Home Worship, May 3, 2020 | Grace Reformed Church
Preperatory: Psalm 18
I love you, O Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer,
I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised,
whose glorious dwelling is in the heavens, even when the light of heaven is hidden by dark clouds.
Ever to you, Father Above, is our praise, honor, and thanksgiving.
From your hand comes every blessing.
Therefore, before your heavenly temple we offer our prayers of intercession.
giver of every good and perfect gift.
We pray for the Church, wherever she is gathered this Lord's Day.
Particularly we pray for our own congregation.
Grant that her witness may be sure, her teaching apt, her doctrine sound.
we pray for all peoples.
You are God over all.
The heavens are telling your glory, and your Word is heard to the end of the world.
Grant that the gospel of the risen Christ may be proclaimed this day to every people in every tongue.
Grant that in this comunity, those who have no peace, those who are alienated, those who are alone,
might find reconciliation, through the faithful witness of your people and the fellowship of your house.
we pray for our nation.
King above all gods.
You have been our strength, our rock, our fortress.
you have been the God of our forefathers, and still in you we trust.
Grant that our nation might be ever faithful to you, Great God our King.
God of all comfort.
We pray for those who suffer, for those who endure poverty, for those burdened by debt,
for the crippled, the sick, the troubled and tormented.
We pray for the entire world as it struggles with a pandemic, for all of the pain it is causing, physical, emotional, and economic. We pray that you allow it to pass quickly. Comfort all of us in this time when we may not be together, and bring us together again soon.
Our prayers we present in the name of Jesus, our Great High Priest, who has entered into the heavenly sanctuary to present our prayers before you. Amen.
Confession: Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A 27-28
Q. 27. Wherein did Christ's humiliation consist?
A. Christ's humiliation consisted in his being born, and that in a low condition, made under the law, undergoing the miseries of this life, the wrath of God, and the cursed death of the cross; in being buried, and continuing under the power of death for a time.
Q. 28. Wherein consisteth Christ's exaltation?
A. Christ's exaltation consisteth in his rising again from the dead on the third day, in ascending up into heaven, in sitting at the right hand of God the Father, and in coming to judge the world at the last day.
Our Sinful State
Romans 3: 9-20
Here we are again in our distant, virtual mode – I do pray that it is over soon! The current distancing and gathering guidelines go through May 15, and I’m hoping that some things will be relaxed at that point and we will be able to gather. I’ve heard nothing to the contrary, so I do hope that you are all doing well, and are safe in your houses. But, as it is the Lord’s Day, let us turn together to his Word and enjoy some fellowship together there. Let’s pray.
Heavenly Father, we come to you this morning and we lift up our prayers to you. We thank you for the gift of this day, for all of the blessings you pour out on us each and every day, but especially this one. We ask that as we approach your Word this morning, and the uncomfortable topic of our many sins before you, we ask that you guide our understanding of it, and glorify you for the truth and the promises of grace that follow along beside. Bless the reading of your Word now, and send the Spirit to guide our hearts and minds as we consider it. In the holy and precious name of Jesus Christ, amen.
We continue again this morning on our brief series that is looking at the basics of Reformed Theology, what it is, and what it is not. In the first two messages, we built a foundation on which all of the rest of the theology lies. The first is that it is sola scriptura, in scripture alone that we will look when we build our knowledge of God, look at what he tells us and not ourselves. Not our feelings, not our traditions, not the views of one person. That’s the first foundation of Reformed Theology, that scripture is our only guide.
And the second grows immediately out of that, that the God of the bible, the God that we worship, is truly God, in all of his attributes that we can discern from scripture, and there are many. But the big one, the controlling one, the one that leads logically to the rest of the solas and the TULIP, they trace back to the knowledge and understanding that God is sovereign. He is sovereign over all things, past present and future. He has a perfect knowledge of all of history, of everything possible and actual, and he decreed all that there is before it all began. He does not withhold his sovereignty, or limit his sovereignty, because if he did, we cannot be sure of any of his promises. And that totality of his sovereignty is well-supported by scripture. God is not bound by us and our will and our choices, and thank God for that!
