Reformed Anthropology

Right now I am reading through the book The Potters Freedom by James White. This book is a response to another book by theologian Norman Geisler called Chosen but Free, where he takes Reformed theology to task. One section hit me as an excellent presentation of a doctrine commonly misunderstood by many, including Norman Geisler. I must admit that when I became a Christian and started studying Calvinism I followed people that perpetuated this misunderstanding. Whether or not you agree with total depravity, it is helpful to know the true nature of that which you oppose. Here is a coherent representation, and not a straw-man, of this doctrine.  I must warn you to strap yourself in for the ride because Dr. White (as well as the bible) is not what one would call, “subtle.”


“A Definition

What do reformed Christians believe concerning the will of man? The reader of CBF would have to conclude that true Calvinists believe man’s will is “destroyed” and done away with, resulting in nothing more than an automaton, a robot. But this is not the case at all. Chapter 9 of the London Baptist Confession (1689) is succinct and clear:

1) In the natural order God has endued man’s will with liberty and the power to act upon choice, so that it is neither forced from without, nor by any necessity arising from within itself, compelled to do good or evil.

2) In his state of innocency man had freedom and power to will and to do what was good and acceptable to God. Yet, being unstable, it was possible for him to fall from his uprightness.

3) As the consequence of his fall into a state of sin, man has lost all ability to will the performance of any of those works, spiritually good, that accompany salvation. As a natural (unspiritual) man he is dead in sin and altogether opposed to that which is good. Hence he is not able, by any strength of his own, to turn himself to God, or even to prepare himself to turn to God.

4) When God converts a sinner, and brings him out of sin into the state of grace, He frees him from his natural bondage to sin and, by His grace alone, He enables Him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good. Nevertheless certain corruptions remain in the sinner, so that his will is never completely and perfectly held in captivity to that which is good, but also entertains evil.

5) It is not until man enters the state of glory that he is made perfectly and immutably free to will that which is good, and that alone.

The final section especially should be noted: when in heaven the ultimate “freedom” will not be “freedom to choose evil or good as we may desire” but “freedom from the presence of, and inclination toward, evil.” Any person who believes that the redeemed in heaven will be forever perfected must likewise believe that they will no longer commit sin. Does this mean that they will somehow be less than human? Or is freedom to perfectly will good a greater freedom than the ability to choose between good and evil?

The Scriptural Witness

The biblical doctrine of total depravity combines the truth of man’s createdness (the pot that is formed by the Potter) with the truth of man as sinner. The result is a view of man that is pre-eminently biblical and perfectly in line with what we see in mankind all around us.

To say something is a biblical doctrine requires that we demonstrate this from the text. Briefly, here are a few of the more important passages teaching the Reformed doctrine of the total depravity of man and the bondage of man in sin.

From the earliest records of the bible, we see that man’s corruption extends to his very heart:

Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Genesis 6:5)

This corruption is internal and complete: every intent of the thoughts of man’s heart was only evil continually. This is radical corruption, not mere “sickness.” Such a person is not “spiritually challenged” but is in firm and resolute rebellion against God. The flood took these people away, yet, even after the flood, God says:

The LORD smelled the soothing aroma; and the LORD said to Himself, “I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done.” (Genesis 8:21)

Man’s radical corruption has not changed: from his youth man’s heart is evil, not just once in a while, but continually. Can good come forth from an evil heart? Men like to think so. Yet, the Bible says otherwise:

Can the Ethiopian change his skin

Or the Leopard his spots?

Then you also can do good

Who are accustomed to doing evil.

(Jeremiah 13:23)

Just as a person cannot change the color of their skin, or the leopard its spots, so the one who practices evil cannot break the bondage of sin and start doing good. The corruption is indelible and can only be removed by a radical change of the heart. Surely this is not the belief of most of mankind: films, books, and the mass media is constantly telling us that there is a “spark of good” in the heart of man that is just begging to be fanned into a flame. So pervasive is this belief that many in the Christian faith have drunk deeply at this well of humanism and have allowed society, rather than Scripture, to determine their view of man. But the consistent testimony of the Word is beyond question:

The heart is more deceitful than all else

And is desperately sick;

Who can understand it?

