Faith in Focus


It's already a few years ago that I had the privilege of leading a small study group for a number of months. The people in the group had been coming to the Reformed church for a while, and they were happy to have someone introduce them to some of the distinct teachings of the Reformed faith. Of course we talked about such truths as the covenant; we talked about infant baptism, about the so-called five points of Calvinism, and plenty of other things. Some of them I still see every Sunday, and they have become dear brothers and sisters in Christ.

I think we all enjoyed those Bible study times we had; it was so encouraging to search the Scriptures together. At the time I said to myself: Maybe it would be good to write some of these things up for Trowel and Sword. But we all know how it goes in life; so many other demands often play havoc with those good intentions of ours. But now I've set myself to do it.

Just a few words about the title of this little series of articles. It's not at all meant to "belittle" the Five Points of Calvinism, as if these points aren't good enough. No, it's my aim to help us look not only at the so-called five points, but also somewhat beyond that. The late Edwin Palmer (at one time General Editor of the NIV Study Bible) wrote some forty years ago: "Reformed thinking cannot be narrowed down to the Five Points of Calvinism: it is much too comprehensive for that. On the other hand, neither can it be understood apart from them: they are basic to it."

* * *

If you have continued reading up to this point, you will certainly know of the TULIP memory-crutch. "T" of tulip stands for total depravity, the "U" stands for unconditional election, the "L" for limited atonement, the "I" for irresistible grace, and the "P" for perseverance (or preservation) of the saints. But let it be said again: we cannot reduce the Reformed faith to these "TULIP" points. The heart of the Reformed faith, the Biblical faith, is to be found in the sovereignty of God. And one expression of the sovereignty of God is found in these five points.

Total Depravity. The first point.

Someone said to me once: But look at all the good that there is in the world! Look at all the nice things that people do to one another, and for one another! This "totally depraved" thing is nonsense; it's even contradicted by the facts of life itself! Depraved, yes; but totally depraved: it's just not true!

But, I said, that's not what is meant by "total depravity". It does not mean to say that people cannot possibly be pleasant to one another, that husbands cannot possibly be tender to their wives, that a mother cannot possibly reach out in love to her child, that friends cannot possibly care for each other, and so on. Total depravity does not mean that.

No, people are not as bad as they could possibly be. Thank God for that. Thank God for His grace, to all mankind. As a matter of fact, some non-Christians may well be shining examples for Christians when it comes to such things as: showing patience, or having concern for the down-and-out, or being unselfish. No, man is certainly not as bad as he could be, and there is still plenty of good going on in this world. Our Lord even talked about that when He said: "And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that."(Luke 6:33)

But what sort of good is that?

Yes, it may bring benefit, joy, care, relief, and much more, but something vital is missing. The good done by non-Christians has - at its very core - lacking that which God demands, and that is: a proper, Christ-centred, God-honouring motive. The motive, that is what it's all about. All the good things which are still being done in this world - and praise Him for it! It makes life much more bearable! - are not fully, ultimately, pleasing to God if they are not done out of love to God. Scripture makes it very clear that "everything that does not come from faith is sin" (Rom 14:23); "without faith it is impossible to please God" (Hebrews 11:6); "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God" (1 Cor 10:31).

Even the (secular) world's very best good deed (whatever that may be) does not come from faith, and is not done for the glory of God. I like the very clear definition of the Heidelberg Catechism as to what is truly good (Q & A 91): "Only that which arises out of true faith, conforms to God's law, and is done for His glory."

* * *

Twentieth-century man, clever, smart, computer-wise, new discoveries in science, medicine, technology, evermore bigger, better, faster; but at the same time:

Rwanda, Bosnia, families disintegrating, violence, drugs, abuse, Angola, Eastern Europe, Haiti, poverty, racism, child-pornography, brutality;

Not a very pretty picture. When you take the veneer away, and dig only a little beneath the froth and bubble of our sophisticated civilization, the reality is actually downright ugly! The Bible said that long ago:

"The Lord looks down from heaven on the sons of men

to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God.

All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt;

there is no-one who does good, not even one." (Psalm 14:2,3)

That Psalm is quoted again in Romans 3, and it is in that chapter that we find that condemning statement: "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." (Rom 3:23) But that ugly picture takes shape already so much earlier! The very first book of the Bible talks about every inclination of man's heart being evil from childhood, being evil all the time (Gen 6:5, 8:21). The Living Bible paraphrases that in stating that the trend and direction of men's lives is only towards evil. With all our education, all our programs, all our teaching, the words in Jeremiah(17:9) are ever so true: "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" And the apostle Paul again:

"... the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God." (Romans 8:7,8)

There it is.

