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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. Dr. Spencer, we ended last time in the middle of discussing different evangelical positions regarding salvation. How would like to proceed today?

Dr. Spencer: Well, the fundamental question we were dealing with at the end of our last session was whether or not every person has equal ability to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation and I want to state and defend the proper biblical answer to that question. Lutherans and Arminians would say that everyone does have equal ability to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation, but the reformed – and I would say biblical – position is that an unregenerate person cannot accept the offer and a regenerate person cannot reject the offer.

We’ve talked about how people make choices a number of times in these podcasts, most notably in Session 84, where I presented Jonathan Edwards’ view, which I think is correct. In that session I paraphrased his view as being that we always do that which we most want to do at any given moment, but limited, of course, to those things which we are able to do.

Marc Roby: And I remember from that discussion that we are limited not only by obvious physical limitations but also by our own nature.

Dr. Spencer: And that is the limitation that matters in the current context. Theologians often refer to this constrained view of free will as free agency. As we noted in Session 126, an unregenerate person is an enemy of God and has no desire for God, so it would be contrary to his nature to accept God’s offer of salvation and he is, therefore, incapable of doing so. J.I. Packer has a wonderful short presentation on this topic in his book Concise Theology.[1]

On the other hand, if a person is born again, his fundament nature has been changed so that he has a desire for God and, therefore, he is incapable of rejecting God’s offer of salvation.

Marc Roby: Which is the doctrine often called Irresistible Grace.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. But if we look at the Lutheran and Arminian position, it seems to be logically inescapable that if every person has equal ability to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation, then those who are saved can take some credit for their salvation. Whether we word it negatively and say that only those who ultimately reject the offer will go unsaved, or we put it positively and say that only those who accept the offer will be saved, at the end of day, if everyone is equally capable of making either choice, then the deciding factor in terms of who is saved and who isn’t resides in man.

Marc Roby: And why exactly is that a problem?

Dr. Spencer: I can see three ways in which that is a problem. First, it ignores the biblical doctrine of Total Depravity. As Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:1, we “were dead”[2] in our transgressions and sins. And dead people don’t do anything to help themselves come alive. The great 18th-century theologian, Charles Hodge wrote that “Should Christ pass through a graveyard, and bid one here and another there to come forth, the reason why one was restored to life, and another left in his grave could be sought only in his good pleasure.”[3]

Marc Roby: Well that does make perfect sense, it certainly could not be the case that one set of bones accepted an offer to come to life and another set of bones rejected that same offer!

Dr. Spencer: No, that wouldn’t make any sense at all. Dead people don’t do anything. And people who are spiritually dead don’t do anything that is in concert with the Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 2:14 we are told that “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.”

Marc Roby: And one of the things that comes from the Spirit of God is his offer of salvation.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. I want to remind our listeners of the acrostic TULIP, which stands for the biblical doctrines of Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limiter atonement, Irresistible grace and Perseverance of the saints. In Session 126 I quoted the theologian R.C. Sproul, who pointed out that if we understand our moral inability to respond to God’s offer, which is part of the doctrine of Total Depravity, the rest of the reformed system of salvation, as represented by this acrostic TULIP, logically follows. He wrote that “If one embraces this aspect of the T in TULIP, the rest of the acrostic follows by a resistless logic.”[4] And I would add that Charles Hodge completely agrees. He wrote about this same plan of salvation, which he calls the Pauline or Augustinian scheme, and said, “such is the order of his plan of redemption, that if one of the great truths which it includes be admitted, all the rest must be accepted.”[5]

Marc Roby: They are both pointing out that the reformed, or biblical, view of the plan of salvation is completely consistent. What is the second problem you see with the view that every man can either accept or reject God’s offer of salvation?

Dr. Spencer: Well, if it were true, it would give us something to be proud of. If we were both equally capable of either accepting or rejecting God’s offer of salvation and I were saved and you were not, then whether we say that is because you rejected God’s offer or because I accepted it, either way, the bottom line is that I did and it was precisely that action of mine that was the reason I was saved and you were not. The difference between us would not be solely due to the mercy of God. I would have played a role in my salvation, and not just a little bit part either, I would have played the decisive role in it. But, as we read last time, Paul told us in Ephesians 2:8-9 that “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Marc Roby: Yes, I certainly see that argument. What is the third problem you see with this view?

Dr. Spencer: That it denies God’s absolute sovereignty. If this view is correct, then when the Bible speaks about God’s election, all it can really be referring to is his foreknowledge. According to this view, God knows in advance who will accept his offer and who won’t, so he “elects” those who will accept his offer of salvation.

Marc Roby: That is, of course, exactly how Lutherans and Arminians view the doctrine of election.

Dr. Spencer: It is, but I don’t think it does justice to the biblical data. If that were the case then you wouldn’t expect the Bible to emphasize over and over again God’s sovereign election. But that is exactly what we see all throughout the Scriptures, the clear presentation of the fact that God makes an absolutely free, sovereign choice. This is the doctrine of Unconditional Election.

Marc Roby: Now, Lutherans and Arminians would point to 1 Peter 1:1-2 where Peter addresses his letter, “To God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father”.

Dr. Spencer: And that verse is certainly consistent with their view, but it does not teach us that he chose the elect specifically because of his foreknowledge that they would accept his offer. Rather, in context, the term foreknowledge here refers to God’s having loved and chosen certain sinners in eternity past, even before they were born, which is exactly what we are told in Ephesians 1:4-6.

Marc Roby: Let me read those verses. Paul wrote that God chose us in Jesus Christ “before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.”

Dr. Spencer: Notice that in these verses we are clearly told that our predestination to be adopted as God’s sons, which is referring again to our being saved, was “in accordance with his pleasure and will”, which is emphasizing God’s freedom in this choice. And we are also told that the choice was “to the praise of his glorious grace”, and we know that grace is unmerited favor, so that seems to point away from God simply having foreseen our choice. And finally, to put the nail in the coffin, we are told that he has “freely given” us this grace in Christ.

If God gave exactly the same grace to everyone and our salvation depended on our response, then this verse wouldn’t make any sense. It is speaking about a grace that is not given to everyone, but only to those whom God predestined in accordance with his own absolutely free and sovereign good pleasure.

Marc Roby: That argument is certainly persuasive. But there are also many more passages in the Bible that support the idea of God’s sovereign election. Can you give us some examples?

Dr. Spencer: Sure. When Paul and Barnabas shared the gospel with the Gentiles in Pisidian Antioch, we read in Acts 13:48 that “When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.” Then, in speaking about Christ’s second coming, we read in Matthew 24:31 that God “will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.” Also, the apostle Paul opens his letter to Titus by writing, “Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ for the faith of God’s elect and the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness” (Tit 1:1). There are literally dozens of examples in the New Testament that we could go through, but I don’t want to take that time. I encourage anyone who is really interested to search the New Testament for the words elect, chosen, appointed and so on and see what you find.

Marc Roby: And, interestingly, we even see a reference to elect angels. In 1 Timothy 5:21 Paul told Timothy, “I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions without partiality, and to do nothing out of favoritism.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is interesting. And God’s free choice in salvation is also foreshadowed by his sovereign choice of Israel to be his covenant people in the Old Testament.

Marc Roby: The classic passage about God’s choosing his people is Deuteronomy 7:7-8, where Moses told the people, “The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.”

