When describing the “totally depraved” condition of man resulting from the Fall, a Calvinist will often qualify the view by saying mankind is “not as bad as they could be.” However, Calvinists apparently presume, without clear biblical support, that mankind is as totally unable to respond to God’s own revelation as they could be. Here is how the Calvinist explains their concept of “Total Inability:”
“Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able by his own strength to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.” (Particular Baptist Confession of 1689)
The key point in this statement is the sentence that reads, “…and dead in sin, is not able by his own strength to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.”
- “dead in sin:” Are we born dead like Lazarus, a corpse rotting in the tomb (a link scripture never draws), or are we dead like the Prodigal, a loved one living in rebellion? Scripture seems to support the latter, not the former (Luke 15:32).
- “is not able by his own strength:” Given that we cannot draw our next breath if not by the gracious good pleasure of our Sovereign Lord, I’m not sure how this qualification helps clarify our point of contention. God gives us all we have, including our ability to make choices. In other words, we all affirm that God must enable choice. We do not all agree that such enabling will dictate which choice will be made. As AW Tozer argues, “…the eternal decree decided not which choice the man should make but that he should be free to make it.”
- “to convert himself:” In response to a doctor’s diagnosis, is recognizing your need for a heart transplant and submitting to the doctor’s will to perform the surgery equal with preforming the surgery yourself? Of course not. An Ethiopian cannot change his own skin, nor can a leopard change his own spots (Jer. 13:23), but that does not even imply that they cannot recognize and submit to this needed change when confronted by the only one who is able to bring about such change.
- “or prepare himself thereunto:” Can the powerful, spirit wrought truth of God’s inspired Word prepare him thereunto? Does one’s ability to resist such preparation and enabling work somehow negate that the work is sufficient to accomplish its given purpose?
Here is a brief rebuttal of the most common proof texts used by Calvinists to support their teaching on “Total Inability.” Much more could be and has been written on each of these texts from the non-Calvinistic perspective, but for the sake of brevity here is a summary of the rebuttals:
Genesis 6:5: “The 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.”
Nothing at all is stated about man’s inability to respond to God’s own revelation. Please read all of Genesis chapter 6 and make a case as to how that supports the Calvinistic premise. Here is just a taste of the context:
“The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.”
As one Calvinist on a recent podcast inquired in response to this passage, “Why didn’t God just elect more people instead of becoming ‘deeply troubled?’”
Romans 3:10-11: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.”
No one is righteous according to the works of the law. No one is able to attain righteousness by law through works. But how does that prove no one is able to attain righteousness by grace through faith? In verse 21 of this same chapter Paul introduces the means for man to attain righteousness, which is separate from the law. Calvinists seem to think that proof of our inability to earn righteousness through our own works likewise proves our inability to trust in the imputed righteousness of Christ.
KEY POINT: Proving that the lost cannot seek God does not prove that they are unable to respond to a God who is actively seeking to save the lost.
Romans 8:7-9: “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.”
Mankind’s inability to submit to God’s law does not prove their inability to trust in Christ who fulfilled the law for mankind. Mankind’s inability to please God while acting in the flesh does not prove mankind’s inability to respond to the spiritual appeal of God so as to receive his spirit.
If I warn my rebellious son saying, “You cannot please me by acting selfishly,” does that suggest the child is unable to heed my warning, humble himself and repent of acting selfishly? Of course not. It only suggests that as long as my child continues to rebel and act according to his pride that he will not please me. This verse says nothing of man’s inability to respond to God’s powerful truth and appeal to humble ourselves. Each individual has the choice to remain in their flesh and pride or respond to the spirit’s call to humble themselves. If you choose the former YOU CANNOT PLEASE GOD.
KEY POINT: Neither side is suggesting that man can please God apart from His enabling grace. So, the question is whether or not the grace is enabling (as John 6:65 teaches), or does this grace irresistibly cause which choice the individual will make (as Calvinism presumes)?
