Answering “Against Calvinism” on Total Depravity

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In their recent book Against Calvinism: Logical Arguments to Disprove the Doctrines of Grace; Including the Definitive Scripture List Refuting Calvinism, constructed by self-publishing CreateSpace, irenic Calvinists Jeff Peterson, Eddie Eddings and Jon J. Cardwell state: “Man is unable to do anything good or virtuous before God; he is unable to believe in God or come to Him; he is unable to understand the truth; and he is unable to seek God.”1 Arminius and Arminians wholeheartedly agree with this doctrinal statement. Arminius argues against his semi-Pelagian opponents:

      In this [fallen] state, the Free Will of man towards the True Good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost: And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace. . . .

The Mind of man, in this state, is dark, destitute of the saving knowledge of God, and, according to the Apostle, incapable of those things which belong to the Spirit of God. . . .

To this Darkness of the Mind succeeds the Perverseness of the Affections and of the Heart, according to which it hates and has an aversion to that which is truly good and pleasing to God; but it loves and pursues what is evil. . . .

Exactly correspondent to this Darkness of the Mind, and Perverseness of the Heart, is the utter Weakness of all the Powers to perform that which is truly good. . . .2

If one calls him- or herself an Arminian but does not agree with Arminius and the Remonstrants (his successors) on this crucial point, then such an individual is (perhaps unknowingly) semi-Pelagian, not Arminian. Calvinist theologian R. C. Sproul admits that Augustine’s, Martin Luther’s or John Calvin’s views on human depravity and inability are “scarcely stronger than that of Arminius.”3 Arminius (and all Arminians) affirms that the will of fallen human beings is “not free from the first fall; that is, it is not free to good, unless it be made free by the Son through His Spirit.”4 Arminians concur with the conclusion of the authors that there are no convincing “logical [or scriptural] arguments against the doctrine of Total Depravity.”

Arminians, however, differ with the authors (and all Calvinists who maintain) that the solution to the problem of total depravity and inability necessitates a theory of unconditional election or that regeneration must therefore precede faith. The authors explain:

      Because of Adam’s fall, all his descendants are sinners, being dead, blind and deaf to the things of God. Man’s heart is deceitful and desperately wicked. His will is no longer free, but instead, is in bondage to the sinful nature; and therefore, man will not, indeed he cannot, choose good over evil in the eternal, spiritual realm.

The Calvinist therefore believes that it takes much more than the Holy Spirit’s assistance to bring a sinner to Christ; it requires regeneration to raise a dead sinner to spiritual life and to give him a new nature that is alive to Christ.5

There is a presupposition here that cannot be overlooked — a hermeneutical principle (and we all have a hermeneutical principle). Calvinists view fallen humanity rightly as “dead” (cf. Eph. 2:1), but then apply the analogy of a corpse to what it means to be “dead.” I heard Associate Professor of Preaching and Speech Greg Heisler of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary say in chapel: “Dead means dead.” Of course, by “dead” he meant “dead like a corpse.” Though the truth of the matter is that corpses cannot do anything good, such as believe in Jesus Christ, it is also true that corpses cannot do anything bad, such as reject Jesus Christ: a corpse can do neither good nor bad. The corpse analogy is a poor one at best.

What, then, does it mean to be “dead” in sins? Isaiah holds the answer: “but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God” (Isa. 59:2 ESV, emphasis added). Even in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he continues: “remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise” (Eph. 2:12 ESV, emphasis added). The parable of the prodigal son also bears witness: “It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:32 ESV, emphases added). Was the lost boy “dead like a corpse,” or was he separated from the life and relationship with the father? Scripture, not one’s philosophy, grants the latter to be the viable option. We do not deny that sinful humanity is naturally irresponsive to the things of God without the aid of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:14). Our deadened spirits, metaphorically speaking, need the life of God in order to enter His kingdom (John 3:3, 5) and become one of His children. However, we also note that the only ones who become God’s children are those who first receive His Son Jesus Christ by faith (John 1:12-13): these God has chosen to save (1 Cor. 1:21; Heb. 7:25) and will not endure His wrath (John 3:36).

Paul’s message in Colossians 2:13 refutes any theory of regeneration preceding faith. Since an individual is forgiven of one’s sins and justified before and by God through faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:1), then God regenerates (i.e., “makes alive”) those whom He first forgives (Col. 2:13). This is the plain teaching of Scripture. Since salvation is conditioned by faith in Christ Jesus, and no one can in and of him- or herself meet that requirement, God, through the work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8-11), in the power of the gospel (Rom. 1:16-17), draws (John 6:44) and enables (John 6:65) fallen human beings to trust in His Son: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36 ESV).

Faith (and grace and salvation) is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8-9); but nowhere, in our opinion, does Scripture indicate that such is irresistibly granted by a decree of unconditional election. Certain presuppositions have to be accepted and maintained in order to hold this principle. Once this principle is grasped, then Scripture appears to support the concept(s). This, however, can be said of all systematic theologies. If we deny this, then we deceive ourselves and those whom we convince. Hence to suggest that there can be no logical arguments made against one’s theology is an exercise in delusion. We realize that the authors of the above-mentioned book were merely being humorous. I admit that the book is quite a clever one. Yet, joking aside, we have to understand that anyone of any systematic persuasion could have spent the time, effort and money to produce the same type of book — offering all the “logical” arguments against one’s system — which amount to blank pages.

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1 Against Calvinism: Logical Arguments to Disprove the Doctrines of Grace; Including the Definitive Scripture List Refuting Calvinism, researched, compiled and edited by Jeff Peterson, Eddie Eddings and Jon J. Cardwell (United States: Create Space, 2010), 25.

2 James Arminius, “Twenty-Five Public Disputations: Disputation XI. On the Free Will of Man and its Powers,” The Works of Arminius, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:192-93.

3 R. C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2006), 126.

4 Arminius, 2:194.

5 Against Calvinism, 22.