Irresistible Grace - Total Depravity

Session 3


While I was praying, a phrase came to my mind from a YouTube video that I watched the other day from a black church led by Elder DJ Ward where I have preached before. He’s a reformed guy. There’s just this little video clip called A Grace Case. It’s him talking about his desperate need for grace and how he was brought to Christ. Then he just repeats several times, “I’m a grace case, I’m a grace case.” That’s the way we should feel. We should feel like we are who we are by the grace of God so that he gets all the glory.

The biblical verse that comes closest, I suppose, to that statement is 1 Corinthians 15:10, which says:

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.

So even when Paul realizes he has expended himself to the max, he steps back from that expenditure of energy and says, “Nevertheless, it was not I, but the grace of God.” So there’s the mystery that we will bump into again and again. We do expend ourselves, we do exert our wills, we do make choices, and we do work hard, but then when we’re done, whether we can understand it fully or not, we lay it down and we say, “By the grace of God, I worked. By the grace of God, I chose.” So we are a grace case. That means Jesus will get all the glory. We will be praising the glory of his grace forever and ever. We will never get to the bottom of the mysteries of the grace of God.

Revisiting Irresistible Grace

It’s a great topic. It occurred to me last time, as I was reflecting on what we covered and what I left out, that there is one piece of the lesson on irresistible grace that I did not want to leave out that I did leave out. So I’m going to go back and pick up a text from the first argument. There were six arguments for irresistible grace, and the first one was the argument that faith is a gift or repentance is a gift. So we don’t get nudged, merely, as in the Arminian understanding — that grace brings us to a point and then leaves us to provide the decisive impulse to finish it. Rather, we are brought to the place where grace gives us faith, and gives us repentance.

Now, one of the obstacles to believing that is that as you read the Bible faithfully, which you should do — the whole Bible from beginning to end — you run into God speaking to humans in conditional language, saying, “If you do this, I will do this. If you do this, I will do this. If you do this, I will do this,” which on the face of it inclines us to think, “Well, God is telling us what we have to do and then waiting to see if we’ll do it, to which he then, if we do it, will respond with the appropriate thing.”

When we see that, we’re inclined to think, “Well, it doesn’t seem to work then to say that God is irresistibly bringing us to where we need to be because he’s telling us if we will go to a certain place, then he will bring us to where we need to be.” So what I want to do is go back and pick up a text from that first argument on irresistible grace — namely, a text in 2 Chronicles. This is going to seem really strange. I didn’t see this text until, I suppose, the first 20 or 25 years of my reflection on these things.

But a few years ago, on one of my treks through the Bible, which I try to get through every year, I was reading this passage. And it hit me that now this is, by way of illustration, extremely helpful for seeing how conditional talk from God to us should not be taken to mean he is depending on us to meet the condition or that we should consider ourselves as self-reliant in meeting the condition that he just laid out. But in fact, it may be that when God says, “If you do this, I will do this,” he intends to enable us to do that, so that he can do this.

Once you see that in several places, then you’re relieved of the burden to take all those conditional places that you read about in the Bible and say, “Oh, we’re being left to ourselves there to meet the condition, so there really is no such thing as irresistible grace.” You don’t have to make that conclusion once you see a few texts like this.

Repentance and the Sovereign Hand of God

Let’s look at this one. It’s 2 Chronicles 30:6–12. I’m going to read the whole thing to point out the conditionality language that God is using through Hezekiah’s call. Hezekiah is calling for repentance. He’s going to send messengers throughout the land with a summons for repentance. We read:

O people of Israel, return to the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, that he may turn again to the remnant of you who have escaped from the hand of the kings of Assyria (2 Chronicles 30:6).

Now notice, that’s what God intends or wants to do. It looks like he’s saying, “You return so that I may return. You return so that God may return to you.” That’s conditional. “When you return to me, I’ll return to you.” Now, you find that a dozen times in the Bible, God saying, “You come to me and I’ll come to you. Draw near to God, and he’ll draw near to you” (James 4:8), and things like that. The passage continues:

Do not be like your fathers and your brothers, who were faithless to the Lord God of their fathers, so that he made them a desolation, as you see. Do not now be stiff-necked as your fathers were, but yield yourselves to the Lord and come to his sanctuary, which he has consecrated forever, and serve the Lord your God, that his fierce anger may turn away from you (2 Chronicles 30:7–8).

