The nature of the problem dictates whether or not there can even be a solution, and if so, what that solution might be. Among evangelical Christians, the nature of the “problem” that salvation solves can be described in two basic ways. Either man is sick in his sin, needing to take the medicine, or he is dead in his sin, needed to be resurrected from the dead.
Our purpose here is to examine which of these two options is the Bible’s doctrine on this subject.
“And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others” (Eph. 2:1–3).
Summary of the Text:
Now the Scriptures expressly describe the unregenerate condition as being one of death. This does not mean that unbelievers are dead in every possible respect—but with regard to spiritual things, they certainly are in a condition of death. For example, sinners can be physically alive while spiritually dead.
We walked in accordance with the pattern of the world. The spirit at work in the children of disobedience worked in our conversation (that is, in our manner of living). So clearly we were moving about—all while dead in our trespasses and sins.
This is a passage that clearly outlines our triadic foes—the world, the flesh, and the devil. Our condition of death was overseen by three grave keepers. Our imprisonment was effected by three jailers. Our slavery was made burdensome by three masters. We walked in accordance with the pattern of the world. The course of the world was controlled by the prince of the power of the air. And so it was that we fulfilled the lusts of the flesh and of the mind.
Remember, as we have already considered, because all men are free agents they are free to do as they please. But because they are sinners, what they please to do is sin. They cannot please to choose contrary to their nature, because if they could, it wouldn’t be their nature.
“For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: All these evil things come from within, and defile the man” (Mark 7:21–23).
The source of all the evil things we do is the unflattering fact of the evil creatures that we are.
As sentient creatures, men are free to do as they please. As sinners, men are not free to do right. If a man could repent his sins and believe in Christ with his old heart, then this would be proof positive that he didn’t really need a new heart. He could do all that God requires of us (repent and believe) with his old heart. Apparently, on this view, what the old heart needed was just a little encouragement.
Another picture that excludes “free will” with regard to salvation is the picture of slavery. Dead men do not walk out of the grave, and slaves do not walk away from their masters.
“For when ye were the servants [douloi, slaves] of sin, ye were free from righteousness.” (Romans 6:20).
This is a different image, but one that also communicates a sense of utter inability to break free from sin. Dead men can’t reach life. Slaves cannot reach liberty. Chains are chains.
No Autonomous Seekers:
Now at the same time, we all know that people do not become Christians unless they seek the Lord. The debate between Christians on this point therefore is not over whether we need to seek the Lord, or over whether some do seek the Lord. The debate is over why we seek the Lord, if and when we do. Men, left to themselves, relinquished to their own devices, will not seek after God. And this is what the Bible explicitly and expressly teaches.
“As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10–12).
How many are unrighteous? All. How many seek a way out of their unrighteousness? None.
An Important Qualification:
This doctrine I am setting before you is sometimes called the doctrine of total depravity. This is a poor name for it because it makes people think you are maintaining a doctrine of absolute depravity. But we are not saying that unbelievers are the orcs, and we are the elves. It is not like that. We are saying that unbelievers are, apart from a gift of grace, on their way to Hell. We are not maintaining that they have already arrived there. They are not orcs; they are becoming orcs. They are not as bad as they could possibly be . . . yet. They are not orcs yet.
We are saying that because of Adam’s sin, and our complicity in it, our fall into helplessness was total. There is a total inability to save ourselves, to prepare ourselves for salvation, or to request salvation. The process of what we are becoming (and we are becoming utterly depraved) is a process that cannot be slowed down, halted, or reversed by us.
But there is one other qualification. An unregenerate person can love the Lord, but only by radically misunderstanding and misconstruing Him. This is in effect to make an idol and then attaching the name of the true God to it. And an unregenerate person can understand the Lord in His holiness, but this results in a simple recoil away from Him. We can love Him only through a lie, and we can know Him only in hate. The only way a sinner can understand who God is, and also love Him, is if the Spirit of God has granted him a new heart.
This basic point is seen in the Bible’s description of the minds of unbelievers. They are seen as hostile to God (that is, to God as He actually is).
“Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:7–8; cf. 1 Cor. 2:14).
Who Then Can Be Saved?
The problem with all this is that it leaves us without any hope of salvation, right? No, it leaves us without hope of salvation from man. What is impossible for men is possible for God. It leaves us without any hope of salvation from within. If we are to be saved, it must be from outside. It must be from outside our hearts, outside our family, outside our tribe, outside our church, outside our world, and outside heaven and earth. We must be saved from outside.
And this is what we are offered in the gospel of grace.
“No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:44).
The drawing is from the Father. It is from outside.
“And he said, Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father” (John 6:65).
The gift is from the Father. The gift comes from outside.
If the Father does not do the drawing, if the Father does not give it, a man cannot come. Another good translation for the word for draw (elkuo) is drag or haul. “How did you come to Christ?” “Oh, I was hauled.”
So does this mean that no one ever comes? No—it means that everyone who comes (and remember that the entire world will eventually come) has been hauled in by God.
“All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out” (John 6:37).
In other words, the Father doesn’t try to haul us in, the Father hauls us in.
What man cannot do with any success, God can do with no failure. And what is that? The jubilee of all the slaves. The resurrection of the dead. As the graveyard empties, Heaven fills up.As the graveyard empties, Heaven fills up