Total Depravity

Descriptions of classical Calvinism generally begin with a statement on total depravity. This doctrine means a lost man is incapable of reaching out to God, because of the manner in which sin has corrupted the human form. In this corruption, this fall, we are remade to not desire the things of God. We are free to choose what we want, but apart from God’s intervention we will not want God.

Today I want to make a few notes about this construct and how people use Scripture to support this idea. I notice that with any doctrinal idea, the person who believes it, sees it in Biblical passages others would not. For total depravity, I have heard many verses cited, which made me scratch my head.

Jeremiah 17:9 The heart is more deceitful than anything else, and incurable —who can understand it? Saying the heart is deceitful, or that humanity is sinful, is not logically the same as saying we are incapable of choosing God, or desiring God. It is logically uncomfortable to think God created a world where we are capable of choosing anything else, but not that which we were created for, that which we need the most.

Romans 3:10-12 As it is written: 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; all alike have become useless. There is no one who does what is good, not even one. This passage is part of a longer one speaking of the nature of sin. This discussion of the nature of sin is in a longer passage describing why we need Jesus. In this context, it doesn’t appear to me to be a statement of absolutes but of general tendencies. Yes it does use all-inclusive language, but like Jesus speaking of chopping of a hand, it is used for emphasis. If it were literal lost people would not be able to do any good. But we all see lost people do good things. In my opinion this includes the ultimate good of reaching out to Jesus for salvation.

Ephesians 2:1 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins (Note, this is a part of longer passage you should read carefully if wrestling with this issue.) This passage is affirming we were spiritually dead prior to coming to know Christ. It is step beyond though to say that spiritually dead means unable to choose life. Spiritual death is used comparatively to physical death, but like any illustration, we can choose to include details unintended in the original text.

1 Corinthians 2:14 But the unbeliever does not welcome what comes from God’s Spirit, because it is foolishness to him; he is not able to understand it since it is evaluated spiritually. This verse is describing what the process of rejecting God looks like inside the person. The term unbeliever here probably means more than one who rejects God, but one who rejects all things spiritual.

There is a habit of people arguing theological points to flood their opponents with Scripture, moving so quickly that each one cannot be evaluated as it goes by. While all of these passages will appear to read in support of total depravity to one who is already convinced of it, I have a hard time seeing it in any verse.

In my view, humanity is incapable of reaching out to a God they do not know. The intervention they need in order to make them capable of choosing God therefore, is a faithful witness speaking of the Christ who took on flesh to reach out to them. Those who hear of Him, have sufficient new information to make them capable of choosing or rejecting God’s Savior. Romans 10:14 But how can they call on Him they have not believed in? And how can they believe without hearing about Him? And how can they hear without a preacher?

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4 thoughts on “Total Depravity

  1. I believe in God’s complete sovereignty and man’s complete human responsibility. We are not determined because of God’s foreknowledge and omnipotence. I think we make real choices, and yet we are not capable of choosing God because of our moral depravity.

    The greatest example I can conceive of from the Bible is the example of Pharaoh in the book of Exodus. It said that God hardened his heart, but it also mentions that Pharaoh hardened his own heart too. God gave 10 plagues to warn him, and it was self-evident. I think Pharaoh knew God was revealing himself, and yet because of his own choice, he rejected it. Both freedom and determinism, two seemingly contradictory terms, were both taking place in the life of Pharaoh.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting. I suspect I would have to hear you elaborate deeper before I was sure whether I agreed or disagreed with you. Especially what you mean by complete in both sides of the equation. My first inclination is, if God has ‘complete’ sovereignty as in no one else really makes a choice then I would say that argues against man’s ‘complete’ responsibility as in we are not made responsible for our own choices but for God’s. (And God being God, He could have done that if He wanted to.)

      But reading your example I don’t think that is what you meant. Like myself you are looking for a way to combine sovereignty with free will which does not rob God of His position or turn Him into a heavenly monster condemning us for His choices. I am not talking sovereignty directly in my post, but I am impacting it a great deal indirectly. My approach to sovereignty is to say the word means boss. God is boss, He is in control, but like the US President is commander in chief, he delegates a great deal of decision making to humanity. But unlike the President, God knows exactly what we will do in any situation, and knows how to be in control through our free will, without having to subvert it.

      I believe this presents a bigger, stronger, more glorious picture of God’s sovereignty. Others would say this view denies God’s Sovereignty.

  2. Nicely said. I so totally believe we can choose or not choose. I would only add that I do believe that left to ourselves we would never choose God. But I also believe He does draw all men and provide His word…giving us the chance to choose. Did we just say the same thing? Thanks for your posts by the way, they are great.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, but especially thank you for the kind comments. May your tribe increase! And I agree with you. No we didn’t say the same thing exactly, but you highlighted an additional part I probably should have.

      Actually there is a lot more I could say on topics similar, and probably will eventually.

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