Dr. Spencer: And when Moses said that God didn’t choose them because they were more numerous, that is a form of synecdoche, meaning it is a part of something is used to represent the whole. So, rather than listing many of the countless things that a group of people might be proud of, like their numbers, or strength, or wealth, he only lists the one. But the message is clear, he didn’t choose them because of anything in them, he chose them simply because he loved them. And that love was not motivated by something worthy in them, and that is the whole point of what Moses says to them. He is telling them to not be proud, God chose them because he chose them, not because they were better than anyone else in any way.

Marc Roby: We also have the famous line in Exodus 33:19 where God tells Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”

Dr. Spencer: Which is a clear statement of God’s sovereignty in providing blessings to men. God doesn’t owe us anything and he does not need to give equally to all of us to treat us justly. He gave us life and we owe him everything. The fact that we have all rebelled against him leaves us justly under his wrath until and unless he chooses to show mercy to us.

Marc Roby: Now, you said earlier that mercy is God’s unmerited favor shown to us, but we can make an even stronger statement; God’s mercy is his favor being shown to those who deserved his condemnation.

Dr. Spencer: That is an accurate statement. The bottom line in this controversy is that those who say that every man is equally able to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation are concerned with preserving a notion of man’s freedom of will, often called libertarian free will, that is unbiblical and, I would add, illogical.  No sinner will choose God until and unless his sinful nature, which hates God, is changed.

Marc Roby: And God does change the fundamental nature of his elect when he causes us to be born again.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly.

Marc Roby: But it seems to me that you have not yet presented the most obvious and irrefutable biblical evidence for the doctrine of unconditional election.

Dr. Spencer: You’re quite right, I’ve saved the best, or should I say the most difficult, for last.

Marc Roby: It is certainly the most difficult for men to accept.

Dr. Spencer: That’s very true. And, of course, we are speaking about Chapter 9 of the book of Romans. God clearly tells us in this chapter that our election is not based on anything other than his sovereign choice.

Marc Roby: Let me read from Romans 9:10-13 where God tells us about the patriarch Jacob and his twin brother Esau. Paul wrote, “Rebekah’s children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ Just as it is written: ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is, as we noted, an extremely difficult passage for people to accept. And when Paul said “Just as it is written”, he was referring to the prophet Malachi, who wrote the last book of the Old Testament. We read in Malachi 1:1-3, “An oracle: The word of the LORD to Israel through Malachi. ‘I have loved you,’ says the LORD. ‘But you ask, “How have you loved us?” ‘Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?’ the LORD says. ‘Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his mountains into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals.’”

Marc Roby: It is very sobering to realize that when the Bible tells us that “God is love”, it does not mean that God loves everyone.

Dr. Spencer: It is sobering, and it is difficult, but it is undeniably true. And, as we’ve seen, it isn’t just the Old Testament. God has not changed. And in the passage you read from Romans 9 we were clearly told that God’s decision about which of the twins to elect to salvation was made “before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad”. I don’t know how it is possible to read that passage and conclude that God simply foresees who will accept or reject his offer of salvation.

And Paul anticipates that people will object to this teaching. In Romans 9:19 he writes, “One of you will say to me: ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?’”

Marc Roby: Yes, that is the natural question man wants to ask. How can God blame me for not repenting and believing in Jesus Christ if I am unable to do so?

Dr. Spencer: And God’s answer is not very politically correct. In Verse 20 we read, “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? ‘Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, “Why did you make me like this?”’”

Marc Roby: I could give a simple paraphrase of God’s answer. He essentially says, “Shut your mouth.”

Dr. Spencer: But he does so while reminding us of the most important distinction there is. He is God, we are creatures. This Creator/creature distinction that we have noted a number of times is absolutely essential to a proper understanding of the Scriptures. We must humble ourselves. We must fear God. We must revere him, worship him, believe him and obey him. To do anything else is to commit cosmic treason. Sin is rebellion against the only true and living God and Creator of all things, and it deserves eternal punishment. God does not have to save anyone. It is absolutely amazing that he chooses to save anyone, especially when you consider the cost.

Marc Roby: In fact, it staggers the mind when you consider that cost. As Peter wrote in 1 Peter 1:18-19, “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.”

Dr. Spencer: And although it is admittedly difficult to accept this idea of God’s unconditional election, it is actually a very comforting and marvelous doctrine and once you understand it properly, I don’t think anyone would want it any other way.

Marc Roby: I agree, but we don’t have time enough today to get into it further, so let me wind up our session today by reminding our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org.

[1] J.I. Packer, Concise Theology, Tyndale House Publishers, 1993, pp 85-86

[2] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[3] C. Hodge, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1997, vol II, pg. 340

[4] R.C. Sproul, What is Reformed Theology?, Baker Books, 1997, pg. 128

[5] C. Hodge, op. cit., pg. 335

 

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology; that is, the doctrine of salvation. Dr. Spencer, in our last session we emphasized the importance of salvation. Our greatest need is not for anything in this life, our greatest need is to be saved from eternal hell, which we all deserve because of our rebellion against God. How would you like to proceed today?

Dr. Spencer: I first want to introduce some more precise terminology. The term salvation refers to the whole process by which we are saved from eternal hell and ushered into heaven in our glorified bodies on the Day of Judgment. But there are a number of steps involved in our salvation.

Marc Roby: And theologians often refer to those steps by the Latin phrase, ordo salutis, which simply means the order of salvation.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true, and we will get to every item on that list, but I want to begin by focusing for a few minutes on one item in the middle of that list, which is justification.

Marc Roby: Which refers to God’s legal declaration that we are just, or righteous in his sight.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. We need to picture a heavenly courtroom. Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:10 that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”[1]

Marc Roby: And the verdict that is rendered in that courtroom seals our eternal destiny. We read in Matthew 25:46 that Jesus said the wicked “will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Dr. Spencer: Which is why we made the point in our last session, as you reminded us in your opening comment, that our greatest need is to be saved from eternal hell. In other words, we need to be justified. Therefore, the first thing I want to do today is look at what it takes for us to be justified in God’s sight.

In order to be justified, we have two problems that must be solved and which we are utterly incapable of solving ourselves. First, the debt we owe because of our sins must be paid. God is the perfectly holy and just judge of the universe and sin must be punished.

Marc Roby: That is not a popular idea today. Many, if not most, people would prefer a God who simply forgives our sin. To require punishment sounds primitive to many people in this day and age.

Dr. Spencer: People may prefer such a god, but he doesn’t exist. As I said, God is just and must punish sin. And if that idea sounds primitive to some of our listeners, I would ask them to consider a question. Suppose that you have a young daughter and she is brutally raped and murdered. Would justice be satisfied if the man who did it simply said “I’m sorry”?

Marc Roby: Yes, I don’t think most people would say that saying sorry is sufficient to pay for such a horrible offense.

Dr. Spencer: And, more importantly, neither would God. Forgiveness is possible if there is true repentance, but justice still demands that the sin be punished and we all have an intuitive sense of the truth of that statement.

Marc Roby: I see your point. But you said we have two problems, what is the other one?

Dr. Spencer: Our second problem is that we need perfect righteousness. God cannot declare us to be just without perfect righteousness. I want to focus on this second need first.

Jesus commanded us in Matthew 5:48 to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In other words, we don’t just need to be better than someone else in order to be justified, and we don’t just need to be in the top 10% of moral people, or anything like that. God’s standard is perfection.

