The Apparent "Good" in Natural Man
If natural man's condition is Total Depravity, How do we account for the apparent "good" in the unregenerate?
Good question because the meaning of total depravity is often misunderstood. It should first be pointed out what "total depravity" does not mean. The doctrine does not refer to man being as evil a creature as he can be. All fallen, unregenerate human beings are endowed with many of God's common graces. God has blessed all men with a conscience and the capacity to promote virtue and civil righteousness. It is abundantly clear that many beautiful aspects of the world we live in have been brought forth by those which are unredeemed by God's regenerative grace. God has gifted natural men and women with the skill to create beautiful music, make profound works of art, to invent intricate machines and do countless things that are productive, excellent and praiseworthy. John Calvin said,
"Those men whom Scripture calls "natural men" were, indeed, sharp and penetrating in their investigation of inferior things. Let us, accordingly, learn by their example how many gifts the Lord left to human nature even after it was despoiled of its true good." (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 274-275).
It would be natural to ask, then, if man is totally depraved, how is it that he can bring forth so many good things? This question is indeed valid but misunderstands what is meant when we talk about man as being rendered depraved by the fall.
So what is meant, then, by the total depravity and spiritual inability of the natural man? It means that man's many good works, even though in accord with God's commands, are not well pleasing to God when weighed against His ultimate criteria and standard of perfection. The love of God and His law is not the unbelievers' deepest animating motive and principle (nor is it his motive at all), so it does not earn him the right to redemptive blessings from a holy God. The Scripture clearly implies this when it states "...without faith it is impossible to please Him." (Hebrews 11:6a, NASB) and "whatever is not from faith is sin." (Romans 14:23) So if man "is restrained from performing more evil acts by motives that are not owing to his glad submission to God, then even his "virtue" is evil in the sight of God." (John Piper) His purpose for doing good works are not from a heart that loves God. But regeneration has enabled us, for the first time, to be pleasing to God on the basis of Christ's work and, from this, the work of the Holy Spirit in renewing our affections for God, giving us understanding of, and a delight in, spiritual things and turning our heart of stone to a heart of flesh.
Total depravity only means man is lost (Luke 19:10), unspiritual by nature, and thus he is impotent to recover himself from his ruined estate (John 6:44, 65, Eph 2:1, 2:5; Rom 3:11; 2 Corinthians 4:4-6). In other words he cannot do any redemptive good. Fallen man does not desire God, he loves darkness and hates the light (John 3:19,20) so he will not come into Christ at all except he be reborn by the Holy Spirit (John 1:13, 3:6, John 6:37, 39, 44, 63-66; Rom 9:16).
Calvin made an observation from Romans 1 that all men (regenerate and unregenerate) have a sense of the divine within them. Even unbelievers know God in a sense because God has impressed his image on all persons. The apostle Paul said, "For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him..." (Rom 1:21) Since the Holy Spirit does not dwell with the fallen, the source of natural man's affections come from a polluted well. He has a sense of the divine and knows God, but only as an enemy, "and by their unrighteousness suppress the truth" (Rom 1:18). God has impressed humanity with a conscience and it restrains him from doing even more evil, but his heart cannot reach to the heavens to God unless the Spirit first pour His blessings down from heaven. God extends his love to man but since he is hostile to God by nature he will always reject Him. All are responsible to come to Him but inexcusable for their "knowing Him" but refusing to come to Him. "For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse." It is our duty to repent but we will not do so unless God grants repentance (2 Tim 2:25) and give us new eyes to see the truth. It is not just the light of God we need, but also new eyes to see that light.
- John W. Hendryx