Theological Commitments of the Biblical Gospel: Radical Depravity

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Theological Commitments

Theology drives our commitments and practices. Ideas have consequences. In order to have a biblical commitment to evangelism, we must understand what the Bible teaches about five elements that will have a bearing on how we evangelize.

Depravity: How Deep Does it Run?

  • Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil.” (Jeremiah 13:23, ESV)
  • We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” (Isaiah 64:6, ESV)
  • The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9, ESV)

This doctrine is critical in the issue of the sovereignty of God in the gospel because the doctrine of the radical depravity of man reminds us that it will take more than fiery sermons and emotion driven appeals to sinners in order for them to come to salvation. Ephesians 2:1 tells us that our gospel-prospects are incapable of responding to our gospel sermons, tracts, debates, and appeals. They are dead! Charles Spurgeon said,

“I shall not attempt to teach a tiger the virtues of vegetarianism; but I shall as hopefully attempt that task as I would try to convince an unregenerate man of the truths revealed by God concerning sin, and righteousness, and the judgment to come.”[1]

The Arminian/Wesleyan view is that because of the death of Christ, all of humanity was given “prevenient grace” or “preventing grace.” Prevenient means “going before” and the idea is that when Christ died on the cross, his death made it possible for all men to come to Christ—it is said to be a grace that goes before all men so that they can believe if they exercise their free will. Arminian/Wesleyan theology teaches that radical depravity/total depravity did exist at one time, but that the death of Christ has enabled all men everywhere to now exercise faith on their own.

But as we can see clearly in Ephesian 2:1-3, the Apostle Paul clearly saw that ongoing inability in humanity is still a reality after the death of Christ. Historically, for some Arminians/Wesleyans, this doctrine of prevenient grace has led to the heretical view of universal salvation (universalism), where all men are saved because they believe that Christ’s death really did affect all men so that Christ’s death was applied to all men in a very real sense, it logically should mean that all are able to be saved—and then it is a short path to saying that all are saved.

Our understanding of man’s state before God (anthropology) is a critical starting point not only for the believer as they think through the issue theologically, but it must be the first issue tackled when evangelizing. If a person does not understand the holiness of God (Heb 12:14), they will not see the sinfulness of men in general, and themselves more particularly. A person who is not a sinner in their own mind will not see the need for salvation. John Calvin said,

“It is plain that no man can arrive at the true knowledge of himself, without having first contemplated the divine character, and then descended to the consideration of his own. For, such is the native pride of us all, we invariably esteem ourselves righteous, innocent, wise and holy, till we are convinced by clear proofs, of our unrighteousness, turpitude [moral wickedness], folly and impurity. But we are never thus convinced, while we condone our attention to ourselves, and regard not the Lord, who is the only standard by which this judgment ought to be formed.”[2]

Our charge as preachers of the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ is to do no less than to raise the dead! We are called, like Elisha, to bring the widow’s son back to life. We are to do the work of Ezekiel, to call to the masses of men, women and children, to call out to those dead bones, because we know that God raises the dead. Christ raised Lazarus, and Christ raised us! What is impossible for man is possible for God.

Now, if you have an understanding of man that says that he is anything less than spiritually dead, then there is some hope for mankind being talked into the kingdom of heaven, persuaded or convinced with mere intellectual arguments, contra Paul’s words that “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (1Cor 2:14).

But for those of us that grasp the biblical view of man as utterly incapable to come to God on his own (Mk 10:26-27; Jn 6:44), then we know that every salvation is a work of God from beginning to end.

[1] C. H. Spurgeon, An All-Round Ministry (n.p., 1900;  reprint, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 1994), 322.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 Vols., in The Library of Christian Classics, Vol. 20, ed. John T. McNeil (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1.1.35.

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