The differences in Depravity between Calvinists and Arminians are perhaps the most interesting for our topic since both Calvinists and Arminians agree on the basic concept. However, I do think we think about Total Depravity a bit differently, in that it plays a slightly different role. And this can be seen the most clearly in how we interpret the Biblical phrase of being “dead in sin”.
Both of us understand Total Depravity to mean that we are incapable of doing any true good apart from the grace of God, including having saving faith. However, the Calvinist stresses this incapacity idea. To the Calvinist it is our lack of power that is the ultimate issue.To the Arminian, Total Depravity isn’t as (ironically enough) human focused. Rather for us, the point of the doctrine is to stress our need for God. It is much more about that brokenness between the human and God.
To put it more simply, the Calvinist is saying that we can’t do it, and the Arminian is saying that we need help. Now one implies the other, and I want to stress that there is no difference of actual doctrine here. Arminians admit that we can’t save ourselves; that’s why we need help! Likewise the Calvinist will admit that we need help; after all, we can’t do it! But while the Arminian is more concerned with what it means for our relationship with God, and explaining the need for prevenient grace, the Calvinist is more concerned about ensuring that humanity doesn’t get credit for salvation and that the power ultimately comes from God Himself. Same belief, but we think about it differently, and the role it plays in our theology is a bit different.
Dead Men Can’t Do Nothing Right
Probably the most interesting difference is the way we interpret the “dead in sin” phrase in Scripture. Calvinists compare a human in the the depraved state as being dead: unable to act. They stress the complete immobility of a corpse. Now I don’t necessarily have a problem with this analogy, seeing how I believe in human inability, but it’s not what the Scripture means. This is apparent in two ways. First, Jesus uses this same term in the parable of the Prodigal Son, and there is no way it could mean that in that context. Second, in Romans, which really stresses the relationship between death and sin, in chapter six it describes us as being dead to sin, and yet no Calvinists believes this means that Christians are unable to sin.
It is more accurate to think about this relationally. When your grandfather dies, you generally don’t interact with him much anymore. You relationship with him is severed. This is where the expression “you’re dead to me” comes from, and it seems to be how Scripture is using the term as well. To be dead in sin is to be cut off from God because of your sin. There is no relationship there to work with. This is more consistent with the Prodigal Son text and Romans 6:11, and also perfectly consistent with all other texts where the imagery is used. To be spiritually dead is to be cut off from God. And this is of course why we need God.
Next we’ll be talking about the most complicated topic of this series: grace.