Article of the Month

 

 

 

Total Depravity
by Robert L. Dabney

 

I. What Presbyterians really mean by “Original Sin,” “Total Depravity,” and “Inability of Will.”

WCF 9.3, “Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.”

By original sin we mean the evil quality which characterizes man's natural disposition and will. We call this sin of nature original, because each fallen man is born with it, and because it is the source or origin in each man of his actual transgressions.

By calling it total, we do not mean that men are from their youth as bad as they can be. Evil men and seducers wax worse and worse, “deceiving and being deceived.” (2 Tim 3:13.) Nor do we mean that they have no social virtues towards their fellowmen in which they are sincere. We do not assert with extremists that because they are natural men, therefore all their friendship, honesty, truth, sympathy, patriotism, domestic love, are pretences or hypocrisies. What our Confession says is, “That they have wholly lost ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation.” [WCF 9.3] The worst retain some, and the better much, ability of will for sundry moral goods accompanying social life. Christ teaches this (Mark 10:21) when, beholding the social virtues of the rich young man who came kneeling unto him, “He loved him,” for Christ could never love mere hypocrisies. What we teach is, that by the fall man's moral nature has undergone an utter change to sin, irreparable by himself. In this sense it is complete, decisive, or total. The state is as truly sinful as their actual transgressions, because it is as truly free and spontaneous. This original sin shows itself in all natural men in a fixed and utter opposition of heart to some forms of duty, and especially and always to spiritual duties, owing to God, and in a fixed and absolutely decisive purpose of heart to continue in some sins (even while practicing some social duties), and especially to continue in their sins of unbelief, impenitence, self-will, and practical godlessness. In this the most moral are as inflexibly determined by nature as the most immoral. The better part may sincerely respect sundry rights and duties regarding their fellowmen, but in the resolve that self-will shall be their rule, whenever they please, as against God's sovereign holy will, these are as inexorable as the most wicked. I suppose that a refined and genteelly reared young lady presents the least sinful specimen of unregenerate human nature. Examine such a one. Before she would be guilty of theft, profane swearing, drunkenness, or impurity, she would die. In her opposition to these sins she is truly sincere. But there are some forms of self-will, especially in sins of omission as against God, in which she is just as determined as the most brutal drunkard is in his sensuality. She has, we will suppose, a Christian mother. She is determined to pursue certain fashionable conformities and dissipations. She has a light novel under her pillow which she intends to read on the Sabbath. Though she may still sometimes repeat like a parrot her nursery prayers, hers is spiritually a prayerless life. Especially is her heart fully set in her not to forsake at this time her life of self-will and worldliness for Christ's service and her salvation. Tenderly and solemnly her Christian mother may ask her, “My daughter, do you not know that in these things you are wrong toward your heavenly Father?” She is silent. She knows she is wrong. “My daughter, will you not therefore now relent, and choose for your Saviour's sake, this very day, the life of faith and repentance, and especially begin tonight the life of regular, real, secret prayer. Will you?” Probably her answer is in a tone of cold and bitter pain. “Mother, don't press me, I would rather not promise.” No; she will not! Her refusal may be civil in form, because she is well bred; but her heart is as inflexibly set in her as the hardened steel not at this time to turn truly from her self-will to her God. In that particular her stubbornness is just the same as that of the most hardened sinners. Such is the best type of unregenerate humanity.

Now, the soul's duties towards God are the highest, clearest, and most urgent of all duties; so that wilful disobedience herein is the most express, most guilty, and most hardening of all the sins that the soul commits. God's perfections and will are the most supreme and perfect standard of moral right and truth. Therefore, he who sets himself obstinately against God's right is putting himself in the most fatal and deadly opposition to moral goodness. God's grace is the one fountain of holiness for rational creatures; hence, he who separates himself from this God by this hostile self-will, shuts himself in to ultimate spiritual death. This rooted, godless, self-will is the eating cancer of the soul. That soul may remain for a time like the body of a young person tainted with undeveloped cancer, apparently attractive and pretty. But the cancer is spreading the secret seeds of corruption through all the veins; it will break out at last in putrid ulcers, the blooming body will become a ghastly corpse. There is no human remedy. To drop the figure; when the sinful soul passes beyond the social restraints and natural affections of this life, and beyond hope, into the world of the lost, this fatal root, sin of wilful godlessness will soon develop into all forms of malignity and wickedness; the soul will become finally and utterly dead to God and to good. This is what we mean by total depravity.

