TOTAL DEPRAVITY VS TOTAL INABILITY

By:  Lloyd L. Streeter

This past Sunday I helped teach an adult Sunday school class.  The lesson was about how every Christian should be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is within the believer (I Peter 3:15).  In the lesson, I was making the point that we can give an answer or make the biblical case for what we believe but we cannot argue anyone into becoming a Christian.  Only the Holy Spirit can convince a sinner to become a Christian.  No one gets saved apart from the convicting power of the Holy Spirit.  A sinner will never turn to Christ on his own because every sinner is totally depraved.  The sinner is too sinful to turn to Christ for salvation without the convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit.

After the class, I was approached by a person who asked me, “Do you believe all five points of Calvinism?”

My answer, of course, was “No.”

I am not sure that I believe any of the five points of Calvinism, the so-called TULIP.  The five points have been defined in different ways by various people.  There are several versions of the five points.

I am not a Calvinist, and have never been a Calvinist.  Why should I call myself by Calvin’s name?  Calvin baptized babies; I do not.  Calvin believed that the church was going to bring in the kingdom of God on earth before Jesus comes back.  I do not believe the kingdom can come until the King first returns.  Calvinism believes in local church government by lay elders.  I, like all good Baptists, believe in congregational government.  These are just a few of the doctrines wherein I disagree with Calvinism.  So, I have never been a Calvinist and I am not now a Calvinist.  This does not mean that I consider Calvinists to be bad people.  I have great respect for many Calvinistic Christians.  But I simply do not agree with some of their doctrines; so I am not a Calvinist.

The second question that I was asked was, “Do you believe in total depravity?”

My answer, of course, is “yes.”

Total depravity is the doctrine of original sin that says that the sinner has been blighted by sin in all of his parts.  Every person in the human race is corrupted, perverted in his soul, spirit, body, intellect, emotions, will, mind, and understanding.  Total depravity does not mean that all of the sinner’s behavior is as bad as it could possibly be.  It does not mean that all sinners are equally outrageous in their sinful acts.  It does not mean that the sinner cannot make some good decisions or choices by God’s grace.  Man is a free moral agent and able, by God’s grace, to make choices within the parameters of his nature.

It does mean, however, that humans are so damaged by sin that they will never turn to Christ to be saved unless God, by His grace, convicts them by His Holy Spirit.

Total depravity is not a doctrine owned by Calvinists.  The T in Calvin’s TULIP stood for total inability, not total depravity.  Almost all evangelical theologians, both Arminian and Calvinistic, believe in total depravity.  Anyone who wants to read the arminiantheologyblog can find it on the net.  Under the headline “Do Arminians Believe in Total Depravity?” the Arminian writer takes issue with John Mac Arthur, Loraine Boettner, and other Calvinists who have accused Arminians of not believing in total depravity.  The article quotes, at length, James Arminius, who wrote, “[I]n his lapsed and sinful state, man is not capable, of and by himself, either to think, to will, or to do that which is really good.”

The Arminian writer then quotes the president and vice-president of the Society of Evangelical Arminians saying that Arminians do believe in total depravity and, that without God’s help, man cannot think or do anything good “or even believe the gospel.”

Several other notable Arminians are also quoted to prove that Arminians and Calvinists alike believe in total depravity because of the Fall.

So, total depravity is not exclusively a Calvinist doctrine, nor does believing in man’s total depravity make one a Calvinist.

Total depravity is often confused for total inability.  They are not the same thing.  Calvin’s doctrine of total inability means that the sinner does not have to co-operate with God in order to be saved.  Strong Calvinists go well beyond total depravity.  They embrace total inability because they do not believe that a sinner can co-operate with God by believing until after he is regenerated.  This doctrine is known as “monergism.”  Strong Calvinists believe this “monergism,” this doctrine of total inability, because they believe that regeneration must come before believing, that the sinner must be regenerated before he is saved, and therefore, the sinner cannot co-operate with God.  I reject this doctrine.

The doctrine of total depravity holds that the sinner does co-operate with God in order to be saved.  The sinner must believe.  No one has ever been saved without believing.  This co-operation of the sinner, empowered by God’s grace, is known as “synergism.”

