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Man’s Radical Corruption


A favorite hymn of many Christians is Amazing Grace by John Newton. While this hymn is a favorite of many Christians, there are few Christians in the present evangelical community who know or understand the profound theology set forth in this hymn. The hymn proclaims the tremendous truth of God’s divine initiative in our salvation. John Newton had been a slave trader who had been miraculously saved and became a minister. Because of his past, he understood well what he was writing when he penned the words: “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see. T’was grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.” The words of the hymn emphasize that it is by God’s grace that our hearts have an understanding of God, have a fear of God’s justice and an awareness of our need, and that we are enabled to believe.

In a study of the doctrines of salvation, an understanding of the doctrine of man’s radical corruption in sin is an essential starting point. Understanding man’s condition in sin and his need before God is the foundation for understanding and appreciating the grace of God in our salvation. Today, most Christians realize that it is by God’s grace that they are saved, but they do not comprehend the depth of their sin and the extent of grace that has been given them in their salvation. It is only when we realize the degree of our fallenness in sin that we realize the degree of grace that has been given to us in our salvation. This doctrine is not only crucial for understanding the grace of God in our salvation, but also for understanding almost every doctrine associated with our salvation.

In historical theology, man’s condition in sin has been called “Total Depravity.” This terminology, however, is easily misunderstood. It does not mean that every human being is a bad as they could possibly be; that would be “utter depravity.” The phrase “total depravity” is attempting to communicate that sin affects every aspect of man’s being. Sin dominates every aspect of a person’s thoughts, actions, attitudes, and desires. Because of the misunderstanding associated with the term “Total Depravity,” many theologians prefer the term radical corruption. The term radical is derived from the Latin radix, which means “root.” Therefore, this term is saying that sin permeates the very core or root of man’s being.

FALLAN MAN IS DEAD IN SIN

Ephesians 2:1-3 strongly sets forth the degree of man’s radical corruption in sin. It states:

1. And you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2. in which you formally walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. 3. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.

This passage states that fallen man is “dead in sin,” that he has no spiritual life whatsoever. It is important to note that the Apostle Paul did not say that man is sick in sin or simply influenced by sin; he declared that fallen man has no spiritual life.

I’ve often heard the illustration given concerning man’s condition in sin that he is sick in sin like a man deathly ill in a hospital bed. The man is near death, struggling for every breath, but he is still alive. A nurse comes in with a bottle of medicine that will cure him and restore him to perfect health. The medicine represents the gospel which is offered to the sinner who is sick in sin. She pours the dose of medicine into a spoon and holds it to the man’s mouth. Here is the offer of the gospel in evangelism. Now it is up to him to take the medicine and live or refuse it and die. In other words, it is up to the man to receive Jesus and live or refuse him and die. The main problem with this illustration is that the man is still alive. He is affected by sin; he is sick in sin, but he is not dead in sin. In order to make this illustration fit Ephesians 2:1-3, it would be necessary to put the man in the hospital morgue. He is in one of the little refrigeration units with a toe tag. The nurse comes in with medicine (the gospel) and stands by the dead man all day, but he doesn’t take the medicine because he is not alive. What he needs is a spiritual resurrection. He must move from a condition of being spiritually dead to being spiritually alive before he will be able to receive the medicine. This is exactly the pattern set forth in Ephesians 2:1-5. After stating that man is spiritually dead and exhibits that lack of spiritual life in his sinful disposition and actions, verses 4 and 5 proclaim: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved). . . .” Scripture declares that we were dead in sin and God acts first to bring about a spiritual resurrection making us alive in Christ. Colossians 2:13 reiterates the same idea. J. Gresham Machen, the great theologian of the early 20th century said, “Man, according to the Bible, is not merely sick in trespasses and sins; he is not merely in a weakened condition so that he needs divine help: but he is dead in trespasses and sins. He can do absolutely nothing to save himself. . . .” Charles Spurgeon in commenting on man’s condition in sin said, “What a dreadful inability sin brings with it! That simple command of the gospel, ‘Believe,’ the sinner cannot obey in himself. He can no more repent and believe without the Holy Spirit’s aid than he can create a world.”1

FALLEN MAN REPRESSES THE KNOWLEDGE OF GOD AND BECOMES AN IDOL FACTORY

Another important passage dealing with man’s corruption in sin is Romans 1:18-23:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power, and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that theyare without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.

