While doing some reading on Five-Point Calvinism for a possible future series of articles, I read the following on the subject of Total Depravity. On the first read, I didn't catch the problem, but there was something that just didn't seem right to me. I went back and perused the context of Romans 14. Here is what the article said:
- Romans 14:23 says, "Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin." This is a radical indictment of all natural "virtue" that does not flow from a heart humbly relying on God's grace.
The terrible condition of man's heart will never be recognized by people who assess it only in relation to other men. Romans 14:23 makes plain that depravity is our condition in relation to God primarily, and only secondarily in relation to man. Unless we start here we will never grasp the totality of our natural depravity.
(John Piper & Bethlehem Baptist Church Staff, "What We Believe About the Five Points of Calvinism", revised March 1998, source)*
Let's not look at whether Piper's points are correct yet. Let's just decide whether the passage he cites does in fact teach these points. Don't think I'm nitpicking. The points Piper is trying to make are very critical ones. Whether they stand or fall will make a significant impact on our theology one way or another. So, ensuring that these points have a Biblical basis is very important no matter where you stand on the issue....Read More!
Upon reading Romans 14, one will discover that Paul is not using the term "faith" in the sense of "saving faith" in this passage at all. He is discussing sins of the conscience and referring to personal convictions. Verse 23 and the two preceding verses read as follows:
- It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
(Romans 14:21-23 ESV)
The New Living Translation, Second Edition, renders the same passage in this way:
- It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything else if it might cause another believer to stumble. You may believe there's nothing wrong with what you are doing, but keep it between yourself and God. Blessed are those who don't feel guilty for doing something they have decided is right. But if you have doubts about whether or not you should eat something, you are sinning if you go ahead and do it. For you are not following your convictions. If you do anything you believe is not right, you are sinning.
Remember that "faith" (pistis) in the New Testament can refer to intellectual belief, moral conviction, reliance, trust, or a system of belief (only with the direct article "the"). Ouk ek pisteos (οὐκ ἐκ πίστεως) is often rendered "not from faith" and is functionally equivalent to "from doubt." Therefore, pan de ho ouk ek pisteos hamartia estin (πᾶν δὲ ὃ οὐκ ἐκ πίστεως ἁμαρτία ἐστίν) can be translated, "furthermore, all which is from doubt is sin." The phrase ouk ek (οὐκ ἐκ) ("not from" or "not out of") can also mean "against." The Greek word pistis can be translated any one of the following English words, depending on the context: faith, reliance, assurance, belief, or conviction, among others. In other words, Paul is saying, "everything that is done against moral conviction is sin" or "everything you do that is against what you believe is sin."
Robertson agrees: "Faith (pistis) here is subjective, one's strong conviction in the light of his relation to Christ and his enlightened conscience." The Contemporary English Version (CEV) has it, "anything you do against your beliefs is sin." And Eugene Peterson paraphrases it, "If the way you live isn't consistent with what you believe, then it's wrong."
John Calvin even commented on Romans 14:23:
- The word faith is to be taken here for a fixed persuasion of the mind, or, so to speak, for a firm assurance, and not that of any kind, but what is derived from the truth of God.
(John Calvin, "Commentary on Romans", source)
A good summary of what Paul is saying might be: "In these morally-ambiguous sort of issues, follow your conscience. If you believe it is wrong according to God to eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols, then don't, because though it may not actually be sin, you are sinning by your intention to commit what you do believe is sin."
While Bethlehem Baptist's statement indicates that "faith" in Romans 14:23 is referring to "a heart humbly relying on God's grace," the context doesn't support that interpretation. The points Piper and Bethlehem Baptist are trying to make could be true, but we would never know from this passage. Interpreting Romans 14:23 in this way is going beyond Paul's authorial intent—something of which we've all been guilty with one scripture or another.
Another man attempted to take Piper's first point using this text and take it to a logical conclusion. He wrote,
- Romans 14:23 says, "Whatever is not from faith is sin." If you are not a believer in Christ, everything you do is sin. Going to church is sin, being kind to your room mate is sin, being honest is sin, coming to Campus Crusade for Christ is sin, its all sin! Everything is sin!
(Dustin Shramek, "The Supremacy of God in the Depravity of Man", source)
Is that true? Is everything sin? Is being honest sin? No. That statement is exactly the opposite of the Ninth Commandment. Isn't that silly? Now, you can have a motive that is wrong while telling the truth (such as, hoping for another's unjust downfall), but the honesty itself is not wrong, your heart is. Jesus settled this in the Gospels. The heart is indeed deceitfully wicked. But there are worlds separating the idea that every deed is a sin for the unconverted and the idea that any action could be done with a sinful motive.
I tell you, it takes just one sin to garner the full and just wrath of Almighty God! Every sin is "exceedingly sinful," and an everything-is-sin theology of sin is unnecessary to a complete theology of salvation and unsubstantiated.
Honesty doesn't have to be sin in order for everyone to deserve Hell—"all men are liars" (Romans 3:4) and "all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone" (Revelation 21:8). That's both succinct and complete. If you are a liar, you are bound for Hell. And everyone is a liar. (It's just that Jesus has provided a way for them to be rescued from their "part.")
I'm not saying that there aren't often unrighteous motives underlying good actions. I'm not even saying that it's not likely that most good deeds are in fact done out of impure motives. I wouldn't argue with that. I'm saying, let's not call the actions sins if they aren't sins. That's not sending the right message. It's not pointing out the deeper problem.
Blame the marionetter. The heart pulls the strings.
* I agree with John's point that "depravity is our condition in relation to God primarily, and only secondarily in relation to man," but Romans 14:23 doesn't speak to this point.