Sinners have not grown too hard for the Word.
On July 8, 1741 Jonathan Edwards preached arguably the most influential sermon ever delivered on the North American Continent. Popularly known by it’s title, Sinners in the hands of an angry God, Edwards expounded a text from Deuteronomy to vividly explain the dire and utter hopeless situation of the unregenerate sinner. He was apparently anointed by the Spirit of God for such a task, for history tells us that those who listened could scarcely remain in their seats during the sermon. Some openly wailed in terror as Edwards preached, others collapsed to the floor in shock, and others gripped the pews violently crying out for God to have mercy on them.
We probably think that such a response to preaching on the doctrine of the wrath of God and human sin, amongst the modern culture, is impossible. Because of this, some have devised manipulative gimmicks to attempt provoking a hardened congregation to fill the altar—but to what avail? I believe it actually impedes the genuine conversion of dead sinners for a man to attempt to do God’s sovereign drawing. I, then refuse to resort to silly, manipulative techniques to invoke an ‘altar full’ response that would do more to warm my ego, than it would for the dead hearts of sinners. And, contrary to popular thought, I will refuse to think it an impossibility for the Word of God, when divided rightly, to work in such a powerful way—as it did on July 8, 1741. Do we not still preach the same Bible as Edwards? Does the Holy Spirit not still anoint His Holy Word? Is God not still about His business of glorious redemption of dead sinners? Because the answers to these questions are obvious for a believer, then I confidently say that sinners have not grown too hard for the Word of God. It still whittles the sinner down to expose their hopeless estate, their impossible situation, their depraved condition.
Now, when we first begin to speak about human sin, I believe we need to think of it rightly. That is, we need to understand sin and it’s effects on human beings as Scripture reveals such information. For example, the Bible’s teaching on human sin is not necessarily that people are as sinful as they possibly could be. There was only one Adolf Hitler, and for that we are thankful—history could not stomach such an evil man again. However, that’s not to presume that any of us lack the potential to attain to such evil, make no mistake, the potential of sin to ruin sinners is terrifyingly great. Yet, because of the common grace of God, He has chosen to restrain man’s sinfulness, or at least the opportunity for that sin to be nourished and flourished to its fullest potential in this life. But wait! Isn’t that the point of the ‘law?’ To tell me just how sinful or just how bad I am? In some ways, yes. It seems to me to be impossible to read Scripture, and to not sense how far from glory I truly am (Romans 3:23). But I couldn’t say that is the primary or only aim. I’ll say it plainly—the aim of Scripture is more than to show you the severity of you sin, but to also expose it’s total stain.
Sinners are not partially sinful, but totally depraved.
And stains go deep, it’s just what they do. They also get deeper over time. It’s the reason why dry-cleaners will tell you to deal with stained fabric immediately. At first the stain is but resting on the surface, but when left untreated it penetrates deeper and deeper into the fabric ultimately changing the color of the fabric itself. In a way, that’s what the Bible teaches about human sin—it’s not just a stain resting on the surface, but a stain that has completely penetrated to our core.
If we want to use the fancy term for this, then total depravity is fitting. That’s a familiar phrase to some—the first letter in the infamous Tulip, and a phrase that many Southern Baptist’s quickly affirm. However, I often question if those who affirm it actually grasp the implications of what it means. I say that because of how they treat other doctrines, and I just presume they have either a faulty understanding of depravity, or rather that they willingly hold glaring inconsistencies in their theology. But to each his own—The misconception is that some mistakenly think that the doctrine of total depravity means “people are just really, really bad sinners.”
I would agree, but then add that the Bible takes it further than this. Plainly said, the Bible teaches us that human beings are completely sinful. As in every part of your humanity has been affected, distorted, and stained by sin—nothing escapes it, nothing evades it’s penetrating stain. That’s why Paul tells the Corinthians that the ‘old has passed away’ (2 Corinthians 5:17) and why he tells the Galatians that ‘I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.’ (Galatians 2:20) Does Paul say that only part of himself was crucified—the sinful part—but that the “righteous parts” were left alone? No, God forbid! Paul plainly says that, “I” an all-inclusive letter that one uses to refer to everything about himself and his old identity, which has been crucified with Christ. It has passed away and ‘behold the new has come.’ So, let us get this idea straight. The Bible’s teaching about sin is that it has worked it’s way down into your very marrow, your very DNA, your thoughts, your desires, and yes even your will!