This passage declares that fallen man universally suppresses or represses the truth of God (verse 18). Verses 19-21 state that all men know there is a God, that creation bears a witness to God’s existence and that witness is understood by every person. However, even though the witness gets through to everyone, everyone represses that witness. Why is that? Fallen man is hostile toward God. He does not want to acknowledge or honor God (Rom. 8:7). Besides this basic disposition of the heart of fallen man, another factor is involved in this repression of the truth. People tend to repress or push out of conscious thought those things which are painful or unpleasant to them. The most unpleasant truth that anyone can face is that they are guilty before a holy God who will render to them perfect justice for their deeds. Therefore, fallen man represses the reality of God, does not honor God as God, and does not render proper gratitude to God. Julian Huxley wrote, “For my own part, the sense of spiritual relief that comes from rejecting the idea of God as a supernatural being is enormous.”2 An old story tells of a desert nomad who awakened hungry in the middle of the night. He lit a candle and began eating dates from a bowl beside his bed. He took a bite from one end and saw a worm in it, so he threw it out of the tent. He bit into the second date, found another worm, and threw it away also. Reasoning that he wouldn’t have any dates left to eat if he continued, he blew out the candle and quickly ate all the dates. Romans 1:18 proclaims that sinful man is just like the nomad; he prefers darkness and denial to the light of reality. Because the reality of being under the judgment of God is too difficult to face, fallen man represses the reality of God, does not honor God as God, nor render proper gratitude to God (verse 21).

This passage goes on to say that after sinful man represses the knowledge of the true God, he sets up his own idea of God; he creates an idol. This could be an idol of wood, stone, or metal or it could simply be a false concept of God. Sometimes the repression of God is so profound that men make themselves the sum of all things and declare that there is no deity at all; they declare themselves to be atheists. John Calvin, in commenting on this propensity of the sinful human heart wrote:

. . . but we are all alike in this, that we substitute monstrous fictions for the one living and true God. . . . almost every man has had his own god. To the darkness of ignorance have been added presumption and wantonness, and hence there is scarcely an individual to be found without some idol or phantom as a substitute for Deity. Like water gushing forth from a large and copious spring, immense crowds of gods have issued from the human mind, every man giving himself full license, and devising some peculiar form of divinity, to meet his own views.3

Calvin said that fallen man is a idol factory (fabricum idolarum). This repression of the true God and the creation of idols is a normative pattern for the heart that is radically corrupt in sin. Man, being dead in sin, exchanges the truth of God for a lie and worships and serves an idol.

