[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.