[this article is contributed by Alex Rover]
The five main points of Calvinism are total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints. In this article, we will take a look at the first of these five. First off: what is Total Depravity? Total Depravity is the doctrine describing the human condition before God, as creatures who are completely dead in sin and unable to save themselves. John Calvin put it this way:
“Let it stand, therefore, as an indubitable truth, which no engines can shake, that the mind of man is so entirely alienated from the righteousness of God, that he cannot conceive, desire, or design anything but what is wicked, distorted, foul, impure and iniquitous; that his heart is so thoroughly envenomed by sin, that it can breathe out nothing but corruption and rottenness; that if some men occasionally make a show of goodness, their mind is ever interwoven with hypocrisy and deceit, their soul inwardly bound with fetters of wickedness.” [i]
In other words, you are born a sinner, and you will die as a result of that sin, no matter what you do, save for God’s forgiveness. No human ever lived forever, which means none have attained righteousness on their own. Paul said:
“Are we better off? Certainly not […] 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.” – Romans 3:9-12
What About David?
“How blessed is the one whose rebellious acts are forgiven, whose sin is pardoned! How blessed is the one whose wrongdoing the LORD [Yahweh] does not punish, in whose spirit there is no deceit.” – Psalms 32:1-2
Does this verse contradict Total Depravity? Was David a man who defied the rule? After all, how can someone have a spirit without deceit if Total Depravity is true? The observation here is in fact that David needed forgiveness or a pardoning for his depravity. His clean spirit was thus the result of an act of God.
What About Abraham?
“For if Abraham was declared righteous by works, he has something to boast about – but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. […] his faith is credited as righteousness.” – Romans 4:2-5
“Is this blessedness then for the circumcision or also for the uncircumcision? For we say, “faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it credited to him? Was he circumcised at the time, or not? No, he was not circumcised but uncircumcised. […] so that he would become the father of all those who believe” – Romans 4:9-14
Was Abraham the exception to the rule, as a righteous man? Apparently not, since he required a credit toward righteousness based on his faith. Other translations use the word “impute”, which means his faith was counted as righteousness, covering his depravity. The conclusion appears that he was not righteous on his own, and thus his righteousness does not invalidate the doctrine of total depravity.
The Original Sin
The original sin led God to pronounce the death sentence (Gen 3:19), labor would become more difficult (Gen 3:18), child bearing would become painful (Gen 3:16), and they were evicted from the Garden of Eden.
But where is the curse of total depravity, that henceforth Adam and his offspring would be cursed to always do what is wrong? Such a curse is not found in Scripture, and this is a problem for Calvinism.
It seems the only way to infer the idea of total depravity out of this account is from the curse of death. Death is the payment required for sin (Romans 6:23). We already know that Adam sinned once. But did he sin afterward? We know his offspring sinned, since Cain murdered his brother. Not long after Adam’s death, Scripture records what happened to mankind:
“But the LORD [Yahweh] saw that the wickedness of humankind has become great on the earth. Every inclination of the thoughts of their minds was only evil all the time.” – Genesis 6:5
Hence, it appears that depravity as a most common condition following the original sin is definitely something described in the Bible. But is it a rule that all men must be this way? Noah appears to defy such a notion. If God pronounces a curse, then it has to apply always, for God cannot lie.
Yet perhaps most pronounced on this matter is the account of Job, one of Adam’s early descendants. Let’s glean from his account if total depravity is a rule.
The book of Job opens with the words:
“There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job; and that man was blameless and upright, fearing God and turning away from evil.” (Job 1:1 NASB)
Not long afterward Satan appeared before Yahweh and God said:
“Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil. Then Satan answered the LORD [Yahweh], ‘Does Job fear God for nothing?’” (Job 1:8-9 NASB)
If Job was exempted from total depravation, why didn’t Satan ask to remove this cause for exemption? Truly there are many prosperous individuals that are wicked. David said:
“For I envied those who are proud, as I observed the prosperity of the wicked.” – Psalm 73:3
According to Calvinism, Job’s condition could only be the consequence of some kind of forgiveness or mercy. But Satan’s answer to God is very revealing. In his own words, Satan makes the case that Job was blameless and upright only because he was blessed with exceptional prosperity. There is no mention of forgiveness and mercy or other rule at work. Scripture say this was Job’s default state, and this contradicts the Calvinistic doctrine.