Marc Roby: And, of course, many will object that it is unfair of God to have a standard that we can’t meet.

Dr. Spencer: Many will say that, but it isn’t unfair because it was possible for Adam to meet this standard in his original state. He was our representative before God as we discussed in Session 106. And we all, as his descendants, inherit both his guilt and his sinful nature, which is why we all, without exception, sin.

Marc Roby: The idea that we inherit Adam’s guilt and sinful nature is known as the doctrine of original sin, which we first mentioned in Session 105.

Dr. Spencer: And the wonderful news of the gospel, is that God did not leave us in that sorry condition. The central feature of the history of man is God’s working out his plan of salvation to take care of our sin problem. History is linear and has a predetermined end. When God has finished saving all those whom he is going to save, Christ will come again and, as we read in 2 Peter 3:10, “the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.” And then, just a few verses later, in Verse 13, Peter tells us, “But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.”

Marc Roby: That is a wonderful promise, and I look forward to that home of righteousness. We should point out though that this idea isn’t something new in the New Testament. God had already revealed his plan in the Old Testament. We read in Isaiah 65:17 that God said, “Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.”

Dr. Spencer: And God had also revealed through Isaiah that this glorious new creation will endure forever, along with eternal hell. We read in Isaiah 66:22-24, “‘As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,’ declares the LORD, ‘so will your name and descendants endure. From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,’ says the LORD. ‘And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.’”

Marc Roby: This again makes clear the eternal importance of salvation. There are only two eternal destinies and all of us, as rebels against God, deserve to be in hell, where “their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”

Dr. Spencer: And God progressively revealed his solution to our sin problem throughout history. It began with the curse pronounced on Satan in the Garden. In Genesis 3:15 we read that God told Satan, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”

Marc Roby: Yes, that is called the protoevangelium, meaning the first gospel. Jesus Christ figuratively crushed Satan’s head when he accomplished our redemption on the cross.

Dr. Spencer: And this protoevangelium was followed in time by God giving man a sacrificial system, which pointed to our need for a substitute to bear the wrath of God, which we deserve for our sins. It was also followed by the moral law, which, as we pointed out in Session 58, has three uses. First, because of our inability to keep it, it shows us our need for a Savior. Second, the punishments serve as a deterrent to sin. And, thirdly, the law serves as a model to show us how God wants us to live.

In addition, God gave many prophecies about the coming Messiah and the redemption he would accomplish for his people.

Marc Roby: And those prophecies are all fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Dr. Spencer: They are. It is also important to note that it is clear in the Old Testament that salvation comes from God, we don’t earn it. God tells us a number of times that he alone is our Savior. For example, we are told in Isaiah 45:21, “Declare what is to be, present it— let them take counsel together. Who foretold this long ago, who declared it from the distant past? Was it not I, the LORD? And there is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none but me.”

Marc Roby: It would be impossible to be clearer than that.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. And, in addition, God tells us how he will save us. We read in Ezekiel 36:25-27 that God said, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”

Marc Roby: That is a wonderful promise. And it also speaks to the radical nature of our depravity, which we discussed in Session 108 when we presented the biblical doctrine of Total Depravity. Because of our total depravity, we need nothing less than a new heart.

Dr. Spencer: And our heart refers to the core of our being. Our mind, will and affections. In other words, all that we are as human beings. We are not as bad as we could possibly be, but we are sinful in every aspect of our being. In Jeremiah 17:9 we are told, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”

Marc Roby: That doesn’t sound good. If our hearts are beyond cure, then it would appear that there isn’t any hope.

Dr. Spencer: And that is true humanly speaking, but what is impossible with man is possible with God as Jesus told us in Matthew 19:26.

The radical nature of the change is also clearly illustrated by the figure of speech used in the New Testament. In John 3:3 we read that Jesus told Nicodemus, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” And then again, in John 3:5, we read that he added, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.”

Marc Roby: Being born again, which is also called regeneration, obviously refers to a radical change. And it reminds me of what Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:17, that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, these are all very important verses, and we have covered most of them before, but it is important to once again remind ourselves of just how serious the problem is. It is especially important to understand our total depravity, that there is no part of our being that is unaffected by sin, or we will not properly understand the biblical doctrine of salvation.

In Ephesians 2:1-2 the apostle Paul wrote, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.”

The biblical view is that we were spiritually dead. We weren’t just sick, or in need of a little help to be better. We were dead.

Marc Roby: And Paul’s language is completely consistent with Christ’s statement that we need to be born again.

Dr. Spencer: It is, the Bible is consistent in all that it teaches. Prior to being regenerated by a mighty work of God, we were spiritually dead. We were still physically alive of course, but we were enemies of God. Paul also wrote in Romans 8:6-8 that “The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.”

Marc Roby: Paul doesn’t paint a very flattering picture of unregenerate human beings. They are disobedient, hostile to God, unable to submit to his laws and controlled by their sinful nature.

Dr. Spencer: The great 20th-century theologian John Murray summarized the problem in the following way. “If this is man’s condition in sin, then there can be no pleasure in the will of God. Enmity against God must express itself in opposition to every manifestation of his holy will. How then can we expect that man will answer with delight the call to enter into God’s kingdom of glory and virtue? How can a man dead in trespasses and sins, and at enmity with God, answer a call to the fellowship of the Father and the Son? How can a mind darkened and depraved have any understanding or appreciation of the treasures of divine grace? How can his will incline to the overtures of God’s grace in the gospel?”[2]

Marc Roby: Yes, Murray makes a strong argument for the reformed view that we must be born again before we can repent and believe.

Dr. Spencer: And his argument is entirely biblical. We were dead in our trespasses and sins. We need nothing less than new birth. We need new hearts. And dead people don’t raise themselves to life. God must do the work first.

The biblical doctrine of justification flows inexorably from the biblical doctrine of total depravity. There is no part of our being that is unaffected by sin, and so it is impossible that we will ever choose to repent and believe in Jesus Christ if left on our own.

Marc Roby: And total depravity is represented by the first letter in the acrostic TULIP, which we have discussed before. It is often used to describe reformed theology.

Dr. Spencer: It is. And, just to remind those listeners who may not be familiar with this acrostic, in addition to the ‘T’ standing for total depravity, the ‘U’ stands for unconditional election, the ‘L’ stands for limited atonement, the ‘I’ stands for irresistible grace, and the ‘P’ stands for perseverance of the saints.

We have noted before that one can certainly argue that better terms exist for some of the doctrines. And, in addition, these five doctrines do not fully define reformed theology. For example, they don’t mention the Creator/creature distinction, which is central to reformed theology. But this acrostic is very important in discussing the biblical doctrine of justification, and the five points all hold together logically. As I said, we can’t properly understand the biblical doctrine of salvation if we don’t first understand that prior to being born again we were spiritually dead.

Marc Roby: And, therefore, morally incapable of saving ourselves.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. In his excellent short summary of Reformed theology R.C. Sproul wrote that “If one embraces this aspect of the T in TULIP,” and the aspect he is referring to is our moral inability, then, “the rest of the acrostic follows by a resistless logic.”[3] And we will see that this is true as we dive into the biblical doctrine of justification.

Marc Roby: Which I very much look forward to doing, but we are out of time for today. So, I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org, and we will be sure to respond.

