I have always been extremely hesitant to write about Calvinism. Not because of any persecution complex or victim-hood mentality, but I am hesitant because I serve an assembly of the Lord that has many people, staff included, who are not Calvinists. I never want my brothers and sisters in the Lord within the local assembly, which I too am a member of, to feel ostracized by my Calvinist beliefs and writing. Please note that the ideas expressed here do not necessarily reflect the congregation I am a pastor over or my fellow teachers and authorities there.
This is the first blog of my T.U.L.I.P. series. I am only briefly skimming the very controversial and robust doctrines of the reformed acronym. My intention is that these blogs will serve as an introduction to the doctrines, not that they would be the presentations to end all debates. However, I do believe the doctrines expressed in the acronym are thoroughly and clearly biblical, and would like to lay out a semblance of a case for them.
The “T” in the T.U.L.I.P. stands for total depravity. This to me, is the crux of the debate. If this doctrine is true, the other ones must be. It carries that much weight.
To discuss what is important about this issue, we must clarify what separates the camps. Total Depravity deals with the sinful nature of man, but the debate lies in how severe sin has effected man.
In other words, the issue is not “is man sinful?” All Christians agree man is sinful. The issue is not original sin. All Christians (C.S. Lewis excluded) should and do affirm the headship of Adam, and the sin imputed to mankind through his transgression (Romans 5; Psalm 51).
However, the debate here is how our sinful nature affects our will, especially in regards to salvation. That is where the roads diverge. To help clarify this, it is probably best to think of the “T” as meaning Total Inability, not Total Depravity.
Total Inability is helpful, because those of us who accept the T, believe that man is incapable, in his natural state, of making the choice to love God and surrender to Christ. In other words, I do not believe in “Free-Will.”
The Biblical Nature of Man
Growing up, I always heard Christians regularly ascribing free-will to men. We assume this and talk about it so much, it has become Gospel truth. Free-will is a doctrine we take for granted, and cling to with white knuckles, but the problem is that when I put this to the test, it was not the picture of the will of man the Bible painted.
The will of man that I see in Scripture, is not free, but in fact very limited. As I began to study the nature of man, I saw Scripture replete with passages, not about man’s abilities, but man’s inabilities.
To borrow the famous title of Luther’s renowned work, the problem with man is not the freedom of the will, but the bondage of the will. Mankind does not have a free will, mankind has an enslaved will.
There are three passages I will build the case on.
Coming to Christ?
John 6: 44,
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.”
Jesus, in the ever famous sixth chapter of John, when dealing directly with how man is to be saved, informs us that we are in fact unable to come to Jesus. That is not something we have the capacity to do. Our wills are not free to come to Christ. To accept Christ is outside of man’s abilities.
However, the reason people do come to Christ, the text says, is because the Father “draws” them. That word in Greek is often times used to describe fisherman dragging nets of fish on to a boat.
An outside action of God is necessary to bring a person to Christ. Without that divine act, man cannot come to Christ. This is a very logical, textual reason to believe that God must save us apart from our will (although He uses the will), and He must draw us unto Himself, because we cannot come to Him. That is why Paul says that salvation “depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9: 16).
Unable to Please God
Romans 8: 6-9,
For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.
This text is without a doubt the most convincing portion of Scripture for the doctrine at hand. The categories are made clear. A person whose mind is on the flesh is described as one without Spirit, not belonging to Christ. That description fits every son and daughter of Adam. On the contrary, those who set their mind on the Spirit are those belonging to Christ, who are in-dwelled by the Spirit.
Thus, this text is comparing non-Christians with believers. And what does it say about natural, unbelieving man? Yet again, man is unable to do the things of God.
The text explicitly, in plainest terms says that sinful man is more than just unwilling to submit to God, he cannot. That is a strict, clear, inability. Our wills outside of Christ are not free, they are bound. We are not capable of coming to Christ, we are not able to submit to Him, and pleasing Him is impossible for us to accomplish.
Certainly, faith in Christ is part of God’s Law (Acts 17: 30), and certainly nothing pleases God more than when a person is saved through faith in His Son. However, we cannot please God.
Dead in Sin
The above two texts have far more explanatory power in understanding Paul’s description of men in Ephesians 2: 1-3,
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”
The key term being “dead.” What does it mean to be dead in our sins? The word dead is a very powerful word. Outside of Total Depravity, the only option is to assume being dead in sins means having a proclivity to sin. But that hardly fits the severity of the word.
Lazarus was dead. And that is why he could do nothing until Jesus resurrected him. Likewise, our spirits can do nothing good, including faith in Christ, until our wills are brought to life (regeneration). Until then, we are dead, we are imprisoned; not free. We are totally depraved.
Free-Will Or No Will?
I find most people reject this notion, not so much because of the text, but because of philosophical presuppositions. We assume that there are only two possible options: free-will, or no-will. But that is not what the Bible teaches, and therefore I am not presenting that.
We do not have “Free-will,” but that does not imply we are not morally culpable for our decisions, nor does it mean we do not have a spirit that makes un-coerced decisions.
Time does not permit to explain this view of man’s will in detail (the books No Place for Sovereignty and The Potter’s Freedom accomplish this task excellently). However, I can briefly prove the concept of a “middle ground will” through a bipartisan analogy:
All Christians agree that in heaven, at the final consummation, the Saints of God in glory will not be able to sin. We cannot sin and ruin all God has accomplished, and force God to start back again from square one.
However, while we all agree we will not have the ability to sin (which is a code phrase for not having a totally free will), we also agree we will not be coerced robots, not making any personal, meaningful decisions. We will still love God and love people and engage with one another in God’s worship freely, even though we will have a limited will, one incapable of sin.
Thus, everyone already has a category for men in which they do not have will that is free, yet, men are still moral creatures, accountable for their personal choices.
The doctrine of Total Depravity teaches the same thing, only on the other end of the spectrum. In heaven, glorified man cannot sin. Natural man on earth, cannot not sin.
However, the category is the same. Natural man does not have a free will. Natural man has a will that is consistent with natural man’s nature: sinful.
No one forces a lion to eat the Zebra rather than the grass. But the lion, while making a free choice to hunt the Zebra, has no other option because of its carnivorous nature.
Man has a sinful nature, and thus cannot make decisions outside of it. However, like those in heaven, natural man still makes personal, meaningful decisions, and is accountable for them, although natural man’s will is not free to make any decision.
For example, they cannot come to Christ. But glory be to God, salvation is of the Lord.
For further discussion on Total Depravity, listen to pastor Jeff Durbin discuss it here: