tomorrow, the U, unconditional election. If God chooses sovereignly to bestow His grace on some sinners and withhold His grace from other sinners, is there any violation of justice in this? I hope you'll join us tomorrow for Renewing Your Mind. Thank you.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-01-02 15:07:37 / 2023-01-02 15:15:17 / 8

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