 

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] J. Murray, Collected Works, Vol. II, Banner of Truth Trust, 1977, pg. 169

[3] R.C. Sproul, What is Reformed Theology?, Baker Books, 1997, pg. 128

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine biblical anthropology. Dr. Spencer, I think we finished discussing total depravity last time, what else needs to be said about the nature of man?

Dr. Spencer: I’d like to wrap-up our discussion of anthropology by discussing a very important controversy in the church, both historically and at present. And I’d like to begin that discussion by noting that one of the distinguishing marks of true biblical Christianity is that it is theocentric, that is God-centered, not anthropocentric, or man-centered. This emphasis is extremely important in every area of theology, including anthropology.

Marc Roby: How so?

Dr. Spencer: If you have an anthropocentric view, your focus by definition is on man, which produces a strong tendency to distort a number of important doctrines and also has a significant impact on how we worship God. With regard to anthropology, an anthropocentric view often leads to thinking that man’s free will is far more important and far freer than it really is.

Marc Roby: Can you explain how that affects some of the doctrines we’ve discussed?

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. Consider the doctrine of total depravity. Remember that total depravity declares that there is no part of our nature that is unaffected by sin. We are born spiritually dead and must therefore be born again before we are able to repent, believe in Jesus Christ and be saved.

If you have an anthropocentric view of Christianity, you are virtually certain to object to this doctrine in spite of the fact that it is clearly biblical. You will instead demand that it is unfair to require of men anything that they are incapable of doing. This is the core of the Pelagian controversy.

Marc Roby: And for those listeners who don’t know, Pelagius was a British monk who lived from 360 to 418 AD and he denied the doctrine of total depravity. He was strongly opposed by St. Augustine.

Dr. Spencer: And this controversy continues in the church today. The vast majority of professing Christians are, whether they know it or not, Pelagian or semi-Pelagian in their theology. Many, if not most, are unaware of this because the underlying assumption often goes unstated and almost always goes unchallenged.

Charles Hodge states the fundamental assumption made by Pelagius very clearly. He writes that “the primary assumption [is] that ability limits obligation; that a man can be neither praised nor blamed, neither rewarded nor condemned, except for his own acts and self-acquired character”.[1]

Marc Roby: The key statement there is that ability limits obligation. In other words, Pelagius assumed that it is improper or unfair to require something of me that I am unable to do.

Dr. Spencer: That is the key idea. And I think we have to admit that the idea sounds quite reasonable at first. But let me unpack the assumption, as stated by Hodge, a bit more and then we will see why it is wrong. First, Hodge goes on to say that in the view of Pelagius, we can’t be praised or blamed, rewarded or condemned except for our own actions and our “self-acquired character.”

Marc Roby: Now, we probably want to explain what “self-acquired character” refers to.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. He is, essentially, referring to habits formed by a consistent pattern of actions. So, for example, if someone steals something, that is a sin and that act can be justly condemned. If the person steals repeatedly, it will form a self-acquired character; that is, a predisposition to stealing, and that inward character can then also be justly condemned.

But Pelagius denied that I can be justly held accountable for any part of my character that is innate, that is not the result of my own actions. He did not think that people are born with a good or a bad nature. And this included Adam. Pelagius denied that he was created righteous in his nature. He was neutral, according to Pelagius, and would become either righteous or sinful based on his own actions.[2]

Marc Roby: And, as you noted, on the face of it, it sounds reasonable to say that we should only be judged based on our own actions.

Dr. Spencer: But there are serious problems with that view. First of all, as we noted when discussing free will before, especially in Session 84, our will always chooses the action that is most desirable to us at the time when all things are taken into account. If we were ever truly neutral, we would not be able to make any decisions. But, in fact, we do have an internal nature that inclines us in one direction or another.

Marc Roby: But, as you pointed out by the example of stealing, that nature could possibly be self-acquired out of habit.

Dr. Spencer: Perhaps, but we must then ask, “Why did we ever steal the first time?”

Marc Roby: Well, it could have just been an impulse, like a child stealing a candy bar. It might not have been something that was thought through.

Dr. Spencer: That’s possible. But if our character was such that we thought stealing was wrong, we would then feel guilt after that impulse action and we would not be very likely to do it again, let alone do it enough times for it to become a habit. Do you see the problem? For it to become a habit, there already had to be something in our character that approved of stealing, otherwise we would not have done it repeatedly.

Marc Roby: Yes, I see your point.

Dr. Spencer: Hodge makes a number of arguments to show that this assumption made by Pelagius was wrong. The assumption being that our ability limits our obligation and we therefore can’t be justly judged for our character unless that character is the result of our own free actions. His first reason is that this notion is opposed by our own consciousness. He points out that “we hold ourselves responsible not only for the deliberate acts of the will, that is, for acts of deliberate self-determination, which suppose both knowledge and volition, but also for emotional, impulsive acts, which precede all deliberation; and not only for such impulsive acts, but also for the principles, dispositions, or immanent states of the mind, by which its acts whether impulsive or deliberate, are determined.”[3]

Marc Roby: That’s quite a mouthful. But I think this is the same point we just made with the example of stealing something on an impulse. We hold ourselves accountable for such actions even if they were not planned. And, in fact, as he says, we hold ourselves accountable for the “states of the mind” which produce such actions.

Dr. Spencer: And I think his point is a very important one. Because we hold ourselves accountable in this way, we are testifying that we believe there is a culpable moral character to the inner nature from which our acts proceed. He correctly points out that “When we pronounce a man either good or bad, the judgment is not founded upon his acts, but upon his character as revealed by his acts.”

Marc Roby: And that agrees with what Jesus Christ himself said. He uses an agricultural metaphor and argues that you can tell a tree by its fruit. In Matthew 7:17-18 Jesus said, “every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.” [4] And then, in Verse 20 he concluded, “Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”

Dr. Spencer: And, obviously, he was talking about knowing people, not trees. You know their inner nature by observing their actions. He also told us in Matthew 15:19 that “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.” Which is saying the same thing. Our actions do not determine our inward nature, our inward nature determines our actions.

Marc Roby: OK, that is clearly true. What else does Hodge say about this?

Dr. Spencer: Well, consider the idea that it is only our outward actions, or the self-acquired nature they supposedly produce, that are worthy of judgment. Hodge points out that this idea is not only wrong, but the exact opposite is true.[5] For example, it is the universal judgment of men that if I give something to the poor solely for the purpose of making myself look good, that is not a noble or praise-worthy action. The outward act is, but my motive is not. So, when we make determinations like that, we also testify that the inward character is what is important, not just the outward act.

Marc Roby: I certainly agree with that, and I’m confident that our listeners will as well.

Dr. Spencer: And now let’s go back and put this all together. If my inner character is corrupt and that corruption makes it impossible for me to obey some good command, that does not in any way imply the command itself was wrong or unfair. My inability to obey the command is a result of my corrupt inner character and that itself is worthy of condemnation. So to say that my ability limits my obligation is simply not right. As plausible as that sounds at first, we can see that we know better.

Therefore, we can see that it is perfectly just for God to command people to repent and believe in Christ, which is a good and gracious command, even though people are naturally, as Paul put it in Ephesians 2:1, dead in their transgressions and sins and therefore incapable of obeying that command.

Marc Roby: That makes good sense, although the conclusion is still a bit hard for most people to accept.

Dr. Spencer: I understand and sympathize. But the conclusion is biblical and, therefore, true. And it is consistent with our own internal witness. When God judges a person for failing to repent and believe, it is a just judgment based on the person’s inner character, or heart. Their inability to obey the command to repent and believe is the result of the fact that they do not want to repent and believe because, as Paul says in Romans 5:10, they are enemies of God. This why Jesus told us, in John 3:18, that “whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

Marc Roby: A very sobering statement. And I think we have now shown that it is not unfair of God to judge someone based on his disobedience even though he is not able to obey the command to repent and believe. But that seems to be only be half of the problem. I know that Pelagius also argued that it is unfair for me to be affected in any way by Adam’s sin. In other words, Pelagius denied the doctrine of original sin.

Dr. Spencer: And he was completely wrong in doing so, which is why he was declared a heretic by the Council of Carthage in 418 AD. He denied the doctrine of original sin, which we must remember says that Adam acted as a representative for the human race and that his fall affected all of his progeny. Therefore, we inherit our sinful nature from Adam. In any event, Pelagius denied this doctrine based on the same assumption; that I can only be judged for my own actions. In other words, there is no possibility of my being represented by another.

But representation is the grand plan of the Bible! Adam was the representative for all people and Jesus Christ is the representative for everyone who will repent and trust in him. If it is unfair for me to be affected by Adam’s sin, then it is equally unfair for me to be saved because Christ paid the penalty my sins deserved and gave his righteousness to me.

Marc Roby: That would be a serious problem. Salvation would be impossible.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it would. That assumption is fatal to true biblical Christianity.

Marc Roby: And yet you said that most professing Christians today are Pelagian or semi-Pelagian.

Dr. Spencer: They are. And there are varying degrees of accepting the Pelagian idea, not all of which rise to the level of heresy. In other words, it is possible to be semi-Pelagian and be a true Christian. Although your walk and your witness would be better if your theology were better, meaning more in line with the Bible. Theology is important!

Marc Roby: And we should point out that the most common form of semi-Pelagianism today is Arminianism.

Dr. Spencer: And we need to define what we mean by Arminianism. Historically, this term refers to followers of the Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius, whom we briefly mentioned in Session 108. His followers protested against some of the doctrinal positions of Calvin and his followers. Their objections were rejected by the Synod of Dort and the rejection was codified in the Canons of Dort, which is the origin of the five points of Calvinism represented by the acrostic TULIP, which stands for: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace and Perseverance of the saints.

Marc Roby: And, so far, we have looked at the doctrine of total depravity and, along the way, have mentioned but not fully explored unconditional election.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And it wouldn’t be appropriate to go into all of the differences between Calvinism, or reformed theology, and Arminianism at this point. But for now I’ll just say that an Arminian is semi-Pelagian in that he does not believe you must be born again before you can repent and believe. Rather, he would say that you repent, believe and are then born again. He would agree with Pelagius to the extent that God’s command to repent and believe must imply an ability in natural man to respond. In other words, he denies the biblical doctrine of total depravity.

Marc Roby: We must be clear that an Arminian can be a truly born-again Christian. Which raises an obvious question, why is this controversy important?

Dr. Spencer: Well, I would say it is important for a number of reasons. A proper understanding of anthropology causes us to give greater glory and praise to God for saving us. We know that we were totally depraved and that God had to do a marvelous work of regeneration to enable us to repent and believe. All glory goes to God for his amazing grace in saving us. This is the result of a theocentric view of theology.

But, since an Arminian believes that his natural will is free enough to make a decision to put his faith in Christ without God first changing his nature, he deserves some credit for his own salvation. That robs glory from God that rightfully belongs to him and is the result of an anthropocentric view of theology.

Marc Roby: Now most Arminians will deny that they did anything deserving merit. They will say they are saved by grace and deserve no credit.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true, but no matter what an Arminian may say about not doing anything to earn his salvation, the bottom line is that he did something, and that something is what made the critical difference. Look at it this way. Consider three young men in a college class together. And suppose one of them is a Christian and the other two are not. Then further suppose the Christian invites these two unbelievers to a church service. They both come and hear the same sermon. And one of them chooses to believe and the other does not. What made the difference? According to the Arminian, it wasn’t that God did something to the one and not the other, the difference was simply that one chose to believe and the other did not. So, at the end of day, salvation depends on man’s effort.

Marc Roby: I see your point.

Dr. Spencer: There is a story that is sometimes used as an illustration of salvation and it serves very nicely to show the difference between the Arminian position and the biblical position. An unbeliever is likened to a person who is in the middle of the ocean drowning, and the gospel is then likened to a life saver that someone throws to that person. All the drowning person has to do is grab ahold and be pulled to safety. That is the Arminian view of salvation. But notice that the drowning person had to grab ahold of the life saver and hold on. His effort was absolutely essential for his salvation.

The proper biblical understanding however is that an unbeliever is dead in his trespasses and sins. He isn’t merely drowning, he has already drowned. He is lying dead on the bottom of the ocean and God chooses to reach down, pull him up and give him new life.

Marc Roby: That is a great illustration of the difference. I also think that the biblical position about new birth preceding repentance and faith is important in granting a believer a much greater degree of confidence in his ultimate salvation.

Dr. Spencer: Oh, I completely agree. The biblical view affords a much greater confidence in the promises of God. If I have been born again, I am a new creation and I cannot return to the old. I can join with Paul in saying, as he wrote in Philippians 1:6, that I am “confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Before I was born again I was not able to repent and believe, it would have been inconsistent with my unregenerate nature. But, having been born again, it would be inconsistent with my new regenerate nature to not repent and believe.

Marc Roby: But, of course, we must be careful to not be presumptuous about our being born again. Paul exhorts us in Philippians 2:12-13, “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a very important warning. Whether we are Arminian or Calvinist in our understanding, we must persevere in obedience or we have no basis for believing that we have been born again.

And with that I think we are done with all I want to say about biblical anthropology for now. There is certainly much more that could be said, but I want to move on and start looking at Christology.

Marc Roby: Very well, let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we will do our best to answer.

[1] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1997, Vol. II, pg. 107

[2] Ibid, pg. 106

[3] Ibid, pg. 107

[4] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[5] Hodge, op. cit., pg. 109

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine biblical anthropology. Dr. Spencer, last time we discussed the doctrine of total depravity, which says that every aspect of our being is affected by sin. And, as a result, man is not able to repent and believe in Christ until and unless God regenerates him, that is, causes him to be born again. At the end of the session, I asked the question that many people have raised; namely, “If man is utterly incapable of obeying God’s command to repent and believe, how then can it be fair for God to condemn an unbeliever for not doing so?” How would you answer that question?

Dr. Spencer: Well, let me begin by giving God’s answer to the question, and then we can discuss it further. Paul deals with this question in Chapter 9 of the book of Romans. He begins by citing Old Testament passages that present the doctrine of election; in other words, that God sovereignly and unconditionally chooses whom to save.

Marc Roby: Now, by calling this election unconditional, you mean that it is not based on anything man does.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. This doctrine is represented by the letter ‘U’ in the acrostic TULIP. But, getting back to our passage, in Romans 9:18 Paul draws a conclusion from these Old Testament verses and writes, “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.” [1]

And then, in Verse 19, he anticipates essentially the same question you asked in response to this conclusion, he says, “One of you will say to me: ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?’” And finally, in Verse 20 we read his answer, which is really God’s answer since Paul wrote as he was carried along by the Holy Spirit. And we read, “who are you, O man, to talk back to God? ‘Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, “Why did you make me like this?”’”

Marc Roby: I must say that God’s answer would seem to argue in favor of not discussing this further. He asserts his sovereignty and basically says we are not in a position to ask the question.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. In fact, John Murray describes this answer as being an “appeal to the reverential silence which the majesty of God demands of us.”[2] We don’t want to probe beyond our proper limits. There is mystery in the doctrine of election that goes beyond what we are able to understand, and we need to be careful or we can get into territory that man should avoid all together, or risk being impudent.

Marc Roby: Yes, we certainly want to avoid that. We should have proper respect and reverence for God at all times and keep the Creator/creature distinction in mind.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. And yet, there is more that we can properly and biblically say about this question. And it is a question that is deeply troubling to many, which is why the apostle Paul anticipates it, and then he himself goes on to say a little more. But we must pay careful attention to the fact that God is putting us in our place first. He is reminding us that we have no business questioning his goodness.

Marc Roby: And that reminds me of Job.

Dr. Spencer: Oh, it certainly does. In his excellent commentary on the book of Romans, P.G. Mathew noted that “Job had many questions for God. But when God questioned him. Job closed his mouth.”[3] And in Job 42:3-6 we read that Job replied to God, “You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”

Marc Roby: That is the only response possible if we truly see God and ourselves.

Dr. Spencer: And we must not miss the point of Paul’s rhetorical question in Romans 9:20, “who are you, O man, to talk back to God?” We have no right to question God about how he governs his creation. If he chooses to give us an explanation, that is entirely by grace. He doesn’t owe us an answer. But God did graciously give us some more information about his purposes in election. Just as God dealt with Job’s questions by questioning him, so Paul responds to this question about God’s fairness by asking questions in return. We just dealt with the first of them, “who are you, O man?”, which points out that we have no right to talk back to God. And the second was also in Verse 20, “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’”

Marc Roby: And the answer is, again, “No! The creature shall not say to the Creator, “Why did you make me like this?” In context, that question clearly has an accusatory tone. It is saying, in essence, that God should have made me some other way.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s right. Paul is pointing out how inappropriate it is for us to question God and he means to humble and silence us. And he goes on, in Verse 21, to ask, “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?”

Marc Roby: The same metaphor about a potter and the clay is used in the Old Testament as well. In Isaiah 45:9 we read, “Woe to him who quarrels with his Maker, to him who is but a potsherd among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’”

Dr. Spencer: That is exactly the same idea. These three questions were meant to put us in our place. Let me quote from P.G. Mathew’s commentary again. He wrote, “Mind your place! You are down here; God is up there. God is all-transcendent. God is our Creator; we are his creatures, and we must never forget the Creator/creature distinction. We exist and consist in him. So think correctly. Pride goes before a fall. God is not our equal. No man has a right to bring God to trial. But God has every right to bring us to trial and cast us into hell.”[4]

Marc Roby: Nothing could be more obvious than the fact that God is not our equal. So, it is only reasonable that we keep that fact in mind at all times.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that fact causes us to face reality. We have no business questioning the fairness of God. But, in a very real sense, anyone who goes to hell chooses to go to hell.

Marc Roby: Now how can you say that?

Dr. Spencer: Well, we noted in Session 104 that eternal death, or hell, includes eternal separation from the blessings, or presence, of God. But let me quote from P.G. Mathew again. He says, “Listen to the arguments of the great theologian Jonathan Edwards: ‘I. That if God should for ever cast you off, it would be agreeable to your treatment of him. … II. If you should forever be cast off by God, it would be agreeable to your treatment of Jesus Christ. … III. If God should for ever cast you off and destroy you, it would be agreeable to your treatment of others. … IV. If God should eternally cast you off, it would be agreeable to your own behavior towards yourself.”[5] And Mathew adds a fifth point, “If God should eternally cast you off, it would be agreeable to your treatment of the Holy Spirit.”

Marc Roby: That is very good. If people reject the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, they should not be surprised when God rejects them.

Dr. Spencer: Well, in fact, that is what their actions show they really want. And we never treat others the way we should either, which shows our contempt for God since they are also made in his image. And when he speaks about our treatment of ourselves, he is reminding us that we don’t have the right to abuse our own bodies by using drugs, or over eating, or sexual immorality or any of a number of ways in which people do so. We don’t belong to ourselves. We belong to God; he made us.

Marc Roby: That’s an excellent point.

Dr. Spencer: And the bottom line is that we are all sinful, rebellious creatures. God does not treat anyone unjustly; he treats every individual with either perfect justice or mercy.

Marc Roby: And we should not want to be treated with justice if we have any inkling at all of the many ways in which we have violated God’s just laws and offended his holy character.

Dr. Spencer: No, any rational person will desire mercy. But now, with all of that in mind, let’s take a look at the final question Paul asks in Romans 9. In Verses 22-24 he wrote, “What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory—even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?”

Marc Roby: That is a very difficult passage. Not difficult to understand, but difficult for people to accept.

Dr. Spencer: I think you’re right about that. Paul tells us that God has prepared some people for destruction for the purpose of manifesting his power and wrath and also to make the riches of his glory manifest to the objects of his mercy, in other words, to those whom he chose to save.

We have said a number of times that the Bible clearly teaches that God’s purpose in creation is the manifestation of his own glory. And that includes showing his holiness and justice as well as his mercy and love. People may not like that, but it is the truth.

Marc Roby: But, of course, an unbeliever is not going to accept that answer.

Dr. Spencer: No, I’m quite sure they won’t. I know I didn’t. This question of God’s fairness was very disturbing to me before God graciously granted me a new heart. And, as we discussed last time, that is what new birth is. It is God granting an individual a new heart. Or you could say a new spirit. 1 Corinthians 2:14 tells us that “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.”

But whatever terminology you use, the point is that God changes our fundamental nature, which affects every aspect of our being. He regenerates us. He gives us a new mind, a new will, a new set of affections. We are not made perfect, but we are changed in the very core of our being. And that change is just as pervasive as the depravity it begins to destroy.

Marc Roby: Why do you say that it “begins” to destroy our depravity?

Dr. Spencer: Well, in his infinite wisdom, God has chosen to conform his people to the image of Christ through a process. The process begins with new birth, which issues forth in repentance and faith, which then result in justification.

But repentance and faith are not the only fruit that come from new birth. It also manifests itself in every aspect of our behavior. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” And yet, the change is not complete, we are not yet perfect.

Marc Roby: Yes, that fact is abundantly obvious when we look at ourselves and others.

Dr. Spencer: It certainly is obvious, yes. If we have been born again and have trusted in Jesus Christ alone for our salvation, then we are justified in God’s sight, and yet we are still sinners as well. Theologians have a Latin phrase they use for this condition.

Marc Roby: Well of course they do, they’re almost as bad as medical doctors in liking Latin.

Dr. Spencer: I suppose that’s true. In any event, Martin Luther stated that believers are simul justus et peccator, which means simultaneously just and sinner.[6] We are justified in God’s sight by our union with Christ as we discussed last session. And yet, we are still sinners. When God regenerates a person, he changes every aspect of the person’s being. The effects of regeneration are just as pervasive as the sinful nature. But, just as our sinful nature did not make us as bad as we could possibly be, so regeneration does not make us as good as we can possibly be, it does not perfect us. It does not remove sin completely. It simply begins the process. We are simultaneously just and sinner.

