Arminianism (9) Man: Sick or Dead?

We have already considered the Arminian corruption of the truths of predestination and the atonement. Now we will move on to the Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine of the Canons which deal with the corruption of man, his conversion to God, and the manner of his conversion. Since this head of the Canons covers both the “T” and “I” of TULIP, we will limit ourselves in this article to a discussion of total depravity. Next time, Lord willing, our topic will be irresistible grace.

Unlike the Arminian statements concerning predestination and the atonement, which are clearly heretical, the Arminian article concerning the total depravity of man, as found in the third article of the Remonstrance of 1610, if considered by itself, is a tolerable statement. While it is not distinctive, it does not contain blatant heresy. It reads as follows.

  1. that man does not have saving faith of himself nor by the power of his own free will, since he in the state of apostasy and sin cannot of and through himself think, will or do any good which is truly good (such as is especially saving faith); but that it is necessary that he be regenerated by God, in Christ, through his Holy Spirit, and renewed in understanding, affections or will, and all powers, in order that he may rightly understand, meditate upon, will, and perform that which is truly good, according to the word of Christ, John 13:5, “Without me ye can do nothing.” (Essays in Commemoration of the Synod of Dordt (1618-’19), p. 208)

However, when this article is put into the context of the other Remonstrant articles, obvious contradictions become apparent. Remember, it is the Remonstrants who argued in their first article that man, of himself, has the ability to believe and the ability to fulfill certain conditions in order to be elected. God, according to the Arminians, took into consideration in His election, both the “faith and perseverance in the true faith, as a condition prerequisite for electing” (The Opinions of the Remonstrants, A.7., as found on p. 223 of Essays in Commemoration of the Synod of Dort 1618-’19).

As one reads more of the Opinion of the Remonstrants regarding man’s conversion it becomes apparent that they teach a conversion that is accomplished by a cooperation between God and man. In article C.2. of the Opinion of the Remonstrants we find that the Arminians maintain a “cooperating grace” of God. How does this relate to the truth of total depravity? If it is the case that man’s conversion is accomplished in part by God’s cooperating grace, there still must be some good in man with which God’s grace can cooperate. If man is dead in his sins, there is nothing for that cooperating grace to work with. Therefore, in order for cooperating grace to work, man cannot be completely dead in his sins, is not totally depraved, and is of himself capable of performing spiritual good. While the Arminians claim to teach the total depravity of man, they actually teach a partially depraved man capable of cooperating with God in conversion and fulfilling conditions to salvation.

We can see why this exaltation of man makes sense in the Arminian scheme. In previous articles we have seen how the Arminians have dethroned God as the sovereign of salvation. If God is pulled down, man inevitably is exalted. This is exactly what the Arminians do.

The Reformed position concerning the spiritual condition of man in response to the Arminian corruption is clearly set forth in the Third and Fourth Heads of the Canons. Concerning what man lost at the fall, Article 1 reads,

Man was originally formed after the image of God. His understanding was adorned with a true and saving knowledge of his Creator, and of spiritual things; his heart and will were upright; all his affections pure; and the whole man was holy; but revolting from God by the instigation of the devil, and abusing the freedom of his own will, he forfeited these excellent gifts; and on the contrary entailed on himself blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity and perverseness of judgment, became wicked, rebellious, and obdurate in heart and will, and impure in his affections.

Prof. H. Hoeksema in his commentary on this article makes an important point concerning what man retained at the fall and how what man retained was effected. He writes,

While he retained his intellect, that intellect was no more characterized by a true and blessed knowledge of God in spiritual things. While he retained his will, his will and heart were no more characterized by uprightness. While he retained his emotions and affections, he was no more pure in his affections. (The Voice of Our Fathers, p. 435)

Article 2 speaks of the corruption of man’s nature and hits at the heart of the Arminian error. In this article the heresy of Pelagianism is again condemned. In order for us to better understand the Arminian error, it is useful for us to briefly review Pelagianism. Pelagius (ca. 354-420) was a British monk who combated Augustine’s doctrine of man’s depravity as a result of Adam’s sin. Pelagius taught that man’s nature is inclined to do good. Every child is born into the world good, without sin. “But some people sin. And they sin because of the fact that they pick up from their fellow men bad habits. Sin therefore, in the view of Pelagius, is a habit” (The Five Points of Calvinism, p. 11). Because most in the church at that time were not willing to accept this outrageous a heresy, neither did they want the truth as Augustine had explained it, Semi-pelagianism became the prevailing view. In the Semi-pelagian scheme of things, man is not totally depraved. He is sick. Even though he is sick unto death, he is yet able to accomplish good and he is able by the exercise of his will to accept or reject the “balm of healing grace” offered to him by the “Great Physician” (Five Points of Calvinism, p. 12). Whether or not he is cured depends upon the choice of his own will.

