mē genoito

May it never be! Let God be true, and every man a liar. As it is written: “So that you may be proved right when you speak and prevail when you judge.” (Ro 3:4)

Tiptoeing Through the TULIP: Total Depravity

Isn’t that a clever title? I bet you’ve never heard that phrase before. You don’t have to worry about worn-out clich? in this blog. TULIP is an acrostic used to express a set of doctrines on salvation. The problem with mnemonic devices is often not a good representation of the underlying ideas. This is also true with TULIP. It is a great mnemonic tool for memorizing the 5 doctrinal stance of Calvinism but it is somewhat misleading.

Critics of Calvinism often misunderstand total Depravity. When Calvinists speak of humans as “totally depraved,” they are saying that Man is spiritually dead to God. Dead in the sense of devoid of spiritual life as a result of Adam’s fall. The word “total” might be a bit redundant. The point being, the unregenerate man is dead in his sins. Ephesians 2:1-2 Dead is dead, and totally dead doesn’t make it any more dead. 🙂 Dr. Sproul describes total depravity this way.

The concept of total depravity is often confused with the idea of utter depravity. In Reformed theology total depravity refers to the idea that our whole humanity is fallen. That is, there is no part of me that has not been affected in some way by the Fall. Sin affects my will, my heart, my mind, and my body. … Total depravity also stresses the fact that sin reaches to the core of our being. Sin is not a peripheral thing, a slight blemish that mars an otherwise perfect specimen. Sin is radical in the sense that it touches the root (radix) of our lives.
Total depravity is not utter depravity. Utter depravity would mean that we are all as sinful as we possibly could be. We know that is not the case. No matter how much each of us has sinned, we are able to think of worse sins that we could have committed. Even Adolf Hitler refrained from murdering his mother.1

Before going further let’s look at the source of TULIP by going back to The Canons of Dordt. In the section, The Corruption of Man, Article 1.

Man was originally formed after the image of God. His understanding was adorned with a true and saving knowledge of his Creator, and of spiritual things; his heart and will were upright, all his affections pure, and the whole man was holy. But, revolting from God by the instigation of the devil and by his own free will, he forfeited these excellent gifts; and in the place thereof became involved in blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity, and perverseness of judgment; became wicked, rebellious, and obdurate in heart and will, and impure in his affections. (emphasis added)

An often misrepresentation of Calvinism is that we don’t believe in free will. This beginning article proves that to be false. Calvinist recognizes that Man had and continues to have volition, but the problem is with the choice. Man is incapable of making the right choice.

Therefore all men are conceived in sin, and are by nature children of wrath, incapable of saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage thereto; … There remain, however, in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural understanding, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior. But so far is this understanding of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. Nay further, this understanding, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and hinders in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God.

So because of our fallen nature, even in the smidgeon of good that we do, there exist pollutants.

Jonathan Edwards spoke of the concept of enlightened self-interest. Enlightened self-interest refers to that motivation we all feel to perform external righteousness and to restrain some evil impulses within ourselves. There are certain times and places where crime does not pay. Where the risk of punishment outweighs the possible reward of our misdeed, we may be inclined to refrain from it. On the other hand, we may win the applause of men by our virtuous acts. We may gain a pat on the head from our teacher or the respect of our peers if we do certain good deeds.

The whole world applauds recording artists when they band together to produce a special album with the proceeds to be used to relieve famine in Ethiopia. Applause rarely hurts the career of a stage performer, despite cynical statements that ethics and business do not mix. On the contrary, most of us have learned that ethics enhance our reputations in business.

I am not so cynical as to think that the gesture for Ethiopia by singers was done purely for personal applause or as a publicity stunt. Surely there were strong motives of compassion and care for starving people. On the other hand, I am not so naive as to think that the motives were totally without self-interest. The compassion may far outweigh the self-interest, but no matter how minuscule, there was at least a grain of self-interest mixed in. There always is, in all of us. If we deny this I suspect that our very denials are motivated in part by self-interest.2

This is all very interesting but where are the Scriptural references to back this up.

The Apostle Paul, citing the Old Testament, summarizes the universal condition of sin:
What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin. As it is written:
“There is none righteous, no, not one;
There is none who understands;
There is none who seeks after God.
They have all gone out of the way;
They have together become unprofitable;
There is none who does good, no, not one” [Psalm 14:1-3; Psalm 53:1-3; Ecclesiastes 7:20].
“Their throat is an open tomb;
With their tongues they have practiced deceit” [Psalm 5:9];
“The poison of asps is under their lips” [Psalm 140:3];
“Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness” [Psalm 10:7].
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
Destruction and misery are in their ways;
And the way of peace they have not known” [Isaiah 59:7-8].
“There is no fear of God before their eyes” [Psalm 36:1].
Romans 3:9-183

Paul reinforces this enmity between Man and God in Romans 8:7-8
7For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8Those who are in the flesh cannot please God..

Genesis 6:5
5The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

Job 14:4
4Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?
There is not one.

Psalm 51:5
5Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.

Jeremiah 13:23
23Can the Ethiopian change his skin
or the leopard his spots?
Then also you can do good
who are accustomed to do evil.

Jeremiah 17:9
9The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it?