I said last week that I would be trying to walk through Reformed Theology in a logical way, even though I’m not going to walk through either the five solas or the TULIP acronym specifically, but today we are going to talk about just one of them, and that is the T of the TULIP: Total Depravity. We built the foundation, on the Words of scripture and a right view of the sovereignty of God, so we have that bedrock on which to stand, now we need to look at the situation we find ourselves in, and that is the doctrine of total depravity. We will stay in Romans, reading this morning a passage from Romans 3, and we’ll read verses 9-20. I’ll give you just a second to find that in your bibles, Romans 3, verses 9-20. This is at the end of Paul’s discussion about the relative states of Greeks and Jews, since that was a big debate. Are Jews better than Greeks, inherently, in God’s eyes? So at the end of talking about the distinctions between Jews and Gentiles, and there are some, he lays it all bare and speaks to how ultimately, they’re all in the same boat. Romans 3:9-20, listen, this is God’s Holy Word.
9 What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written:
“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.”
13 “Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 in their paths are ruin and misery,
17 and the way of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
Amen. Thanks be to God for his Word.
Two years ago, Ligonier did a survey of adults who categorized themselves as “evangelicals,” so, Christians, and asked them to agree or disagree, somewhat, or strongly, with various statements of theology, and they called it the “State of Theology” survey. And the question was this: do people in America who call themselves Christians actually hold theological opinions that are biblical. And the statements were not just about what Ligonier thought was biblical, they are statements—some of which you should agree with, like “There is only one true God, existing in three persons,” and ones you shouldn’t, like, and this one is very timely, “Worshiping alone or with one’s family is a valid replacement for regularly attending church.”—most of them are simply statements that reflect biblical Christianity extending all the way back to the church councils of the 300s and 400s. If you want to take a look, at all three dozen or so statements and the survey results, it’s at thestateoftheology.com.
I bring that up because the very first question of the survey, the answers that were given by the respondents is a bit troubling, and the statement was this: “Everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature.” And Christians in America, not just the general public, but people who identify as Christians, 52% agreed with that statement. Listen to it again, everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature. The first phrase recognizes that no one is perfect, but the second is flatly unbiblical, that you are, by nature, good.
You cannot read the passage that we just read and come to that conclusion, it is simply impossible, and I’ll tell you, the stakes are enormous. If you think that you bring anything to the table in your salvation, if you have any confidence in the flesh or a good nature that you possess all on your own, well, then you don’t have the gospel.
Sadly, this opinion is almost universal in the secular, non-believing world, but it is troubling that it has taken, by this account, more than half of the visible church. Humanism, that is, the placing of prime importance on of the innate goodness of man and his work, has been a powerful influencer of our ideas about humanity and ourselves for about 5-600 years. Humanism, that to the extent that it encourages us to greater exploration, discovery, innovation, and creativity can be a good thing, but not when it encourages us to have a false view of our condition. Humanism tells us that we are good, and we are masters of our own destiny, that we are where the buck stops. And that is what is influencing this idea of what our sinful state is: nobody’s perfect, but we’re all pretty good.
But being Reformed, we need to look to scripture alone to see if that is actually true, if we are good, and that brings up our text for today. Paul is saying, in no uncertain terms, in what is an uncomfortable passage to read, that we are all, Jew and Gentile, everyone, we are all as he puts it, under sin. At first glance you may recoil at that—that’s not me, Paul! My throat is an open grave? My mouth is full of curses and bitterness? You’ve never met me, I’m not all that! But he says
“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.”
You notice in your bibles that this text for this section is arranged poetically, with quotes, that is because Paul is not delivering some new information here. These are all quotes from the Old Testament, from Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Isaiah. And I’m sure this list of quotes could have gone on much longer. Paul says in no uncertain terms that we are all under sin. It is our state, it is our natural state.
