Total Depravity and Human Choice
The Bible teaches that fallen, unregenerate humanity is totally depraved. As I pointed out in a previous post, this does not mean that the human race is as bad as it possibly can be (i.e., utter depravity); rather, it means that the spiritual disease of sin has radically corrupted every part and aspect of our humanity – including our minds, emotions, bodies, and even our wills. As the Word of God testifies, apart from God’s regenerating grace we are spiritually dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1-3), dead to the things of God. The natural, unregenerate man views the things of the Spirit to be folly (First Corinthians 2:14). As was true of the wicked in the days of Noah, in God’s eyes and by the lofty standard of God’s holy law, every intention of the thoughts of fallen man’s heart is solely and continually evil (see Genesis 6:5).
How does this total depravity or radical corruption impact the human will and fallen man’s ability to make choices? Certainly the Scriptures indicate that human beings make choices all the time. We are not puppets on a string. Even the unregenerate make choices every day that are unconstrained by external coercion.
However, the Scriptures also indicate that, when it comes to spiritual things (such as trusting Christ as He is offered in the gospel, repenting of sin, and living in newness of life), the human will is not free. Rather, the human will is in bondage to sin.
What this means is that, while we by nature are capable of making all kinds of choices when it comes to natural things (for example, things such as what career to pursue, whether and whom to marry, what to purchase at the food store, what clothes to wear, etc.), yet because of total depravity and original sin we are incapable of converting ourselves to Christ and living genuinely sanctified lives by our own free choice. Apart from God’s sovereign grace we possess no genuine inner desire or disposition toward trusting in and living for Jesus Christ as He is revealed in the Scriptures or of accepting the truth of His Word.
So, if we cannot convert ourselves or even incline or prepare ourselves for conversion, what then are we to do? If we cannot by our own free will create saving faith within our hearts and instead rely entirely upon God in sovereign grace to grant us the miracle of the new birth before we can exercise saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and repentance unto life, then what are we to do in the meantime if we find ourselves uncertain with respect to our present spiritual condition? Are we simply to passively wait upon God to move in our hearts before we take action in spiritual things? Are we to delay doing anything in terms of spiritual exercises until we somehow feel the Spirit moving upon our souls? The biblical and reformed answer to such questions is a resounding “No!” No, God’s Word calls upon us sinners to take vigorous action in pursuing spiritual things, even while it also warns us against trusting in our spiritual actions to somehow merit grace from God or to put God in our debt to show us favor.
While it is true that the unregenerate cannot choose by their own wills to convert themselves to Christ, they can choose to place themselves in a position where God is ordinarily pleased to display His saving grace. For example, the Bible makes it clear that God uses the preaching of the gospel as His instrument to bring sinners to saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 10:17 – “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” ESV). If you want God to grant you the gift of faith in Jesus Christ, then sit regularly under the faithful preaching and teaching of God’s Word. (By the way, if you have a genuine desire to exercise saving faith in Christ, that may very well be an indication that you already possess such faith.) Find a faithful, orthodox church that believes and confesses the Bible as God’s trustworthy Word, and which features expository preaching and teaching from the Bible, and determine to regularly attend the services of such a church.
In addition, you can read, study and meditate upon the Bible for yourself. “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.” (Psalm 1:1-2, ESV; emphasis added) Do you wish to be blessed? Then meditate on the Word of God continuously throughout the day. Expose yourself regularly to the Word of God, not only through diligent and faithful attendance upon the public ordinances of God’s worship at a local Bible-believing reformed church, but also through private, prayerful Bible study.
Furthermore, avail yourself of good theological literature. For example, familiarize yourself with the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms, since these are excellent summaries of Bible teaching which can help to ground you in the truths of Divine revelation.
Another important exercise is prayer. Cry out to God for mercy. Pray that God would give you the gift of the Holy Spirit and grant you the grace of conversion. God’s Word promises that whoever calls upon the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation will be saved (see Romans 10:8-13). Call upon the Lord and, through His grace, trust in His promises!
The Word of God indicates that God is ordinarily pleased to grant His elect the gifts of faith and repentance within the context of the diligent use of the means of grace (primarily the Word and Sacraments, secondarily and responsively through prayer). Our diligence in using these means of grace are not good deeds we perform that somehow merit or constrain God’s favor. Instead they are God-ordained instruments or means by which God is pleased to work in the hearts and lives of His elect, bringing them to faith and nurturing and preserving them in that faith.
I remember a professor I once had in seminary who shared a story about a skeptical acquaintance of his. As I recall the story, this acquaintance had many questions and doubts about the Christian faith, but nevertheless, in spite of his doubts, he decided to attend services at a local, Bible-believing church. Gradually, over time, as he sat week after week under the faithful preaching and teaching of God’s Word and involved himself in the life of the Christian fellowship, this doubter eventually became a firmly-convinced believer. As he allowed himself to be exposed over time to the gospel message, the Holy Spirit did a work in his heart and drew him decisively to faith in Christ and into the Body of Christ. From what I recall my professor saying, this was a gradual, almost imperceptible process, not a dramatic, crisis conversion. Nevertheless, it is a perfect illustration of what I am trying to say in this post. Whether the Spirit converts a man suddenly and dramatically after only one hearing of the gospel, or gradually over time after much exposure to the Word of God, the results are the same.
Apart from Christ we are spiritually dead and totally depraved. Our wills are in bondage to sin, and we can do nothing of ourselves to convert ourselves or to “choose Christ” apart from the intervention of His sovereign grace. But we can “choose” to expose ourselves to the gospel message and to diligently use those God-ordained means that the Holy Spirit has appointed for bringing His people to faith in Christ and for nurturing, confirming and preserving them in that faith – namely, the Word and the Sacraments, along with prayer and in the context of the Christian fellowship of the visible church. Dear listener, whatever may be the present condition of your soul before God, are you choosing to diligently avail yourself of the means of grace that God offers to you through His visible church? If so, may God in His sovereign mercy make those means effective for your salvation. If not, understand that you will have only yourself to blame on Judgment Day for neglecting those means by which God offers His grace to you. “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts…” (Psalm 95:7b-8a, ESV).