1 Corinthians 2:14: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”
So, the lost man needs someone to spiritually discern the “deep things of God” (vs. 10), right? What are the means God uses to discern spiritual truths to mankind? Is not the very epistle that Paul is writing to the carnal believers in Corinth a means of “spiritual discernment?” And since the “brethren” in the Corinthian church are “not able to receive” these same “deep things of God” (1 Cor. 3:1-3) one would be hard pressed to suggest that Paul was intending to teach that no one is able to understand the simple gospel appeal to be reconciled unless they are first reconciled.
Again, this text never suggests that mankind is born unable to respond to God’s clearly discerned gospel appeal. It only affirms that that mystery of the gospel must be discerned for us, which it has been. As Paul states, “When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.” Eph. 3:4
KEY POINT: Neither side is suggesting that lost men can understand the deep spiritual truths of God apart from the means God has chosen to discern these mysteries. So, the question is whether God’s means of discernment through the apostles is a sufficient work of discernment that enables those who hear it to respond?
John 6:44a: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.
We all agree with this statement. But what are the means that God draws men to Himself?
In Romans 10:14-15 Paul says, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?” (emphasis added)
Follow the order:
(1) God Sends: Who does He send? His apostles, the remnant reserved from Israel. The rest of the Israelites are being judicially hardened in their rebellion temporarily while Christ is on earth (Rom. 11). Jesus speaks to them in parables so that they cannot understand and repent (Mark 4:11-12). He does this to ensure the crucifixion that He has predetermined will come to pass (Acts 2:23). It is not until after Christ is lifted up that he sends out his spirit filled messengers to preach the gospel to all peoples (Acts 1:8) in order to draw all men to himself (John 12:32).
(2) Apostles Preach: What do they preach? The powerful gospel appeal (Rom 1:16; 2 Cor. 5:20), which is alive, active and able to cut through to the soul of man (Heb. 4:12). Remember this is the powerful gospel that is being hidden in parables from most of Israel while Christ is on earth in order to prevent them from repenting before the right time (Matt. 16:20; Matt. 13:11). Proof that God used persuasive means to convince chosen messengers from Israel to go and proclaim His message is not proof that God uses inward irresistible means to convince preselected hearers to believe their message (John 20:30-31).
(3) Hearers Hear: Who are the hearers? Anyone who is not being judicially hardened, like Israel was at that time. Only those who are being blinded from seeing the light are unable to see the light and that blinding (judicially hardening) is not a condition from birth, but a condition unique to Israel at that time. For clarity one should consider what Paul said in Acts 28:27-28:
“For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ ‘Therefore I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!’” (emphasis added)
Notice that they BECOME calloused, they are not born as such. Notice their abilities OTHERWISE? They might see, hear, understand and turn. Notice the contrast with the nation of Israel and the rest of the world? “They will listen!” Why does the apostle draw this contrast if indeed all mankind is born unable to see, hear, understand and turn? This is a question Calvinists must be willing to address.
(4) Hearing is “how they can believe”: As Paul states in the follow verses, “faith comes from hearing the message,” which parallels what John taught in John 20:31: “…these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
The ONLY reason that a hearer would not be enabled to respond to the life giving truth of God’s appeal is if they are being prevented from seeing, hearing or understanding the message, a condition of someone being judicially hardened by God (not a condition of everyone from birth as Calvinists presume). By believing, mankind may have life! (John 20:31)
(5) Believing is “how they can call” : One who has heard the powerful gospel appeal calling us to repentance and faith is able to believe. The believer is able to call on Christ in repentance in order to find forgiveness and life. Mankind must repent in order to live! (Ezek. 18:32)
KEY POINT: The historical context of John 6 must be in view to understand the author’s intention. Jesus is purposefully blinding most Israelites from the truth to prevent their repentance for a time. All the while, He is drawing His preselected apostles from Israel, by means of signs and wonders, to be the foundation for His church. In other words, in Christ’s audience there are some who are being judicially hardened from Israel and others who are being drawn from Israel (convinced through signs) in order to ensure God’s purpose in electing Israel would be fulfilled.
Here is a list of podcasts on the subject of Total Depravity/Inability: