Category Archives: Humanity

Depravity and Moral Decisions

decision-making.jpgIt’s been forever since I’ve posted something, so I thought I’d share an email response I recently wrote.

The question was about the compatibility between the Reformed doctrine of total depravity and man’s ability to make moral decisions. As the question came to me, it was stated as follows:

[Granted the doctrine of total depravity, in which man is utterly incapable of positively responding to God] , why is he able to make moral decisions in almost every or any other area in life without God’s intervention?

Why without any part of the divine initiative and monergistic regeneration, man can and for the most part make as many moral decisions needed to live a decent life in the best sense of the word? Is it that only in the case where Jesus Christ and his way of life are concerned that is man helpless, powerless, and clueless to the point that only a direct interference by the Holy Spirit can awakened him to the truth…?

And so, here’s my response….

Thank you for your question. I believe it’s helpful in that is drives us to making some important theological distinctions that clarify that is meant by the Reformed doctrine of total depravity or total inability.

The Reformed position does not deny that fallen and unregenerate people do in fact make everyday moral decisions. But first a word of clarification. I’m not quite sure what you mean by “moral decisions.” In one sense, we always make moral decisions.” Bad moral decisions are still decisions, and thus, even choosing to rebel against God and embracing sin is a moral decision. So, in this first sense, the Reformed position doesn’t deny that obvious point.

But you probably mean “moral decisions” in the sense of “morally good decision.” If this is the way in which you mean “moral decisions” I think it’s important to affirm that the unbeliever’s problem is personal and spiritual. To address this from the second point to the first, it is spiritual in the sense that it is most fundamentally about spiritual things. What this means is further clarified by the first point, the unbeliever’s hostility to God is personal. It is an enmity against God specifically. As Romans 1 teaches, unbelievers “suppress” what they know of God (v. 18). Likewise, in 1:18 Paul writes, “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 foolish hearts were darkened.” Therefore the problem in choosing for the unbelievers is not in general, but instead it is specifically a rejection of the God who created and rules over them. Calvin himself acknowledged that unbelievers made positive contributions to society, love their familiars, communities etc. This is called “civil righteousness.” Reformed theologians have usually defined this under the term common grace, which is the Holy Spirit’s restraining power in the hearts of unbelievers so they are not as bad as they would be if they were consistent with their sinful rebellion against God.

So the great Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof (see his Summary of Christian Doctrine) provides us with two definitions of common grace. First, he defines it as “those general operations of the Holy Spirit whereby He, without renewing the heart, exercises such a moral influence on man that sin is restrained, order is maintained in social life, and civil righteousness is promoted.” Furthermore, he adds, that common grace includes “those general blessings which God imparts to all men without any distinction as He sees fit.”

And so the closer the issue drives an unbeliever to consider God, the more his rebellion will show itself. The further the issue appears to “bring God in the picture” the less that hostility will be made evident.

I hope this helps!

The Point of Contact for Apologetics

I’m tempted to one day writing an article titled “Things no Van Tillain Presuppositionalist Believes.” There are so many misunderstandings about what Van Til taught that even some who think they follow him in his approach get it wrong. Here I noted one prominent non-presuppositionalist make the following statement, “Christians share common ground with unbelievers, who are likewise made in God’s image, which is not erased by the fall.” There I noted the irony of the statement, as if Van Til ever said anything different! Here is a snippet from John M. Frame, a former student of Van Til, and one of his leading interpreters:

Granted that the unbeliever is totally depraved, what is there in him, if anything, that is capable of receiving God’s grace? The Arminian answers, “man’s reason and free will.” Karl Barth answers, “nothing at all.” In Barth’s view, God’s grace creates his own “point of contact.” This position coheres with Barth’s views that the reception of grace has no intellectual content. Grace brings us no “propositional revelation” which the unbeliever by grace comes to understand and trust. It is rather a “bolts out of the blue,” which makes no contact at all with the finking or will of the unbeliever.

Orthodox Calvinists, however, recall that God made man in his image – an image that is marred by sin, but not destroyed. Van Til argues that part of that image is knowledge of God, which, though repressed (Rom. 1), still exists at some level of his thinking. That is the point of contact to which the apologist appeals. He does not appeal merely to the unbelievers reason and will, for his will is bound by sin and his reason the seeks to distorts, not affirm, the truth. We do not ask the unbeliever to evaluate Christianity through his reason, for he seeks to operate his reason autonomously and thus is deep in error from the outset. Rather, says Van Til, we appeal to the knowledge of God which he has (Rom. 1:21) but suppresses.