I believe in total depravity, not in total inability.  Total depravity was not one of Calvin’s five points; total inability was.  I believe that God makes the sinner willing, frees his will, and gives to the sinner the ability to co-operate, to believe, to trust in Christ.

The best theologians have believed in total depravity.  Based on Romans, chapter 3, man has “no good” in him.  Apart from God’s grace, the sinner can do no good and he has no good in him.

All goodness comes from God.  He is the fountain and the source of all that is good.  Jesus said to the rich young man, “There is none good but God” (Mark 10:18).

Herbert Lockyer, in his All the Doctrines of the Bible [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1964, p. 145] wrote, “The Fall resulted in the total depravity of man . . . every part of his nature became tainted by sin.”

Emery H. Bancroft, a Baptist theologian, wrote in his Christian Theology: Systematic and Biblical [Hayward, CA: J. F. May Press, 1949, p. 176], “In every individual, in every department and faculty of his nature, from the circumference to the center, or from the center to the circumference of his being,” he is intensively sinful.

Augustus Hopkins Strong, another Baptist theologian, remarked in his Systematic Theology [Philadelphia: Judson Press, 1944, p. 637], under the heading, “Depravity, Partial or Total?” “The Scriptures represent human nature as totally depraved.”  He then quotes H. B. Smith, on page 637, “By total depravity is never meant that men are as bad as they can be. . . .” etc.

The common grace of God helps even the unregenerate person to do some good things.  The good that a person does, while admired by his fellow humans, does not commend him to God because the good is done for selfish and wrong motives.  The sinner is totally depraved, not half depraved, nor 90% depraved.  He does not have a “spark of divinity.”  The Bible says there is no good in him.  Jesus said, “There is none good but God.”  God is the source of all good in the universe.

Norman L. Geisler discusses the extent of depravity in his Systematic Theology [Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2011, pp. 784-787].  He explains that the view that humans are born with no sin nature is called Pelagianism; the view that mankind is partially depraved is called “semi-Pelagianism.  He says, on page 787, “Sin does penetrate and permeate our whole being.  Humans are born wholly, not partially, depraved, that is every aspect of our being is affected by sin.”

Wayne Grudem, comments on the doctrine of inherited sin, in his Systematic Theology [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000, pp. 494-498].  He remarks, “a.  In our natures, we totally lack spiritual good before God.  b.  In our actions, we are totally unable to do spiritual good before God.”

L. Berkhof, a strong Calvinist, in his Systematic Theology [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1941, pp. 246-247] discusses both total depravity and total inability.  He discusses them separately because they are two different things.  The terms are not synonymous and should not be used interchangeably.  Lots of people believe in total depravity who do not believe in what Calvinists call total inability.  Berkhof says, “[I]nherited pollution is called total depravity. . . .  The inherent corruption extends to every part of man’s nature, to all the faculties and powers of both soul and body.”  This total depravity is denied by Pelagians, Socinians . . . but is clearly taught in Scripture.”

Charles Hodge discusses the doctrine of original sin in his Systematic Theology, Vol. II, [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, printed in 2016, pp. 227-256].  Like Berkhof and other strong Calvinists, Hodge goes beyond total depravity and embraces total inability.  However, what he says about total depravity is instructive.  “The Scriptures not only indirectly teach the doctrine of original sin, or of the hereditary, sinful corruption of our nature as derived from Adam, by teaching as we have seen, the universal and total depravity of our race, but they directly assert the doctrine” [p. 240].

Henry Clarence Thiessen was a fine Baptist theologian.  In his Lectures in Systematic Theology [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006], he discusses “The Extent of Depravity” on page 191.  “The Scriptures speak of human nature as wholly depraved.  However, the doctrine of ‘total depravity’ is easily misunderstood and misinterpreted.  It is important to know both what it does not mean and what it does mean.”

What total depravity means is that every part of man is corrupted and that there is no good in man to commend him to God.  What it does not mean is total inability as it is defined by strong Calvinists.  It does not mean that a sinner cannot believe upon Christ when that sinner is sufficiently convicted by the Holy Spirit.  Strong Calvinists who believe in total inability hold that sinners must be regenerated before they can believe.

