Examining the doctrine of “Total Depravity” in Calvinism
Total Depravity is a doctrine that stems from the TULIP. The TULIP is also called the 5 points of Calvinism. The TULIP stands for Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the saints. Total Depravity teaches man has no free will to choose God, but is dead in his transgressions and it is God who predestines those whom He has chosen to be saved, while the others who are not predestined have no ability at all to be saved because they will not be regenerated.
Some common questions: Is the doctrine of Total Depravity true? Is the doctrine of Total Depravity false? What does the Bible teach on free will, choice, man’s responsibility, and total depravity?
- The following will be quotes from John Calvin, Canons of Dordt on the doctrine of Total Depravity, and a Biblical response to the doctrine of Total Depravity.
Quotes from John Calvin: “For our nature is not only utterly devoid of goodness, but so prolific in all kinds of evil, that it can never be idle. Those who term it concupiscence use a word not very inappropriate, provided it were added, (this, however, many will by no means concede,) that everything which is in man, from the intellect to the will, from the soul even to the flesh, is defiled and pervaded with this concupiscence; or, to express it more briefly, that the whole man is in himself nothing else than concupiscence.” (Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 2, Chapter 1, Section 8) Concupiscence is the Greek word “Epithumia” which means: “desire, craving, longing, desire for what is forbidden, lust.” (KJV New Testament Greek Lexicon online at Crosswalk Bible Study Tools) Concupiscence means to desire or long for something that is forbidden, that which is not of God. John Calvin is stating that man is completely in the state of concupiscence in which man can do no good at all unless it is God who first changes the will of man to do good. John Calvin and the teachings of Calvinism teach that man is dead in sin and there is nothing that man can do which is good, therefore man has no ability or free will to choose God because he is in a state of concupiscence.
What the Bible teaches in response to “man has no ability or free will to choose God”
The Bible teaches in many places that man was “unwilling” to come to the Lord: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling.” (Matthew 23:37 NASB) Here Jesus makes two things very clear. The first being that Jesus said that He wanted to gather them together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, thus indicating Jesus wanted them to come unto Him but they were “unwilling.” Second, Jesus said they were “unwilling” to come indicating they had a choice or free will. If a person has the ability to be unwilling they also have the ability to be willing, that is just common sense. In the King James version, Matthew 23:37 says “ye would not”, proving that there is a free will. Jesus did not say “you could not” but rather He said, “you would not.” The doctrine of Total Depravity teaches that man either rejects God or chooses God because of His predestined plan of who will be saved and who will not be saved. In the book of Acts, Stephen is before the religious Jews preaching the message of Jesus Christ to them, and Stephen indicates that they resisted the Holy Spirit. “You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did.” (Acts 7:51 NASB) Stephen states here that they resisted the Holy Spirit, thus indicating they were unwilling to accept the message of Jesus Christ. In John 16:7-15 Jesus taught that the Holy Spirit would come and testify about Him, but it does not say, “the Holy Spirit would force people to believe.” The point is if we are able to be “unwilling to come to Christ” and able “to resist the Holy Spirit” then we have a free will. In the book of Joshua the teaching of free will is clearly there: “15 “If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” 16 The people answered and said, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods; 17 for the LORD our God is He who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, from the house of , and who did these great signs in our sight and preserved us through all the way in which we went and among all the peoples through whose midst we passed. 18 “The LORD drove out from before us all the peoples, even the Amorites who lived in the land. We also will serve the LORD, for He is our God.” 19 Then Joshua said to the people, “You will not be able to serve the LORD, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgression or your sins. 20 “If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then He will turn and do you harm and consume you after He has done good to you.” 21 The people said to Joshua, “No, but we will serve the LORD.” 22 Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen for yourselves the LORD, to serve Him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” (Joshua 24:15-22 NASB) In these verses there are four “proofs” that total depravity is not accurate. First, this is before the work of the cross and the regenerating of the Holy Spirit. Calvinism teaches that a person cannot receive Jesus without first being regenerated, known as being born again. People were not born again before the work of the cross; that came after Christ was crucified and resurrected. Secondly, the people were given a “choice” to choose to serve God or to serve false gods. Thirdly, the people made a choice to serve God. Fourthly, Joshua recognized they “have chosen for themselves the LORD, to serve Him”, thus indicating they were able to choose the LORD.
Quote from John Calvin: “What can a dead man do to obtain life? But when he enlightens us with the knowledge of himself, he is said to raise us from the dead, and make us new creatures.” (Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 14, Section 5) John Calvin taught that man was dead in their sins, and according to Calvinism this means that a person who is dead in their sins has no more ability to choose God than a dead man in a tomb can do anything.
What the Bible teaches in response to John Calvin’s teaching on “Total Inability”
Total Inability is false Biblically. Total Inability is false logically. Total Inability is false Biblically because the Scriptures clearly teach that we have a decision to make based upon us, not God forcing us as
Matthew 23:37, Acts 7:51, and Joshua 24:15-22 demonstrates. Total Inability is false logically because it compares a person who is dead physically, which then the question would be “can a person who is spiritually dead not sin?” The person who is in a tomb can do nothing, so if a person who is spiritually dead cannot have any ability to choose God, therefore they have no ability to do anything, thus they cannot sin either. This sounds ridiculous does it not? But if you follow that same logic of Total Inability you find that it is the logical conclusion. Being spiritually dead means that we are still in our sins, without God, and need to be saved from our sins. Spiritual death does not mean “no ability” to choose God, and to teach that is teaching something that the Bible does not teach.
Examine the following Scriptures on Jesus teaching man has a free will to choose Him or reject Him. Jesus speaking to the Jews who wanted to kill Him for claiming to be the Son of the Father (equal with God) in John chapter 5 (verses 33-35 & 39-40) teaches that man has the ability to either choose or reject truth within themselves: “33 “You have sent to John, and he has testified to the truth. 34 “But the testimony which I receive is not from man, but I say these things so that you may be saved. 35 “He was the lamp that was burning and was shining and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light…39 ” You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; 40 and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life. ” (John 5:33-35 & 5:39-40) Jesus told the Jews “they were willing” to receive the light for short while from what John the Baptist spoke of, which proves Biblically that they were not totally depraved to receive the truth. Jesus told them these things “so that they may be saved”, which indicates that Jesus wanted them to be saved. Jesus said they were “unwilling to come to Him”, which proves that they had a choice (free will) in the matter,but they rejected it. This proves Biblically that man has the ability to choose (free will) or reject the truth of God, and that man is not totally depraved having no ability to respond.
Quote from Canons of Dordt on Total Inability: “Therefore, all people are conceived in sin and are born children of wrath, unfit for any saving good, inclined to evil, dead in their sins, and slaves to sin; without the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit they are neither willing nor able to return to God, to reform their distorted nature, or even to dispose themselves to such reform.” (Canons of Dordt, III & IV, Article 3) Canons of Dordt are official statements on what Calvinism teaches, this quote is concerning “Total Inability.” This statement indicates that a person cannot be willing to choose God unless the Holy Spirit regenerates them. The Canons of Dordt explains what Calvinism is, and is in agreement with what John Calvin taught on “Total Inability.”
What the Bible teaches in response the Canons of Dordt on “Total Inability”
The Canons of Dordt teaching on “Total Inability” is false because it states that a person must be regenerated by the Holy Spirit first to come to God. This means they must first be born again and then they can choose God or have faith in Christ to be saved. Nowhere in Scripture does it say we have to be first born again or regenerated first in order to be able to believe in Christ or choose God. We are told in Scripture time after time that we have to make a decision based upon us, not based upon God deciding for us. For example in John 3 where Jesus is speaking of being born again Jesus states 3 times in verses 15-18 that a person must believe in the Son of God in order to receive eternal life. Jesus says if a person does not believe in Him they will perish (meaning to die in their sins) and will be judged. “15 so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 17 “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. 18 “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” (John 3:15-18/ John 3:16) There are some important keys to seeing this correctly. Jesus says “whoever” believes in Him will have eternal life, Calvinism teaches that the “whoever” is those whom God has predestined to be saved. The clear context here is that the “whoever” is anyone, not some elite group. Jesus states that God loved the “world”, who is the world? Calvinism teaches the world is the ones whom God has predestined to be saved. The clear context is that the “world” is all mankind. Jesus said in verse 18 that the reason the ones who will be judged or condemned is because they “did not believe in the name of the only Son of God”, not that God predestined them to eternal damnation. Not only did Jesus teach that He came not to judge the world but to save it, but that it was for anyone to be saved from their sins. The Apostle Peter said: “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) The clear context is that God does not desire for any to perish; that is for none to go to eternal damnation, but for them to come to repentance and be saved. There are some who attempt to make the word “all” mean only the elect, but the clear context here is for anyone to come to repentance. The word “all” is the Greek word “Pas” which means “anyone, whoever, whosoever, every, all.” So in context it is very clear that God desires for all to be saved which shows the doctrine of God regenerating only those whom are predestined to be false.
The doctrine of Total Depravity is not accurate according to what the Bible teaches and it gives a false message concerning the heart of God for anyone to be saved. The purpose of writing on this topic is to give a Biblical response to Total Depravity and to provide answers to hard questions to one of the 5 points of Calvinism, also known as the TULIP. For those whom are searching for answers to this topic our attempt was to make it as clear as possible for you to understand. We are not set out to cause division with other Christians but rather to help clarify these important issues within the body of Christ that has already caused divisions. God bless you and guide you in these issues.