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Oct 28, 2018

Part 3 - Fully Responsible Yet Totally Unable

Passage: Romans 3:9-20

Preacher: John Huizinga

Series: Canons of Dort

Category: God Is Sovereign in Salvation

Keywords: radical corruption, responsibility, sin, total depravity, total inability


Part three of our study celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Canons of Dort. We read from Romans 3 and Romans 8 and receive the theme that human beings are ‘Fully Responsible Yet Totally Unable.’ One reaction to the messages so far has been to ask the question of free will. The Canons address this in Head 3 / 4 focusing on how sin affects the human will and radically corrupts it. How radically have our choices been corrupted? How limited are we spiritually? It’s not that human beings can’t do any good, but that outside of Christ human beings can’t do any SAVING good. This is a message to guide us in confession and contrition with humble thanks for the forgiving love of God.


So what did you think of Romans 3’s description

of human behavior?

“There is no one righteous, not even one;

11     there is no one who understands;

    there is no one who seeks God.

12 All have turned away,

    they have together become worthless;

there is no one who does good,

    not even one.”


Is this you?

Is this me?

Those of us who know the Bible and study it well

are not surprised by this language.

We recognize that the Apostle Paul

is quoting from the Old Testament Psalms

and from Isaiah.

We understand a little of the language

of sin and guilt.


But that’s not the case for everyone,

or even most today.

A recent poll found that over half of those

who consider themselves Christian

believe that people are basically good.

And the prevailing understanding today

is that the only standard of what’s righteous

is what I decide for myself.

As long as I’m true to myself,

I’m being the best person I can be.

This is me, you must accept me as I am.


Yet this pride in ourselves is haunted.

If we’re all basically good

and the world is full of nice people,

how come things are so bad?

How come there are so many shootings and murders only a few miles from here

on pretty much a daily basis?

How come the church is full of hypocrites?

How come it’s so hard to believe in God

or we so often question the Lord

or struggle against temptation?


All of this and more is evidence

that something has gone wrong.

Something is broken.

Broken in each of us and in all of us.

And all of the sudden these ancient words

are speaking the truth to us and about us.

There is such a thing as sin.

Not just doing wrong things,

but missing the mark

when it comes to God’s righteousness and holiness.

You and I are not just accountable to ourselves,

we are each and all accountable to God.


What the Bible is describing and revealing here

is the depravity of the human life and soul.

You’ve heard the term ‘total depravity.’

That doesn’t mean human beings

 are always and everywhere

as bad as they can be.

It is instead referring to our total inability

to do any saving good,

that is anything that would merit God’s saving grace

or connect us in any real way with the Lord God.

It is better to think of it as a total inability

to love the Lord

or obey God’s will

or give glory to our Heavenly Father

by what we think, say, or do,

without the transforming grace of God.

Romans 8:7-8 summarizes this radical corruption:

7 The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8 Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

Hostile to God . . .

. . . cannot please God.

Total inability.

The reason for this is the sin of Adam and Eve

in the Garden of Eden.

Though human beings

were created in the image of God

and made to live with God and for God,

when Adam and Eve sinned

that image was broken and marred.

The result is that even our best

is stained with selfishness or self-interest

and together we share in

the corruption of the human soul.


Here’s the question to get right

when it comes to a proper understanding

of our need for God:

are we sinners because we sin,

or do we sin because we are sinners?


Canons of Dort: . . . all people are conceived in sin and are born children of wrath,

unfit for any saving good, inclined to evil,

dead in their sins, and slaves to sin.

Without the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit they are neither willing nor able to return to God,

to reform their distorted nature,

or even to dispose themselves to such reform.


We sin because we are sinners.

We are neither willing nor able to do otherwise.


Again we resist.

How is this fair?

That the sin of the first human beings means

I am corrupted spiritually.

The explanation is that the first human beings

were given the task of representing all humanity.

We know a little about representation.

Next week we elect representatives;

they act in our stead, on behalf of us.

We are responsible for what they do.

It is similar in our families.

Dad and mom’s decisions affect the whole family.


When it comes to our humanity,

we are more connected than we want to admit.

Still we protest being held responsible.

Why should we bear the guilt of those first humans?

We protest like individualists.

But the fact that we are able to think

of ourselves as unrelated, disunited individuals

without responsibility to and with one another

is evidence of our fallenness.

It was Cain who asked,

Am I my brother’s keeper?

Of course you are,

of course we are.


But there is a divine reason for our connectedness,

it allows us to receive the mercy of Jesus

who becomes the second Adam,

our mediator who represents us before the Father.

God responds to our total inability

by becoming one of us,

and being both God and human

his perfect life results in the perfect sacrifice.

He is able,

so we are forgiven and made right with God.


Romans 8 - Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.

All of this helps us understand

the limits and the value of free will.

One of your objections

to God’s sovereignty in election,

that God chooses by his perfect love,

mercy and justice those for salvation

before time, now and in eternity,

is this question of free will.


How can I truly love God if I don’t have a choice?

More, it appears to me every day

that I am a free human being.

Like we said with our kids:

we make what appear to be free choices all day long:

I get up early

or stay in bed until the last possible moment

I need to be up to catch the bus,

I choose either a salad or a sandwich or nothing

but a long run for lunch,

I decide to volunteer for PADS

or give to the Sunday offering cause.

And more,

since it’s my choice

I am responsible for what I do and choose not to do.

If it’s not up to me how can I be responsible?

Human beings were created free

to serve and live for the glory of God.

They were also free to sin.

Which is what the story of Adam and Eve

in Genesis 3 describes.

Tempted, humans sinned,

resulting in the corruption of the whole human race.

Those first human beings

represented the whole human race

and in that first sin poisoned human nature.

One casualty was our freedom.

The Bible doesn’t say

how this corruption is passed on,

only that it is:

we are born in sin, says Psalm 51.

And Romans 5:12: Sin entered the world

through one man, and death through sin,

and in this way death came to all people,

because all sinned.

That’s our condition sharing in humanity.


So now instead of being free to sin,

we are not free not to sin.

Get it?

We can’t help but sin.

But we are responsible for our actions

because we were made for God,

yet we cannot live for God in our corrupted state.


Ephesians 2:1 says it this way:

As for you,

you were dead in your transgressions and sins . . .

How much freedom does a dead person exercise?

One study helps us understand it all:

The most important thing

about the Calvinistic understanding of free will

is that humans are free to make choices,

but only capable of making choices

according to their nature.


Think of our physical limitations.

For instance, we can choose to eat healthy

and exercise and get proper rest –

and thus possibly extend our lives –

but we are still mortal

and we cannot prevent many diseases

or even our own eventual death.


In a similar sense, you and I have free will

over some aspects of life

as we has been granted these rights by God. However, without Christ we are, by nature,

dead in sin.

This means that it is not possible for us

to "choose" salvation.

A sick man may choose to take medicine

and help his own healing,

but a dead man can’t choose anything.

This is the doctrine of total depravity.


We act wickedly by our corrupted will,

we are not forced to act that way,

therefore we are still responsible.


All this does not take away God’s sovereign will.

One story illustrates this:

When Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery,

they did so with wicked motives.

Yet, later in his life Joseph informed his brothers:

“As for you, you meant evil against me,

but God meant it for good,” (Gen. 50:20).

The Lord God and Joseph’s brothers

acted in opposition

resulting in Joseph’s imprisonment.

God meant it for good,

and Joseph’s brother’s meant it for evil.

Joseph does not excuse his brother’s evil actions

just because God ordained them for good.

Joseph affirms divine sovereignty

and human responsibility.

Augustine: “For we do not say

that man is dragged unwillingly into sinning,

but that because his will is corrupt

he is held captive under the yoke of sin

and therefore of necessity wills in an evil way.

For where there is bondage, there is necessity.”


When we do manage something good:

when we find the good in the day and then add to it,

this is a sign of the Spirit of God at work in us.

So this is not a cause of pride for me,

but a reason to give thanks

for the grace of the Lord within me.

Jesus and his victory over sin

by his willing sacrifice on the cross

restores my freedom and ability.

I am made alive to Christ.


Remember, we started by saying

humans were created free to sin,

then because of sin we became slaves to sin

and so lost that freedom,

so we are born not free not to sin.

Re-born in Christ’s salvation,

now we are free not to sin.

And the struggle against the flesh,

against asserting my will over God’s will,

is a worthwhile struggle.


So why is all this important?

It’s been said that Reformed Christians

believe so much in total depravity

that they can’t stop living that way.

But notice that the reality of our fallen condition

and our broken spirits is what we were,

not what we are or what we will fully be.

And we’ll explore the life of grace

more completely in a couple of weeks.


The Bible reveals humanity’s radical corruption

and total spiritual inability outside of Christ

to help us in these ways.

First, in order to know God

we have to know ourselves.

Andrew Kuyvenhoven says,

‘The trouble with most people is that

they don’t know the trouble we are in.’