(Jeremiah 17:9)

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,

And in sin my mother conceived me.

(Psalm 51:5)

The wicked are estranged from the womb;

These who speak lies go astray from birth.

(Psalm 58:3)

It is incredible to find Christians saying, “Well, that refers to only some people. See, it says ‘these who speak lies go astray from birth.’” Is there any person who truly knows their own heart who does not confess that they lie regularly, if not in word, then in their heart, even to God? Who does not lie? Someone might say, “But it says ‘the wicked are estranged from the womb,’ not everyone.” But does not every Christian confess that we were once “children of wrath” even as the rest (Ephesians 2:3)? The true believer knows well the corruption from which Christ has rescued us.

The New Testament continues the testimony to the radical depravity of man. In fact, when Paul seeks to present a systematic argument for the gospel to the Romans, he does not begin with “Jesus loves you” or “God has a wonderful plan for your life.” Showing that he would fail almost every evangelism class currently offered in seminaries in our land, Paul begins with a dreadfully long discussion of the universal sinfulness of man. Without a single poem, no funny illustrations or multimedia aids, the inspired Apostle drags on about the sinfulness of men, Jew and Gentile alike. It is no wonder this section is so little preached in our day. But might it just be that the good news cannot be properly understood unless the bad news is fully realized? Such would seem to be the case.

A biblical view of man must find a large portion of its substance in the words of Paul in Romans 1 and 3. Hear again these words penned by the Spirit of God:

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. Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. (Romans 1:21-25)

Man, the image-bearer of God, knows God exists. There is no honest atheist. Man suppresses that knowledge (Romans 1:18) and twists his irrepressible religiosity into the horror that is idolatry. We can find men bowing down and worshiping every single element of the created world, from the most obvious forms of idolatry such as the worship of animals, the sun, moon, and stars, to the more subtle but no less horrific forms where men worship pleasures, possessions, and most often, themselves (humanism). It is the very essence of sin to twist the proper relationship of God as Creator and man as creation. When man usurps any of the authority of God he is, in so doing, giving loud testimony to the radical depravity that grips every fallen child of Adam. But Paul goes on to compile a list of testimonies from the ancient Scriptures to seal his case:

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.

Their throat is an open grave,

With their tongues they keep deceiving,

The poison of asps is under their lips;

Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness;

Their feet are swift to shed blood,

Destruction and misery are in their paths,

And the path of peace they have not known.

There is no fear of god before their eyes.”

(Romans 3:10-18)

This litany of quotations is specifically designed to have one effect: to shatter, destroy, and obliterate any last shred of self-righteousness that might remain after the preceding arguments have been understood. These testimonies are fatal to any kind of “optimistic humanism.” Outside of God’s grace, man is a corrupted creation, violent, hateful, without understanding, without fear of God. Rather than finding in man “seekers” who simply need a “nudge” in the right direction, Scripture tells man that man does not understand and does not seek after God. Man is deceitful, even with himself, and is quick to curse God. Total depravity painted in the most vivid colors.”  (Pages 77-83)

White, James. The Potters Freedom: A Defense of the Reformation and a Rebuttal to Norman Geisler’s Chosen but Free. Calvary Press. 2009. Print

It must be further recognized, lest we fall into despair, that there is a solution to this problem seen in man. When we look at the pain and suffering in the world around us it is easy to become disappointed and hopeless. When undergoing depression, as I myself have experienced extensively, this hopelessness manifests in absolute apathy to all things. Yet, what a glorious report to hear that all the evil that has ever existed has been truly defeated. That there has been a man to walk this earth who did do what was pleasing to God. A man who lived the perfect life that we could not, and died a death that we deserve. This man was Christ, who was God come in the flesh to save us from our sin. All of God’s wrath for sin was placed upon Him, and He said truly, “it is finished.” Do you see your own depravity? Do you realize the depth of your own lostness? Then cast your cares upon Him who bore it all on Calvary. Through His blood are we healed and may boldly walk into the very presence of God. Place your faith in His perfect salvation, and God will declare you righteous in His eyes.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” (Romans 8:1-11)


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