Mar 17, 2012

The Presbyterian Doctrine of Total Depravity

32 Min Read

Though written many decades ago, the following quotation is an admirable expression of the continuing concern of Reformed thinkers for the doctrine of total depravity.

If the church and the ministry of the present day need any one thing more than another, it is profound views of sin; and if the current theology of the day is lacking in any one thing, it is in that thorough-going, that truly philosophic, and, at the same time, truly edifying theory of sin, which runs like a strong muscular cord through all the soundest theology of the church.1

John Gerstner expresses the same perennial Reformed interest epigrammatically when he says to the contemporary world:

One cannot think of God’s holy ways without thinking of our unholy ones. We cannot think of ourselves without thinking of our sin. Sin is the most important conviction any man can have. It is a bad theology which thinks man good. Any good theology must start with man as bad.2

Gerstner and Shedd make remarkable assertions: “a good theology must start with man as bad”; the church needs a “truly edifying theory of sin.” Can any good thing come out of a consideration of sin? Reformed theology, going back through classical theology to the Scriptures, answers earnestly, “yes.” To be saved is to be saved from sin. If sin means total depravity, and if total depravity means hell, then salvation can really mean amazing grace.

Yet, it is not sin itself nor total depravity as precise definitions that are the real concern of the Reformed thinker. Depravity and hell, grace and salvation, are empty, formal ideas of no interest to the Christian if they are not related to God. Our discussion of total depravity, following Calvin and Reformed creedal sources as our guides in understanding Scripture, assumes a context of discourse in which God is conceived as truly being involved in both an experiential and a cognitive sense in human life. In a paraphrase of Francis Shaeffer, when we talk about total depravity, we tremble because of the God who is there, but we also thrill in His grace, for He is not silent.

Reformed theologians have thus stressed the doctrine of total depravity for centuries; the doctrine based explicitly on the Scriptures could not be viewed otherwise. Yet, astute observers may wonder how this doctrine could be discussed for even several moments. If a person really is depraved, can he rationally discuss depravity at all? Or anything else? Others, impressed with many deeds of unheralded kindness by innumerable individuals, maintain that the Calvinistic claim has never had enough evidence to warrant its acceptance. Pelagius in the fifth century spoke this way in opposition to Augustine, an early defender of total depravity. Voicing these same criticisms, rationalism and empiricism speak today. Is this essay attempting the impossible: expounding a doctrine that is both contradictory and unverifiable?

Neither of these criticisms touches on the core of what the doctrine of total depravity in its full, biblical context is concerned to assert, though both, nevertheless, need to be examined, at the outset, to give a proper frame of reference. Arising out of rationalism, the first objection assumes that depravity simply means extreme irrationality and the consequent inability to communicate, or to think, i.e., that sin means man ceases to be man. But such a thought misses the point. As a sinner, man does not cease to be man; he ceases to be good. The theist does not deny that a degree of irrationality appears as a secondary effect of depravity, but does deny that it is the main hallmark of depravity. As Baillie puts it: “A completely unreasonable being would be as incapable of wickedness as of goodness, for he would be simply non-moral.”3 In a theistic setting, the worst thing that can happen to a person is not that he should become incoherent in irrationality (as undesirable as this may be), but rather that, while remaining coherent and rational, he be obdurate in his relationship to God. Rationality in itself, in man, does not guarantee goodness. Rationalism as a philosophy fails to see that various starting points and differing teleological elements will give rise to a variety of rational systems, each with its own criteria of moral and epistemic value. The shrewd rationality of a man bent on evil is undoubtedly judged by God, while the fumbling thought of a God-fearing peasant is undoubtedly blessed.

The second difficulty seems embarrassing to our study because it suggests that theological ideas must be derived from empirical observations of human behavior, and in the light of such observations we should be constrained to conclude that man is basically good rather than evil, or at least his good deeds outnumber his evil. But such a criticism does not possess compelling weight. Aside from empiricism’s problem in knowing what the motives of observed “good” human activity might be, a further difficulty in measuring the consequences of various moral alternatives,4 another liability in this objection is evident. Speaking of human action as good (or evil) assumes we already know and have used a non-empirical criterion in naming an act as good or evil. Furthermore, saying that a man is good because his good actions outweigh his evil ignores the possibility of one evil act outweighing all the good. The assumptions empiricism must make in order to project any kind of a universal claim show its incoherence and render its discussion of depravity highly suspect.

