Still Totally Depraved Q/A

Below are answers by Professor Engelsma to questions following his lecture “Still Totally Depraved?”.

Question #1:

You spoke of the Christian having two natures. We know that Christ has two natures, a human and divine nature in one divine person. Does the Bible use the terminology of a believer having two natures? Do the creeds use such language? Do theologians use it? More importantly, how would you define it? What is the old and what is the new nature? How do we distinguish the new man from the Holy Spirit who created him?


The truth that the believer has two natures is not stated in so many words in the Bible. It is a doctrine derived from the teaching of the Bible in other words. The same is true of the truth that Christ has two natures. The Bible does not state this in so many, exact words, that is: “Jesus has two natures.” You will not find in the Bible the exact words: “Jesus has a divine nature”; “Jesus has a human nature.” But we find in Scripture the plain teaching that Jesus is God and Jesus is man.” In fact, we do not find in the Bible the exact statement that God is Trinity. As I stated in my lecture, Scripture (especially in Romans 7), the creeds (especially in the Heidelberg Catechism, Questions 88-90), and the Reformed tradition (especially Bavinck in the quotations I gave in the lecture) teach the two natures of the believer.

I would define the truth of the two natures this way: the believer is a new, holy man who performs good works inasmuch as he is regenerated by the Spirit of Christ and thus renewed in soul and body. At the same time, he is a totally depraved human by virtue of and with respect to the corrupt nature he has inherited from Adam through his parents.

We distinguish the new man from the Holy Spirit thus, that the elect becomes the new man by the working of the H. Spirit within him in his heart. The new man is not the H. Spirit. I as a human person become the new man. The H. Spirit is the one who makes me the new man. The biblical analogy is this, that the H. Spirit is the one who created the good universe or world in the beginning. He is not himself the new world that He made (see Ephesians 2:10).


Question #2:

If we have two natures, what nature do our good works proceed from?


Our holy and good nature itself, with the good works that are part of it, proceed from the Holy Spirit of Christ who created and maintains the holy nature or new man that we now are. The good works that we do proceed from us ourselves as we are holy men and women, by the saving working of the Spirit of Christ upon us. Or, to use the language of Philippians 2:12, 13, we ourselves, as we are now new men and women, or holy natures, do really perform the good works, loving God and the neighbor, and we do so by the saving power of God working in us the willing and doing of the good.

Even then, there is no work that is perfectly good. Our old nature spoils every good work with indwelling sin.


Question #3:

You mentioned “progressive sanctification” in your lecture last night. Can you give a definition please.


“Progressive sanctification” is the truth and Reformed doctrine that the believer increases in holiness of life throughout his or her life. He is more holy at 80 than he was at 18. The Heidelberg Catechism teaches this in the phrase “more and more” in Questions 70, 76, 81, 89, and 115. It consists of the increasingly powerful working of the H. Spirit of Christ in him so that his repentance regarding sin is deeper and more intense and his love of God and desire to do His will increase. There is therefore a stronger and more faithful fashioning of his life according to the law of God. Such however is the presence and power of the old man that even then the believer has only a small beginning of the new obedience.


Question #4:

The third point of Common Grace states that “God, without renewing the heart, so influences human beings that, though incapable of doing any saving good, they are able to do civil good.”
We would condemn this statement as denying the truth of Total Depravity, because the ability to perform good works means one is *not* totally depraved. How can we say this unhypocritically, while also insisting that the believer *can* perform good works, but is still totally depraved? If it’s possible for a totally depraved person to perform good works (as some would say about the believer), then the 3rd point cannot be a denial of Total Depravity.


The third point of common grace attributes an ability to perform good works of a kind to the unbeliever, who is only totally depraved. He has no new nature. He is no new man. Therefore, to attribute good works to him is to deny total depravity. It is to say the natural man, the man not born again, thus becoming a new man in Christ, is capable of good works.

