The Depravity of Fallen Man (Part 1)

The evangelist Paul Washer has said that the Christian “knows that the more darkly man is painted, the brighter the Morning Star, Christ, appears” (The Gospel Call and True Conversion, 170). The more we understand the fate we have been rescued from, the greater our appreciation will be for what God has done for us through Christ. There are at least three views on the state of fallen man before salvation: Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, and Augustinianism. Semi-Pelagianism is represented today by Arminianism and Roman Catholicism (though they would fiercely deny this charge) and Augustinianism is represented by Calvinism.

Pelagianism says that Adam’s sin only affected him so each of us is born into the world as Adam was: morally neutral and without any inclination toward sin. Pelagius believed we could merit salvation for ourselves without God’s grace so the cross of Christ was not absolutely necessary for our salvation. There are not many Pelagians around today and this false belief was condemned as a heresy at the council of Carthage in 411.

Semi-Pelagianism disagrees with Pelagius concerning the effects of Adam’s sin and states that God’s grace is necessary for salvation. But semi-Pelagians do not believe God’s grace is sufficient for our salvation – Christ only made salvation possible for everybody on the cross and we must do something to earn salvation. Man’s good works or free will cooperate with God’s grace to achieve salvation in semi-Pelagianism. The Church of Christ is one group today that is unashamedly semi-Pelagian. Roman Catholicism is semi-Pelagian because they believe we can merit eternal salvation through good works though no one can merit the initial grace of sanctification which they believe comes through baptismal regeneration. The Reformation was never about whether God’s grace is necessary for salvation, but whether it is sufficient. That’s why Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, and Solus Christus were rallying cries during that time. Semi-Pelagianism was condemned as heresy at the Second Council of Orange in 529.

Augustinianism, in contrast to the other two, says that not only is God’s grace absolutely necessary for salvation, but it is sufficient to secure for the elect both the accomplishment and application of salvation. They say with Jonah, “Salvation belongs to the LORD!” (Jonah 2:9). Reformed theology, which is the natural development of Augustine’s thought, says that Adam’s sin and guilt has been imputed to the entire human race and we are born with sinful desires and inclinations under the wrath of God. We are unable to believe the gospel message until we have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit during the proclamation of the gospel. The relationship between regeneration and faith is like the relationship between a baby being born and that child breathing. Faith is the natural response of every born again child of God just as breathing is natural and automatic for everyone who is alive. Augustinianism is monergistic in contrast to semi-Pelagianism which is synergistic in which man and God work together to achieve salvation. In Augustinianism, God alone accomplishes salvation and sovereignly applies it through the gospel message. Fallen man is enslaved to sin and must be liberated from it by the Holy Spirit to be able to believe. Two key texts related to Augustinianism are Romans 8:7-9 and Ephesians 2:1-6 which depict fallen man as being hostile to God and dead in sin apart from the indwelling Spirit. Martin Luther’s book The Bondage of the Will is a classic formulation of Augustinian thought and demonstrates that the Reformation was about a lot more than just justification.

The reason why Pelagius came to his position that man is morally neutral and able to merit salvation is that he believed God would never command us to do something we were unable to accomplish. In his mind, that would be unjust and cruel. What lawgiver gives laws that are impossible to keep? Jesus says in Matthew 5:48, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Leviticus 19:2 says the same thing, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” Mormons use this same logic today against justification by faith alone. Wesleyan perfectionists say roughly the same thing but with regard to man after justification who they believe can live in sinless perfection.

The problem with this argument is that it denies God’s sovereignty to decree whatever he wishes. They do not realize that our fallen state does not change God’s righteous character. Because God is perfectly righteous and holy, he demands of us the same thing. Habakkuk 1:13 says God is “of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong.” Our inability to not sin does not negate our responsibility and guilt toward God as his creatures. Pelagius, Roman Catholics, and Arminians wrongly assume that responsibility implies ability and construct a theology based around libertarian free will that is not affected by the fall. Hyper-Calvinists do the same thing except in the opposite direction. They argue that because fallen man cannot obey God or believe the gospel, he is not responsible for his sins or unbelief. What these groups fail to realize is that God supplies the ability for his people to believe during the preaching of the gospel and gives them the Holy Spirit to cause them to follow him and not turn away from him (Deut 30:6; Jer 31:31-34; 32:39-40; Eze 36:26-27; John 6:44; 8:36; Acts 16:14; 1 Cor 12:3; Phil 1:29; 2 Thess 2:13-14; Jam 1:18; 1 Pet 1:3, 23; 2 Pet 1:3; 1 John 5:1). God supplies what he demands. We work because God works in us (Phil 2:13). For those who do not believe, God holds them responsible for their sin on the basis of the evil intentions of their heart. They have no desire to please or honor God and are rebels against him (Rom 3:10-19). They are willing slaves to sin (John 8:34). The resurrecting power of the Holy Spirit is their only hope.

In part two, I will marshal biblical evidence for the Augustinian position regarding fallen man’s natural state.


One thought on “The Depravity of Fallen Man (Part 1)

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