The above Scriptural references are drawn from THE FIVE POINTS OF CALVINISM by R. L. Dabney (1820-1898)

5 Responses to “Tiptoeing Through the TULIP: Total Depravity”

  • inunison says:

    Thank you, it’s clear enough. But I don’t know what to make of this: “Man is incapable of making the right choice.” Joshua surely made a right choice Joshua 24:15, or this call to choose Revelation 3:20

  • teleologist says:

    Hi inunison,

    Well, I think Jos 24:15 and Rev 3:20 doesn’t conflict with TULIP. TULIP only addresses one thing and that is how does a person get saved. Joshua and probably most of the Israelites are believers in God. Joshua’s question and the Lord’s call in Rev is a general call to God. The question is who will answer the call. Total depravity says that unless a person has been regenerated (my next posting) he will not be able to respond to the call.

  • inunison says:

    Hi teleologist,

    It seams to me like circular reasoning. The way I read Scriptures is that we respond on the prompting of the Holy Spirit (who convinces us of our fallen state) and than regeneration happens. But maybe we are talking about the same things, just expressing them differently. I am however in a full agreement with you that Salvation comes from Jesus, 100% of it. Even faith which receives salvation comes through the divine power of the Word and is the gift of God’s grace.

  • teleologist says:

    Hi inunison,

    I am not sure why you think it is circular. AntiCalvinists argue the Bible is replete with people making choices. Again this is a misconception of Calvinism. Calvinists are not saying that people don’t have free will to choose. We are saying that before they are regenerated they just will not choose God. AntiCalvinists are focusing on the decision itself, Calvinism goes deeper than that and seek the basis for those decisions. We do this because the Bible talks about this and it is the logical way to synthesize different passages in the Bible. For instance, if someone decides to help feed the poor, what is the basis for that decision? The Christian does it because he is obeying God to love your neighbor. In the process he learns to love others as God loves us. For the atheists he feeds the poor because it makes him feel good. It gives them a sense of worth and value; a cause that is greater than them. The ultimate end of an atheists’ “good” work is to glorify themselves. The ultimate end result of a Christian’s work is to the glory of God, because the decision was borne out of the obedience to God’s Word.

    Let’s consider a more direct example of the proclamation of the gospel. The message falls on the ears of 2 people, one accepts the message and becomes a Christian, and the other rejects the message. Both have made a decision and they’ve made diametrically opposite decisions. Why? What is the basis for their decision? The materialist will say it depends on their life experiences up to that point, their education, their training, their state of mind, their ability to reason, etc, etc, etc.

    The Bible, on the other hand, tells why some will accept the gospel and some don’t. Those who reject the gospel is because they love unrighteousness, the world and themselves more than God. Paul sums it up this way, “None is righteous, no, not one, no one understands, no one seeks for God.” According to Paul rejecting the gospel is the norm, because he doesn’t understand and does not seek God. The puzzling part is why did one of the two people choose to accept the gospel. Is it because he understood it and the other didn’t? No not according to Paul? Is it because he was a righteous person? No not according to Paul and if he is righteous then he wouldn’t have a need for a physician anyway. Is it because he was seeking God? No not according to Paul. So what makes one person choose to accept the gospel and the other to reject it? The answer is actually simple. They must be born again. They must be regenerated. Of course that was simple, but wait… that still doesn’t solve the problem of how they can be born again. How do they become born again if they don’t understand and don’t seek God?

    Regeneration is not the final answer, it is just the intermediate answer to how they would decide to believe. In order for a person to have the capability to make a decision to accept the gospel, he must be regenerated first. But then the problem still remains, how does one get regenerated? If you were dead and do not understand and seek God, can you regenerate your own dead spirit? Of course not, fortunately the Scripture tells us that God is the One Who sovereignly bestow upon us this new birth. It is a gift of God, not of ourselves. He does this by Ezekiel 36:26-27
    26And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

    I can’t understand how it can be clearer than this. From the moment the words of the gospel enters our ear, to the point of us making an internal decision and a verbal confession to accept Christ as our Lord and Savior. The Holy Spirit has already done His work. Why would I want to take credit for something that I didn’t do? The alternative to the Scriptural view is that in between the message and our decision, we were somehow working in synergy with the Holy Spirit to regenerate our spirit. There just isn’t any Scriptural support for this Arminianist view of rebirth. Those who argues against total depravity and irresistible grace need to stop quoting Scriptures that only shows the point of decision making and the result of the decision. What the Arminianist need to do is to show Scripture that describes the process that leads up to the point of the decision-making.

    Thanks inunison, I appreciate your comments.

  • inunison says:

    Hi teleologist,

    Thank you for this response. It now clarifies your possition and I think I am in agreement with you regarding “total depravity”.
    It may be useful to distinguish between Adam’s guilt and our guilt as a consequence of our inherited sinfulness. We do not inherit Adam’s guilt, but as a consequence of Adam’s fall we are born distant from God, out of harmony with his will, in a state of sin which is condemnable, and therefore we are guilty before God. A correct understanding of the nature of sin is also vital for a balanced view on the nature of Christ. While He became truly man, “made like unto his brethren” (Heb 2:17), he did not inherit the original corruption with which we are born (Heb 4:15). The study of original sin and corruption should lead us to a greater awareness of our need of righteousness, don’t you think?

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