NO ONE DOES GOOD AND NO ONE SEEKS GOD

Romans 3:10-12 also speaks of man’s dire condition in sin: “. . . as it is written, there is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one.” In this passage, Paul puts together a series of Old Testament quotations that show the radical corruption of the fallen human heart. This section states that “none is righteous, not even one” and that “there is none who does good, there is not even one.” Some may object and say, “What do you mean there is none who does good? I know people who do all kinds of good deeds.” What is the answer to this objection? It is important to define the term good in the same way that Scripture defines it. For an act to be good, it must not only be something God has commanded, but it must be done perfectly with perfect motives. An act may appear to be good from an external perspective, but if it is not done from pure motives, motives that seek to glorify God, it does not conform perfectly to God’s law. Jonathan Edwards said that we tend to do good things from enlightened self-interest. We understand that sometimes it pays to do good things. We are on-time for work and do a good job because, in so doing, we don’t get fired and we may get a raise in pay. In this regard, we have a tendency to look at good works from an external perspective. We do not have the ability to evaluate the attitude and motives of the heart. God, however, does and he declares that no one does good according to his standard. R. C. Sproul illustrates this by the use of the term good with regard to dogs. We call a dog a good dog when it meets certain standards for dogs. It is a good dog when it doesn’t wet the carpet, when it comes when you call it, when it doesn’t chew up your shoes, and when it brings you your paper in its mouth. We do not use that same standard of good for people. We do not say that Joe is a good man because he is housebroken, comes when you call him, doesn’t chew up your shoes, and brings you your paper in his mouth. The standards are different for dogs than for men. In the same way, God’s standards of good are different from our external standards. According to God’s standards, no one does good, not even one.4 When we understand the requirements of the Law of God, we are stripped of any sense of self-righteousness (see: Romans 3:19,20). Many people are like Snoopy in a Peanuts cartoon. The cartoon shows Snoopy walking toward his dog house and thinking, “This has been a really good day.” In the next panel, Snoopy is sitting on his house and thinking, “I did everything right.” In the final panel Snoopy adds, “In my opinion.” People do everything right or they think they are good “in their opinion.” God’s Law takes the definition of good and the evaluation of our performance out of our subjective and relative perspective and places all our actions and motives under the scrutiny of God’s standard.

This passage also states that “there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God.” I’ve often heard ministers and evangelists talk about the occult or new age movement and reflectively say, “The rise of the occult in our culture demonstrates the universal desire of man to seek God.” As we have just observed in Romans 1:18-25, the opposite is true. The rise of the occult and other false religious activities stem from man’s universal desire to repress the knowledge of the true God and create an idol. Closely related to this idea is the statement in Romans 3:10-12 that fallen man does not understand the things of God and he does not seek God. I’ve also heard Christians say, “So and so is not a Christian, but he’s searching.” The assumption is that a non-Christian is seeking after the true God of the Bible. The Apostle Paul, however, bluntly states that “no one seeks for God.” Michael Horton commented on this and wrote, “We cannot find God for the same reason that a thief can’t find a police officer.”5

How do we account for those people, who apart from God’s grace in Christ, seem to be seeking for God. First, it is possible that when we see this happening we are witnessing a work of the Holy Spirit effectually bringing the person to faith in Christ. There are those, however, who are seeking all types of religious experiences and have no interest in the God of the Bible. How do we explain this so-called “seeking for God?” As Christians, we know there are certain benefits that only come from a relationship with God through Christ. We have the assurance of forgiveness, an absence of the fear of death, the sure hope of an eternity with God, the promise of God’s care and fatherly love, and numerous other benefits that come from our relationship with God. When we see unbelievers seeking those benefits, we assume they are seeking salvation through Jesus Christ through whom those benefits come. However, the nature of man’s sin is such that he seeks after the benefits of a relationship with God while at the same time he flees from God himself. He wants the benefits, but he doesn’t want God. Therefore, he represses the knowledge of God, becomes an idol factory, and flees from the presence of the true and living God. R. C. Sproul writes concerning this idea:

The Bible tells us repeatedly to seek after God. The Old Testament cries, “Seek the Lord while He may be found” (Isa. 55:6). Jesus said, “Seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7). The conclusion we draw from these texts is that since we are called to seek after God it must mean that we, even in our fallen state, have the moral capacity to do that seeking. But who is being addressed in these texts? In the case of the Old Testament it is the people of Israel who are called to seek the Lord. In the New Testament it is believers who are called to seek the kingdom. . . . So what? The point is that seeking is something that unbelievers do not do on their own steam. The unbeliever will not seek. The unbeliever will not knock. Seeking is the business of believers. Edwards said, ‘The seeking of the kingdom of God is the chief business of the Christian life.’ Seeking is the result of faith, not the cause of it.”6