Once more, Presbyterians do not believe that men lose their free-agency because of original sin. See our Confession, WCF 9.1: “God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that it is neither forced, nor by any absolute necessity of nature determined, to good or evil.” We fully admit that where an agent is not free he is not morally responsible. A just God will never punish him for actions in which he is merely an instrument, impelled by the compulsion of external force or fate. But what is free-agency? There is no need to call in any abstruse metaphysics to the sufficient answer. Let every man's consciousness and common sense tell him: I know that I am free whenever what I choose to do is the result of my own preference.

I choose and act so as to please myself, then I am free. That is to say, our responsible volitions are the expression and the result of our own rational preference. When I am free and responsible it is because I choose and do the thing which I do, not compelled by some other agents, but in accordance with my own inward preference. We all know self-evidently that this is so. But is rational preference in us a mere haphazard state? Do our reasonable souls contain no original principles regulative of their preferences and choices? Were this so, then would man's soul be indeed a miserable weathercock, wheeled about by every outward wind; not fit to be either free, rational or responsible. We all know that we have such first principles regulative of our preferences: and these are our own natural dispositions. They are inward, not external. They are spontaneous, not compelled, and so as free as our choices. They are our own, not somebody else's. They are ourselves. They are essential attributes in any being possessed of personality. Every rational person must have some kind of natural disposition. We can conceive of one person as naturally disposed this way, and of another that way. It is impossible for us to think a rational free agent not disposed any way at all. Try it. We have capital illustrations of what native disposition is in the corporeal propensities of animals. It is the nature of a colt to like grass and hay. It is the nature of a bouncing schoolboy to like hot sausage. You may tole the colt with a bunch of nice hay, but not the boy; it is the hot sausage will fetch him when he is hungry; offer the hot sausage to the colt and he will reject it and shudder at it. Now both the colt and the boy are free in choosing what they like; free because their choices follow their own natural likings, i.e., their own animal dispositions.

But rational man has mental dispositions which are better than illustrations, actual cases of native principles regulating natural choices. Thus, when happiness or misery may be chosen simply for their own sakes, every man's natural disposition is towards happiness and against misery. Again, man naturally loves property; all are naturally disposed to gain and to keep their own rather than to lose it for nothing. Once more, every man is naturally disposed to enjoy the approbation and praise of his fellowmen; and their contempt and abuse are naturally painful to him. In all these cases men choose according as they prefer, and they prefer according to their natural dispositions, happiness rather than misery, gain rather than loss, applause rather than abuse. They are as free in these choices as they are sure to choose in the given way. And they are as certain to choose agreeably to these original dispositions as rivers are to run downwards; equally certain and equally free, because the dispositions which certainly regulate their preferences are their own, not someone else's, and are spontaneous in them, not compelled.