This Semi-pelagian explanation of man’s condition sounds very familiar to what the Arminian is forced to admit about his view of man. The Arminians deny, as Articles 2 and 3 (3rd and 4th Heads) maintain, that man is born with a depraved nature. Man is dead in his sins from the time of his conception. Man can and will do nothing towards his salvation. The Arminian preacher likens natural man to a person floundering in the water about to drown. Along comes God in his rescue boat willing to throw a lifeline to the poor sinner. If only the sinner will take hold of the offered line, he will be saved. However, this is not the picture of man that the Canons paint. The Canons put man in his spiritual casket. Dead men will not and can not do any spiritual good, much less desire to be saved.

Article 4 goes on to further explain the condition of man after the fall. In this article the much abused phrase “glimmerings of natural light” is found. The Arminians taught that by means of this “natural light,” man is able to come to a saving knowledge of God and is able to convert himself to God. By means of this natural light man is capable of performing spiritual good. It is interesting to note that the Christian Reformed Synod of 1924 used this article of the Canons to maintain that natural man is capable of performing civil good. However, both of these possibilities are excluded as one reads the entire article and understands it properly.

What are these “glimmerings of natural light”? Prof. H. Hoeksema gives the following explanation.

As far as the idea and the contents of this light of nature are concerned, we may say, first of all, that it is by virtue of this remnant of natural light that man remains a rational, moral being even after the fall. He is a creature who can still think and will. He remains a man. His natural, human gifts, the light that he had by virtue of the fact that his nature as a creature was a human nature—that light did not remain unaffected by the fall. But it was not lost either: he retained a residue of it. If he did not have that residue, he would not be able to act as a responsible, rational, moral creature in relation to God and man… Man did not become through the fall an irrational beast (V.O.O.F., p. 457).

The second half of Article 4 clearly shows that the glimmerings of natural light which remain in natural man after the fall do not enable him to perform spiritual good as the Arminians maintain. Rather, states the article, man “is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. Nay further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and holds it in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God.”

In Paragraph 4 of the Rejection of Errors another serious aspect of the Arminian error is exposed and rejected. While the Arminians speak out of one side of their mouth about a man who is totally depraved, out of the other side they speak of a man who can yet “hunger and thirst after righteousness and life” and is able to offer the “sacrifice of a contrite and broken spirit, which is pleasing to God.” The question immediately comes to mind, “How can a dead man desire life?” Just as one must be physically alive in order to desire food and drink, so must one be spiritually alive in order to desire righteousness and life. Yet the Arminians are forced to admit the absurdity that a dead man can actually desire to be alive. Paragraph 4 is careful to point out that in order for one to repent and hunger and thirst after righteousness, he must first be regenerated and made alive. This is the Reformed position.

Before we end our look at the Arminian view concerning the depravity of man, we notice one more serious flaw regarding the Arminian conception of sin itself. For this we go back to Paragraph 1 of the Rejection of Errors. Here it is pointed out that the Arminians taught that original sin “in itself” was not enough to condemn the human race. Rather, they taught that original plus actual sin were needed to condemn. This is a serious error. Because the Arminian teaches that original sin is not a sufficient ground for God to condemn man, he really denies original sin, for sin is that which makes man guilty before God and worthy of His just judgment (Heidelberg Catechism, Q & A 10). And if he denies original sin, “he must deny that sin is an any real sense a matter of man’s nature, and must maintain that sin is solely a matter of the sinful act” (V.O.O.F., p. 571). The Arminian then, has a very superficial view of the severity of sin and the corruption of man.

After putting all of the various elements of the Arminian heresy concerning total depravity together, we can see what kind of man they are left with. We find a man capable not only of repentance, but a man who desires righteousness and life of himself. Sure, he may be sickly, but he is still able to cooperate with God in working out his conversion. Further, he is able to fulfill the conditions of faith and perseverance.

Having touched upon various elements of the Reformed position concerning total depravity as we have examined the Arminian position, we now briefly summarize how the Reformed view natural man. Adam sinned, and for this sin God killed Adam. And because Adam sinned as the head of the human race, all men are guilty of Adam’s sin. The punishment for sin is spiritual death. That a man is totally depraved means that he is spiritually dead, and incapable of performing any spiritual good. His nature is depraved. His heart, mind, will, and affections are all given completely over to the service of sin. In every part of his being he chooses evil. He willingly is a slave to sin. Further, he is not willing or able to return to God. He willingly serves the devil, whose image he bears.

This is indeed a very pitiful assessment of man. He is dead and completely unable to perform any spiritual good. But, this is the truth of Scripture as summarized in the Canons, and it is this truth concerning the hopeless condition of man which makes the truth of God’s irresistible grace and man’s conversion all the more wonderful.