FALLEN MAN IS HOSTILE TOWARD GOD AND CANNOT PLEASE GOD

Another important passage on man’s radical corruption in sin is Romans 8:7-8: “because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” In the context of this passage, those who are “according to the flesh” are the unregenerate and those who are “according to the Spirit” are the regenerate. Romans 8:9 shows this principle clearly: “However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.” Those who belong to Christ have the Spirit and are not in the flesh. Paul says that unregenerate people who are in the flesh are hostile toward God and are not subject to the law of God. He adds an important statement at the end of verse 7: “for it is not even able to do so.” Not only is the unregenerate, fleshly mind hostile toward God and his law, it also lacks the ability to subject itself to the law of God. Romans 8:8 states: “and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Apart from God’s divine initiative, the unregenerate cannot do anything that is pleasing to God. He cannot obey his holy law nor can he repent and believe in Christ, acts which are certainly pleasing to God. James White writes:

Paul does not say “those who are in the flesh at times do things that are displeasing to God, but at other times do things that are pleasing to Him.” He does not teach that “men are free to believe in Christ at any time” for obviously, such an action is well-pleasing to God. How can a person in the flesh do such things as repent, believe, turn from sin, embrace holiness, etc., when they are still in the flesh? Unregenerate man lacks the ability to please God. Something must happen first: he has to be translated from the realm of the flesh to that of the spirit. He must be raised to spiritual life so that he can do what is pleasing to God: repent and believe in Christ.”7

In 1736, in Northampton, Mass., Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon titled, Men Are Naturally God’s Enemies. This was a lengthy exposition of Romans 5:10. The basic thesis of the sermon was that man hated God. He said,

They are enemies in the natural relish of their souls. They have an inbred distaste and disrelish of God’s perfections. God is not such a sort of being as they would have. Though they are ignorant of God, yet from what they hear of Him, and from what is manifest by the light of nature of God, they do not like Him. By His being endowed with such attributes as He is, they have an aversion to Him. They hear God is an infinitely holy, pure, and righteous Being, and they do not like Him upon this account; they have no relish of such kind of qualifications; they take no delight in contemplating them. It would be a mere task, a bondage to a natural man, to be obliged to set himself to contemplate these attributes of God. They see no manner of beauty or loveliness nor taste any sweetness in them. And upon the account of their distaste of these perfections, they dislike all the other of His attributes. They have greater aversion to Him because He is omniscient and knows all things; because His omniscience is a holy omniscience. They are not pleased that He is omnipotent, and can do whatever He pleases; because it is a holy omnipotence. They are enemies even to His mercy, because it is a holy mercy. They do not like His immutability, because by this He never will be otherwise than He is, an infinitely holy God.”8

Since fallen man is dead in sin, represses the knowledge of God and creates idols, is not righteous, does no good works, does not understand and does not seek for God, is hostile toward God and cannot submit to the law of God, and cannot please God, the grace of God is absolutely essential for a person to come to Christ. Sinful man, left to himself and his own desires will never desire Christ. This is why in Ephesians 2 after the declaration is made that man is dead in sin, verses 4 and 5 proclaim that God is the divine initiator of our salvation: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved).” Notice that it does not say, “But you, because you were smarter than your neighbor, or more righteous than your neighbor had the good sense to come to Christ.” God takes the first step in our salvation; God initiates our salvation and makes us alive in Christ. It is only after God makes us alive in Christ that we desire salvation, have faith and repentance, and have a genuine love for the true God who is revealed in Scripture. Charles Spurgeon said it this way: “I take it that the highest proof of Christ’s power is not that he offers salvation, not that he bids you take it if you will, but that when you reject it, when you hate it, when you despise it, he has a power whereby he can change your mind, make you think differently from your former thoughts, and turn you from the error of your ways.”9