When writing about total depravity in his famous book “Grace Unknown,” R.C. Sproul talks about how that’s actually an unfortunate term because it confuses people into thinking that it means everyone is as awful as they could be—and that is certainly not the case, not everyone is as vile an actual sinner as they could possibly be. Sproul contrasts total depravity with what that would be, utter depravity. And you can praise God each day that we are not in a world where people are utterly depraved. The amount of sin that God is restraining on a minute-by-minute basis is staggering.
It’s an aside, but I remember hearing a sermon some years ago about the time when the prophet Elisha was being insulted for being bald by a bunch of teenagers. Maybe you remember this story, if you don’t it could be a little surprising. Elisha responds to the insults by cursing the teenagers, and immediately some she-bears come out of the woods and maul 42 of them. It’s right there in 2 Kings 2. But I remember the point that the pastor made, that though this all seems a little harsh—an insult turning into a terrible mauling—but there is a lesson in there about the utter chaos of sin that God is restraining all the time, and for a moment he let go of the reins and 42 boys were mauled by bears.
So no, when we speak of total depravity we are not saying, and Paul is not saying, that everyone is as awful as they could possibly be. But he is saying that our sin is not just something that is added to an otherwise good nature, he is saying that sin’s hold on you, your bondage to sin in your natural state, is complete. You, as a human being, after the fall, sin is in your nature and it always has been. Total depravity is another expression of the concept of Original Sin, that when Adam fell, his nature changed, and he passed that nature, and continues to pass that nature down through all humanity.
Is that really how it happens, or am I neutral towards God until I actually sin myself? There is a distinction between Original Sin, which is speaking of the sin nature, and the sins you commit because of that nature, that spring from a nature that is sinful. Well, it is very clear that you have both sins you commit and an original sin. Look at how David describes it in Psalm 51—maybe you remember from when I preached on Psalm 51 back in August, he says:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment.
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.
6 Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.
If you remember when we looked at that before, David is pleading not only for forgiveness for the actual sins he committed, in this case the whole incident with Bathsheba, but also the nature that produced that sin. In sin did my mother conceive me—the sin goes back to conception. And that’s why David goes on to ask God to create in him a clean heart, not just wash the sins, but get rid of the nature in him that produced the sins. Yes, original sin and your sin nature is a real thing. So you are not naturally, or basically good. There are some Christian traditions that assert, incorrectly, that infants are sinless, that children are without sin until some “age of accountability” or responsibility. Perhaps you’ve heard of this. Well, that is a flat out rejection of original sin. And the reformers had an excellent, logical rebuttal to such an idea, and that is that babies die. If a baby, or the unborn were actually sinless, they would not be subject to the punishment for sin. Babies die, thus they must have had sin for which they were responsible.
I know why there is push back against the reality of total depravity and original sin. Well, it’s not fair, right? Adam ate that fruit, not me, so it’s not fair that I am under punishment for that before I even begin.
These are not new questions. They were argued vehemently between Saint Augustine and a man named Pelagius around the year 400. Pelagius said that Adam’s sin was just Adam’s sin, and everyone afterward has free will to either obey or not obey God. Man is not by nature inclined toward evil. Otherwise, Pelagius said, that would do injury to his free will. Man is free to choose God or not choose God. To seek God, or not seek him. You are naturally neutral to God.
If you have some sympathy for that view, know first that it has been continuously rejected by church councils since the time of Pelagius. There is substantial evidence from scripture, including this passage in Romans 3, that we did and do inherit a sin nature through Adam, and we are born dead. Dead in sin, not sick with sin. You are not naturally neutral toward God, you hate him. You do have a free will, but it is a will that is free only within the bounds of your nature. Augustine’s view, contrasting with Pelagius and confirmed by centuries of study afterward, said that in Adam’s fall we all fell, because in it we lost the ability to choose good. Our sinful state is total. As Paul says in our passage, no one is righteous, no one seeks God, no one does good. That is our state. You have a free will to make choices, absolutely! But you’ve lost the ability to make choices that are ultimately good.
