Thursday, 29 April 2010

Total depravity and truly gracious salvation

Something I've heard a lot recently and that seems to be in the phrase-book of some evangelists is that God gives us free will to either choose him or reject him. This is usually followed by the claim that we rejected him but the implication is that we could have chosen him in the first place. There are a few things to set straight about this issue.

Firstly and simply, we are not Adam and Eve, we are of Adam. We are his offspring and we do not have the same decision before us as they had in the Garden of Eden. They were sinless and chose to sin, we are born sinful and choose to sin. There is a difference between our situations.

Secondly, nowhere does the bible use the phrase 'free will'. When you begin to hear people talk theology using words and concepts which do not appear in the bible, be extremely cautious. The words 'total depravity' do not appear in the bible but I accept it as a name for a theological teaching drawn from the testimony of the whole of scripture. When someone creates a concept from the pages of the bible, it's fine to give that a name but when someone takes a concept from outside the bible and then tries to match scripture to it, that is not cool. It can lead to big trouble. The word of God should be the starting point for ALL theology.

When Adam sinned (and the bible quite clearly identifies Adam as the entry point of sin to all mankind, Romans 5:12, 1 Corinthians 15:22), it changed everything. We see the effects of his sin spread to mankind and to creation itself as a judgement from God. It's the effect on mankind that I want to focus on here.
Genesis 6:5 says: '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.'
We see the beginning of the doctrine of total depravity here, as early as Genesis and plenty of evidence of it elsewhere but it is the opening few chapters of Romans which really solidifies it. Romans 3:9-18 is the best summary of it. When Adam sinned, he killed the human race in the sense that we are born spiritually dead. We don't seek God, we don't look for him at all. The true heart of total depravity is this: without God, we would only sin, all the time. Without God, after the universal first, physical death, we would face God's judgement and die the second death (Revelation 21:8) and suffer everlasting contempt (Daniel 12:2). We would go to hell.

So, we are still-born spiritually. We are not lost or wandering, although these imperfect metaphors are used to describe us by Jesus. If we were literally lost or wandering, we might imagine that sometimes we would come near to being found, perhaps see glimmers of the light or even march straight into it ourselves, just through trial and error. This is not the truth. Ephesians 2:1-3, talking to the saved in Ephesus and to those saved among us, tells us that we were 'dead in our trespasses and sins', that we were 'following the prince of the power of the air [Satan]' and that we were 'by nature, children of wrath, like the rest of mankind'. We weren't just bumbling about in the dark, we were DEAD. Like the rest of mankind, we were DEAD. We were children of wrath in the sense that we were born into the judgement of God on the sin of Adam and on all the sin of his multitudes of wretched children and our own.

Have we got that? We were born in an absolutely hopeless state. Now, hallelujah, it is written that through faith in Jesus Christ, we can be brought to life, we can move from death into life, from darkness to light, from despair to hope. We become a new creation in Christ, no longer part of the broken lineage of Adam and the flesh but saved and under the lineage of Christ and the spirit. By believing that Jesus has taken the wrath of God upon himself and pardoned those who trust in him and by believing that he has risen to reign over all and to establish a new, spiritual and eventually physical kingdom here on Earth, we are forgiven.

What I want to look at is that 'choice'. Have you ever heard this? 'We had seventeen people this Sunday who made a decision for Christ.' Assuming they are all genuine, sincere conversions, seventeen people have decided to trust in Jesus and have undergone that transition from death to life, but who made that decision? Did they make the decision for Christ? I'm going to say Yes and No, a favourite answer of theologians! You see, we're not really looking at the decision but at why they made the decision.

Jesus in John 15:16 says 'You did not choose me, but I chose you'. I'm sure we all know the verse but do we understand the full implications? Seventeen people did not make a decision for Christ on Sunday, Christ made a decision for seventeen people on Sunday! The only one who makes decisions for Christ is Christ himself. I think we're happy to nod along to this verse without feeling the gaping awe of grace that it reveals. Let me break off to give you a picture which I think will help.

You walk into a cemetery with no-one else around. The sun is shining, there is a gentle breeze blowing. You walk to the central point, a nice big mausoleum and climb onto the roof. From here, you can see the whole place, every gravestone, every tomb. Now you take a deep breath and shout, nice and loud, 'Who wants to be alive?'. How many responses would you expect?

You see, we were dead! Spiritually dead people don't make spiritual decisions! The ONLY way in which you can choose God is if he has chosen you to choose him. It is the most profound miracle that God gives life to those he has chosen. In the same way that Jesus calls Lazarus from the tomb even though he is dead and rotting, he calls us and we respond because his grace allows us to. The Holy Spirit comes and enables us to repent and believe. It's so amazing that there isn't even a continuation of my cemetery analogy that we could even begin to get our heads around to understand how this works!

My point is that this choice is not 'of our own free will'. In fact, I'd like to conclude by using three texts to refute the idea of 'free will'. Romans 1:24 says that because men sinned 'God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity'. The whole text talks about how men rejected God and followed idolatry and their own desires and how God gave us up to sin. Adam and Eve belonged to God but they rebelled against him so he gave them up and all of mankind with them to sin. The other texts are to be combined. Romans 3:23 and John 8:34. 'For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God' and 'Jesus answered them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin."' So if all have sinned and if everyone who sins is a slave to sin, that would add up to 'All of us are/were slaves to sin', and that's not free will.
God has not given us free will or a choice in salvation. He has chosen us and, as the result of his choosing us, we choose him. It is entirely out of our hands. If God chooses you to be saved, you will be saved, simple as that.

That's scary, isn't it? It's grace. It's the only theology of salvation which the bible teaches. A theology in which God gets all the glory, takes all the credit and we read again and again that 'salvation belongs to the Lord'. It is truly gracious salvation. Some of those who God gave over to sin, he dies to take back.

Some people really struggle with this and I don't blame them because grace is hard to understand! It doesn't mean that we should cease evangelism (isn't it interesting that this is always the first wrong assumption regarding predestination?!) because we simply cannot know who God has chosen and who he has not. We must proceed as if he's chosen everyone, 1 Timothy 2:4 tells us '[God] desires all people to be saved' so we've got to proceed with that expressed desire and passion of God. At the same time, we must accept that God chooses his children with sovereign, perfect judgement and that he does it in mystery. It doesn't make God cruel or unloving, it makes him gloriously powerful, worthy of awe and respect, of holy fear.

I pray that we'll be humbled by the realisation that God chose us and that, without that, we could never have chosen him. With such an unmerited gift lavished on us, let's live with a renewed fervor and passion to see those children who he has selected but who have yet to be born brought from death into life, from Adam into Christ and from slavery to sin into glorious servant to Christ as his brother or sister and as a child of God.

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