The Nature Of Man

 

John Cheeseman, Philip Gardner, Michael Sadgrove, Tom Wright

 


 

The truth about the nature of man is an outstanding example of the necessity to adhere faithfully to the overall teaching of Scripture, as it is here that a wrong understanding leads necessarily and logically to false or inadequate views about regeneration, the atonement, sanctification, and the whole plan of salvation. How easily this occurs, and how it is occurring around us, will be shown in subsequent pages. For the moment, we shall concern ourselves with what the Bible teaches about this all-important subject. Man needs to see his situation in correct perspective. He is incapable of reaching a correct understanding of that situation intuitively. He needs to view it, so to speak, from the outside. As a fallen creature, he can only obtain a complete and correct view of himself by revelation, in other words, by reference to what God has spoken of him.

The teaching of Scripture is clear and unequivocal. Man is totally depraved, that is to say, the fall of Adam, in which all men participate,[46] extends to all man's faculties:[47] his heart (which in Scripture denotes the very center of man's being––the seat of his affections and personality),[48] his mind,[49] his will,[50] his conscience,[51] and every other part of him. Sin is described as being a state of enmity against God, and of transgression of his commandments,[52] and forasmuch as fallen men have no power of themselves to think, speak or will anything that may please God, until they be regenerate and renewed by the Spirit of the Lord, all works done before justification have the nature of sin, as the Anglican Prayer-Book Article XIII says. 'They that are in the flesh cannot please God.'[53] There is therefore not a single thing that a man can do that will please God, if he has not been born again. Every man, woman and child born into this world, with the exception of our Lord, is a slave to sin,[54] is dead in sin,[55] sins in all things,[56] and cannot cease from sin until God in his mercy delivers him or her from it.

The sinfulness of man does not consist solely of the voluntary sins which he commits; for these are the fruits of his corrupt nature.[57] Empirically, we observe daily that sin abounds; but the Scriptures reveal to us that the situation is infinitely more desperate than we could ever have realized. Man's sin is not only what he does––which we can see––but what he is, which we cannot see as God sees it.

 

At this point, an objection may be made by some: If man is totally depraved, and cannot but sin, while, as we asserted above, God's providence rules the actions of men, does it not follow that man's sin is something that man cannot be held responsible for? Is not God, then, the author of sin?

These are important questions, and we will not attempt to avoid them, but to tackle them later. But a few remarks here will be appropriate.

It is noteworthy that Adam's reply to God, when asked if he had disobeyed God's commandment not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, was, in effect, to put the blame upon God. 'The woman, whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.'[58] The unregenerate man, like Adam, attempts to cover his transgressions by objecting: 'Why doth he still find fault?...Why didst thou make me thus?' The answer of Scripture to such talk is: 'O man, who art thou that repliest against God?' 'Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker!'[59] We are not bound to explain these things, but to hold both to the impossibility of not sinning, apart from the grace of God, and to the fact that God holds man utterly responsible for his sin, and will condemn him, unless he flees to him for mercy.

The problems center around what for centuries has been a theological and philosophical minefield––'freewill'. A common argument runs as follows:

God holds man responsible for his sin.

Man cannot be held responsible for something he cannot refrain from doing.

Therefore: Man's will must be free to choose between sinning, and not sinning; and hence, to choose between 'accepting' Christ, or rejecting him.

We would assert that this conclusion is false, and highly dangerous, because of the falsity of the second premise, namely, that man can only be held responsible for what he has the ability to perform. We hold that this is false for two reasons:

First––Because Scripture denies it. We have already seen that man's will, like every other part of him, is depraved, and in bondage to sin. Anything that is in bondage evidently cannot be free. Man's will, therefore, being part of a dead nature, is not free towards God in any sense, but is 'free' only to sin. Paul says absolutely: 'They that are in the flesh cannot please God'; Job says: 'Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? not one.'[60] Neither is man free to turn to Christ for mercy-he cannot, of his own volition. The one thing that, above all others, surely pleases God, that thing over which the angels of heaven rejoice, is the sight of a sinner turning to God, and repenting. Yet, men in the flesh cannot do this; it is impossible: God's Word says so. Notwithstanding, God commands and requires all men everywhere to repent of their sins,[61] and will judge them if they do not do so. God, who is righteous, will only judge a man for something for which he is responsible.

Second––Because 'free-will' and responsibility are different things. If, by 'freedom of the will', what is meant is 'freedom of action' ,i.e. that when I do something, I do it freely, without compulsion or constraint, then, it is agreed, man is a free agent, and is responsible, precisely because he is not forced to act against his volitions. 'Freedom',in this sense, therefore means nothing more than the harmony that exists, normally, between a man s volitions and his actions. If I am forced at gunpoint to rob a bank, then I am not responsible for my action, since I acted under compulsion, against my (law-abiding) volitions not to do so. Clearly, when a man sins, his will and his actions are united in sinning, and so man is to be held responsible for his sin. His volition and his action are both results of the corrupt nature which is his. But then, 'freewill' is a misnomer, and a misleading term to express the liberty of spontaneity which man does possess.

The notion that man is responsible only for what he has the ability to perform is utterly false. The fact that sinful actions spring inevitably from a sinful nature is no excuse; it rather aggravates the guilt. For man's sinful nature is no part of God's original creation, and man's duty (by which responsibility is to be judged) is determined by God's moral law, which unfallen man could keep. The fall and its consequences do not lessen our responsibility, they increase it. Our sin in Adam[62]. has rendered us unable to do good, yet the sinner, each one of us, is accountable to God in every respect, thought, word and deed. God commands us to render complete obedience and satisfaction to the moral law of the ten commandments. That we cannot do so is patently obvious. Nevertheless, it is required.

Man, then, in all his faculties, is as chained and imprisoned in the darkness of his sins, in captivity to Satan, as Peter was bound by Herod on the eve of his intended execution;[63] as dead as Lazarus in the tomb;[64] as blind as the man Jesus healed.[65] We must be on our guard against the theory that man's will is free, and not bound, or dead, or corrupted––and hence, that man can please God, if he wills to do so––for Scripture is against such a theory.

Man, then, is responsible for his sin, and he is under the condemnation of God. Even if man offended in only one part of the Law, he would be under sentence of death, for 'Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law, to do them.'[66] That condemnation which, but for the mercy of God, would be the just deserts of each one of us is declared in Scripture to entail a place of torment, of weeping and gnashing of teeth, of everlasting fire, of eternal separation from God.[67] These are truths about which we hear little, yet the Word of God plainly declares them. Scripture knows nothing of universal salvation, or of the annihilation of the wicked, or of purgatory, of a second chance, and so on. The truth set before us is one of condemnation to eternal punishment. The plight of man, therefore, is truly dreadful. Unless he repents of his sin, and believes on the Lord Jesus Christ, he is heading straight for hell. God commands, exhorts, beseeches him to repent and believe, in order that his soul might be saved; yet man cannot and will not do so. He is 'fast bound in sin and nature's night', unable to lift a finger towards the attainment of his salvation. Yet only as he sees himself shut in between the condemning finger of the Law, which shows him to be a miserable sinner, and the command of God to flee from his sin and lay hold of Christ, which he cannot obey,[68] does he see his true condition, and consequently, the direction from which deliverance must come.

 

QUESTIONS AND OBJECTIONS CONSIDERED

 

"Experience shows that man can do and will do that which is good"

The doctrine of total depravity is not that every man is as bad as he could possibly be; but that man's nature is corrupted and disabled in every part and aspect––his mind and will as well as his body, affections, etc. So we do not deny that the natural man is capable of doing and willing things which are in themselves good. This is an effect of God's 'common grace'––that is, the work of the Holy Spirit in restraining men from sin and in leading them to do good, which extends to all men. Such grace is necessary to prevent the world from sinking into a condition as evil as hell itself; yet it is not the same as saving grace, and the good which results is despite the sinners' corrupt nature.

These good deeds are not acceptable to God, because they are without the only motive with which God is pleased––love to God and humble faith in Christ.[69] When the Pharisaical Jews kept every outward commandment of the Law, they were doing that with which God is indeed pleased, in itself––but he was not pleased with them, because every act was marred by the sinful and unsuspected enmity of their hearts.[70] Their best deeds were as filthy rags in the sight of our Holy God.[71] Prayer is pleasing and honoring to God; yet he will not hear the prayer of the wicked.[72] The unsaved man may do good works in order to obtain reputation; or to justify himself before God or man; or to quieten his conscience and silence the pangs of conviction of sin; or from the working of the common grace of God in him: he will never do good works to glorify God, from a grateful, penitent heart, for it is against his corrupt nature. Can an evil tree bring forth good fruit?[73]

"The commands of Scripture imply ability"

This inference hardly deserves refutation, but simply denial. The sphere of moral ability is quite different from that of natural ability. The commands of Scripture imply moral responsibility or duty; and in no way does 'I ought' imply 'I can'.

If man's inability to obey the commands of the Law were natural or physical, he would indeed lack responsibility, and there would be no point in commanding him to do that of which he is absolutely incapable. But 'as the inability of the sinner to repent and believe, to love God and to lead a holy life, does not arise from the limitation of his nature as a creature (as is the case with idiots or brutes); nor from the want of the requisite faculties or capacity, but simply from the corruption of our nature, it follows that it does not exonerate him from the obligation to be and to do all that God requires' (C. Hodge). A sinful nature imposes a moral inability as inflexible as prison bars, yet the sinner is responsible to do that which his own fallen nature renders impossible. If it were not so, a man would become less and less responsible as he became more and more sinful––an absurd conclusion which would make the punishment of Satan quite unjust.

It is worth adding that there is a point in commanding sinners to obey, even though they cannot do so. For through the Law comes discovery of sin in all its sinfulness.[74] The sinner who realizes his condition, his guilt under the Law, may be driven by the Holy Spirit to Christ for refuge. It is just as when Christ called 'Lazarus, come forth!': Lazarus was dead; he could not obey; yet in that instant he was quickened by the power of God, and came forth.[75]

A closely related argument is that responsibility for sin implies that one could have avoided sinning. The answer is again very simple: responsibility for sin implies that one ought not to have sinned. When the unregenerate man sins, he does so freely, as a free agent, and in accordance with his own wishes; and it is this which makes him responsible. It is true that his action is doubly necessary––necessary as all events are, because foreordained of God; and necessary because of the corruption of his enslaved nature––but moral necessity in no way limits responsibility.

46. 1Cor. 15:21-22; Rom. 5.12-21

47. Is 1:5-6

48. Mt. 15:19; Jer. 17:9

49. Eph. 4:17-18; Rom. 1:28

50. Jn. 5:40

51. Tit. 1:15

52. Dan. 9:9-11 Rom. 1:29-32

53. Rom. 8:8

54. Ps. 51:5; Rom. 3:9-20; Jn. 8:34

55. Gen. 2:17; Eph. 2:1

56. Ezek. 21:24

57. Jas. 1:14; Eph. 2:2-3; Mt. 15:19

58. Gen. 5:12

59. Rom. 9:19-20; Is. 45:9

60. Job 14:4

61. Acts 17:50

62. Rom. 5:12-21

63. Acts 12

64. Jn. 11

65. Jn. 9

66. Gal. 5:10

67. Rev. 14: 10-11; Mt. 24:51; 25:41; 3:12; Rev. 21:8

68. Rom. 2:812; Jn. 6:44

69. Heb. 11:6

70. Jer. 17:9

71. Is. 64:6

72 Prov. 28:9

73. Lk. 6:43-45

74. Rom. 7:13

75. Jn. 11:43-44

 


The Grace Of God In The Gospel. John Cheeseman, Philip Gardner, Michael Sadgrove, Tom Wright. The Banner Of Truth Trust, 3 Murrayfield Road, Edinburgh EH12 6El & P.O. Box 621, Carlisle, PA 17013. 1972. Pages 33-41.