The Doctrines of Grace, Part Three: Our Absolute Need for a Complete Savior

The Third and Fourth Heads of the Canons of Dort are combined together, because the truths concerning human depravity and the saving call of God unto salvation are directly related to each other. In this post, however, I will highlight both of these doctrines by themselves so that I can flesh out their implications in a more focused manner.

Many may think that the “Total Depravity” of mankind is merely a negative, inconvenient doctrine only fit for neurotic, self-obsessed miscreants who cannot find anything to enjoy in life at all. But the real truth is, it is a vital plank of the Christian faith, for it opens the way for a Savior who fully saves us.

The first man, Adam, who was created perfect and innocent and able to perform righteous deeds, sinned in the Garden of Eden by disobeying God’s command not to eat the forbidden fruit, and since he was our representative we all sinned in him and now are totally corrupt (Canons of Dort 3/4:1-2; Rom. 5:12, 18-19).

“Therefore all men are conceived in sin, and are by nature children of wrath, incapable of saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage thereto; and without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, they are neither able nor willing to return to God, to reform the depravity of their nature, or to dispose themselves to reformation.” (CD 3/4:3; Rom. 3:10–18, Eph. 2:1-3)

There is nothing we can do in and of ourselves to please God, because He is holy and perfect and we are vile and contemptible in His sight; all our works, good as they may seem to outward eyes, are completely stained with sin (Isa. 64:6; Jer. 17:9). There is no way that this God can accept our works, absolutely none - complete holiness cannot accept anything less than completely holy works. That is how God is, it’s His very nature.

It is true, however, that we have not fully lost an awareness of what is good and what is evil, since we were made in the image of God and still bear the marks of that creation, fallen though it is. Even to some extent, we can build societies and order them and make laws and attempt to live regular lives - such is the amazing witness that God has still left to Himself both around us and inside us (I’ve more fully explained this kind of paradox in previous posts which discuss how Christians should view the world we live in).

Nevertheless, as the Canons put it, “But so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. Nay further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and hinders in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God.” (CD 3/4:4). This shows that “Total Depravity” rightly refers to the nature of our corruption rather than its intensity - in other words, we do not always act as bad as possible, but we are intrinsically bad in every one of our actions, even the “good” ones, because of our enmity against God. We may be able to set up societies, but we cannot perpetually keep these societies from breaking up and falling apart, nor can we by legislation or force endeavor to completely wipe out corruption, violence, and evil (of course, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have laws at all!). Even the best-ordered society cannot please God because there is always human sinfulness in it. Rebellion against God is still adamant, and we will always find ways to warp even the imperfect light of nature that we do have.

In saying all this, I am not trying to be mean-spirited or sadistic, pounding us into the dust and enjoying every moment of it. Yet this is a doctrine which requires the utmost seriousness and thoughtfulness. We are in a terrible situation. Even the very Law of God which is good, because it shows us what He desires and what is pleasing in His sight, has become a vehicle of condemnation to us because we cannot keep it, nor can it save us (CD 3/4:5; Rom. 7).

If that is all there is to this world and there is no hope, then I am simply wasting my time by writing these words. Better for all of us to drown our sorrow in nihilistic pleasures or seek to escape this world straightaway, for nothing matters except either everlasting torment or eternal nothingness.

But…….there’s something else to share here, something absolutely wonderful:

“What, therefore, neither the light of nature nor the law could do, that God performs by the operation of the Holy Spirit through the word or ministry of reconciliation; which is the glad tidings concerning the Messiah, by means whereof it has pleased God to save such as believe, as well under the Old as under the New Testament” (CD 3/4:6).

We have a Savior who has fulfilled God’s whole law on our behalf, the “Second Adam” who perfectly performs righteousness on our behalf just as Adam worked sin for those he acted on behalf of. In Him whom we trust, we are washed clean of our sins and counted righteous in God’s eyes, and His perfect works even cover the imperfectness of our works as believers. Christ’s sacrifice and complete obedience has ensured that God will be glorified in our salvation, so that His love may find proper and full expression in all its majesty! (Rom. 3:21-26; 5:1-2, 6-11, 15-21; 2 Cor. 5:21)

We have been brought so low, so that we may be raised so high. That is the wonder of the Gospel - that is the surpassing glory of Christianity. Let us therefore continually cherish and cling to our Rock of Salvation, who is our full hope and joy through all the trials and difficulties of life!