Sin has infected the human heart to the core.
Does that make you shudder? Because it should. I dare you, for just a moment, to let the Scripture whittle away any hope you might harbor for yourself. If you hold onto a thread of hope that your heart, which is a metaphor for the human will, has evaded sin’s curse, then consider what the weeping prophet Jeremiah has said,
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?Jeremiah 17:9, ESV
What a flimsy thread of hope the heart is! How often have our emotions led us into stupid decisions? How often have your desires pulled you into destructive consequences? How often have you known ‘the right thing to do’ yet willingly without hesitation chose the wrong instead? It doesn’t take a PhD to understand that the heart is desperately sick, for the school of life can teach you that much. Sin has gripped the human heart and infected it with it’s stain, and then stuffed it into a coffin! Oh yes, according to Paul, not only is your heart deceitfully sick, but it is also spiritually dead.
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 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—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.Ephesians 2:1-3, ESV
Dead. You can talk to a dead person, but they won’t talk back. You can pinch a dead person, but they will not move. You can invite a dead person to all kinds of places, but they will be a perpetual no show. This is the image—dead. I find this to be Paul’s way of informing us that sin has caused us to be totally unresponsive to God, in and of ourselves. Which of course means that you will never, by your own sin deadened and deceitful will, seek God for mercy. I’ll say it plainly: left to your own devices, will, and intuition—you would never come to Christ. And, though that statement may be shocking to some of you, it really shouldn’t. For is that not exactly what Paul says in Romans?
None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have become worthless, no one does good, not even one.Romans 3:10-12, ESV
Unless you think you’re the lone exception, then you are included in the all inclusive ‘all’ of Paul’s statement. Dear unregenerate person, dead in trespasses and sin, you did not seek God yesterday, you will not seek Him today, nor will you seek Him tomorrow—unless God intervenes! This is the depraving effect of your sin. You do not presently seek Him because you have no desire, not even an inkling of a desire, to seek Him, your sinfully sick and deceitful heart will never allow it. I’ll say it plainly—I find no good reason to presume that a sinner, by their own intuition, will ever come to their senses and choose to come to Christ for salvation. It’s not that you don’t have a choice, because you do—and you are responsible for your choices. But, because of sin your ‘picker’ has also been corrupted, and therefore you are simply incapable of making the good choice. You do not seek Him because, in your deceived and spiritually dead state, you do not want to seek Him.
And with each passing moment, sin will drive that wedge further—because not only do you lack a desire to seek God on your own, but you even hate the idea of it. The thought of relinquishing your sinful desires, ambitions, and passions is repulsive to you. You abhor the very thought of giving them up. You hate it when men who stand behind a pulpit invite you to such a life devoid of your sin, with their promises that Jesus will make you happier than your vices. You hate the idea of not hating your enemy, you hate the idea of serving those around you, you hate the idea of singing to Jesus, you hate the idea of asking Him for mercy, you hate the idea of repentance and faith, you hate the idea of prayer, bible study, and certainly preaching. It’s why some kids do everything they can do to get out of coming to church—it’s not because they have something better to do, but because they hate it! Oh Christian Parents, don’t fall for the wicked and deceitful tactics of your child’s sin stained heart! Oh Christian wife, don’t buy your husband’s lame excuse for skipping church! Oh Christian friend, don’t believe that your unregenerate friend is short on time—they are short on affection for God, that is the true problem! This is why Paul says in Romans 3 (cited above) that they have all turned aside and why he says in a later chapter
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.Romans 8:7, ESV
Could it be that your unregenerate self, or my unregenerate child, spouse, parent, neighbor, coworker is not really too busy or just uninterested but in fact ‘hostile to God?’ Yes, and on the authority of Scripture I would say that is indeed the crux of the issue. They will not seek God on their own, because they have no desire to seek God. And, they lack any desire for such seeking because, in fact, they hate Him. Does that make you shudder? Because it should.
Dear unregenerate sinner, you are in grave danger.
