It’s the 400th anniversary of one of our coolest confessions; the Canons of Dordt! Just over 400 years ago, an international meeting of teachers and pastors from various countries got together to talk about some of the things Jacob Arminius, a teacher at the University of Leiden, had taught and whose students after his death began spreading through the church. The Arminians taught that our election is based on foreseen faith, that Christ’s atonement is available to all who freely choose to accept it, limited human depravity, the resistibility of God’s grace, and the possibility of a fall from salvation. The Synod of Dordt rejected these views and wrote out the Reformed teaching on these points to give us a deeper assurance of the salvation that we find in the Scriptures. Our faith always points us to comfort and hope.
The Arminians teach that we work with God for our salvation by choosing to cooperate with the Holy Spirit. This means that we choose God first instead of God choosing us first. Instead of faith being a gift to us from God, faith is instead a gift that we give to God. The Arminians focus on our free will, our ability to choose to repent and believe in God through our own choice, though they do believe that we are all infected by sin. They believe we are sick, but can work with God to get better. Now this was all in reaction to the images in Scripture that compare us to worms because of our sin. The Arminians had a hard time with that because we’re created in the image of God and loved deeply by God, so they focused on the strength we have in being God’s children.
We were created by God, without sin, perfect and holy, but when Adam and Eve had an opportunity to become just like God by disobeying him, they did, and because of their sin, the entire human race is infected by sin. The Canons put it this way, “Human beings brought forth children of the same nature as themselves after the fall. That is to say, being corrupt they brought forth corrupt children. The corruption spread, by God’s just judgment, from Adam and Eve to all their descendants—except for Christ alone.” This corruption that we call sin has infected every part of our hearts, souls and minds. This sin keeps pushing us away from God and making ourselves the center of the universe. According to the Bible, our sin not only infects us, it kills us. The Apostle Paul in his letter to the church in Ephesus writes, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.”
The Canons tell us that we are infected by sin through Adam and Eve. They disobeyed God even though they knew the consequence was death. Now this death is both physical and the place we live, shaping who we are. The only one not touched by this sin infection is Jesus, who is human, but is also completely God and so is un-infected by sin and because of this, Jesus is able to take our sin to the cross and bring us healing from its infection. Jesus is our soul’s antibiotics, our soul’s best medicine that completely heals us.
Paul comes out strong in Romans 3, taking a number of Old Testament passages from the Psalms and Prophets to emphasize that we are all under sin; “As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.” “The poison of vipers is on their lips.” “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Now remember that Paul’s quoting poetry and Old Testament prophets who regularly use hyperbole, saying something with extreme language in order to get God’s message across. Jesus uses the same kind of language when he says things like pluck out your eye if you look lustfully at a woman or cut off your hand if you steal. Paul’s message is that we all need Jesus to get right with God our Father. Our sin is serious and only Jesus can heal us. We cannot heal ourselves, or save ourselves from our sin.
That’s what total depravity, the ‘T’ in the TULIP of the Canons of Dordt, looks like. It reminds us that there is no part of our lives that is untouched by sin, no part of our life where we don’t need Jesus to come in and make us fully and completely clean. It keeps us humble, keeps us coming back to Jesus. The Heidelberg Catechism, question and answer 62, says “But why can our good works not be our righteousness before God, or at least a part of it?” The answer is “Because the righteousness which can stand before God's judgment must be absolutely perfect and in complete agreement with the law of God, whereas even our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.” Paul writes in verse 20 “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.”
When we do something good, and we do good things all the time because the image if God is still found in us, even if it’s twisted by sin, the good we do doesn’t heal us or save us. But it does give us a glimpse of the image of God still found in each person. This is why you can find amazingly kind, generous people who help others, fight for justice for those who are oppressed, and work hard to make our world a better place, but who don’t follow Jesus. This kind of good, called common grace, is found in everyone because God gives everyone different gifts to bless our world. But this good does not save us from our sin.
Even when we do something good, it’s infected by sin. I remember sitting in my study in Montreal. My study overlooked a park right across the street. The park was right in the middle of the street and the neighbourhood children would play and ride their bikes and scooters on the road around the park. On this afternoon, the children were riding their bikes like usual, when one of the little boys wiped out. His cries of pain filled the air, but his mom didn’t seem to hear him, so I went out to help him with his skinned knee and tears. It was a good thing to do, but there was also selfishness involved, I wanted him quiet and happy so I could concentrate on my sermon again. A touch of sin in a good deed. We know these things are true because we experience them all too often, staying silent when nasty things are said or done; allowing quiet prejudice make us believe we are better than the other person because of their skin colour, ethnic background, or social standing; or being critical of other believers because they read the Bible differently than us or worship differently than we do. All quiet ways where sin shows up in our hearts, even if it never reaches our lips.
We find hope in God’s commitment to us. We may be dead in our sin, but as Paul reminds us in Ephesians 2, “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.” God never gives up on us. Right after sin enters into the world, God promises a saviour, someone who will crush the serpent’s head. Jesus comes and shows us how to live, offering forgiveness and grace, washing our sin away on the cross, and then sending us his Spirit when he returns to heaven so that we have God in us, guiding us and comforting us, changing us to become more and more like Jesus, giving us the gift of faith that keeps drawing us to back to God our Father.
We may be dead in sin, but Jesus gives us new life! Our sin has been healed and we’re being changed each day by the Holy Spirit to be more like Jesus; perfect and healed from sin.