Civil virtue refers to deeds that conform outwardly to the law of God and consequently do good to fellow man. However, these deeds are always done for reasons other than the glory of God. As such, as beneficial as they are for mankind, they are nevertheless unacceptable before God for salvation.
Aurelius Augustine, who was bishop of Hippo in North Africa in the fourth century after Christ, first defined this doctrine of radical corruption. A monk by the name of Pelagius had taught man’s moral ability before God. Pelagius contended that the fall affected only Adam and Eve, and that each of their descendents has the same moral ability to resist sin and obey God as did Adam and Eve themselves. Augustine, following the apostle Paul, developed what we now call the doctrine of original sin.
ORIGINAL SIN - So how did man become corrupt to the very root of his heart? Radical corruption is the result of Adam’s first sin in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were mankind’s representatives in a test of obedience. Before the fall, said Augustine, Adam and Eve had the ability not to sin as well as the ability to sin. Having fallen in sin, Adam and Eve became sinful to the core. They thereby pass on to their offspring their own sin nature. The result, according to Augustine, is that man now has the inability not to sin. So, man is not a sinner because he sins, but man sins because he is a sinner. Paul himself had said much the same thing in the book of Romans.
“What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, “There is none righteous, not even one; There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one. “Their throat is an open grave, With their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips; Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; their feet are swift to shed blood, destruction and misery are in their paths, and the path of peace have they not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Romans 3:9-17
MORAL ABILITY - Much of the controversy between Augustine and Pelagius was over the question of the freedom of the will. Like the term Total Depravity mentioned above, the term Free Will has been abused and confused by many. First of all, man certainly has a free will. Common sense makes that plain to all. So, what is the controversy all about then? The ultimate question is this “is man capable of doing anything to bring about his own salvation?” The Westminster Confession of Faith answered that question this way, “Man, by his fall into a state of sin, has wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.” Chapter 9, paragraph 3
Man has “wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation.” Man can do nothing to bring about or contribute to his own salvation. So you see the question is not whether man has free will or not, we know he does. The question is, does he ever exercise that will, even in the smallest of ways, in the pursuit of his own salvation? He does not. He does not because he cannot. He cannot because he is dead to spiritual things. Man can exercise his free will in those areas in which he has life. He has physical life and therefore can reason and will for his physical well being. However, he does not have spiritual life. “And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions…” (Colossians 2:12). Man’s ability to contribute to his own salvation is less than the ability of a fish to soar in the heavens. The major reason a fish does not fly is that it is of a different nature than a bird. Being of a different nature, it simply lacks the ability to do that which it is by nature incapable of doing. But man is worse than a fish. At least a fish is alive and might have some reasonable interest in flying. But not man. Man is dead to the things of God and has no interest in spiritual flight-because the dead have no interest at all.
Man is of a different nature than he was before the fall. Before the fall, he was spiritually alive. Because he was spiritually alive, he could and did will things of a spiritual nature. At the fall he died. He and his descendents continue in spiritual death. Man can no more will to do spiritual good than a corpse can will to live again. The capacity to will such things no longer exists. For a corpse to have life, it must be acted upon by an outside force. So, in man’s salvation, spiritual life must come to him from an outside source, “He made you alive…” (Colossians 2:12). Life is something a dead man cannot give himself, or even will to give himself. Life must be given him by another.
So, the conclusion is that man is radically corrupt. God said this of man’s condition, “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). This is radical corruption, right to the heart of man. Apart from God, man can do no spiritual good. He does not and cannot seek after God. If God did not take the initiative, man would die in his sins.
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The Bible teaches that man has experienced a cataclysmic moral fall in Adam. This fall has corrupted man at every part of his being. For this reason, this doctrine has often been called Total Depravity. However, this term is subject to a misunderstanding. It has frequently been thought that by this term Reformed theologians mean and teach that man is as corrupt as he can be, or that he is utterly depraved. This, however, is not the case. The Bible teaches and most men recognize that man, under God’s common grace, is capable of good deeds. For this reason, Radical Corruption has been suggested as a better term to describe man’s condition.
The word “radical” is derived from a Latin word meaning,“root.” Therefore, to say that man is radically corrupt is to say that sin has penetrated to the root or heart of man. Although this corruption keeps him from doing any good toward God, it does not keep him from showing what theologians call civil virtue.
Humanity's Radical Corruption - Total Depravity
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