That suppression, as we have noted, is never complete. The unbeliever would like to snuff out his knowledge of the true God, but he cannot. Indeed, it is this knowledge, however he may distort it, which enables him to go on living in God’s world. Thus, the unbeliever, contrary to his own assumptions, often says things which agree with the truth as the Christian sees it. The affect of sin upon reasoning does not mean that the Christian and the non-Christian disagree over everything, although if both were consistent with their presuppositions that would be the case. Defining the possible extent of that agreement is difficult. The Pharisees acknowledged so much of God’s truth that Jesus actually commended their teaching (Matt. 23:3), while deploring their works (Matt. 23:3). Thus, we may appeal to the unbelievers native knowledge of God, we may find him agreeing with us, at least part of the time… For the question of the point of contact boils down to this: are we accepting and thus addressing the unbelievers distorted worldview, or are we accepting and thus addressing the undistorted revelation which he holds within himself despite his distorted worldview?… Are we so impressed by unbelieving “wisdom” that we seek to gain the approval of unbelieving intellectuals based on their own criteria?… Our job is to rebuke unbelieving criteria, not affirm them. Our appeal is not to those criteria, but to that knowledge of God which the unbeliever has “deep down,” as Van Til liked to say.

-John M. Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God, 82-83, 85

Herman Bavinck on the Imago Dei

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) on the image of God in humanity:

So the whole human being is image and likeness of God, in soul and body, in all human faculties, powers, and gifts. Nothing in humanity is excluded from God’s image; it stretches as far as our humanity does and constitutes our humanness. The human is not the divine self but is nevertheless a finite creaturely impression of the divine. All that is in God-his spiritual essence, his virtues and perfections, his immanent self-distinctions, his self communication and self-revelation in creation – finds its admittedly finite and limited analogy and likeness in humanity. There is a profound truth in the Kabbalah’s idea that God, who is the Infinite in himself, manifests himself in the ten sefiroth, or attributes, and that these together make up the Adam Cadmon [human being]. Among creatures human nature is the supreme and most perfect revelation of God. And it is that [revelation] not just in terms of its pneumatic side, but equally in terms of its somatic side; it is that precisely as human, that is, as psychic, nature. In the teaching of Scripture God and the world, spirit and matter, are not opposites. There is nothing despicable or sinful in matter. The visible world is as much as beautiful and lush revelation of God as the spiritual. He displays his virtues as much in the former as in the latter.

All creatures are embodiments of divine thoughts, and all of them display the footsteps or vestiges of God. But all these vestiges, distributed side by side in the spiritual as well as the material world, are recapitulated in man and so organically connected and highly enhanced that they clearly constituted the image and likeness of God. The whole world raises itself upward, culminates and completes itself, and achieves its unity, its goal, and its crown in humanity. In order to be in the image of God, therefore, man had to be a recapitulation of the whole nature. The Jews used to say that God had collected the dust for the human body from all the lands of the earth. Though the image is strange, a true and beautiful thought is expressed in it. As spirit, man is akin to the angels and soars to the invisible world; but he is at the same time a citizen of the visible world and connected with all physical creatures. There is not a single element in the human body that does not also occur in nature around him. Thus man forms a unity of the material and spiritual world, a mirror of a universe, a connecting link, compendium, the epitome of all of nature, a microcosm, and, precisely on that account, also the image and likeness of God, his son and heir, a micro-divine-being (mikrotheos). He is the prophet who explains God and proclaims his excellencies; he is the priest who consecrates himself with all that is created to God as a holy offering; he is the king who guides and governs all things in justice and rectitude. And in all this he points to the One who in a still higher and richer sense is the revelation and image of God. To him who is the only begotten of the Father, and the firstborn of all creatures. Adam, the son of God, was a type of Christ.”

-Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2., 562.

Emotion, Reason, and Redemption

Again, Frame clearly (and rightly, to my mind) rejects the notion that one human capacity is greater in either creation or redemption.

Redemption doesn’t make us more emotional (as some charismatics might suppose) or less so (as many Reformed would prefer), anymore than it makes us more or less intellectual. What redemption does to the intellect is to consecrate that intellect to God, whether the I.Q. is high or low. Similarly, the important thing is not whether you are highly emotional or not; the important thing is that whatever emotional capacities you have should be placed in God’s hands to be used according to His purposes.

-John M. Frame, Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 336.