FALLEN MAN DOES NOT NATURALLY HAVE THE MORAL ABILITY TO COME TO CHRIST

In John 6:44-45, Jesus proclaimed man’s inability to come to him apart from God’s initiative: “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught of God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to me.” This statement begins with a universal negative, “No one can come to Me. . . .” It is universal because the phrase, “No one” refers to all people. The word, can in this phrase refers to ability. I remember early grammar lessons that taught the difference between can and may. Can refers to ability while may refers to permission. Perhaps you had the experience in first grade of asking your teacher, “Can I sharpen my pencil.” The standard reply was, “I’m sure you can and you may.” Jesus said that no one has the ability to come to Him on their own. Jonathan Edwards made a distinction that is helpful in thinking about this issue. He distinguished between natural ability and moral ability. God provides certain natural abilities to members of his creation. For example, he provides the birds with the ability to fly. Fish have the ability to live under water and extract oxygen from the water through their gills. God provides the fish with fins and gills and the birds with feathers and wings. Human beings do not naturally have that equipment. Human beings, however, are given the natural ability to make choices. God gave people minds that can receive and analyze information. Man’s corruption in sin does not strip from him the ability to choose what he wants. In the fall, however, man did lose his desire for God and his inclination toward the good. In this regard, a person can intellectually understand the law of God and its obligations and he can understand the content of the gospel. The unregenerate person, however, does not want to obey God or to come to Christ. He could choose Christ and the things of God if he wanted them, but he has no desire for them. This is where Edwards made the distinction between natural and moral ability. Man has the natural ability to choose God, but he does not have the moral ability to do it.10 The things of God and the gospel are foolishness to him (1 Cor. 2:14) and he has no desire for Christ. R. C. Sproul writes concerning this moral inability:

The ability to make righteous moral choices requires righteous desires and inclinations. Without a righteous inclination to the good, no one can choose the good. Our choices follow our inclinations. For man to be able to choose the things of God, he must first be inclined to choose them. Since the flesh makes no provision for the things of God, grace is required for us to be able to choose them. The unregenerate person must be regenerated before he has any desire for God.11

This is what Jesus was addressing when He said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. . . .” Fallen man may look at Jesus and be impressed with his moral teaching; he may think that Jesus is interesting, but, apart from God’s divine initiative, he will never come to Christ for salvation. He has no desire to submit to God or to believe the gospel; he lacks the moral ability to come to Christ.

After Jesus said that no one has the ability to come to him, he gave an exception clause, “unless the Father draws him.” What does the word “draw” mean? Some have proposed that it simply means “to woo” or “to entice.” Using this meaning, Jesus would have been saying that God’s action in salvation is merely that he encourages a person to come to Christ. This is a necessary encouragement for a person to come, but it is not an effectual action; it does not guarantee that a person will come. This explanation is incorrect. First of all, in John 6:45, Jesus said, “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to me.” Jesus saw this drawing of the Father as not only a necessary condition for someone to come to salvation, but also as a sufficient condition. Everyone that is drawn by the Father will come. It was not merely an enticement or encouragement to come. Second, the Greek word translated as draw is elko. Gerhard Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament defines elko as “to compel by irresistible superiority.”12 The linguistic and lexicographical meaning of elko is “to compel.” Therefore, elko is a forceful verb. To see the force of this verb, let’s consider two other passages in the New Testament where the word is used. In Acts 16:19, Paul and Silas are attacked by the owners of a slave girl after Paul cast a demon out of her: “But when her masters saw that their hope of profit was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market place before the authorities.” In this verse, elko is translated as dragged. Certainly, Paul and Silas were not enticed or wooed into the market place. They were forcibly seized and compelled to come. Another passage where elko is used is James 2:6. James is addressing the problem of favoritism in the church. He is rebuking his readers for honoring the wealthy and disparaging the poor. He writes in verse 6: “But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court?” Again, elko is translated as drag. In both of these verses, the linguistic meaning of elko as “to compel” is reflected in the translation and the context of the verse. Jesus was not saying that the Father merely woos or entices a person to come, but that there is an effectual action that compels a person to come. This same idea is set forth just a few verses later in John 6:63-65:

“It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who it was that would betray Him. And He was saying, “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to me, unless it has been granted him from the Father.”