Man without Christ cannot please God.

Man without Christ does sin in everything he does.

Man without Christ is like a bad tree; it cannot bear good fruit.

The solution? The very nature of the tree needs to be changed.

The predicament is really hopeless. Not only is man without Christ unable to do God-pleasing things; he does not even desire to do that. He cannot understand the things of God, he does not accept God, does not trust God, does not love God.

"The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him and he cannot understand them ..." (1 Cor 2:14).

When it comes to spiritual things the person without Christ does not see, does not hear, does not respond, for that person is deaf, blind, yes: dead! Dead in transgressions and sins (Eph 2:1,5). The Canons of Dort summarize it like this: "... all people are conceived in sin and are born children of wrath, unfit for any saving good, inclined to evil, dead in their sins, and slaves to sin ..."(3/4, art.3).

* * *

It is precisely here that the Reformed faith places a different emphasis from much that we hear in the Christian world. So many say: "But man still has the ability to ask God's help for salvation. Man has the power to believe or not to believe. He is not really dead, for if he were, he could not ask for help. Yes, he is full of sin, sick with sin, but he can still ask the doctor for help." The Reformed faith says: "No, man is dead. He cannot even open his mouth to ask for help. Besides, he does not even have the desire to ask for help; he is dead."

Edwin Palmer, whom I quoted earlier, gives a powerful example - quite graphic - of the difference between the Arminian and the Calvinist view. The Arminian would compare man's state to that of one who jumped out of a second-story window, cracked three ribs, broke his leg, and still lives. The man knows that he is seriously injured and therefore needs a doctor. In fact, he can call for help from a passer-by or drag himself to the phone to call the doctor. He wants to be made whole and alive and well.

The Calvinist, however, would compare man to one who stepped off the Empire State building and was spattered over the sidewalk. Even if there were anything left of him when he landed, he could not know that he needed help, let alone cry out for it. That man is dead - lifeless - and cannot even desire to be made whole.

Or think for a moment of the story of Lazarus in the grave. Now Lazarus could not sit up and ask Christ to make him alive, for the very obvious reason that he was dead, four days already, and a bad odour! If Lazarus was to be raised to life, then Christ had to give him life and call him out of death! And so it happened. Christ called, and a dead man stood up and walked into freedom.

Total depravity?

O yes, total.

Any hope?

O yes, "just as from eternity God chose His own in Christ, so within time He effectively calls them, grants them faith and repentance, and, having rescued them from the dominion of darkness, brings them into the kingdom of His Son, in order that they may declare the wonderful deeds of Him who called them out of darkness into this marvellous light ..." (Canons of Dort, 3/4 art 10)

Any hope?

O yes, "... because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions - it is by grace you have been saved." (Eph 2:5)

* * *

Now what do you do with such a doctrine? The teaching of TOTAL DEPRAVITY?

I guess you can do several things with it; wrong things, mind you.

* You can be ashamed of it, for there seem to be so many Christians who do not accept it. Maybe it's better to blend in with the crowd.

* You can ignore it, and so turn the saving work of Christ into something which it isn't.

* You can disbelieve it: "I'll be alright in the end, I've always looked well after my family, put in a good day's work; God wouldn't reject me."

* You can accept it with your mind only, and use it as an interesting debating point, maybe to clobber people over the head with, without being convicted in your heart of your total unworthiness in the sight of God.

* You can fully accept this Biblical teaching of Total Depravity, and then get bogged down in it: "I'll never be good enough; God would not save such a sinner as I am!"

Maybe there are even more "abuses" of this doctrine then the ones I have outlined above. The only way to deal properly with this awful truth about ourselves, is to face the fact that we are totally depraved by nature because we are the slaves of sin. Every bit of our being has been infected with evil. If we are not willing to face that fact, there is no hope for us. We must accept God's judgment of us before we can receive His mercy.

And then?

"But because of his great love for us,

God, who is rich in mercy,

made us alive with Christ

even when we were dead in our transgressions -

it is by grace you have been saved." (Eph 2:4,5)

Prof. Keith V Warren (Principal of the Reformed Theological College, Geelong, Australia).

(This article and the five to follow are reprinted here by permission from the Trowel and Sword of the Australian Reformed Churches.)

Back to the Article Index

Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / / revised August 96 / Copyright 1996