Arminius vs. Calvin on Total Depravity

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Total Depravity teaches that every single human being has been affected by the fall. Every part of a person has been affected; hence, total depravity. This has never meant that people are as bad as they could be. This doctrine insists that no one can do anything meritorious for salvation, nor be good enough for salvation. Not only do people not keep God’s law perfectly, but they are also unable to do so (Rom. 8:7).

The doctrine of Total Depravity is also known as Total Inability. The apostle Paul writes: “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:14 NIV). Thus people cannot understand spiritual truths, i.e. the deep things of God (1 Cor. 2:10) without the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is the One who proves the world “to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8-11 NIV). This ministry of the Spirit is essential if anyone is going to be saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, for Satan blinds the minds of those who don’t believe (2 Cor. 4:4). We need the light of God’s truth in Jesus Christ through the power of the gospel and the convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit to comprehend our wretched, sinful nature, and by His strength call upon the Lord for salvation (John 1:5, 16:8-11; Rom. 1:16-17, 10:13-17; Ephesians 2:6-9).

Concerning the sinful and blinding state in which humanity exists, Calvin writes:

      Therefore, since through man’s fault a curse has extended above and below, over all the regions of the world, there is nothing unreasonable in it extending to all his offspring. After the heavenly image in man was effaced, he not only was himself punished by a withdrawal of the ornaments in which he had been arrayed, i.e., wisdom, virtue, justice, truth, and holiness, and by the substitution in their place of those dire pests, blindness, impotence, vanity, impurity, and unrighteousness, but he involved his posterity also, and plunged them in the same wretchedness.

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Calvin’s view of the fallen state of humanity is that of the apostle Paul, who, combining various Old Testament passages emphasizing the wickedness of various people groups, writes: “What should we conclude then? Do we [Jews] have any advantage? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. 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, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.’ Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.’ ‘The poison of vipers is on their lips.’ ‘Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.’ ‘Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know.’ ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes’ (Rom. 3:9-18 NIV).

Such language is offensive to our modern culture. That is because most people today have bought into the lie that people are generally good. One wonders to what definition of “good” most people are referring — and by what standard of “good” are such people being measured. One must also wonder what such people think of the Scripture which insists that we all “have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy [lit. menstrual] rags” (Isaiah 64:6 NIV).

In 1885, Isaac Watts penned the hymn At the Cross, in which he states: “Would He devote that sacred head, For such a worm as I?” In most modern hymnals, however, it reads: “Would He devote that sacred head, For such a sinner as I?” How the word “sinner” is any less offensive than “worm” is uncertain; both words maintain the conception of being less than what God requires for entrance into His presence: sinless perfection — an impossible feat for any fallen sinner. But perhaps the change originated from the inept modern concept of what constitutes a sinner.

If a sinner is one who merely makes mistakes, then to call one a sinner is less offensive than calling one a worm. But a sinner is more than one who merely makes mistakes. A sinner is one who has offended an infinite, eternal, righteous, and holy Being. A sinner does not merely make mistakes. A sinner willingly “makes mistakes.” But even the notion of “making mistakes” is not accurate. A sinner’s disposition is one of hostility to the holiness of God. A sinner does not merely accidentally make mistakes. A sinner is openly hostile to any righteous and holy law established by God.

And still, the sinner remains an image-bearer of his or her Creator-God. A worm, an insect, does not possess nor was created in the image of God. Calvin remarks that

      man was created in the image of God. For though the divine glory is displayed in man’s outward appearance, it cannot be doubted that the proper seat of the image is in the soul. I deny not, indeed, that external shape, insofar as it distinguishes and separates us from the lower animals, brings us nearer to God . . . Only let it be understood, that the image of God which is beheld or made conspicuous by these external marks, is spiritual.

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Though a sinner who comprehends his or her sinfulness and separation from all that is truly holy may feel spiritually like a worm, each person still maintains the image of God. I think the hymn should retain the word “worm” in its stanza, especially in our modern culture where people have too high a view of humanity. King David writes: “But I am a worm and not a man. I am scorned and despised by all!” (Psalm 22:6 NLT) Though he was not lamenting over his sinful condition, thus declaring himself a worm, the expression is found in Scripture, and I think is an apt one for declaring our wretched, sinful condition.

Arminius, as did Calvin, championed the cause of the wretchedness of sinners as taught in Scripture. He writes:

      In the state of Primitive Innocence, man had a mind endued with a clear understanding of heavenly light and truth concerning God, and his works and will, as far as was sufficient for the salvation of man and the glory of God; he had a heart imbued with “righteousness and true holiness,” and with a true and saving love of good; and powers abundantly qualified or furnished perfectly to fulfill the law which God had imposed on him. This admits easily of proof from the description of the image of God, after which man is said to have been created (Gen. 1:26-27), from the law divinely imposed on him, which had a promise and a threat appended to it (Gen 2:17), and lastly from the analogous restoration of the same image in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 4:24; Col. 3:10).

But man was not so confirmed in this state of innocence as to be incapable of being moved by the representation presented to him of some good (whether it was of an inferior kind and relating to this [natural] life, or of a superior kind and relating to spiritual life), inordinately and unlawfully to look upon it and to desire it, and of his own spontaneous as well as free motion, and through a preposterous desire for that good, to decline from the obedience which had been prescribed to him. Nay, having turned away from the light of his own mind and his Chief Good, which is God, or, at least, having turned towards that Chief Good not in the manner in which he ought to have done, and besides having turned in mind and heart towards an inferior good, he transgressed the command given to him for life. By this foul deed, he precipitated himself from that noble and elevated condition into a state of the deepest infelicity, which is under the Dominion of Sin. . . .

In this 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.3

Calvinist R. C. Sproul comments:

      The above citation from one of Arminius’s works demonstrates how seriously he regards the depths of the fall. He is not satisfied to declare that man’s will was merely wounded or weakened. He insists that is was “imprisoned, destroyed, and lost.” The language of Augustine, Martin Luther, or John Calvin is scarcely stronger than that of Arminius. . . .

Arminius not only affirms the bondage of the will, but insists that natural man, being dead in sin, exists in a state of moral inability or impotence. What more could an Augustinian or Calvinist hope for from a theologian? Arminius then declares that the only remedy for man’s fallen condition is the gracious operation of God’s Spirit. The will of man is not free to do any good unless it is made free or liberated by the Son of God through the Spirit of God.4

Both Arminius and Calvin believed in the total depravity of all human beings as maintained in Scripture. And both Arminius and Calvin believed in the total inability of all human beings to do anything towards salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. The major difference between the two concerning their doctrine of depravity appertains to the solution of God in overcoming the effects of the fall. For Calvin, an unconditionally elect person must first be infused with faith in Christ Jesus in order to be justified and regenerated. For Calvin’s successor, Theodore Beza, an unconditionally elect person must first be regenerated and then infused with faith in Christ Jesus in order to be justified.

For Arminius (and most of his followers), a person must be graced by the Spirit of God in the overcoming of the depraved nature so that the person may be freed to believe in Christ Jesus. If such is accomplished and not resisted, then the person is justified and regenerated. But sinners must be enabled by the Spirit of God because they are totally and utterly depraved, captured and enslaved by sin, and completely undone.

1 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008), 2:1.4.

2 Ibid., 1:15.3.

3 James Arminius, “Twenty-Five Public Disputations: Disputation XI. On the Free Will of Man and its Powers,” in The Works of Arminius, trans. James Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 2:191-92.

4 R. C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997), 126, 128.