A Hardened heart
You could say that the doctrine of depravity means that all of mankind is born with a hardened heart toward what is good. Calvinist doctrine is truly black and white: either you are completely evil, or you are completely good through grace.
So how can some harden their heart at all according to the Bible? If it is already totally hard, then it cannot be hardened more. On the other hand, if they are completely persevering (perseverance of the saints) then how can their heart possibly become hardened at all?
Some who repeatedly sin may ruin their conscience and render themselves past feeling. (Ephesians 4:19, 1 Timothy 4:2) Paul warns that some had their foolish hearts darkened (Romans 1:21). None of this should be possible if the total depravation doctrine is true.
Are All Humans Inherently Evil?
That our default inclination is to do what is bad is clear: Paul made this obvious in Romans chapters 7 and 8 where he describes his impossible battle against his own flesh:
“For I don’t understand what I am doing. For I do not do what I want – instead, I do what I hate.” – Romans 7:15
Yet Paul was trying to be good, despite his inclination. He hated his sinful acts. That works cannot declare us righteous is clear from Scripture. Faith is what saves us. But Calvin’s world view of total depravity is entirely too pessimistic. He overlooks that we are made in God’s image, a fact that does not fit with his doctrine. Evidence of the power of this “reflection of God” in each of us is that even among those who deny there is a god, we see the kindness and mercy of God demonstrated toward others in acts of altruism. We use the term “human kindness”, but since we’re made in God’s image that kindness originates with him whether we wish to admit it or not.
Are humans inherently good or evil? It appears that we are both capable of good and evil at the same time; these two forces are in constant opposition. Calvin’s point of view does not allow for any inherent goodness whatsoever. In Calvinism, only true believers called by God are able to display genuine goodness.
It appears to me we need another framework to understand the rampant depravity in this world. We will explore this topic in part 2.
[i] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, reprinted 1983, vol. 1, p. 291.
6 And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. 6:Hebrews 11
“But Calvin’s world view of total depravity is entirely too pessimistic. He overlooks that we are made in God’s image, a fact that does not fit with his doctrine.” Too pessimistic? Hitler was “made in the image of God.” How does that fit with your “optimistic” doctrine? Truly, the above article on sin and Calvin is as erroneous as the Watchtower’s “overlapping generations.” It simply does not understand the gospel. This is to be expected, because the Watchtower doesn’t teach or understand the gospel. What is the gospel? “through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus… Read more »
[…] part 1 of this article, we have examined the Calvinistic teaching of Total Depravity. Total Depravity is […]
Dear Alex Rover, I am very new to this site and decided to start at the top and go through the articles. I am a very skeptical person by nature, but I was willing to open my mind and heart to clearer understanding. I thought I may find a point here or there that would clear up some little point I was having trouble with, but this article struck me to the core.I started a word search of sin and started reading the context.Suddenly, all the complicated mumbo jumbo melted away and all that was left was clear bright truth.… Read more »
Oh, and forgot to mention that you might need to believe in Total Depravity in order to avoid the heresy of Semi-Pelagianism – a belief that we have the ability to exercise a good will toward God APART from His assistance. It’s complicated, isn’t it?
This is an ongoing study of mine as well. Total Depravity does not mean we are as bad as we can possibly be, but that sin affects the TOTALITY of our being – minds, will, and emotions. As R.C Sproul puts it, we are not “utterly depraved”, but sin permeates our being. Not too hard to believe.
So, actually Calvinists AND Classical Arminians both believe in Total Depravity. Prevenient/Preceding Grace of God is then necessary in order to comprehend and respond to His offer of love and forgiveness. Whether this Grace merely enables, or, ensures, then becomes the question.
Unfortunately, many who follow Calvinistic teachings seem unaware of the history of this thoroughly unpleasant character. His involvement in the slow, tortured death by burning at the stake of Michael Servetus and others. It really brings home to us how important it is to always investigate thoroughly before associating with any religion.
Having just finished reading Foxes Book of Martyrs I thoroughly agree with you Skye.
Calvin was a depraved SELF righteous pig who inflicted his perverse view of scripture on all. His religio-political dealings with the Catholic church were simply satanic.
Like all of these types of religious leaders they betray God by adopting Lucifer’s behaviour while claiming enlightenment by Christ.
Never realized that Calvin and Rutherford have a couple of things (slightly) in common. Calvin was lawyer and became pastor. Rutherford was (part time) judge and became sort of pastor. Calvin like strict rules and strong governance over the church(es). Rutherford as well as he was known to be inflexible with views from others, and setup a centralized control over the JW churches (congregations). Calvin believed in 2 groups, one selected to be saved and for whom Jesus died. And the other destined for destruction. Rutherford introduced also a 2 group doctrine:anointed and non-anointed. The first are called / selected… Read more »
Is Gods Word …Truth or not? Would it really be outside the realm of spirituality to even posit that God would / could ensure that the essential communications He desires for humankind are safely available in His Word and with the operation of Holy Spirit ? Even though we may have to get there via groping and searching.
I do find your thoughts here rather awkward to come to terms with on this occasion Alex. – Thanks all the same for the efforts and energy you bring to this increasingly popular place of solace !
Thank you for your comment. Sadly, I don’t understand what you try to say, so please help me out.
1. Gods word is truth, absolutely. Do I make any suggestion otherwise? Please point it out to me so I can review my words.
2. What thoughts are hard to come to terms with? I was evaluating a doctrine which has many believers and show the problems with it, concluding I don’t agree with Calvin.
Total depravity would mean that sinful humans would be unable to believe in Christ or the Gospel, would it not? We know that when a person is born again it is as a “result” of belief. John 1:12,13 “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God …….” John 3:16 thus provides the answer to this false teaching of Calvinism. “For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal… Read more »
Perhaps total depravity is not a good framework to view reality, but a useful default position when viewing ourselves. Viewing ourselves this way could help keep us from becoming too confident in our own abilities. It 1) keeps the focus on God for giving us power to walk straight and 2) keeps us from leaning on our own strength rather than our Father. Just a thought.
Depravity sure, but total depravity is hopeless.
And if we are in God’s grace .. nothing can stop us from succeeding. Then why do we need to lean on the Father at all?
Alex. we lean on the Father because we have to. Being in God’s “grace” or “undeserved kindness” is not unconditional. Otherwise, once in that position, a person could presumptuously act contrary to God’s will and think that He wouldn’t do anything about it. We cannot imagine that God would allow Himself to be obligated to be of benefit to those who act against him; that would put Him in an untenable position, and surely He has the good sense not to allow that to happen. I find this whole topic of “depravity” to be very off-putting and demoralizing. Who ever… Read more »
just wondering if u read the whole article. i concluded the same as you that Calvinism is not true.
That’s the danger of debating these things without fully reading the works of these reformers. It’s a gross misrepresentation to say that Calvin thought that anyone was devoid of any good. The question is more like, what is the standard we are using. If it’s a human standard, I might be more righteous then a habitual thief, but maybe less righteous then mother Theresa or Ghandi. Yet all of us, including the thief, can have good in us, or are capable of doing good. If the standard of righteous is God, the ballgame changes. We are so sinful, we sin… Read more »
I feel that Calvin’s position is too extreme and I don’t agree with. But yes, I did read Alex’s whole article. As I mentioned earlier, I Know little about Calvin, so take with a grain of salt anything I said that’s off base from not having a background in Calvinism. I understand Alex does agree with that Calvinism. My objection is with Calvin, not with Alex of course.
