The Nature of Man's Freedom


[A response to an email]  

With regard to your questions about the doctrine of “total depravity,” perhaps the reason that this subject is confusing to you, and to many others, is that there is some truth in it, mixed with some very wrong conclusions or deductions. It is true that in man’s fallen condition he is in a completely depraved and powerless state. Of himself, and by himself, he can do absolutely nothing to help himself, and were it not for the grace of God that extends from heaven like an “Arm of the Lord” to save him, there would be no hope for him. As I have mentioned before, in his fallen, natural condition, man is “dead in sin and transgression”, a “child of wrath,” “enmity with God,” “born blind,” “there is not one that does good, no not even one,” etc. God said, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” He ate, and he most certainly did die spiritually, and lost all power to either help himself or to do good of any kind. This much is true; and most are in agreement thus far.

The common errors and great misunderstandings have to do with HOW God helps man, and HOW man receives God’s help. One of the most common ideas (and the one you referred to in your email) is that, since man has lost all power of helping himself or doing good, God must therefore do everything for man with an irresistible power that works completely independently of man, one which man cannot even hinder or withstand. They say that because man is so lost and so powerless, God’s “irresistible grace” works like an invincible force that overpowers man in his state of darkness and death, compels him to follow Christ, and then unstoppably conforms him to the image of God. And in order to explain the fact that the great majority of human beings do NOT experience this “irresistible grace”, they are forced to say that He selects only a few predestined ones, and all others are left without the means of coming out of their fallen condition. These, they say, continue in willful sin until they die, and then are “justly” rewarded with eternal punishment for living in the sin which they had no means of escaping. 

Now, though this is a common idea, it is most certainly NOT the truth, and contradicts hundreds of plain Scriptures, and everything God has revealed about His nature and will towards man.

The truth of this matter, I believe, is both plainly laid down in Scripture, and also plainly felt in the heart of every honest person. And perhaps the primary reason why it is such a confusing subject is because the church has been actively muddying the waters with a multitude of convoluted and contradictory notions that bend the Scriptures to align with whatever “ism” (Calvinism, Arminianism, Dispensationalism, etc.) that men are trying to defend and propagate. So what is it that everybody can feel in their heart? Two self-evident things: 1) They can feel that there is something (Someone) warning them of evil, and calling or drawing them to life, righteousness, goodness and love; or (in the words of Scripture) that Someone is “setting life and death, blessing and cursing, before them;” and saying, “Choose life!”  And 2) they feel that this call or invitation to life and goodness can be ignored, quenched, resisted and refused, by a freedom that we find in ourselves to join our will to what is good, or to join to what is evil.

The Sower sows his seed in every kind of soil, and doesn’t skip the rocky, weedy, and hard places. And this Seed first appears as a light that shows us our “total depravity”, manifesting that our nature is evil, selfish, fallen, proud, and contrary to God. Now, the following distinction is important: Man has NO power or ability to produce a change, or to produce life, righteousness, or goodness. Man has NO power in himself to leave his fallen condition. BUT, man has total freedom to join his heart and his will (in love and submission) to the power that comes from God, or to the power that comes from Satan. Again I say, man is NOT the source of this power, life, or righteousness. He can no more produce it than he can create the moon. But when the power of God appears, stirs, and reveals a measure of truth in him, then man is entirely free to “love His appearing,” (2 Tim 4:8) love the light, agree with what is made manifest, and so RECEIVE power to be made a new creation.

This is similar to what John describes in the first chapter of his gospel. There is a living Word that was with God in the beginning, and that Word was God. This Word created everything. In Him was LIFE, and “the LIFE was the LIGHT of men.” (John 1:4) Now this Light was not John the Baptist, but rather the Life of the Word, which shines in some measure to “enlighten every man coming into the world,” (John 1:9) in the times and seasons of God’s visitation. When this light shines in man, it inevitably shows us something that we don’t want to see. It shows us that “our deeds are evil” (John 3:21), that we are lifeless, godless, and hopeless in and of ourselves. But when the heart of man is willing to humbly receive this light, and believe its testimony concerning the true state of things, then “as many as receive Him, to them He gives power to become children of God.” That is to say, by receiving His light, they then experience a birth of His life, and the growth of that new life becomes their freedom from total depravity. Now, you can see here in this first chapter of John that Jesus also came to some who John calls “His own”, but many of “His own did not receive Him.” These were not overlooked, or predestined to damnation. It clearly says that Jesus also came to those who did not receive Him. And it was only because they refused His light, that they received no power to become sons of God.

The fact that God’s will and power can be resisted by man should not be a controversial subject in the church, seeing that nearly every page of Scripture declares or demonstrates it, and more especially seeing that our own lives, and the condition of this world is a full proof of it. Nevertheless, there are those who say things like “Who is man to stand in the way of God’s will or power?”, or “How can a human stop the purpose of an omnipotent God?” I’m sure it is true that man cannot put a stop to the overall great, foreknown, and sovereign purpose of God for His creation. But with respect to each individual’s experience and enjoyment of that purpose, you have the entire Bible, the history of mankind, the existence and predominance of sin the world, and your own heart, all screaming (as loud and unanimous witnesses) that this is not only possible, but prevalent.

Man can and does resist the grace, power, and purpose of God, not because man is stronger than God, but because it has pleased God to offer redemption to this fallen world through the gift of His Son. And this Son (as we have discussed) is not presented to man as an unstoppable bolt of lightning, or as a tyrannical conqueror that forces his will upon every object he touches, but rather as a grain of mustard seed, a hidden pearl, a pinch of leaven, a talent or mina, which is experienced to be “a stumbling block, and a rock of offense” (1 Pet 2:8) to the proud and confident man of this world. How did Christ come outwardly? Was it in an invincible, undeniable manifestation of power that was impossible to miss, to resist, reject, or crucify? Quite the opposite! There is no doubt that He was God in the flesh, the power of God made manifest, the redeeming, restoring, and transforming power of the almighty God in the Person of Emmanuel. And yet He came in a way that the wise could not see Him, the proud could not hear Him, the busy could easily dismiss Him, the strong could despise Him, and the religious thought they had no need of Him. He was born in a manger, grew up a Nazarene, spoke in parables, often hid Himself from them, offended their man-made doctrines, and afforded them plenty of opportunities to reject His gift. “Does this offend you? Do you also want to go away?” (John 6:67)

How does Christ come inwardly? He comes in precisely the same way. He comes as a babe in a manger, in the hostile environment of the fallen heart of man, where He is persecuted by an inward Herod. He comes meek and gentle, riding on a donkey. He comes as a LIGHT that manifests man’s true condition, exposes all things that are reprovable, convicts the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment, offends our doctrines and traditions, and calls us to come down from our high tree. This inward appearance of Christ is so far from being unstoppable or irresistible, that the Scriptures say we can “insult His Spirit of grace,” “crucify Him again and put Him to open shame,” “trample under foot the blood of His covenant,” “hate His light,” “deny the one who bought us,” “refuse Him who speaks from heaven,” “grieve and quench His Spirit,” “turn away from the one who called us,” etc. And even those who begin in earnest, are warned continually not to “drift away” or “make shipwreck of their faith.”

So, in summary, it is very true that man is totally depraved in his natural condition. But Christ is offered as Light and Life to the fallen sons and daughters of Adam. “Behold, I have given You as a light to the Gentiles” (Isa. 42:6; 49:6). Nobody is free to produce life or righteousness, and yet everybody is free to embrace the “light that shines in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor 4:6) And when, in our fallen and helpless condition, we “are turned from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God,” (Act 26:18) we can “receive with meekness the implanted Word” (Jam 1:21) that is, “the Word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” (Act 20:32)

For more on the doctrine of predestination, see this post.