By Herschel E. Patton
It seems that a Bible student, observing the many warnings and exhortations given to man about sinning, and the many examples of men being held accountable and punished for sin, would never entertain the idea that man has to sin, that he can not do anything other than sin. Why, then, do men believe and teach this? Its origin is with the theologians.
Viewing the power and grace of God, some men have concluded that any action or response being necessary to man’s salvation would negate the grace and power of God. Calvinism, beginning with Inherent Total Depravity and expanding to other consequent tenets, has as its underlying theme, “Man has no ability, therefore responsibility, whatever with regards to his sins or salvation.” The teaching that man’s sinful (carnal) nature, which Calvinism says is inherited from Adam, necessitates sin and furnishes man an excuse (“I couldn’t help it”) that soothes or eliminates a guilty conscience. Our grace-fellowship brethren contend that we are all sinners, and cannot help but be such; therefore we should be tolerant of, and fellowship, other sinners – people in error. The purpose of the whole idea is to excuse man for his transgressions: to declare him not responsible because of the way he was made, or what he inherited from Adam. The answer to the question of this article will, therefore, involve a study of man’s nature and the doctrine of Inherent Total Depravity.
Man Is A Dual Being
Man, as God created him, is both physical and spiritual. He was made from the dust of the ground and given a spirit that one day must return to God (Gen. 1:27; 2:7; Matt.26:41; 2 Cor. 4:16; 1 Cor.15:35-38; Eccl.12:7). These two natures, physical-spiritual, are opposites, contrary to one another (Gal. 5:17).
On the spiritual side, man was made a rational being. He has the power to reason. This is one way that man is in the image of God. God and man can reason together – “Come, now, and let us reason together” (Isa.1:18). This reasoning together would have to do with the canceling of the sin of the man who would reason with God. “Though your sins be like scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red as crimson, they shall be as wool.” The reason of God is the highest there is, and is to be a guide for our reasoning. Men, acting reasonably do not act in opposition to God. When our mind has by revelation been illuminated with the reason of God and we (both spirit and body) are activated and-controlled by this divine reasoning, we are imitators of God. Obedience to this revelation is said to be “our reasonable service.” This is one of the ways man is different from lower animals.
Man has also been given the liberty to will, so that he can allow either the physical or spiritual nature to dominate his life. He may choose to live on a plane with animals or live on a plane with God. Man has the ability and responsibility to make choice (Josh.24:15). A part of this spiritual side of man is “conscience.” Both good and evil men have a conscience and can exercise it (1 Tim. 4:2; Rom. 2:15). From the very beginning, God has cherished within His creatures the principle of conscious accountability. Thus, the first man, Adam, was placed under law, and strict obedience was required of him. If man cannot do anything other than sin, isn’t it strange that God, all the prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Apostles all called for obedience to divine commandments, pretending that man has power to obey! Obviously, the doctrine of total depravity (man is wholly evil and cannot act toward his salvation) is false. The Bible does not teach that man was so made, inherited a sinful nature from Adam, or that he has to sin. It teaches, on the other hand, that man was made a dual being, body and spirit, and the spiritual man has the ability to reason, discern, choose; man is responsible for bringing the body in harmony with divine reason.
But what about the body – physical man? Is it carnal nature? Is it so depraved by creation or inheritance that man must sin? Those who believe this often cite Ephesians 2:1-3-“And were by nature the children of wrath.” Doctor Adam Clark says that the word “nature,” in this passage, often means, in Classical use, ‘second nature’ – as when we say, ‘habit is a second nature.’ Thus, in this text, the apostle appears to speak of evil habits, as when we say ‘habit is a second nature.”‘
Dr. McKnight says on this text, “Nature is that second corrupt dead nature, which men form in themselves by habitually indulging vicious inclinations, for the apostle speaks of men being by nature children of wrath, as the effect of having their conversation in the lusts of the flesh.”
All our fleshly appetites, if continually indulged to excess and in unlawful channels, will become corrupt. This passage, rather than telling us men are children of wrath because of the way they were made or what they inherited, seems to be saying that men become children of wrath by permitting their animal (carnal) nature to gain supremacy over their intellectual and moral nature. These Gentiles had been “dead in trespasses and sin,” not because of the one sin of Adam, but “in trespasses and in sins” (plural), not one sin, but many – their own.
The fleshly (carnal) body given to man, with all its appetites and passions, is not evil or sinful in itself. Every one of these natural appetites is good, and when directed into proper channels, serves our best interest. Sin results when we allow our passions to run in improper channels, in failing to curb or restrain them. Here is the origin of all sin.
Adam and Eve possessed all fleshly appetites and passions before they sinned. Presumedly, Adam and Eve made love,
ate and drank, and were in possession of all the emotions common to the fleshly body, before they sinned. Satisfying these passions was not sin. The appetite for eating is not sinful, until it becomes guilty of gluttony: for drinking, until it becomes guilty of intemperance or for a forbidden thing: the passion of fear is good, as long as we fear the right thing: of hatred, when properly directed. All our passions, emotions, appetites, like fire and water, are good servants, but destructive as masters. Man i’s responsible for governing these natural appetites and passions according to the laws of God.
Possessing these passions (a natural physical body) is not depravity. Depravity does not come about until the seed of evil is planted in man’s mind (heart) and he then acts contrary to truth. Adam and Eve received truth from God, and acting according to it, the fruit was righteousness. Satan, however, gave them a lie and the result was rebellion – sin. Evidently, there was no predisposition, bias, or compulsion to sin on Eve’s part until Satan enticed her. The source of sin, therefore was not the way Adam and Eve were made, but the enticement of Satan’s lie. Satan lied to Eve and she listened, believed, and acted – sinned – died. This has been the way of sin in man ever since. Hence our sins are called “the works of the devil” and he is said “to work in the children of disobedience.” His “fiery darts” inflame the passions and “set on fire the tongue, the whole course of nature.” Before Judas betrayed his Master, Satan “filled him” or “entered him.” Before Ananias became a hypocrite and lied to the Holy Spirit, Satan “put it into his heart.” James tells us that before any sin can be born “lust must conceive.” There was no seed of sin by nature in Adam, nor is there any in his posterity. The general tendency to sin on the part of man is due to the quality of the untruths received in the heart rather than to some natural or inherited thing. The more sinful teaching, influences, and circumstances that surround one from birth to responsibility, the greater that one’s bias or tendency to sin. Depravity is the result of our natural passions being inflamed by lies and evil influences to act contrary to truth, and not of how we are made or what we inherited. Other lessons in this series will show this truth, as well as the perversions of Scripture in an effort to affirm total depravity, so I will not deal with it here.
Some see in man’s inability to attain perfection a “born with” or “inherited” weakness that makes sinning a “must” in his life. This thinking has led our “grace-fellowship” brethren to suggest and recommend fellowship with sincere brethren in error, for “we, ourselves, are not perfect.” Some go so far as to suggest that the blood of Christ continually cleanses of such sins, “even while they are being committed.”
There is a difference in “must” sin and “will” sin. The Bible does not teach the former, but does teach the latter. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. . . . If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 Jn. 1:8,10). Here, John is talking about what man has done or will do, for the reasons pointed out in this article, and not what he “must” do and can’t help but do because of the way he was made or what he inherited.
Our Lord was “made flesh and dwelt among us,” being subjected to temptation (Matt.4:1-10) “in all points like as we are, yet without sin” (Heb.4:15; Jn.8:46), showing that the flesh can be restrained and controlled. Paul felt a responsibility to “keep under his body, and bring it into subjection” lest he should be lost (1 Cor.9:27). Yes, man has the potential and responsibility to live free from sin, but will he? The Bible teaches he has not and will not, therefore, God’s grace has provided a cleansing fountain.
I know of no passage of Scripture wherein God demands absolute perfection on the part of those who seek after Him. True, the word “Perfect” or “perfection” is frequently used in exhorting saints, but these terms, according to definition, suggest the idea of completing or making better that which is imperfect. According to 1 John 1:8 the Christian’s life is imperfect; therefore, he needs to be active in improving his character and having the guilt of sin removed. When Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all, give to the poor, follow Him, and he would “be perfect,” He was simply teaching him a way of growth, of greater service and maturity. Exhortations to perfection (Col.1:28; 4:12) are exhortations to spiritual maturity. By faith, diligence, taking heed, and repentance we may reach a high degree of spiritual maturity: be perfect as Noah and Job (Gen.6:9; Job 1:1), yet be as Paul “not already perfect” (Phil.3:12). This absolute perfection is not imputed on the basis of perfect works by man on this earth, or apart from the blood of Christ. Faith, obedience, diligence, repentance, “faithfulness unto death” are the ingredients for reaching that state of spiritual maturity or perfection that God will regard in the day of judgment, as absolute perfection. Man is capable of, and responsible for, reaching such maturity.
The doctrine of Hereditary Total Depravity, and the belief that man has to sin, simply provides for the corrupt an excuse and apology for their sins. The corrupt like to hear their wickedness referred to as innate depravity, rather than something acquired or developed; their unholiness as the result of natural incapacity, rather than any fault or neglect of their own; that they can do nothing to procure their salvation, excusing them from seeking or doing anything to prepare for it. Man is still responsible, and will be held accountable, regardless of these false doctrines.
Guardian of Truth XXXI: 1, pp. 24-25
January 1, 1987