If the diagnosis is wrong or incomplete

the treatment won’t result in health.


And so today, if we are afraid to talk about sin,

if we conclude that our misery is not the result of sin,

then we will trust in faulty solutions,

false idols.


Knowing about our radical corruption

keeps us from assuming that sin

is just something out there,

that there are just bad people who do bad things,

and if we can just educate them better,

or punish them more swiftly,

or take away their temptations,

we’ll solve our problems.

Robert Murray McCheyne observes,

“The seed of every sin known to man is in my heart.”

So while we support what we can

to love our neighbor

and bring true justice

and exercise meaningful mercy,

our witness needs more:

the basic exercises of confession,

of repentance,

and of forgiveness

are the spiritual practices that point to the truth of our human condition and the need for Christ.

This is why we are church –

to witness Jesus, the Savior.


Have your kids learned what repentance is from you?

Have we supported one another in confession

and forgiveness in our small groups?

Do we respond in worship

during these much needed communal exercises

or do our minds and hearts wander?



to understand both the limits of our corrupted wills

and how Christ alone restores our freedom

and responsibility to love God and neighbor

is important today

when more and more scientific reasoning insists

that human beings are not free

and therefore not responsible.


Scientists point to changes in brain chemistry

that alter our ability to choose.

You’ve seen it in things as simple as

those Snickers commercials

where a person is not herself

until someone gives her a Snickers to eat.

And do you remember Ethan Couch?

In 2013, Texas teenager Ethan Couch—

who at the time was intoxicated, speeding,

and driving illegally on a restricted license—

plowed into a group of people with his truck.

Four died; nine were injured.

At trial, Couch’s attorneys blamed “affluenza.” According to Couch’s lawyers,

his wealth was to blame

and he was not responsible for his actions.


And then there was the young couple

that came into the church office

to fill out a pre-marriage questionnaire form.

The young man,

who had never talked to this pastor before,

was quite nervous

and the pastor tried to put him at ease.

When they came to the question,

"Are you entering this marriage

of your own free will?"

there was a long pause.

Finally, the young woman

looked over at the apprehensive young man

and said, "Put down yes."

Sam Harris, an atheist,

insists on an evolutionary scheme

for understanding life and says:

“Free will is an illusion.

Our wills are simply not of our own making.”

No human being is responsible for his genes

or his upbringing,

yet we have every reason to believe

that these factors determine his character.

― Sam Harris, Free Will


But we cherish our freedom!

And we guard the dignity of human beings

in holding each other accountable for our actions!

Here the gospel of Jesus Christ

states the way of wholeness.

Canons of Dort article 16:

describes the life-giving

and freedom-restoring regenerating grace of God

in the life of the elect:

. . . this divine grace of regeneration

does not act in people

as if they were blocks and stones;

nor does it abolish the will and its properties

or coerce a reluctant will by force,

but spiritually revives, heals, reforms, and—

in a manner at once pleasing and powerful—

bends it back.

In this the true and spiritual restoration

and freedom of our will consists.


So appreciate being taught to tell the truth,

to consider the needs of others,

to be scolded for selfish acts,

to be held to a standard of doing the right thing

no matter what it costs you

and no matter how others behave.

Kids, some day it will surprise you

when people lie to you

or try to take advantage of you,

or try to get you into trouble.

They have not been raised to recognize sin

or value repentance.


Because my freedom is restored by Jesus

my actions do matter.

I can give glory to God.

I can love my neighbor.

I can resist temptation.

I can repent when I fall short of God’s glory.

Learning to love what God loves

and despise what God despises

is valuable and honoring to the Lord

for the life I have been given.



“Christ did not die for the good and beautiful.

It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for

the miserable and corrupt.”

― Shūsaku Endō, Silence


When we are humbly thankful for the love of God

who would give the Son of God for the likes of me,

how can I be anything but

humble and compassionate toward others?

While it is difficult

I must insist in my heart

that responses like anger or revenge

or holding a grudge

or thinking the worst of another

are inexcusable in me

in light of what Jesus has endured for me.


Jesus once said, (Mt 9:13)

. . . go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”


And knowing what we know now

about our radical corruption and total inability outside of Christ,

we confess we have not journeyed long enough

or deep enough into the exercise of mercy

toward one another and our neighbors.


Therefore, there is now no condemnation

for those who are in Christ Jesus,

2 because through Christ Jesus

the law of the Spirit who gives life

has set you free from the law of sin and death.

Let us witness to the only way.