Examining the Doctrine of Total Depravity

Our look into the five doctrines of the TULIP begins with Total Depravity and the view that man is completely and hopelessly lost on his own.

The doctrine of Total Depravity can be summed up in four points

1. Man is completely and utterly sinful on his own, thereby resulting in the corruption of his entire being (emotions, intellect, desire, etc.)

2. Although we are fully corrupt some of us could be worse than others (we may lie, but that doesn’t mean we will kill). We are not as intensively evil as possible but we are as extensively evil as possible.

3. We are completely incapable of a truly good act by ourselves, for a truly good act is done for the glory of God. Our righteousness is but a filthy rag.

4. Thus we are unable to come to Christ on our own.

These four points are seen quite favourably in the eyes of Scripture so we needn’t debate any of the points above. However, it has been my experience that those coming from a Calvinist perspective insert certain views into texts that don’t necessarily support them. We will begin by quoting the clearest verse in support of point four.

“John 6:44 No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day.”

It can be concluded that man cannot come to salvation without being drawn by the Spirit. The Spirit prods or tugs on the person until they are in the position to choose to follow Christ or not. It is this act of choosing that has seen theological division. Do we have the ability to choose salvation or are we predestined to choose from the start, resulting in no act of our own accord? If this is so then those predetermined to choose (i.e. the elect) cannot possibly be every person or we would see no one reject Christ. But take a look at this verse further along:

John 12:32, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.”

Can it be concluded that, at God’s sovereign directive and because of His action, He draws all men unto Himself so that they may have the opportunity to accept Christ? Obviously, not all accept salvation, but the clear conclusion is that no man can make a choice if not for the drawing of the Holy Spirit, thus agreeing with the essential doctrine of Total Depravity.

But couldn’t this verse be limited by a specific literary context such as hyperbole? If a teacher were to call everyone to class, surely he/she wouldn’t mean every person on the planet? This could be so, but the problem with the Calvinist view, as seen here, interprets this passage from a preconceived application of the Calvinist theology, that all God draws must receive salvation. They conclude that taking this verse as literal means we hold to universalism (i.e. the belief that all men will be saved). But if man’s free choice is taken into account the objection becomes moot and the belief that Jesus meant Jew and Gentiles exclusively rests on nothing more than Calvinist theology, especially if we include the previous verse that has Jesus talking about universal judgment.

John 6:65, “And he said, Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father.”

Here is another verse in support of the doctrine of Total Depravity. It should be noted that nowhere does the verse say God enables a select people to believe. It’s more faithful to say that God works as an access-granter to a relationship with Him. This view agrees with the application of a client-patron relationship which was the practical function of relationships in ancient times.

Genesis 6:5 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.

The above verse in Genesis is where the doctrine of Total Depravity is first supported. Unlike the previous verse in John, however, this clearly carries an implication of hyperbole, for no person can think evil thoughts continually. What about when we sleep? Furthermore, there is no indication that this verse says some men are unable to receive salvation as if God created their hearts to reject Him.

The same distinction between can’t and won’t is missing from other passages in support of the doctrine (Gen 8:21, Job 15:14-16, Ps 51:5, Jer 17:9, etc.), likewise, a couple of these are clear examples of proverbial literature and shouldn’t be seen as absolutes.

Matthew 7:16-20, “By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”

This is the first passage that seems to clearly state there are some men who cannot come to Christ. But again, we should note the possibility of reading too much into a parable so that it becomes an absolute truth (which for effectiveness in oral transmission, we would expect to be expressed in absolute terms). Obviously, those inclined to agriculture will disagree that a bad tree will always produce bad fruit (though it is admittedly rare). A bad tree may produce one or two good fruits on occasion just as a good tree could produce the occasional bad fruit. The parable acts as a general principle and not a total absolute so we can say that it is not necessarily true that some men cannot receive salvation. However, as I already argued, the Holy Spirit is in some way moving on man’s heart continually.

Matthew 13:14 “And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive.”

Here, it seems, we have evidence that there are men who cannot receive salvation. Although this does explain why some who study the Bible don’t come to salvation, due to the darkness and hardness of their hearts, there is no support that some cannot come to salvation. The verse implies that some won’t or don’t receive salvation, not that some can’t receive salvation. The Calvinist view is unjustified in this verse. Additionally, because it was addressed to a specific audience (the Pharisees) it is potentially improper to universalize it.

John 15:4-5 “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.”

A final verse we will look at in support of Total Depravity is John 15:4-5. Calvinists have interpreted this as evidence that man is completely unable to do anything good, including choosing Christ (as that would be a good act). Firstly we should note those in Biblical times did not see an intellectual decision as “work.” The Greek word always indicates physical labour or toil. Accepting faith never amounted to work, as far as the Bible tells us. But even if it were, the indication would support what has been outlined above, that the Holy Spirit draws all men to Himself to provide the opportunity to accept His grace.

Update: I’ve since come across other verses that are used to support the doctrine of Total Depravity. Let’s take a look.

“What is man, that he should be clean? and he which is born of a woman, that he should be righteous? Behold, he putteth no trust in his saints; yea, the heavens are not clean in his sight. How much more abominable and filthy is man, which drinketh iniquity like water?” (Job 15:14-16)

Similar to the verses discussed above, we agree that this verse supports the doctrine in the sense that man is entirely corrupt without God. Once again, however, the distinction between can’t and don’t is missing. Until proven otherwise we hold, based on contextual studies, that some do not come to Christ due to the evil in their hearts, not that they cannot. Additionally, that this is said by Job’s friend, Eliphaz, in the context of trying to convince Job that he had done something wrong, it seems awfully dishonest to interpret it through a strictly literal lens.

“Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Psalm 51:5)

The same problem is found here. There’s no justifiable reason, based on this verse, to believe that some cannot come to salvation based on something apart from their free choice (although it is the Holy Spirit alone that allows that choice to be made). Also, that this is a Psalm of lamentation puts a strictly literal interpretation under suspicion. The more likely reading of this verse is that it is an example of ancient exaggeration and hyperbole to stress a point. David emphasized, in light of his actions with Bathsheba, that men are so corrupt that they will sin even at a young age.

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)

That this verse appears to have the structure of a proverbial saying should give us cause to be cautious in interpreting it through a literal lens. Jeremiah also makes frequent use of this kind of language throughout his writings (note in link 1 Jeremiah’s use of a negation idiom in chapter 7 verse 22) so that gives us even more reason to interpret this as a proverbial saying. Proverbial sayings often express a general truth, but we should pause before interpreting it as an absolute.

“And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, which worshipped God, heard us: whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul.” (Acts 16:14)

On this verse, it is asked how Lydia could have come to Christ hadn’t the Lord opened her heart. We agree with the Calvinist that she couldn’t have received Him without His drawing first. However, I see no reason why this cannot be an example of everything I’ve outlined in this article: that by the drawing of the Holy Spirit man are given the free will to follow Him. Without the Spirit’s prodding man cannot receive salvation, however, we all get that prodding; each verse cited in favour of Total Depravity agrees with this finding.

Overall the doctrine of Total Depravity is a Biblical one, however, to apply Calvinist theology to verses that support it lacks a solid basis. There is no evidence here that some men cannot receive salvation due to God’s sovereign decree. What we have is the sad truth that some men simply will not choose grace whether out of rebellion or lust for sin.

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