A Radical Failure to Reckon with Total Depravity

By Rev. Doug Barnes

It should be a simple question for any Reformed believer to answer: How accurately will an unbeliever interpret the “natural revelation” with which God has filled the creation?

Because of sin, man – although unable to ignore natural revelation – invariably will reject the message that it brings. He will deny it, twist it, and replace its message with a lie. Every. Single. Time.

Our confessions are clear about this.

How confounding, then, that theologians and preachers in confessionally Reformed churches are claiming that God employs “natural law” to govern entire realms of human life – without the interpretive aid of Scripture!

This is the Radical Two Kingdoms (R2K) view about which I have been writing. As explained previously, the R2K view divides life into two kingdoms: the spiritual realm and the secular realm. The spiritual kingdom is eternal; whereas the secular kingdom is said to be merely temporary. The spiritual kingdom is largely manifested in the church; and the secular kingdom encompasses most of the remainder of life.

God stands as Governor and King over both of these kingdoms, R2K advocates assure us.

However, they maintain that He rules the spiritual kingdom as Redeemer, revealing through Scripture His sovereign will for the spiritual life and worship of the saints. But Scripture was written only for the spiritual kingdom. For the rest – for all that comprises the secular realm – God has given natural law.

What, you might ask, is “natural law”?

R2K advocates appeal to passages like Rom. 1:19-20 and Rom. 2:14-16 to show that the creation reveals the existence and character of God. This includes the human conscience, on which the work of God’s moral law is, in some sense, inscribed. Reformed theology has always recognized this divine revealing within the creation as “natural revelation.” R2K advocates prefer the terminology of “natural law,” highlighting the fact that natural revelation so reveals the moral character of God as to provide insight into God’s moral law.

The Rev. Dr. R. Scott Clark, a URC professor at Westminster Seminary California, explains that natural law is universal. “When I say ‘natural law’ I mean a divinely revealed moral law that is embedded into the fabric of creation. It is known because it is revealed by God in nature and in the human conscience” (heidelblog.net/2013/02/of-hotels-and-2-kingdoms/, accessed on 6 Sept. 2022).

Moreover, Clark says, although Christ uses Scripture to rule in the spiritual realm, He exercises His reign in the secular realm by means of natural law. “The question is not whether Jesus is sovereign but how,” Clark explains. “King Jesus rules the ecclesiastical or redemptive sphere with law and gospel. The latter is found only in special revelation and the former is in special and natural revelation. He rules the civil or common or creation sphere with his law, revealed in creation (nature) and the conscience and by his restraining providence” (heidelblog.net/2013/04/common-is-not-neutral/, accessed on 6 Sept. 2022). 

Practically speaking, that means R2K advocates teach that morality is to be determined and defended within the secular realm (comprising most of life) not by appeal to Scripture, but by appeal to natural law. Appealing to Scripture for “norming” the secular realm would be an improper use of the Bible.

That means a Christian legislator would act inappropriately to cite Scripture in formulating or defending a law against polygamy or homosexuality. Instead, he should seek to outlaw such behavior on the grounds that it is an offense against the laws of nature. “No one has a fundamental right to do things that are contrary to nature,” Clark explains. “Thus, incest is properly illegal. Pedophelia is properly illegal because it is contrary to nature. Bestiality is properly illegal. This is why suicide is properly illegal – not because it is immoral or sinful but because it is contrary to nature” (heidelblog.net/2014/07/christianity-is-not-private-bakery/, accessed on 6 Sept. 2022).

This understanding of Christ’s reign in the world being exercised through natural law rests heavily on an overly developed concept of common grace. Clark defines common grace as “a way of speaking of those areas of life which are not ecclesiastical, which are, in some sense, common to believers and unbelievers and in which God operates by his providence to restrain evil and in which unbelievers are said to be able to do civic (not saving) good” (heidelblog.net/2013/04/common-is-not-neutral/, accessed on 6 Sept. 2022). He and other R2K proponents rely on common grace to explain how God uses the revelation of His character in the creation to exercise His kingly reign – apart from Scripture.

But the whole enterprise ignores the radically corrosive and blinding power of sin!

To be clear: I am not denying the existence of some form of natural law. Romans 1 is clear when it declares that “since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). More, we cannot deny that Rom. 2:15 indicates that the work of God’s Law is written on the heart of even the unregenerate, so that their conscience testifies against them when they do wrong.

However, Romans 1 also clearly declares that men – because of sin – refuse to know, glorify, or thank God. Instead, they “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18) and become futile in their thoughts. The glory of God that the creation reveals does not guide sinful men to understand the moral law of God; but merely leaves them without excuse. As Titus 1:15 says, “To the pure all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure; but even their mind and consciences are defiled.”

And that is what we confess in our Three Forms of Unity.

Article 14 of the Belgic Confession of Faith reminds us that God created man good, righteous, and holy – “able by his own will to conform in all things to the will of God.” However, once man sinned, he “corrupted his entire nature.” In this corruption, “all the light in us is turned to darkness.” Therefore Art. 14 concludes: “For there is no understanding nor will conforming to God’s understanding and will apart from Christ’s work, as he teaches us when he says, ‘Without me you can do nothing.’”

Apart from the Spirit of Christ and the interpretive guidance of Scripture, we cannot rightly understand natural revelation – including its revealing of God’s moral law.

The Canons of Dort offer a similar sad verdict. In Head 3/4, the Canons affirm that man was “created in the image of God and was furnished in his mind with a true and salutary knowledge of his Creator and things spiritual” (Art. 1). However, sin defiled his nature, depriving man of his gifts and bringing upon him “blindness, terrible darkness, futility, and distortion of judgment in his mind” (Art. 1). That corruption was passed down through the generations (Art. 2).

To be sure, the Canons affirm, God has maintained “a certain light of nature” that allows man to retain “some notions about God, natural things, and the difference between what is moral and immoral,” leading man to possess “a certain eagerness for virtue and for good outward behavior” (Art. 4 – often quoted by R2K advocates). However, that light of nature is limited and skewed. Due to the corruption of sin, “man does not use it rightly even in matters of nature and society. Instead, in various ways he completely distorts this light … and suppresses it in unrighteousness” (Art. 4 again).

In other words: God has indeed revealed Himself and His character in the world and in our consciences. But because of sin, we misunderstand and misuse it – always.

How silly, then, to think that Christ limits Himself to this always-misused revelation for ruling so much of human life and society!

Ah – but he doesn’t!! He has given us His Word – both to reveal the gospel that saves and guides us in matters spiritual … and to teach us how to honor God throughout life!

Scripture is essential for all of life – for instructing us in worship, but also for teaching us how to teach, for guiding us in good business ethics, for informing our science and history and literature. God gave Scripture to equip us for every good work (2 Tim. 3:17)!

Natural revelation is real. At the judgment, it will be evidence that everyone knew better. And for the believer, it has a powerful message.

But total depravity also is real. And it’s the reason why men – as long as sin remains in them – need Scripture to teach them how to serve the true King in every part of life.

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