Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Engaging Arminianism: Why Total Depravity?

Often times both Arminians and Calvinists defend their respective positions on the basis of presupposed notions about who God should be. I have heard multiple Arminians say that they desire a God who gives humans the freedom to love him back. In distinction, I have heard Calvinists say that they desire a God who compels them to belief. Whether Calvinism is true and Arminianism false (or vice versa) can never depend on what people need or desire necessarily. Scripture must be the foundation of all the beliefs we hold.

In talking with multiple Arminians, I’ve found that there is generally a lack of understanding about the Bible’s view of sin. Roger Olson, a popular Arminian scholar, in his book Against Calvinism said very little about the doctrine of total depravity, although he mentions that the Calvinist view of this doctrine is “strongly pessimistic” (42). However, this is only partly true. Horton points out in his counterpart volume For Calvinism that Reformed theology never begins with the fall, but rather creation. God created man good, and insofar as Adam remained in obedience, would have stayed that way. Reformed theology goes back to the beginning of time and sees the goodness of God’s creation perverted by Adam’s choice to eat of the fruit. Adam was the culprit, and through him “death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12).

The question I would ask Dr. Olson if I met him on the street is this: Does the Bible have a “strongly pessimistic” view of humanity? I would argue that the Bible presents the issue even more harshly! Post fall, the answer to the question of whether humans are totally depraved is an unambiguously plain yes. Perhaps the clearest example is to look at the cross. To the depth of agony that the man Jesus Christ went through at the cross, experiencing physical, emotional, and most of all spiritual anguish and torment, such was the depth of our sin. Without the comprehension of how terrible and sickening and scandalous the cross was will we ever come to realize our own sinfulness in that degree? Without the comprehension of how terrible and sickening and scandalous our sin is, can we ever realize the cost that Jesus Christ paid?

Hebrews 4:12 says that the word of God discerns “the thoughts and intentions of the heart”. Are these thoughts and intentions righteous? Genesis 6:5 answers, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Psalm 53: “God looks down from heaven on the children of man to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all fallen away; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.” Isaiah cries out concerning the people of God, “If the Lord had not left us a few survivors we should have become like Sodom, and become like Gomorrah (Isaiah 1:9).” Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”

Turning to the New Testament, the oft quoted Ephesians 2:1-2 says, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience…” Isn’t this the whole pre requisite belief stemming from Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of the dry bones (Ezekiel 37)? Jesus himself said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.”

So what is the point of bringing up total depravity? Well, for starters it’s the truth. It’s the truth about our condition, our utter helplessness to save ourselves and to do any good. We cannot claim anything as coming from ourselves (2 Cor. 3:5), except unrighteousness. A minister who does not preach about sin is not being faithful to the whole counsel of God’s word. In fact, if we take the words of Jeremiah 23:16-17 seriously, we should not listen to ministers who refuse to speak about sin and repentance to their congregations:

“Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’”

Ministers who don’t call a congregation to repentance from sin are “saying, ‘Peace, peace, when there is no peace’” (6:14), and are therefore false prophets.

Again in Jeremiah, “Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? declares the Lord. Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces” (Jer. 23:28-29). If ministers are desirous of being faithful to God’s word, they should preach sin as severely as the Bible does!

On a basic level this means crushing people with the law of God first. However, our total depravity is not the end of the story. Redemptive history always points us to the gospel of Christ. This is the pattern we see in Paul’s epistles. Two examples are Romans and Ephesians. Romans begins with humanity’s overwhelming guilt under the law of God, and then turns to the gospel with the words, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law…” (Romans 3:21). Ephesians 2 follows the same flow of thought: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved…”

When Peter preached the sermon at Pentecost, the people were cut to the heart because he told them of their treacherous sins in killing the Son of God. If Minister’s don’t preach sin, can they really expect people to be cut to the heart? The men asked Peter how they could be saved, and he proclaimed to them the gospel of repentance. This is the order of Biblical preaching.

In closing, J. Gresham Machen, in a sermon on Romans 6:23 said,

“We preachers do not preach hell enough, and we do not say enough about sin. We talk about the gospel and wonder why people are not interested. Of course they are not interested. No man is interested in a piece of good news unless he has the consciousness of needing it; no man is interested in an offer of salvation unless he knows that there is something from which he needs to be saved. It is quite useless to ask a man to adopt the Christian view of the gospel unless he first has the Christian view of sin.”

Both Arminians and Calvinists must examine the Scriptures to see the truth about the human condition: under the bondage of law, and dead in sin. It is only through the dark tunnel of the law that we see the beauty and glory of our Lord and Savior on the cross. At the cross we behold the full, unrestrained love of God! The Calvinist view of human nature may to Dr. Olson be “strongly pessimistic”, but that is on the basis of what the Bible presents. And the sweetness of Christ shines ever brighter because of it.

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