By Ron Halbrook
The new unity movement of the last 15-20 years has been influenced by several denominational concepts, including inherited depravity. This is not surprising. Israel was influenced by the idolatries of the people around them – the Egyptians, the Canaanites, the Assyrians, and the Babylonians. During the early gospel age, Christians were buffeted and often influenced by the errors of Judaism, gnosticism, and dozens of other ideas outside the purview of the gospel of Christ. They were touched by such Greek philosophies as fatalism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism, and by the political and organizational skills of the Roman government. Any study of early church history must take into account these factors of time and place because they all had an impact on the thought and life of professed followers of Christ.
All of this gives meaning to the warning of Romans 12:1-2 that we be shaped by the Lord’s will and not by the mind of “this world. ” We can be taken captive “through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ” (Col. 2:8). The faith of the gospel in our hearts must be guarded against the influences and inroads of pseudo learning, pseudo science, and pseudo knowledge of all kinds (I Tim. 6:20-21). Constant study and review of the Word of God as the basis of our faith and of our relationship with God is imperative! The approach and appeal of Satan is so crafty and subtle that we may be snared before we realize it in ways we never would have suspected. Notice how many errors of the Gentile world cast a shadow over the Corinthian church, and how many flaws of traditional Judaism overshadowed the lives of Jewish converts addressed by the Epistle of James. No wonder Paul feared “lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtlety, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ” (2 Cor. 11:3).
What shadows of this present world of darkness, evil and error are falling upon the history of God’s people today -perhaps failing over my own heart? It is not always possible to trace the course of such influences directly from one person and one movement to another. The factors which move a person toward error and evil may be so diverse and subtle that we cannot explain the origins of their cumulative impact. We can see the result and judge it in the light of Scripture (1 Jn. 4:1-6). We can also recognize some basic errors which are common to our time and place – errors deeply rooted in tradition, spread through many channels, often repeated, and often adapted. We must expect these common tenets to have an impact on our brethren from time to time, and even upon ourselves, unless such concepts are checked by constant review and resistance in the light of God’s Word (Acts 20:28-32; 2 Tim. 43-5; Jude 3). False and dangerous doctrines thrive in an atmosphere where all controversy is avoided, where “positive” themes such as God’s love are considered sufficient to solve every issue or sin which arises. Such an atmosphere may attract many followers and build large churches, but it does not produce strong faith or sound churches.
One of the most significant and widespread errors permeating so-called Christendom concerns the nature of man and therefore of God’s grace to man. The doctrine of Original Sin says that Adam’s sin corrupted every part of his nature, including the body, the soul, and every faculty of his being. This total depravity or inherent corruption of nature is the common inheritance of all his descendants. Exactly what is inherited may be interpreted as Adam’s sin, Adam’s sinful nature, Adam’s guilt, or only a tendency toward -sin. In any case, man’s free will is severely crippled or entirely lost so that we cannot seek or obey God unless His divine power acts upon our will. From the premise of total hereditary depravity eventually came many other false doctrines such as infant baptism, personal predestination, the limited atonement, unconditional salvation, irresistible grace, and the final perseverance of all the elect.
“Until the time of Augustine this idea of original sin was relatively undeveloped” (Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, p. 164). Because of his impact on such doctrines, Augustine (354-430) is called “the Second Founder of the Faith” next to Paul. Precursors to his doctrine of Original Sin and inherited depravity include the Greek idea of fate ruling man’s destiny and the gnostic notion that man’s flesh or body is evil and an enemy of his spirit.
As soon as the gospel of Christ broke in upon the Gentile world, it faced the fermenting speculations of gnosticism — a blend of Greek philosophies with esoteric Eastern philosophies and religions. Gnosticism’s basic concept was that God is pure, abstract spirit. Emanations from God descended by stages down toward matter, diluting their spirit nature more and more in approaching the lowest level which is matter. Matter or the material universe is the origin of all evil, therefore “sin is inherent in the material substance of the body” of man (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, rev. ed., 11:487). Redemption is not pardon from sin but is the discovery of the secret of evil’s origin in matter. Deliverance from the flesh comes through extreme asceticism, or through the realization that the spirit can enjoy union and communion with God regardless of the deeds of the body. Colossians and 1-2 John attacked the premises of gnosticism, as did post-apostolic writers. Still, gnosticism’s “influence upon Christianity was profound and permanent” (McClintock and Strong, Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature 111:896). Some elements of this broad cultural influence were assimilated into the developing theology of an apostate church.
Augustine taught that qfter Adam fell, the body of man is evil and must sin. Because of his fallen nature, it is man’s fate to sin and he cannot help sinning. Anslem. (1033-1109) agreed and held that “in Adam, the person made nature sinful; in his posterity, the nature makes a person sinful.” A modem writer explains that “a man does not just commit sinful acts. Man qua man is a sinner; his nature is expressed in his sinning” (H.D. McDonald, The Christian View of Man, pp. 84, 27). As this concept has been handed down in time and tradition, it has become the common property of both Roman Catholics and Protestants to this day. All major wings of the Protestant Reformation embraced the idea – Lutherans, Calvinists, the Reformed tradition initiated by Zwingli, Arminians, and Anglicans. It has been maintained and at times modified by all the major denominations of modem America – Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist – and by many minor denominations, sects, and cults as well.
Every group which accepts this doctrine is burdened with explaining how or why man is accountable for his sins and also how the grace of God reaches this fallen man. Catholics and some Protestants respond by sprinkling babies to save them from their fallen and sinful nature. Also, sins are separated into “mortal” (most serious) and “venial” (less serious) sins. A Catholic theologian explains, “It is, moreover, certain, not only from the divine compassion, but from the nature of the thing, that there are venial sins, or such slight ones, as in just men may consist with a state of grace and friendship with God” (M. & S., Cycl. IX:767). It is assumed that Christians continue to practice venial sins because of man’s fallen nature.
Spokesmen For New Unity Movement
Spokesmen for the new unity movement have uniformly manifested a loss of confidence in the New Testament pattern of truth and a corresponding growth of confidence in denominational literature and concepts. Some are convinced that man must violate God’s pattern of truth because of a sinful nature and that the obedience or righteousness of Christ must be imputed to man to compensate for this depravity. Such a concept contributes to the ecumenical movement at large in denominationalism and to the new unity movement among the brethren. These facts converge in the pages of Present Truth and Verdict magazines. Edited by a dissident Seventh-Day Adventist turned ecumenicist (Robert D. Brinsmead), this paper mediated AugustinianReformation views on the nature of man, grace, and unity to a number of the new unity spokesmen. Men such as Edward Fudge, Michael Hall, Darwin Chandler, and Carl Ketcherside wrote letters of commendation to Brinsmead (P. T., Feb. 1974, p. 7; Feb. 1977, p. 4; June 1977, p. 4; & V., June 198 1, p. 5).
Consider Brinsmead’s views. Both as to faith and practice in the church and as to daily life, man retains his sinful nature and so constantly sins. This accounts for doctrinal diversity. Works of merit and non-meritorious conditions for receiving grace are constantly confused so that both are rejected. God always is constantly forgiving our sins because of the imputed righteousness of Christ. We are told that I John 1:8 means there is “some depravity . . . in the best saints” because even our obedience is “defiled by the corrupt channel of human nature” (P. T., Aug. 1976, pp. 24, 29). No work of obedience “under any . . . name whatever” is necessary for salvation (Ibid., July 1977, p. 12). Christians are “simultaneously righteous and sinful.” Man remains a sinner because of his “corrupt nature” whether committing a sinful act at any moment or not. On this account, “every good work is sin” and must be covered by Christ. This sinful condition and corruption remains in our body until the resurrection, although forgiven and not imputed to believers, according to Luther (Ibid., pp. 25-27). Luther said,
For original sin is a root and inborn evil, which only comes to an end when this body has been entirelymortified, purged by fire and reformed. Meanwhile, however, it is not imputed to the godly (V., Aug. 1979, p. 26).
Because sin constantly inheres in the flesh, even our worship is tainted: “Their most pious and devout deeds, including their prayers and praise, are defiled with the corrupt taint of the flesh” (V., Sept. 1978, p. 12).
Denominational and Ecumenical Thrust
Notice the denominational and ecumenical thrust of such theories. “Individual patterns of church life” are permissible because we are not bound to “the New Testament patterns” on such things as the “mode of baptism … .. worship,” and “organization.” To insist that the New Testament pattern is essential to constitute “the one true church” is a sectarian “denial of justification by faith alone.” Since “no one is without sin” and no church “without error” because of our “sinful limitations,” we all must be saved by “grace alone” (V., Mar. 1981, pp. 9-10, 16). Whether a person be “Lutheran, Calvinist or Catholic,” he shares in “justification through grace by faith alone.” All must “liberate the grace of God from the demands of dogmatic perfection” and “doctrinal purity” by extending “the hand of fellowship outside their own ‘denominational’ confines” (V., Sept. 1981, p. 18).
Now, compare the views disseminated by Edward Fudge and others. Just as some people overlook “the fact that God, by nature, hates and punishes sin, so legalism ignores and fails to reckon with the fact that man, by nature, is a sinner.” This is why man does not obey God perfectly “either before . . . or after” he becomes a Christian. Notice the references just quoted on God’s nature – indicating constitutional and inherent nature – and then man’s nature. Fudge continues, “It is an eternal principle that man, because he is man, sins. God does not make him sin. God did not create him so that he had to sin.” But “man is a sinner” and “even when he sincerely tries he does not do what God wants him to do” (The Grace of God, pp. 14, 17). Since God did not originally make man’s nature constitutionally and inherently sinful, when did it become so? Here lurks some theory of Original Sin with man inheriting sin, guilt, a sinful nature, or a tendency to sin. What is the solution to this sinful nature which causes man to sin “by nature”? Fudge teaches the imputation of Christ’s obedience as the answer. The Bible teaches none of it!
Fudge convinced Bruce Edwards that a Christian could “go through a lifetime believing that instrumental music was okay and still be a ‘man of faith”‘ – i.e. saved by faith (A Journey Toward Jesus, pp. 25, 35). He applies the same premise to institutionalism and any number of other sins. Since man is constitutionally a sinner, we are all in error and should extend the hand of fellowship in all directions.
Arnold Hardin has been on a crusade for years to convert everyone to similar views. He objects to “the notion that the nature of man did not change due to the fall of Adam” and to anyone saying man “could” avoid sin if he “would” (Persuader, I Jan. 1983, p. 3). This means that Adam could have avoided sin and was responsible to do so, until his nature changed with his first sin. If he could not avoid sin afterward, how and why should he be accountablefor any subsequent sin? Since we inherit Adam’s fallen nature, how and why should we ever be accountable for any sin? Like Fudge, Hardin resolves the problem of our corrupt nature by the imputation of Christ’s own righteousness to us. We may understand our position by comparing it to David’s, Hardin claims. David was not separated from God or in danger of hell when he sinned by adultery, deception, murder, or any other way (ibid., 5 May 1985, p. 3). Other writers have echoed this argument on David – and some have made the same application to Simon in Acts 8. R.L. Kilpatrick edits Ensign from Huntsville, Alabama, regards Robert Brinsmead as a modem Martin Luther and Alexander Campbell, and regularly pushes the ideas of sinful nature and imputed righteousness (Sept. 1981, pp. 3-5).
Passages misused to teach hereditary total depravity include those which speak of -the universality of sin, such as Romans 1-23. All such passages refer to each person sinning on his own choice as Adam did, rather than to man’s constitutional and inherent nature. Psalm 51:11 (“cast me not away from thy presence”) is perverted as proof that David was in fellowship with God even as he sinned and afterward before repenting. A simple reading of the psalm along with Psalm 32 shows that David fully realized the pain and sorrow of his separation from God in sin. He pleads for pardon lest he be cast away with finality as a hardened impenitent (cf. Heb. 6:4-6; 12:17). Romans 5:12 does not say that Adam’s sin or corrupt nature is transmitted to all men, but simply that sin entered the world through Adam.
Romans 7:19 (“for the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do”) does not say that it was impossible for Paul to do right because of inherent depravity. It simply says he did not do right. Having made the choice of his own will to sin, he found the law of Moses made him painfully aware of his guilt but provided no final and perfect sacrifice. The “body” of sin and death and the “flesh” in this context refer not to inherent depravity but to the life of condemnation from which he was delivered by the gospel of Christ (6:6; 7:5-6, 24-25). The remission of his sins released him from this “body” and “flesh,” rather than leaving him to struggle with a supposed sinful nature of depravity and corruption.
Ephesians 2:3 (“by nature the children of wrath”) does not refer to a constitutionally depraved nature but to the repeated practices of those who “walked” after “the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience” (v. 2; cf. Col. 1:21, “by wicked works”). As in Romans 7, they had been delivered from this state, which confirms that one’s constitutional or inherited nature is not in view.
1 John ought to be the last book for anyone to use in trying to sustain the theory that man’s union with God is not broken by sin committed under the impulse of his falleri nature. “The spirit draws near to the light of God’s presence even as the body sins” is the gnostic error John refutes! Rather than argue that man must sin because of the inherent nature of his body, John says, “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not” (2:1). John wrote to say that we must not sin – we are commanded not to sin – expected not to sin – responsible not to sin. If we do sin, it is not expected and accepted, not overlooked automatically and continuously. We are accountable. God will call upon us to confess our sin in order that the blood of Christ may remove the blot and stain of our evil deeds (1:5-2:2).
A Pies for Vigilance and Balance!
Brethren, strange and uncertain sounds among us bear watching. Open study is imperative. Remember too that someone may hold a tenet related to the false concept of man’s nature without embracing all the errors and implications of an apostate system of unity. His clear and firm convictions on other related matters may hold him in check. His willingness to speak out on matters of truth may tend to alienate him from the radical apostates who are charting a course into denominationalism. In a similar way, Alexander Campbell alienated himself from denominational people because he preached too much truth, before he had given up some denominational ideas. Remember also that controversy conducted in a proper spirit helps us all to review what we believe and teach. It is a bad sign when someone teaches a thing and then wants immunity from review and discussion, always responding with the cry, “Foul play!” rather than with Book, Chapter, and Verse. If all of us will make our appeal to “what saith the Scriptures,” rather than to sympathy because of real or imagined personal offenses, healthy progress will be made by all concerned. May God give us a balance of wisdom from above, courage for truth, hatred of error, and love for one another!
Guardian of Truth XXXI: 1, pp. 3-5, 11
January 1, 1987