Jesus said that the Spirit gives life and the flesh profits nothing. Martin Luther commented that when Jesus said that the flesh profits nothing that doesn’t mean a little a little something. Jesus emphasized that it is the Holy Spirit that brings spiritual life to a person. In verse 65, he again speaks of man’s moral inability to come to Him unless it has been granted by the Father. For a person to come to Christ, the ability to come must be granted or given by the Father. No one can come to Christ in the flesh. Without God’s divine initiative, no one can come. John Murray writes concerning John 6:44, 45, 65:

In John 6:37 Jesus says, “Everything that (pan ho) that the Father gives to me shall come to me, and him that cometh unto me I will no wise cast out.” Jesus is here speaking of coming to him which consists in faith and which has its issue in the salvation that reaches its apex in the resurrection at the last day. The former is shown by vs. 40 and the latter by vss. 39, 40. It is therefore of the faith in Jesus unto salvation that he speaks in vss. 44, 45, 65.

Now, obviously, as men are confronted with the gospel the most elementary demand, the demand that is the only avenue to the fulfillment of all other demands, is to believe in Christ. But of that Jesus says man is incapable. It is a psychological, moral, and spiritual impossibility apart from an efficacious drawing which is of the nature of a gift from the Father. It is therefore of that faith in Christ that Jesus says, “No one can come unto me except the Father who sent me draw him” . . . and “On this account I said to you that no one can come unto me except it were given him of my Father.” Nothing therefore can be plainer than this, that the act of true and simple faith in Christ is impossible apart from the drawing and gracious gift of the Father.13

FALLEN MAN IS SPIRITUALLY BLIND

1 Corinthians 2:14 states: “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, because they are spiritually discerned” (NIV). This verse declares that a person who is unregenerate does not have the ability to understand or accept of the things of God. Again, the Scriptures confront us with something that fallen man does not have the ability to do in himself. Not only can the person without the Holy Spirit not accept or understand the things that come from the Spirit of God, but they are foolishness to him. Simon Kistemaker comments on this verse:

The spiritual things relate to sin, guilt, forgiveness, redemption, salvation, righteousness, and eternal life. To the unspiritual person, these things are meaningless, irrelevant, and even foolish. They have no place in a life that is limited to the present world. . . . “And he is unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” Paul speaks about an inability that is caused by the absence of the Holy Spirit in the life of an unbeliever. Granted the unbeliever can excel the Christian in various ways: intellectually, educationally, philosophically, or even morally. He may be a worthy citizen and a leader in society who shuns the sensuous excesses that characterize other people. Yet, the non-Christian is unable to understand spiritual matters. He lacks the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit to enlight his understanding.14

Apart from a divine action of God, the unregenerate person considers the message of the gospel foolish and has no desire to accept the things that come from the Spirit of God; he is spiritually blind to the things of God.

The Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes these points: “Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.”15

This is the same pattern we observed earlier in Ephesians 2:1-5. Verses 1-3 declare that man is dead in sin and lives out that sinful condition. Verses 4 and 5 declare: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved). . . .” Paul said the same thing in Ephesians that Jesus declared: Man does not have the moral ability to come to Christ in his flesh; a divine initiative is the necessary first condition for salvation. Fallen man is spiritually dead, spiritually hostile, and spiritually blind. He does not have the moral ability to come to Christ, unless the Father draws him. The action of being drawn to Christ is coupled closely with the Holy Spirit’s work of making a person alive in Christ or regenerating him. Once a person is made alive in Christ, he has the desire for Christ and he comes to Jesus. That moral ability to come to Christ, however, is the result of the Spirit giving life. The Westminster Confession declares:

When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, He freeth him from his natural bondage under sin; and, by His grace alone, enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good; yet so, that by reason of his remaining corruption, he doth not perfectly, nor only, will that which is good, but doth also will that which is evil. The will of man is made perfectly and immutably free to do good alone in the state of glory only.16

Understanding this strips all boasting and claims of self-righteousness from man. If you are in Christ, it is because God has shown you mercy and initiated your salvation. Charles Spurgeon, said, “If God requires of the sinner, dead in sin, that he should take the first step, then he requires just that which renders salvation as impossible under the gospel as it was under the law, since man is as unable to believe as he is to obey.”17 The result is that God alone gets all the glory and praise for one’s salvation. The second stanza of the hymn Amazing Grace reflects these points: “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed!” When you see real faith in your life, you are seeing a manifestation of God’s grace operating in your life.

This truth is described in a poem that was discovered in the pocket of Major John Andre after his execution during the Revolutionary War. It was written in his death cell, so these words are literally a dying man’s testimony:

Hail, Sovereign Love, which first began the scheme to rescue fallen man! Hail, matchless, free, eternal grace, which gave my soul a Hiding Place! Against the God who built the sky I fought with hands uplifted high– Despite the mention of His grace– too proud to seek a Hiding Place Enrapt in thick Egyptian night, and fond of darkness more than light, I madly ran the sinful race, secure, I thought, without God’s grace. But the eternal counsel ran: “Almighty Love, arrest that man!” I felt the arrows of distress, and found I had no Hiding Place. Indignant Justice stood in view; to Sinai’s fiery mount I flew; But Justice cried with frowning face, “This mountain is no Hiding Place!” Ere long a heavenly voice I heard, and mercy’s angel soon appeared; He led me, with a beaming face, to Jesus as my Hiding Place! On Him almighty vengeance fell, which would have sunk a world to Hell; He bore it for a sinful race, and thus became their Hiding Place!

If you are in Christ now, it is because God has taken the first step in your salvation and drawn you to Jesus. This eliminates all claims of self-righteousness, boasting, or spiritual pride. It is only as we understand our desperate need that we realize the mercy and grace we have been shown in our salvation. Understanding these truths should move our hearts to give God all glory and honor for the work he has performed in our lives and the mercy we have received. In fact, the more you understand the biblical teaching concerning man’s condition in sin, the more you will bow in worship and sing, “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!”

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Works Cited

1 Tom Carter, Spurgeon AT His Best (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988), 107.
2 Religion Without Revelation (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1979).
3 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 Vols., edited by John T. McNeill, translated and indexed by Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1.5.11-12.
4 R. C. Sproul, Chosen By God (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1986), 106-107.
5 Michael Horton, Putting The Amazing Back Into Grace (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994)
6 Sproul, Chosen By God, 110-111.
7 James R. White, The Potter’s Freedom (Amityville: Calvary Press, 2000), 117.
8 The Works of President Edwards, Vol. 4 (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1879), 38.
9 Carter, Spurgeon At His Best, 89.
10 R. C. Sproul, Grace Unknown (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997), 135.
11 Sproul, Grace Unknown, 135-136.
12 Albrecht Oepke, “Elko,” in Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. and trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1964), 503.
13 John Murray, “Inability” in Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1977), 2:84-85.
14 Simon J. Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary, Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993), 92.
15 The Westminster Confession of Faith, 9.3.
16 The Westminster Confession of Faith, 9.4-5.
17 Carter, Spurgeon At His Best, 62.

Next article in this series: Man’s Moral Inability

About the author

Dr. Van Lees

Dr. Van Lees is the pastor/teacher of Covenant of Grace Church. He has been the pastor of the church since 1985 when it started. Dr. Lees has a M. Div. from Covenant Theological Seminary, a D. Min. from Reformed Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from Whitefield Theological Seminary.