Once More Unto the Breach: Total Depravity and Total Inability

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Those who deny the doctrine of Total Depravity, and especially its corollary Total Inability, demand we show them from Scripture where an inherent inner inability to freely believe in Jesus Christ and His Gospel is taught — why there must be an inner work of the Holy Spirit in the freeing of one’s will from the stranglehold that is our sinful nature. This doctrine is becoming increasingly more important, as believers are not only denying the biblical teaching, but are also assuming that Arminian theology denies this biblical and Reformed axiom. Arminians affirm both Total Depravity and Total Inability.1 We affirm not free will but freed will — freed by the Holy Spirit in order to freely respond to the Gospel. (View the informative article, “The FACTS of Salvation: A Summary of Arminian Theology/The Biblical Doctrines of Grace,” from the site of the Society of Evangelical Arminians.)

That human beings are born with a sin nature is denied only by Pelagians and certain semi-Pelagians. That statement is constructed not as a boogie-man tactic but as bare fact. Whether mortals are born guilty of the sin of Adam is not under scrutiny here. What does possessing a sin nature entail? Or, better, what effects does possessing a sin nature produce? Can a sinful person perform a good act? Yes. Jesus confesses that we are evil, in our very being or nature, yet we know how to give good gifts to our loved ones. (Matt. 7:11) Sinful people can love, reason, perform good works for others, care for the poor, and a host of other positive activities related to the realm of humanity and human nature.

But what of the spiritual realm? What can a sinful mortal accomplish spiritually? The simple answer: nothing. Regarding the act of believing in Christ, the condition required of God for His saving of the soul, Jesus Himself confesses: “No one can [i.e., has the capability to] come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (John 6:44); “no one can [i.e., has the capability to] come to Me unless it has been granted [to give, offer] him from the Father” (John 6:44, emphases added). Note that “coming to” and “believing in” Jesus are used synonymously (cf. John 6:29, 35, 37, 40). Why, though, must God’s Spirit “draw” and “grant” (cf. Phil. 1:29) that a person believe in Jesus Christ? Jesus relates the issue to inability. God must first assume a proactive stance with our regard if we are to believe. Therefore we are incapable of believing in and coming to Jesus without a prevenient (prior) work of enabling grace. This truth denotes a spiritual condition of our fallen nature which is a reality from birth.

Someone who denies this understanding of prevenient grace may argue, as does Leighton Flowers, “we must not presume that just because man is born fallen that the gospel is not up for the task of enabling the fallen man to respond to its appeal for reconciliation from that fall.” (link) (emphases added) But the message or words of the Good News are not magic words: words do not enable a person to believe in Jesus. Words can inform an individual regarding information, but they cannot spiritually enable a person to assume action, and spiritual enablement is in focus here, since a carnal or natural person “does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness” to that person; indeed, that individual cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised, examined, or discerned (1 Cor. 2:14). Unless the Holy Spirit enables and grants a person to freely believe, that person will not believe, because that person cannot believe. Leighton disagrees and argues further:

Think about this objectively for a minute. To teach this concept of pre-faith regeneration [from the perspective and theology of the Calvinist] or even the necessity of “prevenient grace” [which is the perspective and theology of the Arminian that Leighton rejects] means you have to affirm that God (for some unknown reason) decided to punish all of us for the sin of Adam by making us all innately incapable of responding willingly to His own word unless He actively did something to make us able again. Does that make any rational sense if viewed objectively? (link) (emphasis added)

First, pure objectivity belongs to God alone, so appealing to an objective perspective is futile. Neither Calvinist, Arminian, nor those who follow Leighton are objective. This issue is a matter of biblical exegesis guided by one’s particular hermeneutic. Leighton’s perspective, quoted above, is not objective: it is based upon his exegetical method that is informed by his particular hermeneutic.