Sorry qspf, I don’t agree with Calvin. What makes you think that from the article?
I spend some effort in the article breaking down why I disagree with him. That’s why I asked if you read the full article.
I am only examining his point of view and that of reformed churches, just like we examine watchtowers and show from Scripture where it lacks.
Sorry, Alex. I did note on another reply that I know you don’t agree with him. I did read the whole article. My only point was that the doctrines of Calvin, as I took them, were very depressing and demoralizing to me. But, it’s pretty clear I know so little about it, I should have let it go at that, to avoid any misunderstandings. I do hope you will, at some point, explain the relevance of incorporating this article and the others you have planned, relative to the context they appear in within the Beroean Pickets. Why are these matters… Read more »
Hi qspf, I encountered a few Calvinists and learned that any church name with the word reformed in it (for example reformed Baptist Church), subscribes to the views of Calvin. How do we respond to them? This blog is about search for truth. When I weighed the arguments in favor of Calvinism I could see how he could arrive at that viewpoint. I just felt like its not the whole picture. Kind of like you can actually believe there is a FDS today from just Matthew 24, but reading the whole Scripture invalidates the JW interpretation. For part 2, I… Read more »
The wickedness, the depravity which they highlight is in comparison with God, not with other men. That is the mindset of the reformers. In comparison with God, we have all fallen short of his glory. The reformer believes BY FAR. The debates have usually revolved around HOW FAR, rather then the fact that we have fallen short. The good reformist thinking does is put the focus on God, and our utter dependance on him for salvation, not of our own works. For those who are legalistically inclined, Calvin’s message might just be what we need to hear. However, I agree,… Read more »
Alex I think you oversimplified Calvin’s view on the Imago Dei. For Calvin, Humans, men and women both are God’s children, already at creation.At the fall, humans lost that image. He challenges & wants to stress the devastating effects of thefall, thereby closing the door to synergism, while at the same time acknowledging the lingering remnants, so as to head off the charge of fatalistic determinism”. Roman Catholics had identified Calvin with radical Protestants who embraced determinism as a proof that humans hadno moral freedom, and thus could be held responsible for nothing. Calvin responded that fallen humans still have… Read more »
Thank you for elaborating on Calvin’s view of man created in God’s image and how it relates to Total Depravity. If you look at the opening quote from Calvin in my article, it appears nothing is left of the Imago Dei in totally depraved humans. Consequently i wrote in the closing paragraph: Evidence of the power of this “reflection of God” in each of us is that even among those who deny there is a god, we see the kindness and mercy of God demonstrated toward others in acts of altruism. I chose the word altruism carefully here, since Calvin’s… Read more »
Matthew 26:45: “Look! The hour has drawn near for the Son of man to be betrayed into the hands of sinners.” This was spoken by Jesus to his disciples as he was about to be arrested. Yet, his disciples were also sinners, in the strict sense of the word. It does seem that the Bible uses “sinner” in more than one sense. We are all sinners, since we are born in sin, and due to that, we will eventually grow old, get sick, and die. But there are people who have gone “out of the their way” to be bad,… Read more »
Calvin was a child of his time qspf. He and others as himself really rebelled against human glorification and wanted to make everything more God centered. Having given biblestudy to a Calvinistic preacher and a guy who went to church in a Calvin based church, I can attest that these people definitely do not preach this view to keep members in line. In fact, a lot of them are very kind, have a very humble attitude, and have a immense love for God, as the teaching of depravity reinforces the idea with them how much they need salvation, and how… Read more »
Hi Alex, Another fine commentary, thank you. Personally, I have found TULIP to be more useful in understanding the mind and culture of the reformist than in apprehending the deeper truths of Scripture. The issue of whether the Imago Dei has been erased from man – or whether it has been effaced – seems to be one founded more upon an “a priori” consideration of the text than on a “prior” consideration of the context. For example, consider another conundrum for the Calvinist view of depravity in Jesus’ words vis-a-vis Nathanael’s character: Jesus saw Nathan’ael coming toward him and said… Read more »