Let us apply one of these cases. I make this appeal to a company of aspiring young ladies and gentlemen: “Come and engage with me of your free choice in this given course of labor; it will be long and arduous; but I can assure you of a certain result. I promise you that, by this laborious effort, you shall make yourselves the most despised and abused set of young people in the State.” Will this succeed in inducing them? Can it succeed? No; it will not, and we justly say, it cannot. But are not these young persons free when they answer me, as they certainly will, “No, Teacher, we will not, and we cannot commit the folly of working hard solely to earn contempt, because contempt is in itself contrary and painful to our nature.” This is precisely parallel to what Presbyterians mean by inability of will to all spiritual good. It is just as real and certain as inability of faculty. These young people have the fingers wherewith to perform the proposed labor, let us say of writing, by which I invite them to toil for the earning of contempt. They have eyes and fingers wherewith to do penmanship, but they cannot freely choose my offer, because it contradicts that principle of their nature, love of applause, which infallibly regulates free, human preference and choice. Here is an exact case of “inability of will.” If, now, man's fall has brought into his nature a similar native principle or disposition against godliness for its own sake, and in favor of self-will as against God, then a parallel case of inability of will presents itself. The former case explains the latter. The natural man's choice in preferring his self-will to God's authority is equally free, and equally certain. But this total lack of ability of will toward God does not suspend man's responsibility, because it is the result of his own free disposition, not from any compulsion from without. If a master would require his servant to do a bodily act for which he naturally had not the bodily faculty, as, for instance, the pulling up of a healthy oak tree with his hands, it would be unjust to punish the servant's failure. But this is wholly another case than the sinner's. For, if his natural disposition towards God were what it ought to be, he would not find himself deprived of the natural faculties by which God is known, loved, and served. The sinner's case is not one of extinction of faculties, but of their thorough wilful perversion. It is just like the case of Joseph's wicked brethren, of whom Moses says (Gen 37:4): “That they hated their brother Joseph, so that they could not speak peaceably unto him.” They had tongues in their heads? Yes. They could speak in words whatever they chose, but hatred, the wicked voluntary principle, ensured that they would not, and could not, speak kindly to their innocent brother.

Now, then, all the argument turns upon the question of fact: is it so that since Adam's fall the natural disposition of all men is in this state of fixed, decisive enmity against God's will, and fixed, inexorable preference for their own self-will, as against God? Is it true that man is in this lamentable state; that while still capable of being rightly disposed toward sundry virtues and duties, terminating on his fellow-creatures, his heart is inexorably indisposed and wilfully opposed to those duties which he owes to his heavenly Father directly? That is the question! Its best and shortest proof would be the direct appeal to every man's conscience. I know that it was just so with me for seventeen years, until God's almighty hand took away the heart of stone and gave me a heart of flesh. Every converted man confesses the same of himself. Every unconverted man well knows that it is now true of himself, if he would allow his judgment and conscience to look honestly within. Unbeliever, you may at times desire even earnestly the impunity, the safety from hell, and the other selfish advantages of the Christian life; but did you ever prefer and desire that life for its own sake? Did you ever see the moment when you really wished God to subjugate all your self-will to his holy will? No! That is the very thing which the secret disposition of your soul utterly resents and rejects. The retention of that self-will is the very thing which you so obstinately prefer, that as long as you dare you mean to retain it and cherish it, even at the known risk of an unprepared death and a horrible perdition. But I will add other proofs of this awful fact, and especially the express testimony of the Holy Spirit:

There is the universal fact that all men sin more or less, and do it wilfully. In the lives of most unrenewed men, sin reigns prevalently. The large majority are dishonest, unjust, selfish, cruel, as far as they dare to be, even to their fellow-creatures, not to say utterly godless to their heavenly Father. The cases like that of the well-bred young lady, described above, are relatively few, fatally defective as they are. This dreadful reign of sin in this world continues in spite of great obstacles, such as God's judgments and threatenings, and laborious efforts to curb it in the way of governments, restrictive laws and penalties, schools, family discipline, and churches. This sinning of human beings begins more or less as soon as the child's faculties are so developed as to qualify him for sinning intentionally. “The wicked go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies.” Now, a uniform result must proceed from a regular prior cause—there must be original sin in man's nature.

Even the great rationalistic philosopher, Emmanual Kant, believed and taught this doctrine. His argument is, that when men act in the aggregate and in national masses, they show out their real native dispositions, because in these concurrent actions they are not restrained by public opinion and by human laws restricting individual actions, and they do not feel immediate personal responsibility for what they do. The actions of men in the aggregate, therefore, shows what man's heart really is. Now, then, what are the morals of the nations towards each other and towards God? Simply those of foxes, wolves, tigers, and atheists. What national senate really and humbly tries to please and obey God in its treatment of neighbor nations? What nation trusts its safety simply to the justice of its neighbors? Look at the great standing armies and fleets! Though the nation may include many God-fearing and righteous persons, when is that nation ever seen to forego a profitable aggression upon the weak, simply because it is unjust before God? These questions are unanswerable.

