It’s been forever since I’ve posted something so I thought I’d share an email response I recently thought.
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!
Our concept of theology as application will help us form a better view of theological progress. Theology progresses as it learns to apply God’s word to each situation it encounters, and we have seen evidence of that throughout church history. The great strides in theological understanding come about when the church creatively and faithfully responds to difficult situations on the basis of Scripture.
The Reformed faith is especially well-equipped to make theological progress. In the Reformed faith, the concept of application is not a threat to sola scriptura, because Calvinists believe in a comprehensive revelation of God in Scripture, the world, and the self. Everything reveals him, for everything is under his control, authority, presence. Nor ought Calvinists to be burdened with any demand for absolute precision or objectivity. The Reformed faith has a clear view of the Creator-creature distinction; only God has perfectly precise and perfectly objective knowledge (though even for him, such knowledge is not devoid of subjectivity)…
Reformed theology has also made exceptional progress in the more common sense of learning new things from Scripture. These discoveries too, however, our applications or contextualizations, answers to current questions. Lutheran theology has not changed very much since the seventeenth century, nor has Arminian theology. But Calvinism has developed new understandings of the covenants, of redemptive history, of biblical inerrancy, of apologetics, of theological encyclopedia, and of the relationships of Christianity to politics, economics, education, the arts, literature, history, science, and law. That progress has come about because belief in the sovereignty of God sets the Calvinist free to explore the fullness of God’s revelation in Scripture and creation.
-John M. Frame, Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 307-308
From the blog of the Gospel Coalition:
We’re tempted to take the doctrine of the Trinity for granted. But there is scarcely any belief unaffected when we get the Trinity wrong.
So argue Don Carson, John Piper, and Tim Keller in this new video discussion recorded at a recent meeting of The Gospel Coalition’s Council. Pull the thread of the Trinity and the universe unravels. Without the Trinity, grace and glory disappear. So does church unity. And we lose a powerful opportunity to share with unbelievers how the Trinity distinguishes the gospel as the source of love for the world.
Stay tuned to hear Piper’s practical application along with Keller’s reflections on the social Trinity and egalitarian relationships.
In Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, John Frame gives his readers what is, to my mind, the best and “personalist” understanding of theology and it’s goal:
Theology, then, must be a secondary description, a reinterpretation and reproclamation of Scripture, both of its propositional and of its non-propositional content. Why do we need such a reinterpretation? To meet human needs… The job of theology is to teach people the truth of God…theology is justified by the help it brings to people, by its success in helping people to use the truth.
If theology is a purely “objective” discipline where the scientist determines “the truth as it really is” apart from any human need, then he cannot help but be in competition with Scripture. He will be seeking a better formulation than Scripture itself contains or at least a better “order.”
“Objectivism” continues to be a danger in orthodox Christian circles. It is also easy for us to imagine that we have a higher task than merely that of helping people… Our theologies are not even the best formulation of truth-for-people for all times and places; Scripture is that. Our theologies are merely attempts to help people, generally in specific times and places, to use Scripture better.
I would suggest that we define theology as “the application of the Word of God by persons to all areas of life.”
Despite its focus on human need, this definition does a full justice to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. Sola scriptura does not require that human needs be ignored in theology, only that Scripture have the final say about the answers to those needs (and about the propriety of the questions presented).
-John M. Frame, Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 79-81.
For those interested, Dr. James Anderson has posted John Frame’s brief article ‘How to Write a Theological Paper‘ (an appendix in Frame’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God).
All interested in crafting clear and persuasive biblical and theological papers should read this (and probably more than once!)
In his article titled “Introduction to the Reformed Faith,” John Frame helpfully delineates the core beliefs of Evangelical theology:
What are the main beliefs of evangelical theology? An evangelical, in my definition, is one who professes historic Protestant theology. That includes the following beliefs:
(1) God is a person, infinitely wise, just, good, true and powerful, the ultimate reality, exclusively deserving religious worship and unquestioning obedience, who made the world out of nothing.
(2) Man, made in the image of God, willfully disobeyed God’s command, and thereby became worthy of death. From that time on, all human beings save Jesus Christ have been guilty of sin before God.
(3) Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, became man. He was (literally, really) born of a virgin. He worked miracles. He fulfilled prophecy. He suffered and died for our sin, bearing its guilt and penalty. He was raised physically from the dead. He will come again (literally, physically) to gather his people and to judge the world.
And the hits keep on coming from Swain in Trinity, Revelation, and Reading:
Because of biblical interpretation is an act of covenant mutuality, a living in engagement with the living God through his living in Christ, biblical interpretation is always personal. As interpreters, we are always making decisions either for or against the truth, promises, and commands of a given text. There is no neutrality here. We are either in the process of further embracing Scripture’s truth, promises, and commands or we are in the process of distancing ourselves from them. We are either bringing ourselves into further conformity to God’s word or we are slowly drifting away from that which we have read and heard (cf. Heb. 2.1-4).The timing of biblical application therefore is always “Today” (see Heb. 3.7-4.13).
– Scott R. Swain, Trinity, Revelation, and Reading, 134.
John Piper on theological controversy:
Can controversial teachings nurture Christ likeness? Before you answer this question, ask another one: are there any significant biblical teachings that have not been controversial? I cannot think of even one, let alone the number we all need for the daily nurture of faith. If this is true, then we have no choice but to seek our food in the markets of controversy. We need not stay there. We can go home and feast if the day has been well spent. But we must buy there. As much as we would like, we do not have the luxury of living in a world where the most nourishing truths are unopposed. If we think we can suspend judgment on all that is controversial and feeding our souls only on what is not, we are living a dreamworld. There is nothing left. The reason any of us thinks we can stand alone on truths that are noncontroversial is because we do not know our history or the diversity of the professing church. Besides that, would we really want to give to the devil the right to determine our spiritual menu by refusing to eat any teaching over which he can cause controversy?
-John Piper, The Pleasures of God, 121
There is also an audio format of the book available.
Easter is about power. But it’s not about the kind of power this world is used to. It’s power demonstrated in weakness, vulnerability, and brokenness. Jesus revealed that his kingdom is not of this world (Jn. 18:36). That’s an important, but mostly misunderstood passage. Jesus wasn’t claiming that the kingdom of God is spiritual as opposed to earthly. The very goal of the kingdom of God in Christ is to transform creation so God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven! Jesus was saying that the governing principles and the ultimate source of his kingdom are at odds with those of this present fallen world. Jesus didn’t simply fight the great battle against sin, suffering, and Satan for us, he lost the battle for us too.
The Problem. By and large, the Jewish people were ready for a king, a mighty, righteous king, who would overthrow the Romans, deliver the people of Israel, renew God’s covenant with his people, and usher in a period of blessing and prosperity. This is, after all, what Moses spoke of as happening after the time of exile.
The problem is that Jesus didn’t look very much like a king. He didn’t crush the Romans; they crushed him. He didn’t take up arms. In fact, he instructed his disciples to “turn the other cheek” for the sake of the Kingdom (cf. Matt. 5:39). When the people seemed so in love with Jesus’ message (as they understood it) that they were going to make him King by force (Jn. 6:15), he avoided the crowd and slipped away to the mountain side.
This isn’t the way a king acts. And in time people were starting to get suspicious of whether Jesus was really the right horse to back against the Empire of Rome.
Finally, when Jesus was crucified and buried, that made it about as obvious as possible that he was not the Lord’s annointed, the Messiah.