Lewis Sperry Chafer, in his Systematic Theology, Vol. II [Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1947, pp. 218-219] discusses total depravity.  He remarks, “The claim that the unregenerate are totally depraved is resented by many for want of a right understanding of its meaning.”  This remark is true.  Chafer then quotes Shedd, another reliable teacher.  In Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology, he says, “The depravity or corruption of nature is total.  Man is ‘wholly inclined to evil, and that continually.’”  Shedd also says, “Total depravity means the entire absence of holiness, not the highest intensity of sin.  A totally depraved man is not as bad as he can be, but he has no holiness, that is, no supreme love of God.  He worships and loves the creature rather than the creator, Romans 1:25.”

So it would appear that while believing in total depravity, I am in good company.  I agree with Lockyer, Bancroft, Strong, Geisler, Grudem, Berkhof, Hodge, Theissen, Chafer, and many, many others that man is totally depraved.  As a matter of fact, all good, credible and faithful teachers and theologians believe[d] that man is totally depraved.

What does the Bible say?  “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5).  “The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint.  From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrefying sores: they have not been closed, neither bound up, neither mollified with ointment” [Isaiah 1:5-6].  “There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.  They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Romans 3:9-18).

The Bible does not teach the doctrine of Pelagianism, that is, that man did not inherit a corrupt, sinful nature.  Nor does the Bible teach semi-Pelagianism, that is, that man is only partially corrupted by sin and has a “spark of divinity” or “an island of righteousness.”  Both Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism are serious heresies.  Those who believe such things do not take sin seriously enough.  They do not understand the seriousness of man’s desperate condition.

To summarize, I have made these points:

  1. I am not a Calvinist.
  2. I believe in total depravity, but not in total inability.
  3. Man is so wicked that he will not accept Christ as Savior except by Holy Spirit conviction and the grace of God.
  4. Total depravity is not an exclusively Calvinistic doctrine; even Arminians believe in total depravity.
  5. All good Bible teachers in evangelical Christianity believe in total depravity.
  6. The Bible says, in no uncertain terms, that all humans are totally depraved.

MORE SOURCES

Many other witnesses have shown that believing in total depravity does not make one a Calvinist.  They have shown that there is a difference between total depravity and total inability; the difference being that adherents to total inability do not believe that a person can co-operate with God by believing until after he has been regenerated (mongerism).  Most people who believe in total depravity, but reject total inability, believe that God initiates salvation, frees the future believer’s will, and makes it possible for him to co-operate with God by believing (synergism).

George Zeller had it right when he wrote in the Biblical Evangelist , under the title “Does Regeneration Precede Faith?” [Biblical Evangelist, November-December, 2002].  He wrote,

            Today there are those of a reformed persuasion who teach that regeneration precedes faith.  They would say that a person must be born again before he believes.  They would say that a person must have God’s LIFE before he can believe on Christ.  C. D. Cole states it this way: “The Calvinist says that life must precede faith, and is logically the cause of faith.  Faith did not cause the new birth, the new birth caused faith.”

            Why do such men teach this?  The doctrine of man’s total depravity has been carried to the extreme by some Calvinists resulting in a wrong understanding of man’s inability.  They believe that the sinner is dead in sin and totally unable to respond to the gospel.  They believe he first must be regenerated and only then will he be able to believe the gospel. . . .

            We agree that no one can believe on Christ apart from God’s great and gracious working in the heart which involves both enabling and enlightenment (John 6:44, 65; Matthew 11:27; 16:16-17; Acts 16:14).  It is interesting that God sometimes commands a person to do what, in himself, he is totally unable to do. One example involves the man with the withered hand (Mark 3:1-5).  Christ gave him the command, “Stretch forth thine hand!”  How could he do this if he suffered from paralysis?  Christ commanded, the man obeyed, and God enabled!  Christ enabled him to do the impossible!

Zeller gives his position on the matter when he writes:

            If regeneration precedes faith, then this would make faith unnecessary since the person would already be saved.  If a person is regenerated, then he is born of God and a member of God’s family.  If you are a member of God’s family then you are already saved so what need is there for faith.

Zeller then quotes the great C. H. Spurgeon.  Spurgeon rejected the doctrine that regeneration precedes faith.  Wrote Zeller:

            Charles Spurgeon, a strong Calvinist himself, recognized the folly of saying that the sinner must be regenerated before he can believe: “If I am to preach the in faith Christ to a man who is regenerated, then the man, being regenerated, is saved already, and it is an unnecessary and ridiculous thing for me to preach Christ to him, and bid him to believe in order to be saved when he is saved already, being regenerate. Am I only to preach faith to those who have it? Absurd, indeed! Is not this waiting till the man is cured and then bringing him the medicine? This is preaching Christ to the righteous and not to sinners.”

Another source rejecting the mongerism doctrine is evangelist and Bible teacher, Paul L. Freemen.  In a pamphlet titled, “What’s Wrong With Five-Point Calvinism?”  Freeman deals with the strong Calvinist’s doctrine of “total inability.”

            Concerning the statement that man cannot believe the gospel and that man cannot believe until he is born again, let the following Scriptures be studied—John 1:12; 3:15, 16, 36; 5:24; 6:40; 7:39; 12:36; and 20:31.  These Scriptures all show that spiritual life follows upon the sinner’s believing in Jesus Christ.  The apostle John gave as his reason for writing his gospel, “that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” It is very clear that believing comes first and the new birth follows. The verses I have cited from the Gospel of John by no means exhaust  the Scriptures which prove life through believing. If you will take Strong’s Concordance and study the words believe, believed, and believeth, you will find much more. A notable example is Acts 16:31 where Paul said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.” The Calvinist would twist it to read, “When thou are saved by the Lord Jesus Christ, thou shalt believe.” What utter disregard for the plain teaching of the Word of God!

Still another witness who holds that we can believe in total depravity without being a Calvinist and without believing in total inability is evangelist Robert L. Sumner.  As editor of the Biblical Evangelist, Sumner has probably done as much to combat the doctrine of total inability as anyone in Bible-believing Christianity.  While I do not agree with everything he says about election, I do heartily agree with all that Sumner says about total inability.  Writing in his pamphlet, “An Examination of TULIP—The Five Points of Calvinism,” Dr. Sumner says,

            The “T” stands for total depravity, which the more extreme Calvinists call “total inability.” By this is meant that man cannot do anything at all to bring about his salvation—not even believe! To the fact of man’s total and complete depravity, as stated in Sacred Scripture, we heartily concur. Man is completely corrupt from the crown of his head to the soles of his feet. He does have a heart that is “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9). His total pollution is such that even Paul was compelled to confess, “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing” (Romans 7:18). Man is born in sin (Psalm 51:5); he goes astray as soon as he is born (Psalm 58:3); and the completeness of his impurity is such that it takes a passage like Romans 3:9-20, with its fourteen-fold indictment, to sum up his true condition.

            Furthermore, we readily acknowledge also that man’s depravity is such that he cannot and does not initiate any move toward God and redemption on his own. As David and Paul agreed, “The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one. . . .  As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God” (Psalm 14:2, 3; Romans 3:10, 11). Our Lord Himself said, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw. . . .” (John 6:44). We most certainly do not deny these truths; we emphasize and preach them.

            However, it is the false conclusions which five-point Calvinism draws from these basic, biblical facts to which we strongly object.

So we can add Zeller, Spurgeon, Freeman, and Sumner to the list of those who believed in total depravity but rejected total inability.  Even Curtis Hutson, who certainly was no Calvinist, believed in total depravity while rejecting total inability.  [Sword of the Lord, “Why I Disagree With All 5 Points of Calvinism,” July 21, 1989].

These sources could be multiplied.  In my vertical files, which I kept up for decades, I collected hundreds of articles, books, and pamphlets which testify to the truth that I am teaching in this paper.

Incidentally, I have an article by a well-known adherent to the doctrine of total inability in which he makes this statement: “[I]t takes much more than the Spirit’s assistance to bring a sinner to Christ; it takes regeneration by which the Spirit makes the sinner alive and gives him a new nature.”

Not only is that statement wrong about the matter of what comes first, believing or regeneration, it is blasphemous about the work of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is able to enlighten and convict the sinner enough to bring him to Christ and salvation.  Nothing more is needed, and it is shameful to denigrate the work of the Holy Spirit by teaching that it takes “much more” to bring the sinner to Christ.

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