To recognize the performance of good works by the born again believer, as does Philippians 2:12, 13 and as does Q. 90 of the Catechism, is not likewise to deny total depravity because the believer has been born again by the H. Spirit, who empowers him to perform good works. He performs good works, not by his fallen nature, but in the power of his new man, which is the working of the H. Spirit within him. It is not merely possible for a believer to perform good works. It is a reality. Indeed, it is impossible for him not to perform good works. Jesus taught that a good tree produces good fruit. One who does not perform good works is an unregenerated unbeliever. And if he refuses to perform good works to the day of his death, he is a damned reprobate.


Question #5:

You explained the old man and the new man within each regenerated believer to be two different natures. When the concept of two natures within one person is mentioned, I immediately think of Christ. Although there are obvious differences (one of the natures of Christ is divine), do we have two natures in any way similar to those two natures of Christ?


The question is an astute one, and helpful to grasp and believe the truth of the two natures of the believer. One who stubbornly denies that one and same person cannot have, or be, two natures is refuted by the two natures of Christ. Christ is one person. This one person has, or is, two distinct natures: God and man. One person can be two different substances in one and the same person. To say the same thing differently, what one is (a nature) can be “twofold” (Calvin’s description, as I quoted in my lecture) in one and the same person. When I was making my lecture, I thought about making this very point.


Question #6:

You explained that sometimes the regenerated child of God acts out of his new nature rather than being dominated by his old nature. Is it proper to speak of God “enabling” us his children to live holy lives, or is this a word that leaves the implication that it is part God’s work and part man’s?


By regeneration of the elect, God the Holy Spirit “enables” him to live a holy life, which he was not able to do before regeneration. This enabling is such that God actually causes him to life a holy life. And this is what the Reformed believer invariably means when he confesses enabling. He does not intend merely that God makes it possible and leaves the actual performing up to the elect believer. He rather wants to emphasize that upon regeneration the child of God is able to live the kind of life that was impossible before regeneration. He does not intend to deny or minimize that God works in the believer to will and do obedience to the law of God. Those who joyfully seize upon the use of the word “enables” by a Reformed Christian in order quickly and unjustly to charge Arminianism and to create a controversy where in reality there is none and thus present themselves as the only magnificent, orthodox theologians are unbrotherly and unjust. At the very least, they should inquire of the one who uses the word, “enables,” what they mean by the word and whether they do indeed intend that God leaves the willing and doing up to the elect sinner, which invariably they do not.


Question #7:

Often in scripture it is plain that the Lord empowers His children, so they live out of their new nature. At other times, there is no mention of God’s work, but emphasis on the believer’s activity only. One passage is 2 Timothy 4:6-8, where Paul, it seems, calls attention to himself, “I have fought a good fight, I have kept the faith, I have finished my course…” No qualification that it was God’s work within him. Why is this? As a believer approaches the end of his life, should he speak this way or more honoring to God to speak of God’s gracious work within him?


This question points out that in order to establish sound doctrine one must take into account, not merely one isolated passage of Scripture but the whole of the Bible’s teaching. The classic proof of this is that one might isolate a phrase in Psalm 14:1 as the teaching that there is no God. A fundamental principle of biblical interpretation is that Scripture must interpret Scripture. Doing this with the passage you quote, II Timothy 4:6-8, one explains that, in fact, God works in the believer all the godly activity that the apostle claims of himself. This is the explanation of Philippians 2:12, 13. Equally important for the truth of the Christian life is that according to II Timothy 4:6-8 God works the Christian life and activity in us in such a way that, as is taught by II Timothy, the believer is truly active. The believer does personally and actively fight the good fight, keep the faith, etc. God does not do these things; the believer does these things. This is the way God works in him. Just as it is serious error to teach that the believer lives the Christian life by his own power and will, so also is it serious error to deny that the believer himself fights the good fight, etc., as though God does these things in him apart from the believer’s own willing and working. An indication that something is seriously wrong with a minister or a church is that he and it are strong on the doctrine of divine sovereignty but virtually silent regarding the calling and activity of the saved Christian, as though they are afraid of exhortations, or explain exhortations in the Bible as only pointing out what the believer is unable to perform. This is weakness concerning the power and glory of the saving work of God: He works in such a way as to cause the naturally depraved elect to love and do the good, truly himself to love and do the good.