Dear unregenerate sinner, your situation is dire. You are as one who has stumbled into a pit that is 40 miles deep, and all your effort to escape will be to no avail. You are as one dancing on the cliffs of the eternal hell, fully ignorant of the flames beneath you—you feel their warmth and, because of your deceitfully sick heart, stupidly think them to be a mere warm comfort. Oh, the ruin that awaits you. Preachers plead with you to be rescued, but you feel no need for such rescue, and so you wish them to shut up. Oh, the ruin that awaits you. Invitation after invitation is given to you, to move yourself away from that infernal cliff, but you stick your fingers in your ears and tip-toe closer to the edge. Oh, the ruin that awaits you. You hate their invitations, you hate their messages, you hate them and the Christ they preach. You only wish to be left to your sin, to enjoy it’s temporary fleeting pleasure. Oh, the ruin that awaits you. You are ignorant of the wrath of the Almighty God who burns with eternal fury upon the unrepentant sinner in hell. As Edwards might say, ‘you are presently held over the flames of hell and all that is keeping you from plunging into the abyss right now is the mighty, merciful hand of God.’ Dear unregenerate sinner, unplug your ears and hear the truth—your situation is dire, it is urgent; you are in grave danger. May the one who has ears to hear, hear.
Such a description is a far cry from what most of you have been taught to think about yourself. In fact, I would not find it to be a strange thing if some of you have disagreed with everything I have said about unregenerate sinners tonight. I’m not bothered by that, my preaching doesn’t answer to you or any other human being. Somewhere along the way, in this watered down culture, you have been taught that there is still enough good left in humanity that provided the right hymn with just enough verses, the right emotional appeal, the right lighting in the room; if the right opportunity presents itself, then the unregenerate sinner will surely awaken from the dead and come to Christ for life. Oh dear friend, you give humanity too much credit. You ignore the reality of sin, the depth and totality of our depravity. You think yourself to have reserved some good in the tank, when Paul clearly says that ‘no one does good, not even one.’ Dear unregenerate sinner hear the truth and have your pride whittled down—left to yourself, you are utterly hopeless. You are not in need of the right opportunity, but in need of a new heart. Therefore you must look outside of yourself for salvation.
Hallelujah! What a Savior!
But where should you look? Well, the Bible is not shy about answering. It boldly, unashamedly, and without reservation commands you to look to Christ Jesus for the divine rescue you are in need of. To look to Calvary, where the Eternal Son of God was crucified on a Roman cross as a substitute for anyone, who in total abandonment from self- reliance, comes to Him. As Augustus Toplady sings in that glorious hymn,
Nothing in my hands I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress,
Helpless, look to Thee for grace.
Foul, I to the fountain fly,
Wash me, Savior, or I die!Rock of Ages, Augustus Toplady. 1776
And indeed, He does dress those who come to Him naked of any self-righteous efforts. He clothes them in His righteous garments declaring them, and making them perfect in the eyes of God forever, once and for all. He gives this grace freely, without price, and it can only be received by faith. And faith, perceiving our impossible situation to be devoid of any relief from self-help, looks to Jesus. You must turn your eyes in repentance from yourself or any hope you harbor in yourself, and in faith turn the eyes of your wretched heart to Christ, looking to Him and Him alone for grace.
I have always thought this illustration of looking to be particularly vivid. Even more so, because it is an illustration that the Apostle John uses in his Gospel account! It comes to us through the recording of Jesus’s remarkable conversation with Nicodemus. Reflecting on the wilderness narrative, Jesus, reminds Nicodemus, a teacher of Israel, about an event which occurred during the ministry of Moses, which probably needs refreshed in our own minds as well!
The smell of victory was still fresh in their nostrils. The Lord God had just handed over the Canaanites to the people of Israel, and they had set out on their journey again. Following the pattern of previous accounts, the people grew impatient and begin to bicker and complain against our gracious God. The book of Numbers records the Lord’s response in a quick sentence.
