Some Questions about Total Depravity Answered by Ben Henshaw

, posted by SEA

On his website, Arminian Perspectives, Ben Henshaw has a questions page at which he answers questions about Arminianism and Calvinism that visitors to his site pose in the comment section of the page. The following is a question and answer interaction between Ben and a commenter named Steven.

Question Part 1: Much has been said in your previous posts and links about man being dead in sin. I agree with what I have been reading, that dead in sin does not necessarily mean incapable of doing anything good. I do not agree with the Calvinist view of Romans 5, regarding the total depravity of man, and our associated “guilt” by way of Adam’s sin.

That being said, what really happen to mankind when Adam sinned? How am I different than I would have been, had not the first humans disobeyed God? Is it that I now have the ability to discern good and evil? Am I more aware of sin because their eyes were opened? Is it my nature, that is bent toward evil?

Rather than muddy the water further, what I am trying to determine is – when are people separated from God spiritually? Is it the first time I sin? Was I born separated from God?

If I need to give you more detail about my question, just let me know!

Answer Part 1: That is a good question and there are many different opinions among Arminians.

Most Arminians see total depravity as the corruption that was passed down to us from Adam as a result of his disobedience in the garden. This means that we are bent towards sin from birth and will eventually actualize sin ourselves.

This is how Arminians understand total depravity. Our depravity makes sinning inevitable and makes it impossible for us to seek God without God’s gracious intervention. On this Calvinists and Arminians agree. Calvinists see this intervention as irresistible regeneration. Arminians see this intervention as resistible prevenient grace. Both affirm inability. The disagreement lies in how God enables the sinner to believe.

Being dead in sins is further describing inability to a Calvinist since they correlate spiritual death with the inability of a corpse. Arminians see spiritual death as a state of separation and condemnation which results from actual sin. We do not believe that there is Biblical reason to correlate spiritual death with the inability of a corpse since Scripture never makes that comparison and because it would lead to absurdities (i.e. those who are “dead in sin” in this case should not be able to resist the Spirit or reject the gospel either). Arminians also believe that the Bible clearly teaches that faith precedes regeneration.

Arminians are divided with regards to original sin. Some Arminians affirm racial guilt (that we are born guilty of Adam’s sin and are condemned for that sin). They generally see that God’s grace is imputed in such a way that infants and small children benefit from the atonement automatically, or that they are counted as innocent based on identification with Christ in the incarnation.

Other Arminians, who reject the imputation of racial guilt, believe that God does not count sin against us until we consciously sin in a manner in which it constitutes a fully moral decision. They would then maintain that children, though they sin from an early age, are not counted as sinners (i.e., their sin is not counted against them) until they reach an age when they become morally accountable (this “age” could vary from child to child depending on the circumstances). In this view children are in a state of innocence, not because they do not sin, but because God does not count their sins against them. They would have a special relationship with God in this sense but this relationship would not be the same as the relationship one attains when they put faith in Christ and come to be in union with Him. It may be that this state of grace prior to an age of accountability is what Paul was describing in Rom. 7:9-11. This “life” would probably be something less than the full spiritual life that we enjoy in Christ through faith.

Arminians and Calvinist are all over the map on this question because the Bible does not speak very clearly about it. I personally reject racial guilt because I just don’t find the concept clearly taught in Scripture. I do believe that the Bible views children as in a state of grace prior to sinning at an age when they become morally aware enough to be held accountable for that sin. How all this works or exactly how we should define this state of grace/life is mostly speculation.

The gospel was written and preached with those who are morally accountable for their sins and dead as a result, in mind. They are separated from God in the strongest sense of the word and can only be reconciled to God and enjoy the life that flows from Him through faith and consequent union with Jesus Christ.

Hope that helps.

Here is a link to an excellent essay which argues strongly for the Arminian perspective that rejects racial guilt and interacts with the relevant passages. I think you will find it helpful.

Question Part 2:

Both your answer and the article were very helpful in explaining some of the basic thought processes behind the opposing views. Not being trained in a seminary, the various terms for belief systems and the like are foreign to me. All I know are the things I have learned and studied from the word, so the nuances about what people believe aren’t easy for me to understand.

I see Calvinists referring to Arminians on these blogs as Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian. While I understand the basics behind Pelagian thought, I do not know how men would classify me. As to one of your comments:

“This is how Arminians understand total depravity. Our depravity makes sinning inevitable and makes it impossible for us to seek God without God’s gracious intervention.”

What do you mean by “impossible to seek God without God’s gracious intervention”? I have found in scripture that God holds all men accountable for their actions, especially their failure to seek Him even though He is near to us, and we should see His existence from the created world. (Acts 17; Romans 1) I believe that men can do good and do “Godly” things, by obeying the “natural laws” that God placed in the hearts of man according to their conscience. I see Noah finding grace in the eyes of God in spite of an otherwise wicked humanity, and I know that God says he who seeks shall find.

My understanding is that the power of God is found in the word. It is how the spirit cuts us to the heart, it is how men were convicted of their sins in Acts 2. The gospel needed to be carried into all the world because that’s where the power was. In the words of God through His Son, and through His ambassadors the apostles.

Is the prevenient grace you describe different from the word of God? Are you implying God changing someone’s heart apart of the word in some miraculous way? Or when Arminians describe prevenient grace, is what I described what they are implying? I’ll be happy to clarify if I need to do so.

Thanks again!

Answer Part 2:

Arminians simply affirm that God must do a work in the heart before one can put faith in Him for salvation. We find support for this in passages like John 6:44; 12:32; 16:8-11; Rom. 2:4; 3:9, 10; Titus 2:11, etc.

God’s grace can work apart from the gospel enabling a hostile sinner to seek after God (Cornelius would seem to be an example of this, cf. Acts 17:27), but primarily works through the power of the gospel as you have suggested (Hebrews 4:12; Rom. 10:17).

So God works in many ways to draw us unto Him but we cannot approach Him prior to His gracious initiative.

Pelagian= no grace needed to seek God and put faith in Him

Semi-Pelagian= man takes the first step (initiative) and then God’s grace intervenes

Arminianism= man cannot approach or believe in God apart from His prevenient enabling grace

Calvinism= God must irresistibly regenerate the “dead” sinner and faith inevitably results

Hope that helps.

Question Part 3:

Thanks as always for your reply. I guess I still don’t understand the view that it is impossible to seek God without some level of enabling on the part of the sinner, from God. You said above that “God’s grace can work apart from the gospel enabling a hostile sinner to seek after God…”
I know you mention Cornelius, and I can also think of the Ethiopian Eunuch, but in both of those cases God puts an evangelist in their path to explain to them the Way. The same is true for the apostle Paul – God didn’t save him apart from the message from Ananias. These people had in every case demonstrated a desire to follow God previous to their conversion. I guess my question is, what did God perform on their heart separate and apart from His revelation, prior to their hearing it?

Your cross reference to Acts 17:27 also points out that God placed all of mankind on equal footing. He desires each of us to reach out to him, and even their own poets viewed themselves as children of some greater being. Is there anything needed before man can reach out to God?

Reply at your convenience good sir, and thanks again for your work.

Answer Part 3:

Regarding your question,

These people had in every case demonstrated a desire to follow God previous to their conversion. I guess my question is, what did God perform on their heart separate and apart from His revelation, prior to their hearing it?

I don’t know exactly what God performed in their hearts but if their hearts are bent towards sin and rebellion (the doctrine of total depravity) then their needs to be a work of God in order for them to re-orient themselves towards God in any meaningful way (which would include any kind of “seeking”). Cornelius had responded to the prevenient grace of God under the old dispensation and God did not leave him without the further revelation of His Son. He was one of the “other sheep” that Christ spoke of in John 10 and in that context Christ’s “sheep” are those who are in right covenant relationship with the Father. These are “given” to the Son by the Father (John 6:37).

It still seems to me that God was at work in Cornelius heart prior to him hearing and accepting the gospel. The reference in Acts tells us that God does indeed intend for His creatures to seek after Him that they may find Him. The Arminian only asserts that man cannot even begin to seek God in His depraved state without God’ prevenient grace intervening.

Question Part 4:

Thanks as always for the response. I guess I need to understand “prevenient grace” a little better. From the surface view, it almost feels like the Calvinist view of regeneration preceding faith. Trying to fit this into what I understand the word to teach, would prevenient grace be found in the following:

Teaching of the word (1st Timothy 4:16)
A person’s conscience (Romans 2:15)
God’s creation (Romans 1:20)

I’m not quite sure I understand the entire concept of the need for pre-grace. I’ll keep reading up on it through things I find, but for now maybe you can answer me on the above. I’m not try to beat a dead horse, and I am as honest a seeker as I can be, so don’t feel like you are wasting your time on our dialogue 🙂 I’m just trying to learn!

Answer Part 4: I think all of those passages give us clues as to what prevenient grace is and how it works. Wesley saw the conscience as nearly synonymous with prevenient grace and did not see it as a natural endowment. I think God’s Spirit works through our conscience to recognize our need for Him so that we might begin to seek Him (the law makes us conscious of sin and our need for a Savior, etc.).

Maybe the case of Lydia will help. Lydia heard the gospel but the Lord still needed to “open her heart” to receive and benefit from what she heard,

“The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.” (Acts 16:14)

And notice Acts 18:27,

“On arriving he was a great help to those who by grace had believed.

I could refer you to some articles and posts on prevenient grace if you like. Let me know and feel free to ask for more clarification if needed.