Second, neither Calvinist nor Arminian suggests that God, for some unknown reason, decided to punish all of us for the sin of Adam by making us all innately incapable of responding willingly to His own word. God did not “make us innately incapable of responding willingly” to the Gospel: we are born innately incapable of responding willingly to the Gospel apart from the inner work of the Holy Spirit. This is part of what being “dead in sins” entails. (Eph. 2:1) One is dead to the spiritual realities involving God, His Son, His Spirit and His word. We are unable by nature. We are born sinners. God does not punish all of us for the sin of Adam by making us all sinners. We are naturally born sinners. We are sinners by nature. (Rom. 3:23) We are born unbelievers. God does not punish all of us for the sin of Adam by making us all unbelievers. We are unbelievers by nature. (John 3:18)

Even if the matter were as Leighton has outlined above, would God be unjust in punishing us in such fashion, given that He Himself subjected nature to entropy because of the sin of one man (cf. Rom. 8:20)? Still, in light of such arguments presented by Arminians and Calvinists, some refuse to accept Total Depravity and Total Inability as being biblical. Often these same individuals will insist that an enabling, in whatever manner conceivable, is a gratuitous doctrine. People are capable, in and of themselves, to freely respond to the Good News of salvation by grace through faith in Christ. All that is required is that a person hear the Gospel. If that is true then there is no need for such individuals to insist that the Gospel enables the person to believe in Christ. Some, inconsistently, still do.

St Paul teaches that, with regard to the Jewish people, their minds are hardened; even to this very day a veil remains unlifted over their minds (2 Cor. 3:14), by which veil they are incapable of freely trusting in Christ. He continues teaching that the Gospel is veiled by the Devil, who has “blinded the minds of the unbelieving” (2 Cor. 4:3), by which blinding an inherent inability is rendered as a reality. Therefore an enabling by God must be performed if anyone is to freely trust in Christ. How does the Holy Spirit accomplish this task? Through overcoming our blindness (2 Cor. 4:6), drawing or wooing and granting and pointing us toward Christ (John 6:44; 6:65; Phil. 1:29), toward repentance (Rom. 2:5), through the preaching of the Word, or the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:16, 17), and the spiritual hearing of that Gospel (Gal. 3:2, 5), and by His conviction of our sin, lack of righteousness, and the judgment to come (John 16:8, 9, 10, 11). The Holy Spirit is the one performing this work — not merely the words of the Gospel, not merely the preaching of a sermon, but the actual Person of the Holy Spirit Himself is the agent of our salvation by His gracious and grace-enabling activity.

Consider also the notion of inability from the state of sin in which every person exists: “And you were dead [lit. being dead: present participle] in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.” (Eph. 2:1, 2 NASB, emphasis added) Notice that the unbeliever lives her life according to the standards of the culture (i.e., “according to the course of this world”) and also according the evil spirit that is “working in” such unbelievers. This inherent disobedience will require an inner work of the Holy Spirit, in the restraint of not only our depraved nature but also of the evil spirit working within the heart, if one is to freely trust in Christ and thus be saved. Are we to believe the theory of those who reject the doctrine of Total Inability, that a person is inherently capable of trusting in Christ by a mere hearing of the Gospel, while the evil one is working within such a willfully disobedient heart and mind against that Gospel?

Moreover, consider that the nature of the fallen mortal is one in which “every intent of the thoughts of [one’s] heart [is] only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5), Jesus adding that, out of the heart come “evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders” (Matt. 15:19). The effects of these fallen realities are damaging to the free will where spiritual issues are concerned. To suggest that the Spirit of God is not needed to aid fallen mortals in such a depraved condition is overtly insulting. Understand that the Arminian position on Total Depravity and Total Inability is, at the core, just as strong as that of the Calvinist: “The Mind of man in this state,” argues Arminius, “is dark, destitute of the saving knowledge of God, and, according to the Apostle [1 Cor. 2:14], incapable of those things which belong to the Spirit of God.”2 (emphasis added) Someone may argue, “This appears Calvinistic,” but we think this appears biblical, Reformed, orthodox. Arminius adds that “our will is not free from the first fall; that is, it is not free to [spiritual] good [such as is faith in Jesus Christ], unless it be made free [i.e., freed] by the Son through His Spirit.”3 This is Arminianism 101.

St Paul, in the same letter mentioned above, informs the believers that the grace of God is given to him according to “the working of His power.” (Eph. 3:7; cf. Eph. 1:19) He also states: “Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us.” (Eph. 3:20, emphasis added) We must have the personal power of God, through His Holy Spirit, working within us to the accomplishing of any spiritual good whatsoever; and faith in Christ is the ultimate spiritual good. If we cannot understand spiritual matters without the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:14), and we cannot, even after we are regenerated by grace through faith in Christ, perform genuine spiritual works in Christ nor commit ourselves to spiritual disciplines without the working-power of the indwelling Spirit of God (Eph. 2:10; Phil. 2:12, 13), then how can we assume that people can, in and of their depraved and helpless selves, freely believe in Jesus Christ merely by hearing the Gospel? Such a notion is a Spirit-less understanding of the Gospel and of Salvation.

Furthermore, consider the fallen nature of sinful people in terms of being a helpless enemy of God, and the truth of spiritual inability becomes a necessary theological and biblical tenet to defend. While humanity exists in a helpless and sinful state (Rom. 5:6, 8), while humanity is considered a hostile enemy of God (Rom. 5:10), Christ dies for such fallen sinners. But if we are helpless, then we need help, denoting inability; if we are enemies and our hearts are set against spiritual realities in God, then we need help, denoting inability. If the mind that is “set on the flesh,” i.e., an inner disposition that is self-centered, and one that wears its sinful blinders willingly, then that nature is “hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so.” (Rom. 8:7, emphasis added) Here, again, we denote inability: the unregenerate are not able to receive the spiritual realities of God, such as obeying God’s commands (and “the works God requires” is belief in Jesus Christ, cf. John 6:29), apart from the inner-working power of the Holy Spirit Himself.

Can mere words of the Gospel cause a person to no longer be hostile toward God apart from the inner working of the Holy Spirit? This seems an impossible notion to accept. St Luke records: “In Iconium they [Paul and Barnabas] entered the synagogue of the Jews together, and spoke in such a manner that a large number of people believed, both of Jews and of Greeks.” (Acts 14:1, emphasis added) Are we to imagine that Paul and Barnabas won converts to the Lord apart from the powerful inner working of the Holy Spirit — in mere persuasive speech? No. Paul writes to the Corinthians: “I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.” (1 Cor. 1:3, 4, 5, emphasis added) Heaven forbid that we perceive of the grace of God related to the salvation of God apart from an inner enabling work of the Holy Spirit of God. Rejecting the doctrine of Total Depravity is to claim to the Holy Spirit, “We do not need Your aid, for we can accomplish faith in Jesus Christ in and of ourselves.” No more tragic thought can be conceived except to suggest that God does not exist.

Jesus confesses that, when He ascends back to the Father, He and the Father will send the Holy Spirit: “And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” (John 16:8 NASB) The New Revised Standard Version translates: “he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.” The Greek word ἐλέγχω refers to reproving, rebuking, disciplining, exposing, show to be guilty. (link) Why must the Holy Spirit perform this inner work if all that is needed for a person to believe in Christ is to hear mere words, to hear the Gospel, that salvation is found in Christ? Could the answer not be found in the truth that our fallen spiritual condition necessitates that the Holy Spirit must perform an inner and powerful work if a person is to trust in Christ? All the references in Scripture that relate an innate inability with regard to believing in and coming to Christ for salvation — could they not collectively be informing us that, due to our fallen condition, a condition that renders us helpless enemies incapable of believing in Christ, therefore a powerful inner work of the Holy Spirit is necessary if anyone is to trust in Christ?

