Total Depravity: Why Man Needs the Rescue

A theological controversy erupted in the Netherlands in the 17th century. Nearly 50 years after the death of theologian John Calvin in 1564, a significant number of Reformed ministers, led by University of Leiden theologian Jacob Arminius, had abandoned much of the theology embraced by those who called themselves "Calvinists." The followers of Arminius had sought to distance themselves from the Calvinists and, following Jacob's death, laid out their differences in a document called the Remonstrance (1610). The controversy precipitated a church council in Dordrecht during which church leaders sought to define what they believed about salvation in response to the Remonstrance. The result was the Canons of Dort, a five-point response to the Arminians. These five points have been organized into an acrostic that spells out the word tulip (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, perseverance of the saints).

The Canons of Dordt included this statement: "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."

Simply put: The fall of Adam has rendered the entire human race completely corrupt and powerless to change its situation.

Scriptural support: While we should not build major doctrines on isolated texts, a good summary of the doctrine of total depravity can be found in Ephesians 2:1-10. This text describes the natural man as dead, morally corrupt, under the influence of the devil, naturally deserving the wrath of God and with no works to commend him to God apart from a work of grace. Scripture regularly describes the evil of the heart of man (Genesis 6:5; 8:21; Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 3:23) and the work of God in changing that heart (Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 36:26; 2 Corinthians 5:17). The spiritually dead man has as much power to come forth from the grave as did Lazarus in John 11.

The doctrine of total depravity does not teach that man is as bad as he could be. The natural man can do much “good” on a human level. The trouble is that a totally depraved man cannot do the ultimate good: choose God.

The doctrine of total depravity does teach that the fall of Adam has affected every area of man's being. Certainly it affects his morality (Romans 3:10-12), his intellect (Romans 1:21-22) and his will (1 Corinthians 2:14), which will Augustine and Luther believed was in bondage.

Objections to this teaching and responses:

  1. The fall of Adam did not extend to the will of man, which is still free. This statement is without Scriptural support. As a friend in ministry says to those who insist man's will is free: "I'll give you free will if you give me total depravity." What good is a free will that always chooses a sinful course?
  2. The offer of the gospel is not legitimate if men are incapable of responding to it. But God uses means. We might likewise argue that Lazarus needed to obey the order to a come out of the grave in order to come back to life. Romans 10 is clear about the necessity of believing the gospel. Romans 10:14 is also clear that people will not believe without hearing the voice of God (NASB).
  3. If man needs regeneration before he can exert faith toward God, he is nothing but a puppet. We are moral beings and legitimately accountable to a holy God and have God to praise if he straightens our corrupt wills. As the Canons of Dordt says it, “…this divine grace of regeneration does not act in people as if they were blocks and stones; nor does it abolish the will and its properties or coerce a reluctant will by force, but spiritually revives, heals, reforms, and—in a manner at once pleasing and powerful—bends it back.”

Does believing this really make any difference in life? Yes. Believing this makes a difference in “real life” because it is pride-crushing. People who have fled to the Savior because they have seen their own corruption and helplessness cannot help but live lives of humility—at least when they remember the grave from which they have been rescued. Husbands who have embraced the doctrine of total depravity must not only recognize their need to humble themselves before God daily but also the need to humble themselves before their wives daily. Parents who have embraced the doctrine of total depravity know that their responsibility is not to manipulate the behavior of their children but to minister the gospel to their children. Evangelists who have embraced the doctrine of total depravity know that Muslims sinners are no worse than "Christian" sinners. The pit of sinfulness is inescapable for us all and the ground at the foot of the cross is level. We are not skilled practitioners giving medicine to sick people. We are messengers through whom the voice of God calls the dead to life.

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