Then the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people, and they bit them so that many Israelites died.Numbers 21:6, CSB
How would you have liked to been in that camp? Poisonous snakes everywhere, people dropping dead in droves. Yet God is merciful, and when the people are broken with conviction they plead with Moses to intercede on their behalf to God. Moses obliges them, and God responds another time, but this time with a gracious word.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake image and mount it on a pole. When anyone who is bitten looks at it, he will recover.”Numbers 21: 8, CSB
Dear friend, let me give you some solace. I think it would be bad preaching for me to assume that a ‘hard look’ was required for God’s word to be true. Some perhaps looked casually, and were bewildered as their inflamed bites withdrew. Some perhaps looked with enough force to cause whiplash, and were saved from both injuries. You see, it wasn’t faith that saved them, but the object of their faith—the Word of God, which saved them. It wasn’t the manner in how they looked, but that they looked believing the Word of God! So, don’t mistake strong faith to be saving faith. You can have strong faith in a weak branch, and still fall.
But here is the thing that must also be said about spiritual looking—it requires both eyes. They may have looked casually or with great force, but their looking required both eyes. They could not look to their salvation and still look at their snake bite. Neither can you look to Christ while still looking at yourself! You must look in repentance and faith, they are two eyes on the same head.
Drawing on this narrative and imagery, Jesus then tells Nicodemus,
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him May have eternal life. For God loved the world in this way: He gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.John 3:14-16, CSB
There is no other fountain to where you can fly—and be saved. There is not a Gospel A, or a Gospel B. Oh, just as God gave Israel one means of salvation, so God has given mankind One Savior, and that is Jesus!
Dear unregenerate sinner, do you now see yourself as depraved? Dear unconverted sinner, have your eyes now been opened to perceive your hopeless situation? Have you finally come to terms with your hopeless-in-self reality? Has your mantra suddenly become, “Foul, I to the fountain fly, Wash me Savior or I die!”
If by the grace of God this is true of you, then be of good cheer. The Gospel announces that His blood was poured out on the mercy seat in heaven as an atoning substitute for His children (Hebrews 9:23-25). Their sin became His, though He has never sinned. Their condemnation and punishment became His, though He was innocent of any trespass. The Spotless Lamb made to be a substitute for depraved man. The Holy in the place of the unholy, the righteous in the place of the unrighteous. Be of great joy, for at Calvary Jesus Christ washed clean the stain of those who come to Him.
And, let us not be slack here—this is not just a theological legality. Oh, the blood of Christ absolutely and eternally legally clears our account (Romans 5:1), but it also gives a real and practical cleansing as well (Hebrews 9:14)! And, this cleansing must be deep—because the stain of sin has penetrated to our very marrow, our core, our innermost parts thus making everything about ourself sinful, then the blood of Jesus must also cleanse to such depths (Hebrews 10:14). It is not like some spiritual oxiclean that merely removes a topical stain. Quite the contrary, for where the stain of sin has plunged deep, the grace of God plunges deeper (Romans 5:20)! Jesus doesn’t remove the stain of sin by scrubbing the surface, He does it by changing the heart (2 Corinthians 5:17). And, He does this through the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5)! We are born again, by the power of God through the blood of Christ, to an eternal life that Jesus has bought, and eternally secured for us. (Hebrews 9:15)
So, I believe, I stand on solid ground when I say that human beings are fully depraved. I also believe that I stand on solid ground when I say that through the blood of Christ, saints are fully cleansed—fully changed—fully made new. Thus, we who believe through repentance and faith in Christ, are no longer sinners in the hands of an angry God, but children in the arms of our Loving Father.
I think it is best to conclude by leading you to a response of worship, for that is our very purpose. As you grapple with the teaching of total depravity, I pray your heart is strangely warmed by the teaching of the Cross. Certainly this was the case for the heart of the hymn writer who sang,
“Man of Sorrows!” what a name
For the Son of God, who came
Ruined sinners to reclaim.
Hallelujah! What a Savior!
Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned He stood;
Sealed my pardon with His blood.
Hallelujah! What a Savior!
Guilty, vile, and helpless we;
Spotless Lamb of God was He;
“Full atonement!” can it be?
Hallelujah! What a Savior!Man of Sorrows, Phillip Bliss. 187
Yes, what a Savior indeed. If we have come to Him in faith then let us marvel, let us worship, let us rejoice in Christ our Savior! We were once totally depraved, but now we are totally saved! (Hebrews 7:25)