Marc Roby: Which expresses the idea that a Christian is a mixture. We have a desire and an ability to obey God, but we still have sin residing in us as well. And there is a war going on between our old and new natures.

Dr. Spencer: And that is exactly what the Bible teaches us. Let’s take a brief look at one passage that deals with this fact. In Colossians 3:5-10 Paul commands us, “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.”

Marc Roby: That passage has an interesting mix of statements in the past tense, like “you have taken off your old self”, and commands in the present tense, like “Put to death … whatever belongs to your earthly nature”.

Dr. Spencer: And that is why it is a great illustration of the inner conflict that exists in every true believer. If we have been born again, there is a very real and pervasive change that has occurred. John Murray calls this change, which is produced in our nature by regeneration, definitive sanctification.[7]

Marc Roby: Which is what the Bible is referring to when it speaks in the past tense about believers having been sanctified. For example, in 1 Corinthians 6:11 Paul told the believers in Corinth, “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

Dr. Spencer: Exactly, it is also what is being referred to in the passage we are looking at in Colossians when it says that we “used to walk in these ways” and that we “have taken off [our] old self”. But, in addition to this definitive sanctification, there is also progressive sanctification, which is indicated, for example, by the command to “Put to death … whatever belongs to your earthly nature”. We still have work to do.

When we are born again there is a dramatic and pervasive change in our nature, but it isn’t complete. God has ordained that we struggle against sin, walking in faith, until he calls us home. At that time he will perfect our spirits as we are told in Hebrews 12:23.

Marc Roby: Now that is something to look forward to!

Dr. Spencer: It certainly is. But let’s get back to the point you made that an unbeliever is not going to accept the answer given in Romans 9. I have a couple of things to say about that. First, whether or not an unbeliever will accept the truth has no bearing on whether it is the truth. Remember, an unbeliever also won’t accept the most basic truth that God exists and has revealed himself in his Word.

Marc Roby: What is the second thing you wanted to say about it?

Dr. Spencer: That there is no reason to really get into this question with an unbeliever unless he or she brings it up. While it is true that an unbeliever is totally depraved, dead in trespasses and sins, and cannot repent and believe unless God first regenerates him. It is equally true, as Paul wrote in Romans 10:9, “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” This is what we should be saying to unbelievers. Share the gospel. Answer their questions to the best of your ability. Pray for their salvation. But don’t worry about how to reconcile God’s sovereign election with their personal liberty. That question doesn’t affect what they must do to be saved. Never once in the New Testament do we see someone asking “What must I do to be saved?” and then being told to be born again. They are told to repent and believe.

Marc Roby: I think that is good advice for evangelism. And I personally find God’s sovereign election to be a very comforting doctrine. I must do my job to evangelize, but no one is going to perish because I didn’t do my job well enough. If God has chosen someone for salvation, then they are going to be saved.

Dr. Spencer: I agree, that is a great encouragement. It is our business to live for God’s glory and to share his glorious gospel. It is God’s business to save sinners.

Marc Roby: And with that I think we are out of time for today, so let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org, we’ll answer as best we can.

 

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997, Vol. II, pg. 31

[3] P.G. Mathew, Romans: The Gospel Life (Volume 2), Grace and Glory Ministries, pg. 62

[4] Ibid, pg. 65

[5] Ibid, pp 66-67

[6] R.C. Sproul, Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification, Baker Books, 1995, pg. 102

[7] John Murray, Collected Works, Vol. II, Banner of Truth Trust, 1977, Chap. 21

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine biblical anthropology. Dr. Spencer, you said in a previous session that there are three main components to the doctrine of sin: its cause, its nature, and its definition. We have finished discussing the cause and definition, but you said you wanted to return to examine the nature of sin. What more did you want to say?

Dr. Spencer: I want to talk more about the reformed doctrine of total depravity. We already noted that to say man is totally depraved does not mean he is as bad as he can possibly be. It simply means that there is no part of his being that is unaffected by sin. So, I noted that the doctrine might more properly be called pervasive depravity, but the term total depravity is so common and has such a long history that we’re not going to get away from it.

Marc Roby: And it also goes along with the well-known acrostic TULIP, which is meant to represent reformed theology in a nutshell. The ‘T’ in TULIP stands for total depravity.

Dr. Spencer: And now that you’ve brought up TULIP you need to say what the other letters stand for as well.

Marc Roby: All right, the ‘U’ stands for unconditional election; the ‘L’ stands for limited atonement; the ‘I’ stands for irresistible grace; and the ‘P’ stands for perseverance of the saints.

Dr. Spencer: And, God willing, we will get to all of those doctrines at the proper time. I should also point out that as with total depravity, one can argue that better terms exist for some of the other doctrines as well. But, far more importantly, these five doctrines do not fully define reformed theology. For example, they don’t mention the Creator/creature distinction, which is central to reformed theology.

Marc Roby: Yes, in fact, they came about in direct response to the challenge brought by a group of Dutch theologians, called the Remonstrants, in 1610. These theologians were followers of Jacobus Arminius, who died in 1609, and they summarized their disagreements with reformed doctrine in five points. These five points of contention were formally answered by the Canons of Dort and it is those five points that are summarized by that acronym TULIP.

Dr. Spencer: And all five of these points logically fit together, beginning with the T standing for total depravity. As I said, this means that there is no aspect of our being that is unaffected by sin. Our thinking, our emotions, our will, they are all affected. But the most important aspect with regard to our salvation is our will.

Marc Roby: Now, why do you say that?

Dr. Spencer: Because the fundamental issue that has caused, and continues to cause, divisions in the church is the issue of how we can be saved. The disagreement is about what, if anything, man contributes to his justification. And we need to be careful now to be precise with our language. By justification we are referring to God’s verdict concerning man. In Psalm 130:3 the psalmist asks the rhetorical question, “If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?” [1]

Marc Roby: And the obvious answer is, no one. As the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 3:9-12, “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.’”

Dr. Spencer: That is our great problem. Because we inherit a sinful nature from our parents, we all sin. We are all rebellious. No one seeks God on his own. We are all guilty sinners. Any human being who stands before God to be judged on his own merits is doomed to be declared guilty. Paul summarizes this in Verse 20 of Romans 3, where we read, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.”

But, praise God, Paul goes on in the very next verse, Verse 21, to tell us, “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.”

Marc Roby: What a glorious verse that is! There is a righteousness from God, that is not based on our keeping his law, which has been made known to us and to which the Law and the Prophets, meaning the Old Testament, testifies.

Dr. Spencer: That verse gives us hope. We are guaranteed to be declared guilty if are judged based on our own law keeping. We are not righteous. But there is another righteousness available to us, a righteousness from God, which is not based on our keeping the law.

Marc Roby: The obvious question then becomes, “How do I obtain this righteousness from God?”

Dr. Spencer: That is the obvious question. And, as Paul wrote, the Old Testament testifies to this righteousness. We will see far more later when we discuss salvation in detail that the Old Testament documents a progressive revelation of the truth that God provides a substitute to pay the penalty for us and to provide us with this righteousness from God. For now, it will suffice to provide a very brief summary, which begins by noting that the entire sacrificial system of the Old Testament was meant to point God’s people to their need for a substitute.

Marc Roby: And, in the New Testament, that ultimate substitute is revealed to be Jesus Christ, who is called the Lamb of God.