Our Task as Image-Bearing, God-Loving, Christ-Shaped, Spirit-Filled Christians

“Our task as image-bearing, God-loving, Christ-shaped, Spirit-filled Christians, following Christ and shaping our world, is to announce redemption to a world that has discovered its fallenness, to announce healing to a world that has discovered its brokenness, to proclaim love and trust to a world that knows only exploitation, fear and suspicion…The gospel of Jesus points us and indeed urges us to be at the leading edge of the whole culture, articulating in story and music and art and philosophy and education and poetry and politics and theology and even–heaven help us–Biblical studies, a worldview that will mount the historically-rooted Christian challenge to both modernity and postmodernity, leading the way…with joy and humor and gentleness and good judgment and true wisdom.”

-N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is

Does the Doctrine of Biblical Inspiration Suppress the Importance of Scripture’s Human Authors?

Here is the single greatest explanation of the divine-human partnership in the creation of Holy Scripture I’ve ever read. Here Scott Swain, in Trinity, Revelation, and Reading, clears away misunderstandings of biblical inspiration. The book is a tad bit pricey, but analyses as good as this make it worth every penny. I quote at length:


Some worry that such an emphasis on the Spirit’s power in the production of Holy Scripture overrides or ignores it’s human authorship. The more the Spirit’s responsibility for this book is stressed, the more the intelligence, freedom, and personal activity of the Bibles human authors are suppressed – or so it is argued.

But this worry is unfounded, because the One who is “the Spirit of the Father and the Son” is also “the Lord and Giver of Life” (the Nicene Creed). The presence and operation of the Spirit’s sovereign lordship in the production of Holy Scripture does not lead to the suppression or overruling of God’s human emissaries in their exercise of authorial rationality and freedom. Rather, his sovereign lordship leads to their enlightening and sanctified enablement. The Spirit who created the human mind and personality does not destroy the human mind and personality when he summons them to his service. Far from it. The Spirit sets that mind and personality free from its blindness and slavery to sin so that it may become a truly free, thoughtful, and self-conscious witness to all that God is for us in Christ. He bears his lively witness and therefore prophets and apostles also bear their lively witness (Jn. 15.26-27). The Spirit creates a divine-and-human fellowship – a common possession and partnership – in communicating the truth of the gospel (Jn. 16.13-15).

Read the rest of this entry

A Biblical View of Self-Image

I’ve been working through Sinclair Ferguson’s fine piece in Christian Spirituality: Five Views on Sanctification. In the span of a few short pages Ferguson draws together the best of the Reformed theological traditions views on holiness and the Christian life. Quotable material abounds in these few pages, and I plan on posting some of the best of what he has to say in days to come. In the meantime reflect on the following words:

How we view ourselves has an immense impact on the style of our sanctification. Here, the Reformed perspective prevents us from falling into a common trap in discussions of self – image: reductionism and oversimplification, which invariably result either in what is often disparagingly referred to as worm theology (” would he devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?”), Or alternatively in a little more to send in ego – trip (” God loves me the way I am, period.”).

The truth of the matter is that now as a Christian I must see myself from two perspectives and say two contrasting things about my life: in myself there dwells no good thing on my own creation or nature (Rom. 7:18); and in Christ I have been cleansed, justified and sanctified so that in me glorification has begun (1 Cor. 6:11). Even in final glory, presumably, part of the cause of our praise of Christ will be that we are capable of distinguishing between what we have become because of Christ and what we would have become of ourselves. ( The Lamb is forever worthy of praise not only because of his eternal divine person, but because he shed his blood to redeemed humanity [Rev.5:9].)

The New Testament will not allow us to reduce these two polarities to a common denominator. We must say both: God has given me a new identity with a glorious destiny; in myself I am utterly defiled and deserve only death. I belong to a time when the present evil age in the future glory overlap. I must therefore see myself from two perspectives. Miss this and we miss the biblical doctrine of sanctification…

Richard L. Pratt Lectures on “Designed for Dignity”

Dr. Richard L. Pratt was a leading influence upon my thought during seminary, especially his teaching on the image of God, and the Kingdom of God. So, I can truthfully say that this blog probably wouldn’t exist apart from his influence. All that to say, you’ll probably want to listen to these:

God’s design for human dignity:

Lecture 1 (Q & A)
Lecture 2 (Q & A)
Lecture 3 (Q & A)
Lecture 4 (Q & A)
Lecture 5 (Q & A)

For Dr. Pratt’s book on the same subject, see: