Two Views on the Depravity of Man
Our views of election, predestination, and the sovereignty of God in salvation in many ways develop from our beliefs of the depravity of man. What we believe about the true nature of unsaved man ends up shaping much of our other views in soteriology. Even our notions regarding the love and justice of God in election hinge on what we believe an unconverted person is capable (or not capable) of doing. Man’s depravity is all too often dismissed or left for last when, in fact, it ought to be the starting point in the discussion.
The Bible has much to say on the nature of man that in many ways organizes the debate into two groups. Views on effectual or synergistic grace, limited, or unlimited atonement; and conditional or unconditional election naturally develop. Understanding the biblical view of the natural man’s spiritual capabilities goes a long way to clearly drawing the lines of the debate.
We could divide the debate into two camps: what we might call the Augustinian view of man’s depravity and the non-Augustinian view of man’s depravity. The purpose of this article is not to evaluate the views but to describe each of them and the views on God’s sovereignty in salvation that necessarily emerge from them.
The Augustinian View
The Augustinian view of depravity states that man through the fall has lost the ability to see the beauty of Christ and thus choose it. It is not that he has lost his free will in the sense of the ability to make moral choices. His free will is very much intact. He continues to make choices all the time. However, being darkened, blind, and dead to the things of God, he will not choose Christ because his darkened heart hates the light. “And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” (John 3:19-20, NKJV).
His free will will not choose Christ because his corrupted nature no longer has a taste for Christ. It is like a man whose perverse appetites have created in him an appetite only for chewing tobacco, and he hates sirloin steak. The point is not about his free will. He is completely free to choose what to chew. But his corruption has put him off to what he should choose and caused him habitually to choose what is evil.
Thus, the Augustinian view of depravity promotes the following:
1. God must regenerate a man before he can respond correctly. God must awaken him to the light of Christ and give him an appetite for Christ. As a result of this act of God, the man freely chooses Christ as His Lord and Savior. Thus, in this scheme, salvation is monergistic. God must convert the heart and regenerate it; man’s repentance and faith follow.
2. Consequently, grace is effectual—it is not merely offered. It achieves its purposes without fail.
3. From there, we understand that God clearly regenerates only some since not all are saved. Hence, those must be the ones He unconditionally elected before the foundation of the world. Some from the Augustinian position infer that these were the ones for whom Christ shed His blood. From this point of view, election is God’s graciously saving some out of a mass that would otherwise perish. He saves to display the mercy of His character while leaving others in their rebellion to display the justice of His character. Conditional election (foreseen faith) is not a possibility if man is depraved in the way the Augustinian system asserts.
4. They see God as a loving God for saving anyone out of a totally depraved race.
The Non-Augustinian View
The non-Augustinian view of depravity maintains that man is not so depraved as to be unable to choose Christ under certain conditions. Non-Augustinians differ on the degree of depravity in man. For some, their belief is close to the Augustinian position but short of monergism. For others, their belief is full-blown heresy—ancient Pelagianism.
To the conservative non-Augustinian, man is blind to the beauty of Christ and does not choose it. Again, his free will is very much intact; but until he sees the light of Christ, he cannot make the correct choice.
The key difference here is that the Augustinian system insists man is so depraved that when he sees the light of Christ, he will not choose it unless God implants in him a new heart that will not only see the light but also love it. The non-Augustinian system says that when a man sees the light of Christ (God’s drawing, in this scheme), there remains in him enough of the image of God to love the light of Christ without God first implanting an “appetite” for that light. Therefore, God may show him the beauty of Christ as an offer, which he may then accept or reject. His heart may by itself, in cooperation with God’s initiative, love the beauty of Christ and so turn to Him in repentance and faith.
Therefore, the following emerges from this system:
1. God does not do a “heart operation” on some but provides some measure of revelation of Christ to all—a common grace to all men. Essentially all have the same, genuine opportunity to come to faith. “That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world” (John 1:9, NKJV)
2. Repentance and faith therefore become the causes of regeneration, not the effects of it.
3. Therefore, grace is effectual only in those who receive it. God’s operation is therefore synergistic with the sinner’s response, not monergistic. The decisive reason as to why some are saved and others are not is their response to the light equally given to all. Christ died to provide salvation for all, but He applies salvation to those who believe.
4. Some non-Augustinians conclude, then, that election is purely conditional. God chose on the basis of foreknowing man’s decisions. Other non-Augustinians believe in unconditional election; but it is not related to man’s depravity as in the Augustinian scheme. Instead, they say election is due to God’s plan for the ages.
5. They see God as a loving God for loving all men equally.
How does each side arrive at their conclusions?
The Augustinian uses texts that directly address man’s ability and depravity (Jer. 13:23; Mark 7:20-23; John 3:19-20; 6:44; Rom. 1:18-32; 3:1-10; 8:7-8; 1 Cor. 2:14; Eph. 2:1-3, 4:18-19). He sees God’s commands and man’s responsibility in light of these (and other) “ability-defining” verses. The Augustinian says, “God has the right to command a man to do that which his self-wrought depravity has made it impossible for him to do.” Thus, ought does not imply can. Man ought to choose Christ; that does not mean he can. He hates the light, even though he sees it. He will not choose Christ until a monergistic act of pre-faith regeneration converts his heart, freeing him to freely repent, to believe, and to be justified.
The non-Augustinian uses texts that address man’s responsibility to define his ability (Isa. 55:1; Ez. 18:31-32; Matt. 11:28; Mark 1:15; John 3:16; 20:27, 31; Acts 2:38; 17:30; Titus 2:11; Rev. 22:17). Therefore, the non-Augustinian defines man’s depravity indirectly by looking to what God commands or desires and by inferring that one asks a man only to do what he is capable of doing. Thus he sees verses on man’s depravity in light of the commands from God to man. The non-Augustinian says, “God would be mocking us to insist that we do something, albeit by His grace, that is impossible for us to do.” Ought does imply can by grace.
One Event, Two Views
An illustration helps to put the two views in perspective. In John 5:18, Jesus said to the lame man, “Rise, take up your bed and walk” (NKJV). The man was made well and obeyed Christ’s command. Listen as two different observers describe the same situation.
The Augustinian views the situation and says, “Obviously, a lame man cannot rise and walk. Jesus’ command to him does not presuppose that he had the ability in himself to rise up and walk. Jesus first chose to heal him and then told him to rise up and walk. Consequent to Christ’s monergistic act of grace, the man could now believe he had been healed and could rise up and walk. Here grace was sovereign and effectual, and the man’s faith a consequence.”
The Non-Augustinian views the situation and says: “Obviously a lame man cannot rise up and walk. Jesus’ command to him presupposes that He was offering grace to do what was formerly impossible. Jesus was not mocking the man. Had the man replied, ‘No, Lord, I cannot walk,’ Christ’s grace would not have healed him, as in Matthew 13:58. But in believing Christ could do for him what he could not formerly do for himself and in seeking to move his lame limbs in obedience to Christ’s command, he was exercising faith in Jesus. God’s grace, in synergy with his faith, healed him. Here grace was sovereignly offered, but humanly appropriated.”
Thus, the Augustinian sees depravity as destructive to man’s ability to receive Christ. Man is spiritually dead and requires a sovereign, effectual work of grace to be saved.
The non-Augustinian sees depravity as corruptive to man’s ability to receive Christ. Man is estranged and requires a work of grace to which he can respond to be saved.
It is clear why there can be no “mediating position” between these two views, any more than one could find a mediating whole number between one and two. You may hold your synergism in a more or less Augustinian manner (majoring on grace rather than on human choice), but it is not monergism; and so your soteriology hinges on synergism. Likewise, you may hold to differing views on the divine decrees or on the nature of the atonement; but if you hold to monergism, there can be no compromise on the matter of who is finally responsible for an individual’s salvation.
Understanding how these views emerge from our understanding of the Bible’s teaching on man’s depravity may go a long way to cutting down on wasted debate time and clarify the points each side is trying to make. Indeed, the only possible resolution lies in determining which group has a superior hermeneutic.