The Implication of the Calvinistic Hermeneutic of Total Depravity

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The acronym TULIP1, in my opinion, works well as a system and should be taken as a whole and not in parts. If one accepts the doctrine of Unconditional Election — which is a product of the Calvinist’s view of Total Depravity and Total Inability — then I see no reason for rejecting either the doctrines Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, or of course Perseverance of the Saints. I think the only consistent form of Calvinism is Supralapsarian TULIP Calvinism, and any deviation from such is inconsistent. For the sake of space, I do not care to explain my reasons why; I just want to make those statements and carry on to the main point of the post.

For all my posts on the subject of Hermeneutics lately, I want to briefly examine the Calvinistic presupposition of Total Depravity, which Calvinists believe necessitates not only the doctrine of Unconditional Election, but that regeneration must precede faith in Christ Jesus in order to effect God’s salvation of His elect. This post is by no means exhaustive on the subject.

As humanity was flourishing after the fall of Adam and Eve into disobedience and thus sin, the LORD “observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and he saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil” (Gen. 6:5 NLT). Our depraved condition has not grown any better since the days before the flood. The “futile way of life” which we all “inherited” from our first parents is just a fact of our post-fall condition (cf. 1 Pet. 1:18 NASB). Calvinist pastor and theologian Dr. R.C. Sproul, Sr. writes, “Nothing screams more loudly about the fact that we were born in a state of corruption than the fact that we all sin.”2 Dr. Sproul agrees with all in the Reformed tradition with this doctrine of depravity, including Jacob Arminius, who held tenaciously to Total Depravity and Total Inability.3 Dr. Sproul admits, “The language of Augustine, Martin Luther, or John Calvin is scarcely stronger than that of Arminius.”4

Since the Calvinist and the Reformation Arminian agrees on the subject of Total Depravity and Total Inability, how can they depart with each other over the implication of this doctrine: i.e., Unconditional Election? The Westminster Confession of Faith states:

All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, He is pleased, in His appointed and accepted time, effectually to call [Rom. 8:30; 11:7; Eph. 1:10-11], by His Word and Spirit [2 Thess. 2:13-14; 2 Cor. 3:3, 6], out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature to grace and salvation, by Jesus Christ [Rom. 8:2; Eph. 2:1-5; 2 Tim. 1:9-10]; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God [Acts 26:18; 1 Cor. 2:10, 12; Eph. 1:17-18], taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh [Ezek. 36:26]; renewing their wills, and, by His almighty power, determining them to that which is good [Ezek. 11:19; 36:27; Phil. 2:13; Deut. 30:6], and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ [Eph. 1:19; John 6:44-45]: yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace [Song of Songs 1:4; Ps. 110:3; John 6:37; Rom. 6:16-18].5

The Westminster divines assure us that the one unconditionally elected for this salvation is “altogether passive therein, until being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit,” by which action the individual is “thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it.”6 What they see fit to deny is that a totally depraved person could believe in Christ apart from first being regenerated by the Holy Spirit, as Arminians teach. Thus regeneration, for the vast majority of Calvinists, must precede faith. This conclusion is presupposed by the Calvinist’s definition of what “dead” means.

For example, the apostle Paul writes, “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked” (Eph. 2:1, 2a NASB). Even when we “were dead in our transgressions, [God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us], made us alive together with [or “in”] Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:4-6 NASB). Dead is thought to mean corpse-like for Calvinists. But dead also refers to separation, not necessarily corpse-like (cf. Eph. 2:12; Luke 15:32; Isa. 59:2). If the notion and necessity of deadness is relinquished, then what need have we to insist that regeneration precedes faith?

