Calvinism’s Problems with Total Depravity

, posted by Godismyjudge

This post will be an attempt to add some detail to earlier comments about problems reconciling Calvinism and total depravity using John Hendryx’s post as an example (here). To my knowledge, it’s a new argument against Calvinism. Most Arminians are quick to agree with Calvinists on total depravity to avoid being called semi-Pelagian. However, this in my opinion is a mistake, not because Arminians disagree with total depravity, but because Calvinists have some definitional and consistency problems with affirming total depravity.

Here’s the basic argument:

  •  Premise 1: Per Calvinists, total depravity is a problem with man’s desires, it is a moral and spiritual problem. However, the depraved person is not physically or mentally handicapped or under coercion. The depraved still choose, they just always choose wrong when it comes to faith in Christ and pleasing God.
  •  Premise 2: Calvinists are compatible determinists. God’s decrees determine all things but we remain free in some sense. This freedom grounds moral responsibility and biblical statements of man’s abilities. This freedom is couched in man’s natural abilities. So long as we are not physically or mentally handicapped or under coercion, we are free. In this sense, Calvinists commonly say, if it’s true that you would brush your teeth if you wanted to, you are free and able to brush you’re teeth.
  •  Conclusion 1: So the depraved man has the freedom to trust in Christ or please God (with freedom understood in the compatiblist sense above). So per the compatiblist sense of freedom and ability, man is not totally depraved. (from P1 & P2)

This may not look bad yet, but if you have reached this conclusion, you’re going to end up with problems with the clarity of scripture, consistency, and even the authority of scripture.

For example:

  •  Premise 3: The bible says man in a totally depraved state is unable to trust in Christ or please God (John 6:44, Romans 8:7, John 15:5)
  •  Premise 4: The bible was written to the common man and it’s statements on abilities or inabilities are to be understood with common notions of abilities and inabilities. (Clarity of Scripture)
  •  Premise 5: Calvinists apologists claim the compatiblist sense of freedom is the ordinary, everyday common man sense of man’s freedom.
  •  Conclusion 2: So the compatiblist sense of freedom’s denial of total depravity contradicts scripture. (C1, P3, P4, P5)
  •  Premise 6: Calvinists deny man has free will with respect to trusting Christ or pleasing God.
  •  Conclusion 3: Calvinism is inconsistent, asserting depraved man can and cannot trust Christ and please God.

 Now let’s turn to John Hendryx’s post.

JH: First, I want to assure you that I believe man is required to respond in faith to the gospel. But that does not mean that the natural man has a free will to believe in Jesus. I think the issue here is about definitions. It is important to define what we are talking about up front. When you say man has a free will, what do you mean? Free from what? Free from sin? Also let me say that if you think Dr. John MacArthur is arguing for free will then, I believe, you may have profoundly misunderstood him. He actually affirms exactly the same thing all other Reformed thinkers do about this issue.

I agree defining free will is vital. I know you were not asking me but if it helps, by free will, I mean libertarian free will. But right now I am more interested in what does Calvinism mean by free will.


JH: With him, we affirm that all men make voluntary choices and no one is coercing anyone against their will to make a choice. We always chose what we desire the most.

This grants premise 2. So long as we are not coerced or handicapped, we are free and able to act.


JH: But that is not the issue of the free will debate…

Which free will debate? I understand the freewill vs. divine determinism debate is different than the Pelagian vs. Total Depravity debate. But it’s not like Calvinism can say one thing in the freewill vs. divine determinism debate and then contradict those statements in the Pelagian vs. Total Depravity debate.


JH: Problem is that the person without the Holy Spirit (the unregenerate) always desires that which is contrary to God. Nothing he does proceeds from a heart that loves God. The issue of free will (or not) is to ask this: left to themselves (as fallen human creatures who are in bondage to a corruption of nature), does anyone have a free will to believe in Jesus Christ? 

This grants premise 1, so you’re stuck with conclusion 1.

Man’s problem is his evil desires. Now evil desires matter quite a bit in the Pelagian vs. Total Depravity debate, but they don’t matter in the freewill vs. divine determinism debate. It doesn’t matter that a person cannot desire good. What matters is that if they did desire good, they would do good.


JH: We all have a will, but we use it wrongly… we do not have the will to believe in Christ

The part before the comma implies we can trust and obey, the part after implies we cannot.

What’s the alternative? By “we use it wrongly”, you don’t mean inability? That denies total depravity, which you just affirmed. By “we have a will” you don’t mean ability? How then do you deal with passages saying we have abilities?


JH: The need for grace does away with free will altogether because if man’s will was naturally free he would not need grace at all. He could come to Christ on his own. 

The need for grace does not do away with compatiblist free will. So long as man is unforced and not handicapped, he is free and able to trust and obey. He can come to Christ.


JH: But ask yourself, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit will anyone freely come to faith in Christ? If your answer is no, then you reject free will the same way I do. 

My answer is no, but I I don’t reject free will in the same way you do. I say we don’t have libertarian free will to come to Christ, but surely you don’t mean this? I reject our ability to come to Christ in the common sense notion of free will or ability.


JH: So to teach man has a free will in this sense, i.e. that the natural man has a free will overthrows the gospel … it is precisely because man is in bondage that he needs Christ to set him free.” (John 8:34, 36)

Which is why your philosophical notion of compatiblist freedom is so serious. Never-the-less, thankfully, Calvinists are inconsistent on this point, and end up affirming the gospel anyways.


JH: The discussion about free will has always historically been about the bondage of the will and affections. 

Not always. The free will vs. divine determinism debate has a long and colorful history as well.


JH: And that which is in bondage is not free. 

I agree, but what about a man is bound to sin? His desires or his body? If his desires alone, then per compatiblism, he is free.


JH: We are not talking about not being free to choose which toothpaste we are going to use tomorrow morning. We are talking about does a fallen person have the ability to make a good saving choice apart from the work of the Holy Spirit

In the compatiblist sense in which a depraved man can use Colgate or not, he can accept Christ or not.


JH: The Bible seems pretty clear on this.

I agree. I affirm depraved man is unable to trust and obey. I mean this in the common man’s sense of the term inability, the sense Christ uses – depraved man does not have libertarian freedom with respect to trusting Christ and pleasing God.