What is Reformed Theology? Part 3: A Doctrinal Look

Whenever Christians talk about doctrine, methodology always plays a factor in how we support our understanding of biblical teaching.  It has been common for Christians to pull out verses from a part of Scripture, to abstract the verses from their context by applying the verses universally without considering the flow of the argument in which the verses preside, and to create a logical system of doctrine based on these propositions.  I hope to avoid this approach as I believe the Reformers did.

Our methodology needs to be a redemptive historical approach, or as many call it today, a Biblical Theology approach.  Biblical Theology is the method that seeks to allow Scripture to dictate the organization of theology and the concerns we raise by following the redemptive and historic progression of the unified biblical story centered on Christ.  This methodology is primary whenever we study doctrine because it ensures that when we quote verses in an attempt to understand a specific biblical teaching, we are less likely to pull verses out of context to fit our logical system.  So, while we are engaging in systematic theology here (that is, we are asking the bible a question about a certain topic), I want to be careful to first ensure that I am reading the bible in such a way that I submit to Scripture’s own development and concern.

The Effects of Sin on Mankind:

The bible teaches that when Adam disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden, sin and death entered the world.  As the representative head of mankind, Adam brought corruption and guilt upon mankind.  Every person, save Jesus, has been born into the state of sin such that all mankind shares a sin nature and therefore guilt before God deserving his judgment.  Along with the whole Old Testament, Paul makes this point clear in Romans 5.12-21, which can be summarized by verse 12:

Romans 5:12 12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned-

We learn more about what this means from some other passages.  First, we learn that we are spiritually dead, that is, we can do nothing spiritual, nothing that God delights in, nothing that brings us into good favor with God, and nothing that even seeks God.  Second, we learn that we are under God’s judgment.

Ephesians 2:1-3 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins  2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience-  3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

Here, Paul explains that we are spiritually dead, and yet we are able to walk around and make decisions every day, but that these decisions always are towards evil, following the devil, acting like a child of disobedience, and living by the passions of the flesh (the flesh being the sinful corrupted nature that always rebels against God and seeks pleasure in idols rather than in God).  Paul’s final statement, ‘[you] were by nature children of wrath,’ describes humans before regeneration as those who are under the wrath of God.  So far, I doubt any Christian has any concern with what I have just pointed out.  Jesus’ words are a bit more shocking in John 8.34:

John 8:34 34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.

Jesus uses a metaphor to explain the effects of sin on us.  If we commit a sin, this indicates that we are enslaved by sin, only able to sin because we must obey our master.  We are not free to do good in our sinful flesh.  We are constrained/enslaved by sin.  We do not have the power in us to, at any point, choose good or evil, faith or unbelief.  We can however, do what we want, and what we want is evil.  Paul says this in another way in Romans 8.7-8:

Romans 8:7-8 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.  8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

Paul consistently contrasts the flesh (again, the sinful corrupted nature that rebels against God and seeks pleasure in idols rather than God) with the Spirit.  Every person is either living according to the desires of the flesh or by the Spirit.  The Spirit always drives us to love and serve God while the flesh drives us to live self-righteously attempting to justify ourselves through our works.  Paul is very clear in this passage that those who live in the flesh, that is, those who have not been born again and do not have the Spirit, never submit to God and cannot ever please God.

Let me flush out the implications of these verses.  People who hold to Reformed Theology believe that the bible teaches that before a person is born again, they are not able to love, choose, commit themselves to, seek, or obey God.  This is the doctrine of Total Inability.  Paul says this also in Romans 3.10-12:

Romans 3:10-12 “None is righteous, no, not one;  11 no one understands; no one seeks for God.  12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

And Jesus says in John 6.44:

John 6:44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.

We will talk about John 6.44 more later, but notice that these verses argue that no one seeks God, not even one, and that no one is able to repent and believe in Christ to come to God unless God draws them.  This might seem untrue to many at first glance because it appears that many people do seek God.  We must interpret our experience by Scripture, and so these verses teach us that people who seem to seek God are either not really seeking God but some sort of religious experience apart from submission to God or they are seeking God because the Spirit of God is working in their life to draw them to God.  The point is, in our flesh, no one chooses, understands, seeks, loves, or submits to God.

The second implication of these verses is that sin has affected us pervasively.  The doctrine of Pervasive Depravity says that sin has not just affected our minds (‘no one understands’), bodies, and desires, but also the will.  The will is a tricky concept.  Many think of the will as some independent faculty that can at any time assert freedom to choose between options.  However, the bible teaches otherwise.  The bible clearly teaches that we are slaves to sin such that we can only choose sin all the time.  This does not mean that non-believers can never do good, but that even when they do good, they do so not out of love for God or as a response to grace, but for some evil motive.  The will is nothing more than our always doing what we think is best, but we never think it best to submit to God in the flesh.  Thus, we are free to do what we want, but what we want is never to love and honor God, apart from the new birth.  We are pervasively corrupted.

Martin Luther taught these doctrines because he believed the Roman Catholic Church had lost sight of the effects of sin.  Catholics had come to have an elevated sense of man’s ability to choose God and to lovingly serve him, and thus they developed a theory of justification that required sinful people to cooperate with God rather than being totally dependent upon God.  Luther wrote in The Bondage of the Will:

[A] man without the Spirit of God does not do evil against his will, under pressure, as though he were taken by the scruff of his neck and dragged into it, like a thief…being dragged off against his will to punishment; but he does it spontaneously and voluntarily.  And this willingness of volition is something which he cannot in his own strength eliminate, restrain or alter.  He goes on willing and desiring to do evil; and if external pressure forces him to act otherwise, nevertheless his will within remains averse to so doing and chafes under such constraint and opposition.

Now, if you understand what I have been saying, then you will see that if this is the case, there is no hope for mankind.  Apart from God’s gracious work in us on his own initiative, we are stuck in hatred for God, unable to repent and trust in him.  We cannot choose to follow God one day for even our will is bent and corrupted to choose rebellion all the time.

Now, early on in the church, a British monk named Pelagius disagreed with the Church’s teaching on this doctrine, and he argued that Adam did in fact sin, but that this had no impact on us other than serving as a bad example to follow.  He argued that we do not inherit a sinful corrupt nature from Adam’s transgression and we definitely do not share in his guilt.  The great theologian Augustine of Hippo refuted this teaching and argued convincingly from Scripture that fallen man is “not able not to sin.”  The Church condemned Pelagius’ teaching, but it continued to be held throughout the history of the Church.

Today, many people unknowingly believe this false teaching.  Those who argue that ‘God cannot hold me responsible for my sin if I can only sin,’ unknowingly hold to the same theology Pelagius did.  To argue that we can only be held guilty before God if we have the ability to do good and to choose and love God is to forget that God owes salvation to no one.  Salvation is a merciful work of God.  God is not required by justice to show mercy and forgive.  He is required by his holy character which is just to punish sin.  Therefore, he is completely just in punishing sinners and never working to save them.  We are responsible for sin because we do what we want to do, which is rebel against God.

Today, many who disagree with Reformed Theology do not agree with Pelagius’ exact theology, but they do essentially argue that mankind was not as bad off as the Reformers had made it sound.  While agreeing with Total Inability and Pervasive Depravity, they have invented a new solution to the problem that ensures humans the ability to transcend the flesh and to choose God.  Many have called this Prevenient Grace.  They argue that it is true that mankind cannot choose God because of sin, but that God has graciously given each individual person the ability to transcend their sinful corruption.  Essentially, this position holds to Pelagius’ view of human freedom (we are not in bondage so that we cannot choose God) with the qualifier that this ability is a gift of God’s grace, but the position rejects Pelagius’ unbiblical view that we do not have a sinful nature.

While Prevenient Grace is a nice slide of hand, there is no solid biblical support for this view.  This doctrine is invented by philosophical necessity to complete a logical system imposed on the biblical text.  I do not have space to treat the defenses offered for the false doctrine of Prevenient Grace, but if anyone would like to lend support to it in a comment, I would be happy to interact on that issue.

So, to summarize, Reformed Theology teaches that each individual is enslaved to sin, unable to choose, trust, or love God.  Those in the flesh are under God’s wrath, dead in their trespasses, and pervasively corrupted by sin.  I will post again soon with some better news.

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4 thoughts on “What is Reformed Theology? Part 3: A Doctrinal Look

  1. Pingback: What is Reformed Theology? Part 7 – A Doctrinal Look « Derek Radney's Blog

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