As we discussed last time, our sinful nature was passed down to us by Adam as a result of his sin. Everyone who is born out of the loins of Adam is born spiritually dead, and we are therefore inherently evil with a disposition towards satisfying the lusts of our flesh, the lusts of our eyes, and the boastful pride of life. Our thinking and reasoning are broken because of sin. Man is indeed corrupt and sinful, but just how deeply does our sinful nature impact the choices we make? Can an unbeliever ever reject his sinful tendencies and choose righteousness?
That is the question that we will be addressing in today’s blog. Historically, the doctrine of original sin is considered to be a cardinal doctrine of the Christian faith, meaning that any denial of this doctrine is outside of Christian orthodoxy because it upends the entire meaning of the gospel message and the purpose of Christ’s work on the cross. If we were inherently good and had the ability to not sin, then we don’t need a Savior to live the perfect life on our behalf and die for our sins. We can simply live perfectly and inherit eternal life through our own goodness.
Therefore, a true Christian must affirm the doctrine of original sin in order to remain within orthodoxy. While the extent of our fallenness has always been subject for debate among orthodox Christians, the controversy reached new levels during the time of the Protestant Reformation. From Martin Luther’s Bondage of the Will to John Calvin’s Institutes, the reformers began to make the case from Scripture that our fallenness goes far beyond just our proneness towards sin, and that sin is all that the unbeliever can think and do apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. Some reformers rejected this notion, insisting instead that a sinner can freely choose to repent and believe the gospel through the agency of prevenient grace, which is an enabling grace that God offers to all mankind that sinners have to cooperate with in order to be saved. This developed into a full-blown controversy within Protestantism known as the Arminianism vs. Calvinism debate, which is alive and well in Protestant circles today.
Which view of original sin is most biblically accurate? Or to put it another way, does the Bible teach that regeneration precedes faith, or faith precedes regeneration? I would submit to you that while some may have taken certain difficult texts in Scripture to justify their views on prevenient grace, the overwhelming consensus of the Bible points to a sinful humanity that is hopelessly lost and enslaved to sinful passions apart from regeneration. Consider, for example, how multiple passages of Scripture liken people to sheep. We see this common illustration in passages such as Isaiah 53, Ezekiel 34, Matthew 10:6, Luke 15:6, John 10, and so on. There is a reason why God repeatedly chose sheep as an illustration of His elect people, and it isn’t because they are cute, furry creatures! Sheep are not known to be all that intelligent and will in fact wander off into danger without a shepherd guiding and leading them. God uses this illustration to describe us in our fallenness. We, too, are prone to wander off, and we have to be rescued by our great Shepherd, because we will not come to Him on our own initiative.
Perhaps the most compelling biblical passage in support of the Calvinist view of original sin can be found in John 8. Starting in verse 31, Jesus was responding to a group of Jews who were believing in Him after He had pronounced judgment on the unbelieving Pharisees. But Jesus, knowing their hearts, began to expose their superficiality for what it was by pressing them on the issue concerning their enslavement to sin. These Jews, who were allegedly believing in Jesus, challenged Jesus’ statement, “…the truth will make you free” by saying: “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone” (v. 32-33). In responding to this, Jesus said these remarkable words: “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin” (v. 34). What does it mean to be a slave of sin?
Let’s answer this question first: what does it mean to be a slave? By definition, a slave is someone who is not free but is owned by a master. A master can be another person who legally owns the slave, or it can be a thing or idea that the slave willfully and wholly devotes his life to. In either case, the slave and master relationship is one that requires the slave to have wholehearted and unquestioned allegiance to the master. What does it mean then to be a slave of sin? Quite simply, until the truth sets us free through the illuminating work of the Spirit of God, sin is what we devote the entirety of our being towards. Sin “owns” us, and its grip is firmly placed on us with no way out.
Another picture that the Bible uses to help us understand the true degree of our sinful condition is death. In Ephesians 2, Paul describes believers as those who were formerly “dead in trespasses and sins” (v. 1). What does it mean to be dead? I remember the first open casket funeral I ever went to, and I saw my grandpa’s lifeless body lying in his coffin. As a 7-year-old boy, I was just beginning to understand the meaning of death. I remember going up to my grandpa’s body and touching him, only for him to remain cold and completely unresponsive. This is the key concept to understanding what it means to be spiritually dead: unresponsive. Unresponsive to the things of God, while responsive only to our sinful passions and tendencies. Put these two illustrations together, and a clear biblical picture emerges: the natural man is wicked to his core, and he cannot and will not ever believe in Christ on his own initiative, for as 1 Corinthians 2:14 states, “…a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” He cannot believe because He is dead in trespasses and sins, and He will not believe because he is enslaved to his sin. In fact, the only thing he is capable of doing is continually heaping up more and more condemnation upon himself. This is what forms the basis of what is better known as the doctrine of total depravity, or total inability.
It is easy to understand why some have resisted this doctrine or have tried to circumnavigate it with unbiblical concepts such as prevenient grace. It is humbling to truly see ourselves the way God sees us; to have the Bible expose us as sinners through and through, wicked and depraved from the innermost parts of our being. Is it no wonder then that the prophet Jeremiah wrote, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)? Jesus likewise said, “It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles a man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man” (Matthew 15:11). But praise be to God who, “…when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)” (Ephesians 2:5)! Next time, we will take a closer look at God’s solution to our sin problem, and how He indeed made us alive in Christ and provided the way for us to escape from our otherwise hopeless enslavement to sin and spiritual death.