Any system of doctrine involving the necessity of salvation must begin with the question ‘What is our condition by nature that necessitates salvation?’ In line with the biblical assessment of man, Calvinism affirms man’s state by nature as one of ‘total depravity’. But what does this mean? It does not mean, as modern usage might imply, that all human beings are wholly evil and corrupt. Rather, as used in theology it signifies man’s lack of ability either to save himself or even contribute to his own salvation.
Damaged or dead?
Arminians and Calvinists disagree about man’s spiritual condition. The Arminian evangelical will say that man is not so corrupt that he is unable, with the Spirit’s help, to ask Jesus to save him. Once he has asked, then he can be born again. The Calvinist, on the other hand, maintains that man is ‘dead in trespasses and sins’ and thus by nature is incapable of doing (or even wanting to do) anything to further his salvation (Ephesians 2:1, 5).
Let me try to illustrate this difference. The Arminian likens unregenerate man to a person who jumps out of a second-floor window. He cracks some ribs, acquires some knocks and bruises, perhaps breaks a leg or an arm, but is still alive! He may be seriously hurt and need a physician, but is fit enough to call for help and phone a doctor. Such a person wants to be made well. Is this how things are with man? Is that a biblical view of human nature as it has been since the fall into sin (Genesis 3)?
The Calvinist maintains that the Bible answers, No! Man is entirely unable to help himself. Rather, man in sin is like a person who jumps from the top of the Empire State Building, with obvious consequences. He is, as you would expect, dead and lifeless. This person can have no desire to be made well and can initiate no action to that end. This is precisely the picture of man in sin that the Bible describes. This is ‘total depravity’.
Bishop J.C. Ryle pointed out its importance in this way: ‘There are very few errors and false doctrines of which the beginning may not be traced to unsound views about the corruption of human nature. Wrong views of a disease will always bring with them wrong views of a remedy. Wrong views of the corruption of human nature will always carry with them wrong views of the grand antidote and cure of that corruption’.
What it is not
Before considering exactly what total depravity is, it is perhaps appropriate to say again what it is not. It does not mean that man is absolutely depraved or, in other words, that he is invariably as bad as he possibly could be. Obviously some men are sunk in sin more than others, and some seem to be almost as bad as they could possibly be. There have always been so-called sociopaths, people incapable of living harmoniously in society. There are some restraints upon man’s excesses in the world. ‘Total depravity’, however, is not to be taken in an intensive way – that man is always as bad as he can be – but rather in an extensive way – that every faculty of his being is tainted and marred by sin.
Nor does total depravity mean that man is altogether unable to do relatively good deeds. Many non-Christians are of a charitable disposition. It appears, for example, that Andrew Carnegie and John Paul Getty were like this. Unsaved souls may perform good deeds, at least in the estimation of men. But what is a good deed in the eyes of God? After all, he is perfectly holy and examines all man’s motives. Whatever is not really directed to his glory must be sinful, however good the deed may appear to be in the eyes of men.
It is through God’s common or temporal preserving grace in this world that men do relative good and are not absolutely base or bestial. Nonetheless, as the Lord says through Jeremiah: ‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; Who can know it? I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings’ (Jeremiah 17:9-10).
So, then, what is ‘total depravity’? It is, firstly, the reality that human beings are always sinning. This is the experience of man since the fall into sin described in Genesis chapter 3. The developments of this fallen nature quickly became evident, with the first murder (Genesis 4:8), and the record tells us how the Lord viewed man’s state: ‘Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually’ (Genesis 6:5, emphasis added).
In writing to the Christians in Rome, Paul maintains that the universal sinfulness of men, both Jews and Gentiles, is manifestly true and evidenced by man’s situation in the world (Romans 3:9-20). In arguing his case he quotes from various Old Testament passages, including Psalm 14:1-2; 53:1-3; Psalm 5:9; Psalm 140:3; Psalm 10:7; Isaiah 59:7-8; and Psalm 36:1. He does so to prove that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23), a fact abundantly demonstrated by biblical and human history and experience.
Secondly, total depravity implies man’s total inability. This refers to man’s inability, as he is by nature, to perform any spiritual good. This situation can only be changed by the regenerating power of God in his life. Paul is crystal-clear in his letter to the Romans: ‘The carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can it be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God’ (8:7-8).
This natural, or we may say spiritual, inability is spelled out also, for example, in 1 Corinthians chapters 1 and 2. Paul’s argument there is well stated in 2:14: ‘But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned’. As Jesus puts it, implying this same doctrine, ‘No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him’ (John 6:44, with which compare verse 65).
Some argue against this by saying that other Scriptures imply that man is not only able to act but is commanded to do so. For example, Christ began his public ministry with the call to ‘repent and believe the gospel’ (Mark 1:14), while Paul declares that God ‘commands all men everywhere to repent’ (Acts 17:30). The answer to these apparent contradictions is that man must indeed repent of sin and believe in Christ if he is to be saved. But in his natural condition he is incapable of doing so. Therefore, God must first of all bring the spiritually dead person to life by regenerating him through the power of the Holy Spirit.
This is clearly explained in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3 when the Lord says that ‘unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God’ (v.3, cf. vv. 7-8 and 1 Peter 1:23). Writing to the Ephesian church, Paul put it this way: ‘But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)’ (Ephesians 2:4-5; emphasis added).
To the regenerated soul God imparts, as gifts, both repentance and faith (Acts 5:31; 11:18; Ephesians 2:8). Only then is the person able to respond to God’s call. We shall deal more fully with this matter when we come to the fourth of the ‘Five Points’.
A third aspect of total depravity is that it is man’s prevailing condition from conception. This is a necessary inference, of course, from the universal prevalence of sin. But it is also stated explicitly by David as he reflects on his own sinful nature: ‘Behold I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me’ (Psalm 51:5). This is not, incidentally, a reference to the mother’s sin but to the sinful state of her offspring.
The Bible’s judgement, therefore, is that man is a fallen creature and, as far as godly things are concerned, is ‘dead in trespasses’ (Ephesians 2:5). He is totally unable to perform any spiritual good, because every aspect and faculty of his character is tainted and stained by sin. No part of him, therefore, can provide a way to God, whether it be through his mind, his emotions, his will, his motivations, or anything else that resides within his human nature. He is, in truth, totally depraved. It is this ‘hopeless situation’ that is so gloriously addressed by the gospel of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, something that will become clear as we consider further aspects of the ‘Five Points’ in coming months.