But Zach, aren’t there non-Christians doing good all the time? Aren’t there “good people,” even if they aren’t Christians? Well, actually there aren’t, and the good they’re doing isn’t good in an ultimate sense. Because the goodness of our actions extends to our motives, and since we are told, in everything, in every word or deed, to do it all to the glory of God, a person who is not a Christian cannot actually do anything actually good, because they would not be doing anything good out of a desire to glorify God. It is a blessing of God that he allows civil good, or civil virtue (as it is often called) to exist in our society, a great blessing and to our benefit, but let’s never confuse those works of civil virtue as something that changes our ultimate standing before God. It’s that kind of thinking that gives rise to the idea that if I at least do more good than bad in my life, I’ll be OK, I’ll deserve mercy. We’ll just look at the balance at the end and see where I end up, which way the scales tip.
So what are the motives for moral goodness without God? We have seen that our culture is falling apart, morally. I know that it seems every generation of adults looks at the youth and says that, but on balance I’d say the departure from Christian morals has been far more pronounced in the last 20 years than any other time before in our country. The rapid, overnight decline should come as no big surprise, though, because what was holding phony Christians back from embracing sinful positions was not a love for God, it was their want to avoid the shame from the greater culture for adopting a certain moral position. One of our most powerful motivations, our basest urges is self-preservation, right? And one’s standing in the greater community is completely tied up in self-preservation. Once that shame was removed, the scales tipped, those who were motivated to morality by that were not just given license to, but actually encouraged to abandon biblical morals. It wasn’t a love for God that was holding them back, so they really reverted to their natural state, one of sin. So when we see people acting in ways and holding opinions that are at odds with God’s Word, we shouldn’t be surprised, because our sin natures hate God. When we deny biblical truth, we are acting according to our natures.
So what are we left with? Like I said, if we get this one right, this is another controlling doctrine. Just like God’s sovereignty, our view of the extent and nature of our sin controls everything else that follows. If I am not just unlikely, but actually incapable of choosing God in my natural state, where does that leave me? My only path at that point is the grace of God, nothing else can save me. If I have the free will to choose God, but my nature would never allow it, it’s not going to be a matter of me willing more strongly toward God with my own power. That’s not in my nature. So I don’t need more will, I need a new nature, and there is only one place I’m going to get that, and that’s God. It’s not coming from me. It is only the grace of God that enables us to act contrary to our nature. The Westminster Confession says it well in Chapter 9, on Free Will.
Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.
So I would say to you, brothers and sisters, don’t let your or anyone else’s man-centered pride let you waffle on the reality of man’s condition, our total depravity, our inability to choose God.
But of course, there is good news! This may be our natural state, but this is not where God leaves us. We may be dead in sin, but some of us do choose Christ. How does that happen? By the grace of God, sola gratia. It is only by his grace that any are saved from this state. It would be a sad, tragic thing to spend this entire sermon defending the idea that you are more sinful than you even know, but not remind you that God did not leave us there. God’s grace is there for the taking, through faith in Jesus Christ, and in him alone. I won’t try to outdo Paul, so instead I’ll quote him in closing. In Ephesians Chapter 2, he defends total depravity but then shows the beautiful path forward.
“And you were dead in trespasses and sins in which you once walked…and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he love us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.”
Here is your Savior. You were dead and he’s made you alive. If this is not your story, fall at his feet, confess your sins, and believe in him, because this grace is freely offered.
To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen. Let’s pray.
Heavenly Father, we stand here in need of a savior. In our sin, we stand before you dead. We thank you for your grace that called us out of our death and into life, into glory. We bring nothing with us to the table but our sins. Thank you for sending your Son to be the sacrifice for all of them. Continue to breathe new life into us by your Spirit. Create in us clean hearts, O God, wash us, that we may be whiter than snow. In the name of him who bore the punishment for us, Jesus Christ our Lord, amen.