This is the final post in a three-part look at the Reformed doctrine of total depravity. In this entire series, I have sought to bring some clarity to the theological system historically known as Calvinism. My goal in this has been two-fold. Firstly, I want you to see a grand and glorious God of sovereign grace and adore him. Secondly, I want you to see the truth of a theological system that is so often caricatured. I pray that this series will be beneficial to you in at least one of these two ways. I am not as much interested in persuading you to hold fast to the doctrines of grace as I am to you seeing that Calvinism is a viable and biblical theological system worthy of consideration. I cherish it as I see it as the soteriological system that glorifies God in the highest. Nevertheless, I am also aware that there are some notable objections to and misunderstandings with each of the five main tenets of Calvinism. In this post, I seek to interact with two major objections to the doctrine of total depravity as well as hopefully relieve some common misunderstandings. [As always, I encourage you to pushback where you think I may be incorrect or unhelpful. (Most of) your comments are always beneficial to me.]
Objections to Total Depravity
(1) Total Depravity and Fairness: Some who object to total depravity complain that this doctrine teaches that none of us have the ability to believe in God, even though we want to. This doctrine does not seem fair to them. They see it in the same way that I desperately want to play the guitar, but do not have one single musical bone in my body. My brother can play the guitar, but I lack the ability, yet I desire to have the ability. Would it not make God a cruel and arbitrary “moral monster” if he demands that everyone repent and believe in Jesus even though none of us have the ability to do it? Even further, is it not evil for God to then only give the ability to believe in Christ to some, while leaving others desiring to believe, yet lacking the ability?
This objection simply misses the point. Total depravity asserts that God is utterly holy and man is utterly sinful. The effects of original sin go deep into man, affecting his whole person. Not only are our hearts, minds, and bodies pervasively affected by sin, but our wills are also affected by sin. We are willfully dead in sin. We are slaves to our sin, yes, but we are sinfully joyful slaves. Our slavery to sin and death in it perfectly coincides with our desires. We both do not want to please God and cannot please God. J.I. Packer once asked, “How can we love God while our deepest inner impulse is one of enmity towards him” (Packer, 18 Words, 74)? We lack the ability to trust Christ and the will to do it. We need grace to believe and grace to want to believe. In fact, the latter precedes the former. Nevertheless, we must always keep in mind that we do not deserve grace. With Adam as our representative and as partakers in his sin, we deserve nothing but God’s holy wrath–all of us (Rom. 3:23). For God to save even one sinner is a testament to his unfathomable love and grace. His character is judged by those he does effectually save from the pervasive depravity we find ourselves in and by his just and holy wrath that he extinguishes on those he does not save.
(2) Total Depravity and Free Will: Some say, “Total depravity means we are not free (the issue of free will or free agency).” So, if we accept that our wills are subjected to sin and are pervasively depraved so that we not only lack the ability to trust Christ, but also the desire to trust Christ, are our wills free? We have already stated that our wills are enslaved to sin and that we can only disobey God. If this is true, how can our wills be free? The always insightful and concise J.I. Packer once again sheds light for us:
Are our wills free then? The simplest answer is that our wills are free, but we men are not. Our wills are free in the sense that we have power to do what we will in the realm of moral action, but we ourselves, heirs of Adam, are slaves of sin (John 8:34; Rom. 3:9; 6:16-23); which really means that we shall never in fact will with all our hearts to do the will of God (Packer, 18 Words, p. 74).
We are free in the sense that we can freely choose according to the desires of our hearts. In other words, we can do what we want. But from birth, we all want sin (Ps. 51:5). Total depravity teaches that those desires are sinful by nature and set against God, not for God. By nature, we are enemies of God, not friends. We hate God and from this disposition of our wills, we are free to exercise them. From this position, we freely sin against God. We do exactly what we want. We need miraculous saving grace to change our desires (regeneration) so that we can freely choose Christ. Baptist theologian James Boyce is helpful on this point:
The condition of man is indeed such ‘that he cannot not sin,’ but this is due to his nature, which loves sin and hates holiness, and which prefers self to God. When man sins, he does so of his own choice, freely, without compulsion (Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology, p. 182).
John Calvin puts it this way:
Nonetheless the will remains, with the most eager inclination disposed and hastening to sin…The chief point of this distinction, then, must be that man, as he was corrupted by the Fall, sinned willingly, not unwillingly or by compulsion; by the most eager inclination of his heart, not by forced compulsion (Calvin, Institutes, II.III.5)
Calvin continues with this illustration:
Suppose someone asks…: Is not God of necessity good? Is not the devil of necessity evil? What will they reply? God’s goodness is so connected with his divinity that it is no more necessary for him to be God than for him to be good. But the devil by his fall was so cut off from participation in good that he can do nothing but evil. But suppose some blasphemer sneers that God deserves little praise for His own goodness, constrained as He is to preserve it. Will this not be a ready answer to him: not from violent impulsion, but from His boundless goodness comes God’s inability to do evil? Therefore, if the fact that he must do good does not hinder God’s free will in doing good; if the devil, who can do only evil, yet sins with his will–who shall say that man therefore sins less willingly because he is subject to the necessity of sinning? (Calvin, Institutes, II.III.5)
However, make no mistake, there is a sense in which man is not free. This lack of freedom is found in man’s lack of freedom to do right or please God. Wayne Grudem puts it like this:
Yet because of their inability to do good and to escape from their fundamental rebellion against God and their fundamental preference for sin, unbelievers do not have freedom in the most important sense of freedom–that is, the freedom to do right, and to do what is pleasing to God (Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 498).
The ability to desire God and repent of our sin is not natural to us, it is a grace that must come from outside of us. It is a grace that must come from God alone. Hence, salvation belongs to the Lord (Jonah 2:9).
(3) Total Depravity and Human Responsibility: Total depravity removes responsibility and accountability from man. This objection goes as follows: Since we do not have the ability to do anything but sin, we cannot be held responsible for our actual sins; for, it is not like we could do anything else anyway. If a person is not able to do something, he cannot be held accountable to do it. It seems cruel to us for God to hold us responsible for the only thing we are able to do, even if it is compatible with our wills. How can we be held responsible to respond to something that we cannot respond to? This objection is at the heart of one of the greatest mysteries in all the Bible. God is holy. We are sinful. He is sovereign. We are responsible.
The problem with this objection is that the Bible does not assume this to be the case. On the contrary, it assumes the opposite. Let me explain. The fact that outside of God’s regenerating grace we are so in love with sin and evil in enmity against God that we cannot choose good, does not excuse us from choosing good. In fact, the depths of our corruption that coincides perfectly with our wills and desires only intensifies our guilt. Boyce once wrote, “The more intense the corruption, the more guilty is the man regarded” (Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology, 182). What this objection is asserting is that because our natures have been so intensely depraved and corrupted by sin, we cannot be held guilty for that sin. Our inability to love God with our entire being does not excuse us from doing so. The Bible tells us that we are born in sin and we are dead in sin (Ps. 51:5; Eph. 2:1-3). At the exact same time, the Bible tells us that we will be judged for every good and bad act we commit (Matt. 12:36-37; Ecc. 12:14; Rom. 14:12; 1 Peter 4:5).
This objection also assumes that total depravity refers to physical inability when in reality, total depravity refers to moral inability. Maybe an illustration will help. Suppose you are sitting in a chair and someone commands you to stand up. You want to stand up with everything that is in you, but you are unable to stand up because you are physically chained to that chair. You desire to stand up and to obey the command, but this physical restraint does not allow you to. For the one giving the command to punish you for not standing up, this would be unjust. Now let’s use the same scenario with different circumstances. Let’s say that you are sitting in a chair and someone commands you to get up, but this time you are not chained to the chair. This chair is a La-Z-Boy that vibrates and is very comfortable. You love sitting in this chair. When you are commanded to stand up, you are not physically restrained, yet you do not stand up because you just don’t want to. You love that chair so much that you are morally or willfully unable to stand up. It is this latter state that total depravity teaches about the human condition. The compatibility of human inability and human responsibility is a great biblical mystery, but it is a biblical reality and assumption about the human soul that we must believe in order for many things in life to make sense.
These are but three of many objections to the doctrine of total depravity. If you made it to the end of this long post, I hope you have seen the desperate condition that sinful man finds himself in. It is a condition of disgust and despair. It is a condition of corruption and guilt. And it is a condition of willful moral inability. The stage is now set and it is black as night with no moon to give light. At this point there is no hope, no peace, and no life. O, but grace is coming and it is coming quickly! Next in our series is a look at the amazing sovereign grace of God in the doctrine of election. But I think it is appropriate to close our look at total depravity with Paul’s words that close Romans chapter seven.
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? –Romans 7:24