Reformed theologians also clearly reject the allegations of rationalism and empiricism as set forth in the preceding paragraphs. Without denying that the totally depraved man engages in reasoning, R.C. Sproul points out that his effort is “futile” reasoning,

because it proceeds from a primary premise that is faulty and produces only the final fruit already present in the initial bias. . . . It ends in darkness because it abhors the light at the beginning. . . . Brilliant and erudite reasoning may produce abhorrent conclusions if they proceed from a faulty starting point.5

A further indication of what the Reformed thinker is about is found in the writing of Addison Leitch. Rather than trying to assess the relative degree of goodness or badness in every action of a man, or in the sum total of all his actions, so that depravity can be equated only with a surplus of evil action over good action,6 the Reformed thinker, as Leitch puts it, says depravity

does not concern itself so much with the sins as with SIN, a condition of the whole person who is lost and incapable of returning to God until God acts in a saving way. . . . If sin were blue in color I would be blue all over.7

Surfacing in these two objections to total depravity is a common motive. Both objections can be seen as arising from an attempt to minimize the evil of man in the sight of God. The one over-exaggerates the function of evil in one of man’s faculties and thereby hopes to discredit the possibility of evil as fatally affecting man. The other under-exaggerates the extent of the penetration of evil into all of human activity and thereby hopes to restrict evil to relatively insignificant phases of life. Reasons for seeking to minimize evil in these diverse ways suggest themselves to us. Proponents of both of these views clearly perceive that if total depravity is true, then God has sufficient reason, from a human point of view, for condemning all men to eternal death. For them, the logical course of action must be to minimize consistently the evil of man, because, for them, God cannot conceivably be granted the freedom of judging men eternally for sin. The view of a God of judgment is said to offend human rationality. Man’s nature, thus, is seen to be essentially good with an occasional lapse into evil, and so God could conceivably be spared from making anything more than an ameliorating plea. It is suggested that God could pardon an individual on the grounds of a partial “goodness,” and thus His love would exhibit its saving character, and no judicial sentiments, human or divine, would be offended.

Sincere as such conceptions might be, they are still bad views of sin, rather than good. They misunderstand the seriousness of sin, declared by God Himself to be an affront to His majesty as the Holy Law-Giver. They veil the expression of God’s justice and holiness which appear in His decree of eternal punishment. They prevent the display of the magnificent grace of God in saving sinners. A true doctrine of sin, recognizing that man’s depraved nature sets him against God, can be seen as good because it preserves both the holiness of God in justice and the love of God in grace. A bad doctrine of sin does not aid in understanding God, nor in relieving man’s guilt. Biblical writers had all of these concerns; God is the holy God whose grace alone provides escape from the prospect of deserved judgment.

When the biblical writers make numerous statements like these, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually”; “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt”; and

The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth . . . for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened,8

anyone who understands English can comprehend the force and significance of the words used. For the Christian, such words constitute God’s definition of every man apart from grace. They comprise a matrix of reality which provides meaning for understanding the doctrines of election, definite atonement, and irresistible grace. But prior to being in a state of grace before God, man is in a state of rebellious corruption before God.

Given in ordinary language, these verses from Scripture speak clearly to the mind about man’s moral condition in God’s sight. For many, such words are a threat of undeserved punishment and thus become offensive. For others, verses like these are not accepted as factually true, and, thus, labeled as meaningless. But, in any case, it cannot be denied that the language of the Bible is understood, or else no reaction could take place at all. Even the positivist has to understand the claim of these verses in order to make a meaningful judgment that the words are meaningless. More commonly in religious circles, men such as Paul Tillich will seek an understanding of such words in terms of a correlation with a “real” existential situation. Now, while it is difficult, if not impossible, to tell the difference between a “real” and an “inauthentic” situation, without being informed by a third party, which in the best sense would be God, the problem is even more intense once it is judged that a situation is authentically existential. Since any authentic situation is unique and individual, no relation to the Bible’s statements can be made. No understanding can result and the clear judgment of Scripture is reduced to ambiguity by an attempted correlation. In a more pious vein, some men, like Karl Barth, will seek to understand the Scripture’s imperious judgment of sin in human life by a christological principle. Biblical judgments as to the nature of sin and depravity will be found useful or “true” because of the antithesis to something experienced in a relationship to Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, the filigree of such a relationship is tenuous, and one’s judgment of what is inconsistent with a christological principle turns out to be little more than a contemporal cultural prejudice. It begins to appear that we have been carrying on a monologue with ourselves, as Cornelius Van Til put it, which produces as its main observable consequences the whittling down and disarming the offense of the biblical statements about man’s sin.

A bad doctrine of sin has serious consequences. In seeking to minimize his sin, man sins all the more. The Bible verses quoted, and numerous others, are constitutive for working out a Reformed doctrine of total depravity. They trace the source of sin to man. It is in attempts to find the cause of sin outside himself that man develops a bad doctrine of sin. It has been wisely observed that, “To go on looking for external causes of our badness, whether inherited or otherwise, is to quiet our consciences with excuses and hence to make more remote than ever the chance of our becoming better.”9 Gerstner puts it more strongly:

For us to reject the verdict of the Word of God about sin is a dread act of sin; . . . the very best proof of sin in our hearts is that we deny the sin of our hearts.10

Going a step beyond these observations, can we not conclude that the wise man is the one who by the grace of God accepts the biblical judgments about himself as true? On the assumption this individual also knows of the atoning work of Christ, his rational comprehension of God’s truth concerning depravity forthwith leads into a doxology of praise and a changed life. For Christians, singing is called for, when we consider our creeds and confessions. To learn God’s truth and to experience God’s grace clamors for such a celebration.

Reformed thought has always stressed the prerequisite of a deep sense of sin in order to appreciate redemption. John Murray remarks that,

Salvation, however, is basically salvation from sin, and our concept of salvation is, therefore, conditioned by our view of the gravity of that to which salvation is directed.11

John Calvin exhibited such a pattern in his celebrated Institutes of the Christian Religion. This work began with an admirable generalization that “True and substantial wisdom principally consists of two parts, the knowledge of God, and the knowledge of ourselves.”12 When put into sharper focus, however, the self-knowledge of the unbeliever is seen to be very disconcerting. Having set himself at odds with the will of God, hell is looming before the unbeliever. Calvin thus speaks of “the miserable ruin into which we have been plunged by the defection of the first man.” Yet, man is not without hope. This “immense mass of deformity” which we discover within can produce in man such “a consciousness of his own infelicity as to arrive at some knowledge of God.” Some good can come out of sin; an awareness of God, even if only as judge, is progress, since it is preliminary to knowing God as redeemer. The knowledge of God found at this level certainly does not include an awareness of redemption, but seems to Calvin to be a necessary preliminary posture for later appreciating a knowledge of God as redeemer. We cannot “really aspire toward him,” Calvin says, “till we have begun to be displeased with ourselves.” In a later century, concerning the Christian life Kierkegaard says, “only through the consciousness of sin is there entrance to it, and the wish to enter in by any other way is the crime of lese-majeste against Christianity.”13 How to become conscious of sin and, therefore, “displeased with ourselves” is not the central consideration in this essay, though frightfully important for salvation and Christian living. Our concern is more with delineating that experience in our non-Christian past which is now seen as the most loathsome aspect of our displeasure with ourselves. To put our finger on this will be to get to the heart of Reformed theology’s development and understanding of the doctrine of total depravity, as well as lead into the consideration of the other distinctive doctrines of Calvinism.

Calvin’s full development of the doctrine of total depravity comes only after he shows how some men in “vile ingratitude not only suppress the knowledge in their hearts of God,”14 but also “grow vain in their own superstitions of what God is like,” while others “revolt from God with intentional wickedness.”15 Sin is a dynamically negative moral relationship to God. Its development only makes things increasingly worse. Soon the effect upon the individual himself is felt as anguish and guilt. Calvin depicts the unbeliever as trying to do the impossible by seeking to eradicate from his consciousness all thought of God. Attempts to suppress the awareness of God16 lead to the constructing of false ideas of God. But the “instincts of nature” which speak of the true God cannot be silenced or satisfied. Fearful tensions develop. Instead of seeking to make peace with the one offended, man attempts to eliminate his guilt by constructing a view of reality in which guilt has no existence, or imagining a God in whom there is no holy wrath or vindictiveness. But these attempts are vain and become a boomerang. They do not even relieve man’s dreadful guilt before God. The self, seeking to save itself, becomes increasingly self-destructive. Luther’s account of this stage of total depravity is very similar to that of Calvin. He discusses it in his Bondage of the Will under the topic of “God’s method of hardening man.” Martin Luther points out that the ungodly man is “wholly turned to self and to his own,” and becomes outraged and furious if anyone stands in his way. This fury and rage toward that which opposes man’s self-seeking is all the stronger when it is perceived that God’s Word (through Moses or Christ) is the obstacle. What Luther speaks of as the “galling of the ungodly” occurs, and in consequence man’s antipathy to God greatly increases, and he “grows far worse as his course away from God meets with opposition or reversal.”16 All of this vivid analysis of man’s experience by Calvin and Luther is the context for moving into the full understanding of total depravity.

A disturbing doctrine to man, total depravity might be deprived of some of its shaking effects upon the consciousness if it could be shown that some members of the human race managed to escape its debility and guilt. Rather than searching through endless pages of history for such illusive evidence, Calvin turns to the beginning of human history and investigates the scriptural record of the first man and woman. Perhaps ambiguity in the account would give some basis for mitigating the dreadful relationship of alienation to God. What a search of history could at best only have suggested, is found in Scripture to be an unfailingly certain moral disposition in all men.17 A “primitive integrity” also is discovered, however, which gives another kind of hope. Nevertheless, man’s disobedience was of such overriding influence that all of Adam’s original adornments of “wisdom, strength, sanctity, truth, and righteousness” were replaced by the “dreadful pests of ignorance, impotence, impurity, vanity, and iniquity.”18 Furthermore, our first parents did not suffer alone, but plunged all of their posterity into the same misery by bequeathing to them a “hereditary pravity and corruption of nature” diffused through all parts of the soul.”19 And even in its first manifestations, depravity was as contemptible of God as in its later expressions in human history. Depravity appeared at first and remained a “foul insult to God,” with man doing “his very utmost to annihilate the whole glory of God. Calvin was forced to conclude “we are, merely on account of such corruption, deservedly condemned by God.”20 Such a judgment by God is perfectly just, for our “nature is not only utterly devoid of goodness, but so prolific in all kinds of evil, that it can never be idle.”21 This quotation from Calvin is remarkable; it is an epitome of most of the emphases Christians wish to make concerning total depravity.

In Calvin’s day as well as in our time, efforts to understand human behavior frequently utilized a method of dividing human nature into various parts or functions. Such parts could be studied in their intercausal relationships in a quasi-scientific or rationalistic manner and give rise to much presumptive information. Assuming such a division would lead naturally to the question: how are the parts and their relationship affected by sin? Calvin’s answer forms the basis for all subsequent Reformed thought. Rejecting the Roman view that sin affected only parts of man’s nature, Calvin insisted that the scriptural revelation of man’s sin is that every aspect and function of his being is affected by the fall.

Calvin’s description of man in this quotation also stresses that sin is not merely the absence of a positive quality or two that results in a privation or defect in human nature. Instead, in his corruption man cannot be idle, but is incessantly active in conducting a campaign of reaction against God’s laws. Sin is a variegated performance that invariably ends in praise of human wisdom rather than divine.

Attention is further focused on these words of Calvin because they express a concern that any moral man would feel. How can a God of mercy punish a person and display wrath toward unrepentant sinners? Calvin is clearly concerned to argue that man is deservedly condemned by God, who in so doing reveals His justice. With the Psalmist, Calvin is jealous for the integrity of God. Sin is against God, and any judgment He makes upon man is deserved. “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in thy sight, so that thou are justified in thy sentence and blameless in thy judgment.”22

For the man lost in sin, despairing of heaven, and under the wrath of God, it is clear that nothing human or natural can meet his need.

Man is conscious of God’s displeasure with his sin, but in his unregenerate state he will not throw himself upon God’s mercy and plead for forgiveness. Instead, he constantly offends God all the more by making light of his guilt and by attempting to suppress his knowledge of God. The earliest history of man, as seen in the Bible, confirmed, rather than mitigated, the heinous character of sin. Moreover, examination of Adam’s sin revealed that all of his descendants were immediately implicated in his transgression and that “Everything which is in man, from the intellect to the will, from the soul even to the flesh, is defiled.”23 Like a contemporary wholist, Calvin burst out, “the whole man is in himself nothing else than concupiscence.”24 Denying the unity of man in his depravity, semipelagians like Erasmus suggested that reason might be exempt from sin, if only to a degree, and could initiate at least enough concern about spiritual things to warrant the application of grace by God. Contemplating the possibility that reason in some sense is immune from the effects of sin started Calvin off on the last leg of his discussion of depravity.

Accepting a widely held view of reason and its relationship to the will, Calvin asserted that reason, known also as the understanding, has the function of discriminating between objects as appropriate or inappropriate for personal good. The will, then, theoretically chooses and follows what the reason has pronounced to be good and avoids with abhorrence what is condemned.25 Reason is, thus, integrated into the decision of the will. Translating this philosophical claim into theological dogma, Calvin stated that

God has furnished the soul of man, therefore, with a mind capable of discerning good from evil, and just from unjust; and of discovering, by the light of reason what ought to be pursued or avoided . . . to this he has annexed the will on which depends the choice.26

So reason, like a lamp, illuminates the human behavior and belief with its counsel. Surely, one would suppose, reason would furnish the will with appropriate guidance once it discerned the exceeding wickedness and foolishness of rebellion against the God who not only sustains the depraved person in his own being, but is also a relentless judge from whom man cannot escape.

Calvin’s investigation reached its deepest level when he probed the noetic effect of sin. To his utter consternation, man continuously chose evil. Moreover, the choice was voluntary and not by constraint.27 Reason remained an integral and essential aspect of man, vitiated but not destroyed, still capable of guiding (misguiding) the will and providing formal justification for belief and action. Will continued to function as the preceptor of action inseparable from the nature of man, but now “fettered by depraved and inordinate desires.”28 In this sad but amazing discovery apprehended in his experience, described in Scripture, and prompted by the Holy Spirit, man found out what he really was in the sight of God. Now the most loathsome element in our understanding of total depravity emerges. Incredulously, the choice of evil was approbated by reason and embraced by will. Calvin speaks of it as the “grand point of distinction” and explains,

that man, having been corrupted by his [Adam’s] fall, sins voluntarily, not with reluctance or constraint; with the strongest propensity of disposition, not with violent coercion; with the bias of his own passions, and not with external compulsion: yet such is the pravity of his nature, that he cannot be excited and biassed to anything but what is evil.29

The simple truth of this “grand point of distinction” is that our whole nature, in part and functions, is set in its own way, and as such loves to sin against God, and therefore must sin against God.

A consideration of reason has put the cap on the doctrine of total depravity. Man’s reason not only could offer to the will no positive inducement to embrace God’s Word, but also in retaining its natural functions it prohibited man from using irrationality as an extenuating circumstance excusing sin. Gordon Clark summarized it well when he wrote:

When Adam fell, the human race became, not stupid so that the truth was hard to understand, but inimical to the acceptance of the truth. Men did not like to retain God in their knowledge and changed the truth of God into a lie.30

So, if anything, reason compounded the guilt of man before God by enabling him to fabricate idols that placed no moral demands upon him and to manufacture rational schemes in justification of recalcitrant behavior. One is led to agree that Meredith Kline’s judgment is not too severe:

The Fall, therefore, might have been followed at once by a consummation of the curse of the covenant. The delay was due rather to the principle and purpose of divine compassion by which a new way of arriving at the consummation was introduced, the way of redemptive covenant with common grace as its historical corollary.31

Analysis of total depravity, arising out of Scripture, witnessed to by countless events in history, and confirmed in an honest appraisal of personal experience after one has received God’s grace in renewal, led to a common creedal formulation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These creeds, as Shedd put it, “never shrank from affirming that the ultimate form of sin is a nature, that this nature is guilty, and that the wrath of God justly rests upon every individual of the human race because of it.”32 Protestant thought thus was echoing Paul’s when he said men are “by nature children of wrath.”33 The Belgic Confession states that man “willfully subjected himself to sin” and thereby “separated himself from God” and “corrupted his whole nature.”34 This activity by man was so “vile and abominable in the sight of God that it is sufficient to condemn all mankind.“35 The canons of the Synod of Dordt are no less specific when they declare that man “entailed on himself blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity, and perverseness of judgment,” and “became wicked, rebellious, and obdurate in heart and will, and impure in all his affections.”36 Nevertheless, man “retains some knowledge of God . . . and of the difference between good and evil.” This knowledge, as in Calvin, is not sufficient to bring man to a saving knowledge of God and, indeed, cannot even be used aright in the ordinary affairs of life. Man, in fact, corrupts this light and “holds it back in unrighteousness.“37

In historical Presbyterian circles the Westminster Standards reflect the same views of total depravity as those developed above, and have been greatly significant in establishing the classical Christian view. The Shorter Catechism speaks of the corruption of man’s whole nature with the resultant misery of being made liable to death and “to the pains of hell forever.”38 In the Westminster Confession of Faith, total depravity is presented more fully than in the Shorter Catechism, but without diminishing the nuances or exceeding the rigor of Calvin and sixteenth-century doctrinal and creedal formulations.

The Reformational doctrine of total depravity seen especially in Calvin can be stated summarily in these sentences:

1. Sin is the responsible choice of man to violate God’s law.
2. Sin is a depravity of the whole nature of man.
3. Sin conveys guilt before God for man’s personal and Adam’s representational sin.
4. Sin is the actively developed apostasy of man against God.
5. Sin is a full warrant for eternal punishment.39

Reasserting each of these principles, the Westminster Confession maintains that our first parents (no. 1 above) “being left to the liberty of their own will,”39 fell into sin, and thereby became “dead in sin, and (no. 2 above) wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body.”40 This first sin not only brought guilt upon the original couple, but also (no. 3 above) “the guilt of this sin was imputed . . . to all their posterity.”41 As in Calvin, the enormity of this depravity and guilt is all the more loathsome when it is seen as constituting man as (no. 4 above) “utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evi1.”42 The eminently fair judgment man brings upon himself, since his sin is a violation of the holy law of God, is that, in the apt words of the confession (no. 5 above), “he is bound over to the wrath of God, and curse of the law, and so made subject to death, with all miseries spiritual, temporal, and eterna1.”43 So the seventeenth-century Calvinism of the Westminster Standards echoes the sixteenth-century faith.

Going back to the brief statements regarding man’s corrupt nature and God’s judgment, the Shorter Catechism comes across as a softened re-run of its companion catechism in the United Presbyterian Standards. For in the Heidelberg Catechism, of 1563, it asserts that we are by nature “prone to hate God and my neighbor,”44 and “daily increase our guilt.”45 This “willful disobedience”46 makes us liable to a “just judgment in time and eternity.”47 And in order that no one may mistake what the Heidelberg Catechism means here, the 11th Question asks, “Is, then, God not also merciful?” “God is indeed merciful,” and the answer continues, “but he is likewise just; wherefore his justice requires that sin, which is committed against the most high majesty of God, be also punished with extreme, that is, with everlasting punishment both of body and of sou1.”48

In a similar fashion the Westminster Confession reinforces the thought of two earlier creeds which became companion confessions when adopted by the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America in 1967. In a briefer but fully as rigorous a statement, the Scots Confession of 1560 presents the sin of man as a “conspiring against the sovereign majesty of God.”49 This “fearful and horrible departure of man from his [God’s] obedience”50 resulted in an “everlasting death” that “has had and shall have, power and dominion over all who have not been, are not, or shall not be reborn from above.”51 The Second Helvetic Confession (1566), the other sixteenth-century companion creed to the Westminster Confession, sets the tone for the later product when it asserts that man is “immersed in perverse desires and adverse to all good.”52 In an interesting psychological insight, it also maintains that, being “Full of all wickedness, distrust, contempt and hatred of God, we are unable to do or even to think anything good of ourselves.53 Calvin’s “grand point of distinction” is put in epigrammatic form: Our enslaved will “serves sin, not unwillingly but willingly. And indeed, it is called a will, not an unwill (ing).”54

This concise survey of the Reformational creeds in the United Presbyterian Book of Confessions shows an unquestionable consensus of belief about sin and total depravity. The Westminster Standards, coming almost a century after the other creeds, are an integral part of a Calvinistic confessional tradition that is remarkable in the richness of diversity with which a fundamental unity is proclaimed. The claims that the Westminster Standards “do not belong to the Reformation but are products of Puritanism and Post-Reformation scholasticism,” and that they reflect a legalism, moralism, and rationalism that is foreign to the Confessions of a century earlier,”55 are scarcely understandable. If such claims are supportable in other doctrinal areas, they ought not to be allowed to obscure the fact that there is continuity and an identity in witness to the scriptural principles concerning sin in the older Reformation creeds and the Westminster Standards of the United Presbyterian Church.

The sixteenth and seventh-century creeds in the United Presbyterian Church’s Book of Confessions are unambiguous and united in what they assert as the biblical doctrine of sin. Is the confessional production of the last decade by the United Presbyterian Church homogeneous with its older companion confessions in this important area? While there are those who would maintain that there is very little continuity in thought56 with the older Calvinistic creeds, it cannot be denied that in the phrases and sentences, at least, some kind of a family resemblance is evident. As in the older documents, in the Confession of 1967 a strong indictment of sin occurs. It is declared that evil in men is “sin in the sight of God,“57 and that “all men, good and bad alike, are in the wrong before God” and “fall under God’s judgment.”58 Furthermore, though the statement on the sin of man is brief, it does include insightful characterizations of sin as a futile self-mastery which results in rebellion, despair, and isolation, and as a proud self-interest which is more often an expression of hostility than virtue. Man also falsely claims he is guiltless before God when he is exploiting and despoiling the world. All of these allusions to sin in a contemporary setting are very important, and need only a norm to be valid and true. They call attention to the solidarity of the race and to sin in the areas of social responsibility. As such, the pervasiveness of sin called for by the doctrine of total depravity is reflected.

Although some continuity with Calvinistic sentiments is found in the Confession of 1967 in its phrases and sentences, in its paragraphs only an asymmetrical relationship is discernible. In the three brief paragraphs on sin, the attempt to derive all formulations about sin simply as antitheses to the reconciling work of God in Jesus Christ falls far short of the breadth in thought found in earlier confessions, which drew material from the entirety of Scripture rather than from one central doctrine. Plausibly, God’s work of reconciliation is a biblical teaching of sufficient scope to provide ample context for developing the full-orbed Reformed doctrine of sin. Unfortunately, in an unaccountable fashion, the authors of the Confession of 1967 delimited the formulation of the crucial reconciliation theme by their failure to utilize the full range of biblical evidence.59 Hence, in formulating a doctrine of sin (or any other) weakness might be expected, for, actually, only selected aspects of the theology of reconciliation were employed. Conceivably, the writers of the early Presbyterian creeds could have derived their doctrine of depravity from the doctrine of reconciliation, too, but they first would have taken care to develop a full scriptural account of reconciliation from which they could subsequently derive other doctrines. Surely they would not have appealed to ambiguous sentiments of reconciliation surfacing in the culture of their time in order to gain the acceptance of their product.

Further discontinuity of the new formulation with the old is evident in the current reference to an experience of reconciliation as the basis for a consciousness of sin. Such elements in our consciousness are undoubtedly important aspects of Christian experience, but if our consciousness of reconciliation and of sin are unnaturally separated from the cognitive understanding of their nature, then the culture of the time in which one lives will supply the definitions of reconciliation and sin, which probably would not be biblical. The writers of the Confession of 1967 seem to have made this bifurcation of experience and understanding and hence give modern man the opportunity to excuse himself by making his own definition of sin. This is a lamentable turn of events, never evidenced in earlier creeds, because the laudable purpose of aiding modern people in being more responsible in their societal relationships is thwarted by the ambiguity and equanimity that occurs when reconciliation and sin are made experiential without definite reference to God’s law, or seen as sociological analysis without personal guilt before God.

In the Reformation age, people who converted to Protestantism were excommunicated and put under the threat of everlasting destruction if they did not return to the Roman Church. Dissatisfied with a church that in a complacent manner unofficially said “no one is perfect,” but officially condemned individuals to perdition for a violation of church order,60 the Reformers never tired of affirming a sterner and more consistently biblical notion of sin as a perverse outgrowth of transgression against God’s law, stemming from a sinful root, for which one could justly be condemned to eternal destruction. Taking this biblical view of the deadly taint seriously, the Reformers averred, could become a way of edification for an individual that far outclassed the meager value of the ministrations of the Roman Church. For the man lost in sin, despairing of heaven, and under the wrath of God, it is clear that nothing human or natural can meet his need. From the bottom of the bottomless pit, as Augustine once put it, the only hope that can become a comfort is that the unmerited grace of God will pluck him out.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of the Essays in Reformed Theology collection and was originally published in Soli Deo Gloria: Essays in Reformed Theology: Festschrift for John H Gerstner, ed. R.C. Sproul (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 1976).

  1. William G. T. Shedd, Theological Essays (New York: Scribner, Armstrong and Co., 1887), p. 264. The signers of “An Appeal for Theological Affirmation,” Hartford Seminary, January 26, 1975, though not writing in a specifically Reformed context, show something of what Shedd was pleading for when they state their “false Theme 7: ‘Since what is human is good, evil can be adequately understood as failure to realize human potential,’’’ and answer that “This theme invites false understanding of the ambivalence of human existence and underestimates the pervasiveness of sin. Paradoxically, by minimizing the enormity of evil, it undermines serious and sustained attacks on particular social and individual evils.” Reprinted in The Presbyterian Layman, March, 1975, p. 5.
  2. John H. Gerstner, Theology tor Everyman (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965), p. 31.
  3. John Baillie, Our Knowledge of God (London: Oxford Press, 1939), p. 32.
  4. Gordon H. Clark, “Can Moral Education be Grounded on Naturalism?,” Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological Society I, no. 4 (Fall, 1958).
  5. R.C. Sproul, The Psychology of Atheism (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, Inc., 1974), 65.
  6. Gordon C. Clark, What Do Presbyterians Believe? (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1965), p. 77.
  7. Addison H. Leitch, Beginnings in Theology (Pittsburgh: Geneva Press, 1957), p. 36.
  8. Genesis 6: 5; Jeremiah 17: 9; Romans 1: 18, 21; all Revised Standard Version.
  9. Hugo Maynell, Sense, Nonsense and Christianity (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1964), p. 75.
  10. Gerstner, Theology for Everyman, p. 35.
  11. John H. Skilton, ed., Scripture and Confession (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1973), p. 137.
  12. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. John Allen, I, i, 1.
  13. Søren Kierkegaard, Training in Christianity (Princeton University Press, 1944, p. 71.
  14. Calvin, Institutes, I, v, 4.
  15. Ibid.,* iv, 1.
  16. This thought, originating in Geneva, came to expression again at Lausanne in 1974. “We recognize that all men have some knowledge of God through his general revelation in nature. But we deny that this can save, for men suppress the truth by their unrighteousness.” Lausanne Covenant, art. 3.
  17. Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnson, trans. (Westwood: Fleming H. Revell, 1957), p. 205.
  18. Cf. Jonathan Edwards’ method in his Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended.
  19. Calvin, Institutes, II, i, 5.
  20. Ibid., 8.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Psalm 54: 1, RSV.
  23. Calvin, Institutes, II, i, 8.
  24. Ibid., I, xv, 7.
  25. Ibid., 8.
  26. Ibid., II, ii;7.
  27. Ibid., 12.
  28. Ibid., iii, S.
  29. Howard Vos, ed., Can I Trust the Bible? (Chicago: Moody Press, 1963), p. 28. Chapter I, Gordon H. Clark, “How May I Know the Bible Is Inspired?”
  30. Meredith Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), p. 155.
  31. W.G.T. Shedd, Theological Essays, p. 215.
  32. Ephesians, 2:3b, RSV.
  33. Belgic Confession, article XIV.
  34. Ibid., art. XV.
  35. Canons of the Synod of Dordt, 3rd and 4th Heads of Doctrine, art. I.
  36. Ibid., art. IV.
  37. Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 18, 19; (7.018 and 7.019). All decimal notations are from the Book of Confessions, which is part I of the Constitution of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.
  38. In 1642 John Owen made the following summary of original sin in “a Display of Arminianism”:
    1. “It is an inherent evil, the fault and corruption of the nature of every man.”
    2. “It is a thing not subject or conformable to the law of God, but hath in itself, even after baptism, the nature of sin.”
    3. “By it we are averse from God and inclined to all manner of evil.”
    4. “It deserveth God’s wrath and damnation.”
    The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), X, 70
  39. Westminster Confession of Faith, chap. IV, sec. 2 (6.023).
  40. Ibid., chap. VI, sec. 2 (6.032).
  41. Ibid., sec. 3 (6.033).
  42. Ibid., sec. 4 (6.034).
  43. Ibid., sec. 6 (6.036),
  44. Heidelberg Catechism Q. 5 (4.005). All quotations are from the Nevin text found in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, vol. III.
  45. Ibid.,* Q. 13 (4.013).
  46. Ibid., Q. 9 (4.009).
  47. Q. 10 (4.010).
  48. Ibid., Q. 11 (4.011); cf. also Q. 87 (4.087).
  49. The Scots Confession, chap. II (3.02).
  50. Ibid., chap. IV (3.04).
  51. Ibid., chap. III (3.03).
  52. The Second Helvetic Confession, chap. VIII (5.037).
  53. Ibid.*
  54. Ibid.,* chap. IX (5.043).
  55. Arthur G. Cochran, Reformed Confessions of the 16th Century (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966), p. 30. For a more thorough refutation of Cochran’s opinions, arising out of a study of the extra-confessional writings of the authors of the Westminster Confession, see Jack B. Rogers, Scripture in the Westminster Confession (Kampen: J. H. Kok and Eerdmans Publishing .Co., 1966), pp. 443ff.
  56. Edmund P. Clowney, “The Broken Bands,” in Skilton, ed., Scripture and Confession,” chap. VII.
  57. The Confession of 1967 (9.12).
  58. Ibid. (9.13).
  59. Skilton, ed., Scripture and Confession, pp. 196-200. Failure to use all of the Bible in developing a doctrine of reconciliation is not really “unaccountable, for if the Bible is not identified with revelation, as is the case in the Confession of 1967, it would seem unreasonable to accept any part of its notion of reconciliation that runs counter to widely held cultural views.
  60. A curiously similar parallel in the United Presbyterian Church, without the overtones of hell, is a broad latitudinarianism in moral and theological matters, but a narrow intolerance in applying the Book of Order as seen, for example in the Kenyon case. See “Decision of the Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly,” Remedial Case No.1, November 18, 1974. For a comprehensive analysis of this new turn in the history of the UPCUSA see “Candidate Denied Ordination,” by John H. Gerstner, in The Presbyterian Layman VIII, no. 1 (February, 1975).