Don’t stiffen your neck. Don’t be resistant. He’s telling them to stop being resistant. He’s telling them to yield. This what you have to do. Do this. Don’t stiffen, yield, and enter his sanctuary. The result will be, “So that his burning anger may turn away from you.”

So just think how an Arminian would use this against a Calvinist right off the bat. They would say, “See, you have to do this, then his anger will turn away. So clearly, his anger doesn’t turn away first, help you, and then you respond. It’s that you respond, and then he turns his anger away.” You find this all over the Bible, talk like this. It continues:

For if you return to the Lord, your brothers and your children will find compassion with their captors and return to this land. For the Lord your God is gracious and merciful and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him.” So the couriers went from city to city through the country of Ephraim and Manasseh, and as far as Zebulun, but they laughed them to scorn and mocked them (2 Chronicles 30:9–10).

So Hezekiah sent the couriers out with the message, “If you’ll return, God will bring these blessings.” They laughed them to scorn and they mocked them. It continues:

However, some men of Asher, of Manasseh, and of Zebulun humbled themselves and came to Jerusalem. The hand of God was also on Judah to give them one heart to do what the king and the princes commanded by the word of the Lord (2 Chronicles 30:11–12).

Given a Heart to Do God’s Will

When I got to 2 Chronicles 30:12, having read this — I was reading along, circling all the ifs and so-thats, showing the structure of the conditionality of the language God is using toward me, and how I must do this, and then he’ll do this — I said, “Look at that. It changes everything. It just changes everything.”

It says, “The hand of God was on Judah to give them one heart.” So the people here laughed them to scorn, nevertheless, men from Asher, Manasseh, and Zebulun, didn’t laugh them to scorn. They humbled themselves, and they responded appropriately. They came to Jerusalem, and they did what they were told to do. But it doesn’t why, it just say that they did it. If you stopped right there, you’d say, “Well, see, they’ve got sovereign, decisive, ultimate, self-determining free will, and they did what they were told to do. Now, God will respond and do what he promised to do.”

But then 2 Chronicles 30:12 says — and I checked this out in Hebrew because I wanted to make sure these words are actually there, and that I was not over-interpreting them — “The hand of God was also on Judah.” So it wasn’t only on Asher, Manasseh, Zebulun, but also Judah. It’s the word also that clues me into what’s going to be said about why the Judah folks responded the way they did, and also why Manasseh, Zebulun, and Asher responded the way they did. It says, “The hand of God was also on Judah to give them one heart to do what the king and the prince is commanded by the Word of the Lord.” So Judah responded positively to the call of repentance because God gave them a heart to do it. All of the other responses of Manasseh, Zebulun, and Asher were also owing to that same cause.

Return to Me, and I Will Return to You

So here’s the conclusion: The condition stands. You don’t go back and read and say, “Oh, there were no conditions.” The conditions are real. It really means, “Return to the Lord God of Abraham, that he may return to you. Don’t stiffen your neck, yield to the Lord that his burning anger may turn away.” But now we know from 2 Chronicles 30:12, you must not infer from that conditionality that God is folding his arms, standing back, and waiting for us to fulfill the condition unaided. That’s not what’s going on in this text — and not in any text, I would argue. I mean, what if this text had stopped right there at 2 Chronicles 30:11, and I didn’t get any help at all in seeing this? That’s the case in many texts.

Many texts do not provide verse 12. They just say, “Do this, and God will do this.” So I’m saying that the structure of thinking in the Bible is such that you should never infer from the Bible that when a condition is given to man that he should do a thing in order for God to do another thing, you jump to the conclusion that he leaves us to ourselves in fulfilling the condition that he just gave us. Because this text says he doesn’t leave us to ourselves. He did the work in Judah that needed to be done in order for him to respond.

Probably the most common example you think of is:

Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me (Revelation 3:20).

The issue here is not whether that’s being addressed to Christians or non-Christians; it’s really being addressed to Christians. But the point is the principle of the fact that if God says to an unbeliever, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If you will open your heart, I will come in,” that’s a conditional statement just like this. If you return to him, he will come to you.

Should you conclude from that that Christ should be only pictured as outside the door knocking? Is that all, and you don’t have any other picture in your mind beside that? I would say on the basis of dozens and dozens of other texts, “No, we shouldn’t.” There are different ways you could think about it. One is the Holy Spirit simply enters by the chimney or window, or just by osmosis through the wall. There are different ways you could say it now. You could say that he just pulls the latch from the inside, or you could say he inclines your heart to pull the latch from the inside, and Jesus walks in. He is actually responding to your choice. But there has been another factor brought into the situation that inclines you to open the door from the inside.

Give What You Command, and Command What You Will

The way we are saved involves language that is conditional and prevenient, or pre-emptive, like, “If you come to me, I will save you,” or, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). The Bible is replete with a summons for us to make choices in response to God. But I’m pointing out here, don’t ever infer from those summonses to make choices to which God will then respond, that God leaves you to yourself with no decisive help in providing the response that he requires you to give.

Do you remember St. Augustine, who wrestled until he was about 32 with a life of lechery? He had a concubine and had a kid out of marriage, and his mother, Monica, who was brokenhearted, was praying for him continually. Sitting in a garden in Italy, he heard a little child singing, “Take up and read.” So he flipped open his Bible, turned to Romans 13, by fortuitous, divine circumstance, and he was saved.

He spent the rest of his life writing about sovereign grace — in fact, the sovereign joy of sovereign grace — and he says things like, “Command what you will, and grant what you command.” He knew from his own bondage to sexual sin for those 16 years, from age 16 to 32, that he was unable to break free though he wanted to break free — at least, thinking he did — and couldn’t. Then God broke it. So the statement “command what you will, and grant what you command” is like this passage from 2 Chronicles 30:6–12. God is commanding what he wills, saying, “Return, yield, don’t stiffen. Return, Turn away. Return . . .” That’s him commanding what he will, but then, Oh God, grant what you command. Give them one heart to do it.

So when I’m preaching here on a Saturday or Sunday, I look people right in the eye and I will say, “Lay down the arms of rebellion. Stop resisting the Holy Spirit. Yield to God. Receive the gospel. Embrace Christ.” Those are all imperatives delivered straight to their will, for which they are accountable to respond inside. Most of the people sitting out there, know I don’t think they’re capable of that on their own. I believe that the Holy Spirit will take my words and the whole situation and make them words of life, so that in ways they can’t understand, there will be responses of, “Yes, I will do that.” Then after the yes, they will say, “I’m a grace case, I’m a grace case.”

Total Depravity

Well, that’s enough, perhaps, on picking up what I left out because I found that text so helpful in my own understanding of how irresistible grace is to be understood. Here’s the lesson on total depravity.

In order to understand how serious our condition is behind the need for irresistible grace, now we’re moving behind it to the condition that makes it necessary. If grace were not irresistible, we would not incline to God because of our condition. What’s the condition? The T in TULIP is total depravity. I want to wrestle with you concerning what the “total” means, because it could be taken to mean things that it doesn’t mean, and I have five meanings that it has. But I’m setting the stage first by drawing your attention to the fact that we should see our depravity in relation to God. I think that’s important.

First Corinthians 10:31 says:

Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.

Sometimes we define sin for ourselves in such a way that it doesn’t feel as pervasive. But if this is the command over all of our lives, how are you doing? Everything, from the smallest thing you’re eating to the largest thing that you can imagine doing, you do it in such a way as to make God look glorious in it. I think that’s what, “To the glory of God,” means.

I look at that, and I think my life is just so weak, which is a nice, gentle, self-excusing word. The question of our shortfall is not, “Do you have a list of things you’re supposed to do and then you don’t do it?” But rather, “Do you believe that you’re called to live every moment of your life, whether you’re eating or drinking or doing anything at all, and do it with this great glorious motive, intention, and effect?”

Falling Short of the Glory of God

Now, keeping that in mind here’s the old favorite verse for defining our sinfulness. I learned as I was growing up that in sharing the gospel, one of the pieces that need to be shared is the need piece. People won’t embrace the gospel if they don’t know they have a need for the gospel. So you look for a nice, crisp, clear, biblical word concerning all of our needs. This is the one that’s short, pithy, and clear:

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).

So I learned that growing up, but I almost never, in my growing-up years, focused on this part. This is what sealed the deal. If you’re talking to somebody about their need for a savior, then it’s the “all” here that they need to grasp. If all have sinned, therefore, I have sinned. Therefore, the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Therefore, Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. Therefore, you need a Savior. You move in that way.

But we need to reflect on what Romans 3:23 means, and it’s this: Sin, by its nature, is a falling short of the glory of God. What does that mean, “Fall short of the glory of God?” The best explanation of Romans 3:23 is Romans 1:23. Romans 1:23 talks about how they exchanged the glory of God for images — four-footed beasts, animals, and reptiles. They became foolish in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Thinking themselves to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of God for substitutes (Romans 1:21–23).

So that exchange is behind, I think, this sin as falling short of the glory of God. Fall short here is the word hystereō, and it means lack. They lack the glory of God. What is it to lack the glory of God? Lacking the glory of God doesn’t mean you aren’t God, and therefore you’re at fault, as if you should be as glorious as God is. No, no, I think lacking the glory of God is what you do if you exchange it. If you had something and then you exchange it for something else, you lack it. It’s there and this is here instead.

We’ve all done it. That’s the essence of what sin is. We are offered God himself in all of the full range of his perfections and glories as our treasure, as the thing we admire most, delight in most, and are satisfied in most. We trade it for you name it.

Just test your own heart’s affections. The heart is a desire factory. It produces all kinds of alternative desires to God. It could be desire for computer things, desire for sex, desire for success in the company, desire for health, desire for long life, desire for the latest car, desire to look beautiful, desire to lose weight, desire to eat — it could be just all kinds of things. This heart is just a desire factory. When you ask, “Where does God and his glory fit?” He’s hardly even there. He’s not there for the fallen, unregenerate human being. His glory is simply not a treasure. Other things are a treasure.

So sin has to be understood in order to feel its force. It’s not just as your mama saying, “Don’t go out in the street,” and you went out in the street so you get a spanking and that’s a sin. Or it’s not merely that the Bible says, “Don’t lie,” and you told a lie, so you get a spanking and that’s a sin. That view of “here’s my list of don’ts, and here’s my sometimes breaking them” doesn’t work. You don’t ever feel the weight of sin when you do it by the list method. You have to bring God into the picture. The majesty of God and the greatness of God and the pervasive demand of seeing and savoring his glory is something that we don’t do. So, all have sinned, and they lack the glory of God. Or

Whatever Does Not Proceed From Faith

I remember Romans 14:23. This verse just knocked me off my rocker back in seminary:

But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.

What is sin? Anything. It could be the best things and the worst things. It doesn’t matter whether they’re on the list or not. Anything that is not from faith is sin. In other words, if you’re not depending on God to teach you, enable you, and empower you to do a thing so that he gets the glory, you’re sinning.

First Peter 4:11 says:

[Let him who] serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.

You can hear the dynamic there of how it works.

Call upon me in the day of trouble;
      I will deliver you and you will glorify me (Psalm 50:15).

So the deliverer gets the glory, or the giver gets the glory, as 1 Peter 4:11 says. Everything that we do should be done in reliance upon a Redeemer to forgive us an Empowerer to enable us so that when it is done, the Redeemer and the Empowerer gets the glory. Everything that’s not done that way is sin.

Changing a diaper would be sin. Building a hospital would be sin. Planting a church would be sin. Having sex with your wife would be sin. Drinking a glass of cool water at the end of a race would be sin. When you stop to think about this, it means that this world is simply drowning in a sea of sin. All unbelievers do is sin. That’s all they do.

I used to say that to classes that I taught, and the students would absolutely go ballistic. I mean, we have grown up in a culture that is so non-God-centered that the thought that all unbelievers do is sin is off the charts unacceptable to evangelicals. To me, it is so obvious. Of course, you have to be careful. There are ways to say that it’s a good thing for an unbeliever to build a hospital rather than commit mass murder. Hitler and Mother Teresa are not in the same category. I don’t know about Mother Teresa’s personal faith, so it’s not the best example, but you know what I’m getting at.

