The doctrines of grace: Total depravity

As noted previously, the five points of Calvinism (doctrines of grace) arose as a response to a petition by a group of Dutch Arminians in 1610 to affirm the tenets of Arminianism as orthodox Christianity. The Synod of Dort rejected this appeal and in response developed the five points of Calvinism under the acronym TULIP. The first of these five points, with which we are concerned in this post, is “Total Depravity.”

It is worth noting that the first of the five points of Calvinism has to do with a correct assessment of the condition of the sinner. This is important, because apart from a proper understanding of sin and its consequences, we will likely have a deficient view of what is necessary in order for a sinner to be saved. As Seaton puts it, “If we believe that the fall of man in the Garden of Eden was merely partial, then we shall most likely be satisfied with a salvation that is attributable, partly to man, and partly to God.”1

As the Synod of Dort began to formulate a response to the five points of Arminianism, they began where it was logical to begin. They pronounced in no uncertain terms that man’s natural state is one of total depravity. Because of this, man is entirely unable to gain or contribute to his own salvation.

Total?

Each of the points of Calvinism has been twisted to say something that it actually does not say. This has led many Reformed theologians, who fully affirm the five points, to give them alternate names. In the case of total depravity, many prefer the term “radical depravity.” There is some good reason for that.

Despite the accusations cast at Calvinism, total depravity does not teach that we are all as bad as we possibly could be. That is quite clearly not the case. God’s restraining grace generally keeps us from stooping as low as we might otherwise stoop into sin. We are not all bloodthirsty serial rapists. Most of us could do far worse things than we actually end up doing. The doctrine of total depravity does not deny that fact. It is not the same as “utter” depravity.

Total depravity does not mean that humans are incapable of acts of humanitarian kindness, or kindness to animals. It does not mean that fallen man is incapable of outwardly professing allegiance to God (or to a god). What it means is that when Adam fell in the garden, he did so in totality. He fell radically. No part of man was left unaffected by the fall. His body, mind, will and affections all felt the weight of the fall. To his very core—his radix (the term from which “radical” is derived)—man is a sinner. No part of man is able to do anything to gain or contribute to favour before God.

Arminianism

The Arminians, who protested against total depravity, taught “that unregenerate man is not strictly or totally dead in his sins or deprived of all capacity for spiritual good but is able to hunger and thirst for righteousness of life and to offer the sacrifice of a broken and contrite spirit which is pleasing to God.”2

The Synod of Dort categorically rejected this theology and affirmed the Reformed doctrine of total depravity. The Synod affirmed that man is utterly unrighteous in the light of God’s perfect righteousness. Man is entirely corrupt in his nature: his mind, his will and his affections.

Is it biblical?

The Synod of Dort determined that the doctrine of total depravity is clearly taught in Scripture. Why? Do the Scriptures indeed teach this doctrine?

The Bible affirms, in no uncertain terms, that man by nature is dead. Ephesians 2:1 speaks of the fact that natural man is “dead in trespasses and sins.” The reason for this is found in Romans 5:12, which says, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12).

The Bible further tells us that man is bound in sin. Paul speaks about the possibility that “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:25–26).

Mark 4:11–12 tells us that man is blind and deaf to the truth of God. Apart from God’s enlightening “they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand.”

Additionally, natural man is incapable of receiving spiritual truth. “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14).

All of this is true of man in his natural state. Man is a sinner by birth (Psalm 51:5) and by practice (Genesis 6:5).

What can we do?

If man is naturally dead, bound, blind, deaf, uninstructable and naturally sinful, can he contribute anything to a righteous standing before God? As Seaton asks, “Can the dead raise themselves? Can the bound free themselves? Can the blind give themselves sight, or the dead hearing? Can the slaves redeem themselves? Can the uninstructable teach themselves? Can the naturally sinful change themselves? Surely not!”3 To put it in the words of Scripture, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil” (Jeremiah 13:23).

The Scriptures could hardly be clearer about the total depravity of natural man. We are like Lazarus in the tomb: dead, bound and subject to corruption. And just as there was no hope for Lazarus to raise himself, so there is no hope for us to spiritually raise ourselves. As Lazarus required an authoritative call from the Lord, so we require the spiritual call to come forth. The Lord alone can perform the miracle that is needed. We “were dead in trespasses and sins” but God “made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:1, 5). Salvation, by its very nature, must be of the Lord.

  1. W. J. Seaton, The Five Points of Calvinism (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1970), 9.
  2. Martin Murphy, After Darkness, Light: Distinctives of Reformed Theology (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2003), 14.
  3. Seaton, The Five Points of Calvinism, 10.

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