We think so. We insist as much. We see this teaching as being so very obviously biblical that to deny this teaching is to deny the nature of grace itself. Why do we need this inner grace? Because our nature, from birth, is contorted to the ultimate truths of God — to Truth incarnate Himself, Jesus Christ. The very intent of our heart is evil from birth (Gen. 8:21; Ps. 51:5; 58:3); the heart within us fallen mortals is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick (Jer. 17:9); and even those who often know about God suppress the truth by their wickedness and refuse to honor Him as God (Rom. 1:18, 21). A nature such as this requires more than mere words for an effectual response: a nature such as this requires a powerful inner work of the Holy Spirit that frees that nature from the clutches of depravity in order to elicit a freed response, in trusting in Christ, for a salvation experience.

Arminius concurs with the portrait of our wicked nature as taught in Scripture: “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.”4 Are we to believe that the mere hearing of salvation through faith in Jesus is all that is required to amend or overcome our perverse nature that has an aversion to that which is truly good and pleasing to God? Arminians answer no. Arminius continues: “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.”5 He then quotes from Matthew 7:18, Matthew 12:34, John 6:44 and Romans 8:7. He concludes: “To the same purpose are all those passages in which the man existing in this state is said to be under the power of sin and Satan, reduced to the condition of a slave, and ‘taken captive by the Devil.’ (Rom. 6:20; 2 Tim. 2:26).”6 Are we to imagine that the mere hearing of salvation through faith in Jesus is all that is required to be released from spiritual slavery and the captivity of the Devil?

No. We agree with what we believe to be the unadulterated teaching of Scripture, as promoted by Arminius and those in the Reformed tradition, that “our will 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.”7 This Arminian teaching inspires Calvinist scholar R.C. Sproul to confess: “Arminius [and, hence, Arminians] 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.”8 Sproul concludes: “The language of Augustine, Martin Luther, or John Calvin is scarcely stronger than that of Arminius.9 The doctrine of Total Depravity, and its corollary Total Inability, is not merely Calvinistic teaching; but is, we think, a biblical and Reformed precept that belongs to the theology of Jacob Arminius, his successors the Remonstrants, as well as modern Arminianism.


1 Understand two significant truths regarding Arminianism and the doctrine of Total Depravity: 1 ) we avoid the language of “corpse” relating to those who are “dead in sins” (Eph. 2:1) since the authors of Scripture do not use the same language; and 2) we also avoid any notion that regeneration must precede faith. First, we prefer the biblical language of “separation” with regard to those who are dead in sins, because the authors of Scripture do so as well, whether explicitly (cf. Isa. 59:2; Eph. 2:12, 13) or implicitly (Luke 15:24, 27, 32). Second, we posit that enabling grace is the sufficient grace that warrants a freed response of the individual rendered freely, the positive response of faith being the condition upon which God then regenerates the believer. Take, for a brief example, what St Paul informs the believers in Colossæ: “When [lit. being: present participle; cf. Eph. 2:1] you were dead in your transgressions [cf. Eph. 2:1] and the uncircumcision of your flesh [or sin nature], He made you alive [i.e., regenerated you] together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions.” (Col. 2:13 NASB) Here, being forgiven of one’s sins precedes the act of being regenerated by God. If we are forgiven of our sins by grace through faith in Jesus Christ then faith precedes regeneration.

However, when Arminians appeal to free will, typically the reference regards matters unrelated to the spiritual realm. For instance, when a person sins, that person sins freely — of his or her own free will. God has not decreed or rendered certain that a person sin. But whatever pertains to grace, mercy, forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God, peace with God, salvation, sanctification, justification, glorification, such issues occur in the life of the individual solely by the proactive enabling and sufficient grace of God working within the fallen, helpless, and sinful mortal.

2 Jacob Arminius, “Twenty-Five Public Disputations: Disputation XI. On Free Will and Its Powers,” in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 2:192.

3 Ibid., 2:194.

4 Ibid., 2:193.

5 Ibid., 193-94.

6 Ibid., 194.

7 Ibid.

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

9 Ibid., 126.