To Obey Is Better Than Sacrifice

If I asked my son, Barnabas, when he was home, “I want you to wash the car if you want to use it tonight to go to the basketball game.” He had asked me, “Can I have the car to go to the ballgame tonight?” And I say, “Sure. Would you wash it for me before you go? Because I’d like to have it clean for tomorrow.” He gets really bent out of shape, and he didn’t set that in the schedule, and he doesn’t want to do it, and I say, “Well, Barnabas, I don’t want to be picky, but that’s the requirement. So wash the car and sure, you can have it tonight.” He walks out of the room fuming at me. I’m his father, right? Now that fuming at me is not a good thing. He should be willingly submissive, obey his dad, be thankful that he can use the car, and wash it. But he stomps out as though he’s not going to do what I say.

Then I notice an hour or two later that he’s out in the driveway. Everything in his body is exuding, “I don’t want to be doing this and I’m angry at my dad for doing this.” Now, he’s doing what I told him to do, but how did how does that make me feel? Is he obeying me? In the raw, external sense, yes, but not in the heart sense that makes any difference to me at all. He is being totally governed by principles different than his love for me. That’s the way unbelievers build hospitals.

It is a good thing that hospitals get built, and it’s a good thing that unbelievers build them — Aids crisis centers, food for the hungry, and endless kinds of things that are right to happen in the raw, external sense. God wants compassion to abound in the world. But the attitude, if you actually boil it down to God issues, the ones that count, they’re oblivious to God. They’re not relying upon God. They don’t care about God. They’re blackballing God. They’re not trusting God. They’re giving him zero attention of their time. So God is like me, watching my son wash the car.

Well, the car will be clean tomorrow, and that’s my will for my son to drive it. But my son is in rebellion. That’s amazing. So just try to feel how sinful this world is. If you feel it, it will change the way you articulate the problem of evil and blessing in the world. God never treats anybody unjustly. When there’s a hurricane, or a tsunami, or an earthquake, or a tornado, or a random shooting, nobody who gets taken out in one of those events is ever being treated wrongly by God. We’re always treated better than we deserve. Always.

The amazing thing is not that any of us right now are sick in this room. The amazing thing is that any of us are alive in this room and surviving from moment to moment in view of how corrupt our hearts are. Was it Voddie Baucham who told the story, getting into an argument on the problem of evil with a student on a campus? The student was in his face about how God hadn’t treated him or his failure on his campus the way he thought he should. Voddie stopped him, and he said, “The main question you need to answer is why God didn’t kill you in your sleep last night, and why you woke up this morning. You take that totally for granted like you deserve it.” Every morning, I wake up, and I don’t deserve to wake up. I don’t deserve any health. I don’t deserve a marriage that has lasted and is happy. But you don’t feel these things until the weight of depravity lands on you.

Universal Rebellion Against an Infinite God

Another illustration of making sure God is in the picture when we talk about depravity is James 2:10–11, which says:

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.

Amazing. If you stumble in one point of the law, you’re guilty of having disobeyed the whole law. I mean, almost anybody would say, “That’s just off the charts exaggerated. I mean, please. That means everybody’s going to get executed for minor traffic violations. What’s he going to say to explain that?” And here’s his ground, his explanation:

For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder” (James 2:11).

That’s his answer. So do you see what he does? He says, “The reason I’m talking like this, the reason I’m saying that one infraction of the law makes you guilty of the whole law is that he said it, which means an offense against the living, infinite God is over — just one. It’s just over.

There is something so cataclysmic in moral significance about a creature lifting up its will against its infinitely perfect, infinitely glorious, infinitely holy Creator, and saying, “No,” that just ends it. That is so huge it covers everything. His guilt is universal because he’s the same God who says the one and the other. The argument for why this holds is that he who said the one, said the other, and you’re opposing him. It’s not that different commandments are of different significance, rather he’s of infinite significance, and you’ve just resisted him. That’s an infinite offense.

So, those several passages give you the flavor of why I think depravity is serious — namely, because it has to do with God.