In the third place, all natural men, the decent and genteel just as much as the vile, show this absolute opposition of heart to God's will, and preference for self-will in some sinful acts and by rejecting the gospel. This they do invariably, knowingly, wilfully, and with utter obstinacy, until they are made willing in the day of God's power. They know with perfect clearness that the gospel requirements of faith, trust, repentance, endeavors after sincere obedience, God's righteous law, prayer, praise, and love to him, are reasonable and right. Outward objects or inducements are constantly presented to their souls, which are of infinite moment, and ought to be absolutely omnipotent over right hearts. These objects include the unspeakable love of God in Christ in giving his son to die for his enemies, which ought to melt the heart to gratitude in an instant; the inexpressible advantages and blessings of an immortal heaven, secured by immediate faith, and the unutterable, infinite horrors of an everlasting hell, incurred by final unbelief, and risked to an awful degree, even by temporary hesitation. And these latter considerations appeal not only to moral conscience, but to that natural selfishness which remains in full force in unbelievers. Nor could doubts concerning these gospel truths, even if sincere and reasonably grounded to some extent, explain or excuse this neglect. For faith, and obedience, and the worship and the love of God, are self-evidently right and good for men, whether these awful gospel facts be true or not. He who believes is acting on the safe side in that he loses nothing, but gains something whichever way the event may go; whereas neglect of the gospel will have incurred an infinite mischief with no possible gain should Christianity turn out to be true.

In such cases reasonable men always act, as they are morally bound to do, upon the safe side, under the guidance of even a slight probability. Why do not doubting men act thus on the safe side, even if it were a doubtful case (which it is not)? Because their dispositions are absolutely fixed and determined against godliness. Now, what result do we see from the constant application of these immense persuasives to the hearts of natural men? They invariably put them off; sometimes at the cost of temporary uneasiness or agitation, but they infallibly put them off, preferring, as long as they dare, to gratify self-will at the known risk of plain duty and infinite blessedness. Usually they make this ghastly suicidal and wicked choice with complete coolness, quickness, and ease! They attempt to cover from their own consciences the folly and wickedness of their decision by the fact they can do it so coolly and unfeelingly. My common sense tells me that this very circumstance is the most awful and ghastly proof of the reality and power of original sin in them. If this had not blinded them, they would be horrified at the very coolness with which they can outrage themselves and their Saviour. I see two men wilfully murder each his enemy. One has given the fatal stab in great agitation, after agonizing hesitations, followed by pungent remorse. He is not yet an adept in murder. I see the other man drive his knife into the breast of his helpless victim promptly, coolly, calmly, jesting while he does it, and then cheerfully eat his food with his bloody knife. This is no longer a man, but a fiend. 

But the great proof is the Scripture. The whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, asserts this original sin and decisive ungodliness of will of all fallen men. Gen 6:3: “My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh (carnally minded).” Again, Gen 6:5: “God saw that every imagination of the man's heart was only evil continually.” After the terrors of the flood, God's verdict on the survivors was still the same. Gen 8:21: “I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake; for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth.”

Job, probably the earliest sacred writer, asks, “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? not one.” (Job 14:4.) David says: “Behold I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Ps 51:5.) The prophet asks (Jer 13:23), “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good that are accustomed to do evil.” Jeremiah says, Jer 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” What does desperately mean? In the New Testament Christ says (John 3:4-5), “That which is born of the flesh is flesh;” and “Except ye be born again ye cannot see the kingdom of God.” The Pharisees` hearts (decent moral men) are like unto whited sepulchres, which appear beautifully outwardly, but within are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. Does Christ exaggerate, and slander decent people?

Peter tells us (Acts 8:23) that the spurious believer is “in the gall of bitterness and the bond of iniquity.” Paul (Rom 8:7): “The carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be,” (inability of will). (Eph 2): “All men are by nature children of wrath ... and dead in trespasses and sins.” Are not these enough?



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