You might be surprised to find that Arminianism and Calvinism are in complete agreement on the doctrine of total depravity; I know that I was. For many years I operated under the thought that while mankind was pretty bad, we were not so bad that we could not choose to accept God’s offer of salvation. But that is really the heresy of semi-Pelagianism. Calvinist and Arminian alike agree that mankind is totally corrupt and unable of himself to accept the gospel.
Alternatives to Total Depravity
Before looking at total depravity, let’s take a quick look at a couple of the alternatives; Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism. Pelagius was a British monk from the 4th and 5th centuries who emphasized holy living. He did not believe that the consequences of Adam’s sin passed down to his descendants, but that everyone is born in a morally neutral state. Given the right teaching, a man is capable of living in a way that would be pleasing to God. Because of this, man has the choice to do either good or bad without any constraints from a natively sinful nature.
Pelagius and Augustine clashed over this and in 418 A.D. and again in 431 A.D. his teachings were declared as heretical by the councils of Carthage and Ephesus and the position of Augustine on total depravity was ratified. It is probably worth noting that it is entirely possible that Pelagius himself did not hold to all of the ideas attributed to him, but regardless he is credited with them.
Another British monk, John Cassian, is credited with trying to find a middle ground between Pelagianism and Augustinianism, advocated that there is a spark of good in man, enough to enable him to begin the journey, at which point God takes over and finishes the work. This position, which came to be known as semi-Pelagianism, was also labeled as heresy, although again it is uncertain if Cassian actually believed what he was accused of. The emphasis of both Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism is on human free will, the ability of humanity to freely choose, without any help from God, to accept his offer of salvation. Now if you find yourself in this camp you are neither a Calvinist nor an Arminian; you have fallen into the heresy of semi-Pelagianism. Regardless what you may hear Calvinists proclaim, Arminianism is no different than Calvinism in regards to total depravity.
A Summary of the Doctrine of Total Depravity
So now let’s take a look at total depravity as taught by both John Calvin and Jacob Arminius. Total depravity teaches that humanity was created in the image of God and was holy. But that humanity fell from their sinless state when they disobeyed God’s directive not to eat from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. When they did this they died spiritually, were separated from God, and fell into condemnation.
That humanity is totally depraved does not mean that they are as bad as they could possibly be. But it does mean that we have a natural inclination to sin and that our natural state is corrupt, unable to think, will, or do anything in ourselves that is good. This includes being able to earn any favor from God, to do anything to save ourselves from the judgement of God, or even to believe the gospel of Christ.
I cannot take the initiative in salvation. If God does not first do something to enable me to believe, then I never will. It is an act of grace on God’s part that enables me to believe. My will is not free to choose God. While there is some difference between the Calvinist and the Arminian concerning free will, on this they are agreed; one does not have free will in regard to choosing to believe.
Scriptural Reference for the Doctrine of Total Depravity
- Humanity was created good, but fell into sin through willful disobedience. – Genesis 1:26-28; 3:1-19
- All humans are sinful and disobedient to God; we are dead in our sins. – Ephesians 2:1-3; Romans 3:23; Colossians 2:13
- There is no one who does good. – Romans 3:9-18
- In our natural sinful state we are incapable of pleasing God. – Romans 8:7-8
- No one can come to Christ unless the Father draws them – John 6:44
Quotes on the Arminian Doctrine of Total Depravity
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. For Christ has said, “Without me ye can do nothing.” St. Augustine, after having diligently meditated upon each word in this passage, speaks thus: “Christ does not say, without me ye can do but Little; neither does He say, without me ye can do any Arduous Thing, nor without me ye can do it with difficulty. But he says, without me ye can do Nothing! Nor does he say, without me ye cannot complete any thing; but without me ye can do Nothing.” That this may be made more manifestly to appear, we will separately consider the mind, the affections or will, and the capability, as contra-distinguished from them, as well as the life itself of an unregenerate man. – Arminius, J., Complete Works of Arminius, Volume 1, Public Disputations of Arminius, Disputation 11 (On the Free Will of Man and its Powers) (http://wesley.nnu.edu/arminianism/the-works-of-james-arminius/volume-1/public-disputations/disputation-11-on-the-free-will-of-man-and-its-powers/)
That man has not saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free will, inasmuch as he, in the state of apostasy and sin, can of and by himself neither think, will, nor do any thing that is truly good (such as saving faith eminently is); but that it is needful that he be born again of God in Christ, through his Holy Spirit, and renewed in understanding, inclination, or will, and all his powers, in order that he may rightly understand, think, will, and effect what is truly good, according to the Word of Christ, John 15:5, “Without me ye can do nothing.” – Article 3 of the Five Articles of the Remonstrance (https://www.theopedia.com/five-articles-of-remonstrance)
John Wesley was in complete agreement with John Calvin and Martin Luther in his understanding of original sin. Wesley taught that as a result of the Fall the moral image of God (holiness, righteousness, love, and connection or relationship to God) is completely destroyed in humanity. Human beings in their natural state are spiritually dead to God, thoroughly sinful, helpless to change themselves, and incapable of even being aware of their state. If human beings are going to be saved God is the One who must take the initiative. If human beings are to be awakened, convicted of their sin, exercise faith to appropriate the new birth, then God must do the work, because humanity has no internal resources from which to draw to move themselves toward God and progress in the way of salvation. – John Wesley, Contemporary Wesleyanism and the Reformed Tradition
A Note on Being an Arminian
A Calvinist is one who follows the teachings of John Calvin. An Arminian is one who follows the teachings of Jacob Arminius. Can someone who does not follow the teachings of John Calvin rightly be considered a Calvinist? Or can someone who does not follow the teachings of Jacob Arminius be rightly considered an Arminian? For this series of posts, Arminianism, or Classic Arminianism, will be defined based on the teachings of Jacob Arminius and the Remonstrants, his earliest followers. There have admittedly been many who called themselves Arminian who believed and taught things that Arminius did not agree with. That is unfortunate, but it true for Calvinists as well. Total depravity is an area where some who call themselves Arminians have ventured into semi-Pelagianism. But that is not Arminianism, which holds strongly to the doctrine of total depravity.