The Calvinist insists that an unregenerate person is incapable of believing in Christ, even with the aid of prevenient grace. As has been highlighted here several times, the apostle Paul explicitly opposes the Calvinist’s theory that regeneration precedes faith in Christ when writing to the Colossians: “When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions” (Col. 2:13 NASB). Brian N. Daniels, himself an Amyraldian (simply: four-point Calvinist) comments:

The aorist participle translated “having forgiven” is significant, for as grammarians have noted, a participle of this tense usually points to an action occurring prior to that of the main verb. In this case that verb is “made alive” [sunezōopoiēsen]. If this use of the aorist participle occurs in Col 2:13, we may conclude that since forgiveness is a gift bestowed in response to faith (Rom. 4:1-8), and since “made alive” in this verse most certainly means regeneration, faith precedes regeneration. (link)

In short, then, we agree with Daniels’ conclusion and find the Calvinist’s presupposition that the doctrine of Total Depravity and Total Inability necessitates both the theory that regeneration must precede faith and the doctrine of Unconditional Election insufficient. This is most clearly demonstrated not only from Scripture, but also in the fact that Reformation Arminians agree entirely with Calvinists on the doctrine of Total Depravity and Inability and yet find no necessity whatsoever to concede a doctrine of Unconditional Election. What also follows is no need for Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, or Perseverance of the Saints (by necessity). Hence the Calvinist’s biblical presupposition of Total Depravity is not a sufficient hermeneutic to substantiate the rest of its claims.

God is most welcome to choose to save whomever He desires — the salvation of all is His desire (1 Tim. 2:4). Scripture insists that God has chosen to save those who believe (John 3:16; 1 Cor. 1:21; Heb. 7:25). Scripture, we believe, does not teach that God has chosen who will believe (merely by a decree) and who will remain in unbelief. These, we believe, are the facts; and these, we believe, are indisputable. Let us examine God’s proactive grace in Arminian theology in the following post.

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1 Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints. The acronym was a simplistic way to summarize Calvinism as a theological system. Since all persons are by nature totally depraved and totally incapable of coming to and believing in Christ Jesus for salvation, God, then, unconditionally elected to save some for the glory of His grace (either proactively appointing — supralapsarianism — or leaving — infralapsarianism — the rest to suffer a just torment for the glory of His justice); sent Christ Jesus to die intentionally for their atonement alone; irresistibly draws His unconditionally elect via regeneration and the gift of faith; and, finally, will preserve His unconditionally elect necessarily until the end.

2 R.C. Sproul, Chosen by God: Know God’s Perfect Plan for His Glory and His Children (Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, 1994), 82.

3 Arminius argues that our free will regarding spiritual issues was not only “wounded, maimed, infirm, bent and weakened,” but also “imprisoned, destroyed and lost.” The mind of all depraved persons, according to Arminius, is “destitute of the saving knowledge of God.” The affections of the heart of all depraved persons is perverse, according to which “it hates and has an aversion to that which is truly good and pleasing to God,” and it “loves and pursues what is evil.” Added to these tragic facts is the “utter weakness of all the powers to perform that which is truly good.” See The Works of Arminius, the London Edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:192-93.

4 Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006), 126.

5 The Westminster Confession of Faith, in the Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, ed. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 2179. I included in brackets the various scripture passages from which they derive their statements. Just because they use those scriptures as proof-texts in no way indicates that they are using them properly. For example, the notion that the unconditionally elect “come most freely [to Christ], being made willing by His grace” can be found in Song of Songs 1:4 is nothing short of ridiculous: the young Shulammite bride declares to Solomon: “Draw me after you and let us run together! The king has brought me into his chambers” (NASB). Both the context and passage have nothing to do with the doctrine of Total Depravity or Total Inability, and one’s need to first be regenerated in order to receive Christ Jesus as Savior and Lord, and to even imply such is embarrassing on the part of the Westminster divines.

6 Ibid.

7 If the aorist participle in this passage does not point to an action occurring prior to that of the main verb, it may appear as is rendered in the NIV: “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins.” The translators simply began a new verse. Yet, in the very next verse, they translate the aorist as “having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness.” Hence, according to this translation, the action of “having the charge of our legal indebtedness canceled” was prior to God “forgiving us our sins.” The translators used the same aorist form for God “having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness,” pointing to the action occurring prior to the verb “being forgiven of our sins,” as did the NASB, NKJV, and ESV in translating the aorist with regard to “having been made alive” subsequent to our “being forgiven of sins.” We, simply stated, believe that the translators of the NASB, NKJV and ESV favored the translating of the aorist participle of “having been made alive” pointing to the action occurring prior to that of the main verb — the conclusion of which means that faith precedes regeneration.

Original post found on The Arminian site