Dr. Spencer: And the righteousness from God that Paul spoke of is, in fact, the righteousness of Jesus Christ himself. God requires perfection for us to come into his presence, and none of us is perfect. Jesus told us, in Matthew 5:48, to, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Marc Roby: Needing to be perfectly righteous is, to say the least, a serious problem for us.

Dr. Spencer: It is an insurmountable problem for us. But, as Jesus told us in Matthew 19:26, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” And our problem has two components to it. First, we need to have our sins paid for. We are guilty sinners and our guilt must be taken care of. And then, secondly, we need a positive righteousness to be able to come into God’s presence.

And God solves both of these problems in Jesus Christ. He is the perfect sacrifice, who pays for our sins; in other words, takes away our guilt. And then he is also the only perfectly righteous person who has ever lived and if he is our representative before God, we are counted righteous in him.

Marc Roby: In Session 106 we discussed the fact that Adam acted as the representative of the human race. We share in the guilt of his sin, and our being born with a sinful nature is part of our sharing in the punishment for his sin. But as you pointed out then, God’s using a representative is a great blessing because being represented by Jesus Christ is the only way anyone can be saved.

Dr. Spencer: There is no other way of salvation. And the fact that Christ took our sins upon himself and then gave us his righteousness is called the double transaction or double imputation by theologians. We spoke about this back in Session 73 when we examined the goodness of God. The classic verse to explain it is 2 Corinthians 5:21 where we read that “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Marc Roby: Or, as Paul wrote in Romans 5:19, “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s wonderful, isn’t it? I don’t think we can ever meditate too much on all that God has done for us. But God is holy and just, the supreme Judge of the universe, and as such he cannot simply wink at our sin. It must be paid for. Paul also wrote in Romans 3:25-26 that “God presented him [referring to Jesus Christ] as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, … so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” In God’s great wisdom his plan preserves his nature as the perfectly just Judge of all and yet also allows him to display his infinite mercy in declaring guilty sinners to be just because we are united to Christ by faith.

Marc Roby: And John Murray correctly called our union with Christ “the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation.”[2]

Dr. Spencer: It is the central truth of salvation. Salvation is in Christ, which is an expression we see 89 times in the New Testament. For example, in Romans 6:11 Paul wrote, “count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” And in Romans 8:1 he wrote, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”. But we are in danger of straying too far off topic again.

Marc Roby: And when we got into this topic of representation, we were starting to answer the question of how it is a man can obtain the righteousness from God that Paul speaks about in Romans 3:21.

Dr. Spencer: And the answer is that we must be united to Jesus Christ by faith. And with that answer in hand, we can now go back to our discussion of total depravity and see why I said that the fact our will is sinful is our most serious problem with regard to our salvation.

We must be united to Jesus Christ by faith in order to be saved, but because our will is sinful, we have no desire to believe in Jesus Christ and, therefore, will not believe. In fact, in speaking about us prior to our conversion, Paul wrote in Colossians 1:21, “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.”

Marc Roby: And an enemy of God has no desire to repent and place his trust in Jesus Christ, which is what it means to believe in him.

Dr. Spencer: That is the crux of the matter. The doctrine of total depravity, which is completely biblical, says that we will never choose to repent and believe in Jesus Christ of our own free will. We have a free will, no one is forcing us to do or think the things we do, but as we have discussed before, our will chooses that which we most desire at any given point in time. And being God’s enemies, we will never choose God.

Marc Roby: Which is why Jesus told us in John 6:44 that “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.”

Dr. Spencer: And as I noted way back in Session 15, the Greek verb used for draw in that verse is ἑλκύω (helkuo), which means to drag, it is not speaking about some kind of gentle persuasion. It is the same word used in Acts 16:9 where we read that Paul and Silas were dragged into the marketplace, and in Acts 21:30 where we read about Paul being dragged from the temple, and again in John 21:11 where we read that Peter dragged a fishing net ashore. I don’t mean to imply that God forces us to believe against our will, he does not. But he must change our hearts first so that we desire to repent and believe.

Marc Roby: And, of course, Paul makes the same point by saying, as he does in Ephesians 2:1, that we were dead in our transgressions and sins before coming to faith.

Dr. Spencer: And, as we discussed in Session 104, by saying that we were dead Paul clearly does not mean that we had ceased to exist, or even that we had ceased to live in this world. He means that we were separated from God and his blessings. We were his enemies and incapable of responding to him in faith.

He uses this same imagery in Colossians 2:13 where he tells us, “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ.”

Marc Roby: Jesus himself used this same metaphor. He said, in John 5:24, that “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.”

Dr. Spencer: Which is clearly speaking about spiritual death and spiritual life. If the person had truly been dead in the sense that word is usually used, he could not have heard Jesus’ words. And, if he had remained spiritually dead, he would not have believed. But, the person who has been born again hears and believes and has, therefore crossed over from death to life. Dead men do not believe.

Marc Roby: And it isn’t just Jesus and the apostle Paul who use this language. The apostle John wrote, in 1 John 3:14 that “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death.”

Dr. Spencer: And to reinforce the idea that spiritually dead men cannot do anything to save themselves, listen to what Paul says in Romans 8:6-8, “The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.”

So, the person who has not yet been born again is hostile to God, he not only doesn’t submit to God’s law, but he cannot submit to God’s law. It is an impossibility. And he cannot please God.

Marc Roby: And yet we read in Acts 17:30 that God “commands all people everywhere to repent.” Therefore, it logically follows from Romans 8 that a sinner cannot repent because he cannot submit to God’s law, which means he cannot obey God’s command.

Dr. Spencer: And also take note of what the apostle John wrote in 1 John 3:21-23; “Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.”

Now, going back to the passage in Romans 8 again, if an unbeliever is incapable of obeying God and is incapable of pleasing him, he is also incapable of obeying the command to believe in Jesus Christ.

Marc Roby: Yes, that it is very clear. And, in fact, we are told in Hebrews 11:6 that “without faith it is impossible to please God”. Therefore, the Bible is clear that an unbeliever can do nothing to please or obey God. Faith must come first.

Dr. Spencer: And it follows necessarily that saving faith is not something an unbeliever can exercise on his own initiative. Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3:3, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” And in Verse 5 he went on to say, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.”

Now, dead people don’t choose to be born. Dead people do nothing. The teaching of the New Testament is clear on this subject. We must be born again first, then we can repent and believe in Jesus Christ. That is why Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Marc Roby: Therefore, the biblical view is that man is born dead in transgressions and sins and cannot save himself. He cannot do anything that pleases God because every aspect of his being is tainted by sin, which again is the reformed doctrine of total depravity. God must do a work in us before we can repent and believe in him, and that work is called being born again, or being regenerated.

Dr. Spencer: And that is also what the Old Testament tells us also. In Ezekiel 36:25-27 God is speaking and says, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” God must cleanse us, give us new hearts, and move us or we will continue in our stubborn, sinful ways. We must be born again, which is a work that God alone can do. Only then will we repent and believe. And our faith will unite us to Christ so that our guilt is taken away and we are given his perfect, unimpeachable righteousness.

Marc Roby: There is an obvious question raised by this doctrine of total depravity. If man is utterly incapable of obeying God’s command to repent and believe, how then can it be fair for God to condemn an unbeliever for not doing so?

Dr. Spencer: That is the central question that has caused so much division in the church. But I’m going to have to put off answering it until next time because we are out of time.

Marc Roby: Alright, you were saved by the bell. I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org, we enjoy hearing from you.

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955, pg. 170

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