I know that this post title has probably taken a few people by surprise. Before you fear that I’ve turn Pelagian in my theology (or semi-Pelagian), let me just say that the title is not meant to convey my theology, but to examine the Calvinist idea of total depravity. So, there you go---I still believe in total depravity. Don’t worry: I deal with sin too much on an everyday basis (every moment basis) to see any good in myself...
This post will tackle the issue of total depravity and how Calvinists reconcile this with their view of Eternal Security. I’ve been dealing with the Doctrine of Eternal Security at the site, stating that the doctrine itself is contrary to the teaching of Scripture (I’ve quoted passages from 2 Peter, Jude, Hebrews). But the question I wanna pose today is, “How can Calvinism reconcile its view of total depravity with its view of eternal security?” In other words, if man is as depraved as Calvinism states he is, then how is it that man can become so limited in his depravity that he can be eternally secure in his salvation?
Now, on to the topic at hand, the Doctrine of Total Depravity. In his debate with Dave Hunt in the work “Debating Calvinism,” James White quotes the words of the 1689 London Confession:
“1. In the natural order God has endued man’s will with liberty and the power to act upon choice, so that it is neither forced from without, nor by any necessity arising from within itself, compelled to do good or evil. 2. In his state of innocency man had freedom and power to will and to do what was good and acceptable to God. Yet, being unstable, it was possible for him to fall from his uprightness. 3. AS THE CONSEQUENCE OF HIS FALL INTO A STATE OF SIN, MAN HAS LOST ALL ABILITY TO WILL THE PERFORMANCE OF ANY OF THOSE WORKS, SPIRITUALLY GOOD, THAT ACCOMPANY SALVATION. AS A NATURAL (UNSPIRITUAL) MAN HE IS DEAD IN SIN AND ALTOGETHER OPPOSED TO WHAT IS GOOD. HENCE HE IS NOT ABLE, BY ANY STRENGTH OF HIS OWN, TO TURN HIMSELF TO GOD, OR EVEN TO PREPARE HIMSELF TO TURN TO GOD” (Debating Calvinism: Five Points, Two Views” by Dave Hunt & James White. Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2004, page 64).
Of the three statements of the 1689 London Confession printed above, number three stands out from the rest. It discusses life after the Fall of Genesis 3: how man’s will was affected by sin. “Hence he is not able, BY ANY STRENGTH OF HIS OWN, to turn himself to God, or even to prepare himself to turn to God.” In point three, we see that man cannot make one move towards God because sin has so corrupted his will that, as Arminius says in his “Works,” the will is “maimed, infirm, bent...”
The Westminster Confession states the same thing as the London Confession (1689), but more succinctly:
“Man, by his fall into a state of sin, HATH WHOLLY LOST ALL ABILITY OF WILL TO ANY SPIRITUAL GOOD ACCOMPANYING SALVATION; so as a natural man, being altogether averse from good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto” (Loraine Boettner, “The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination.” Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1932, page 61).
The Westminster Confession, like the 1689 London Confession, both state that man is dead in sin and does not desire to do what is good. Man chooses evil because that is all he wants to do.
So as we can see, all man desires to do before salvation is evil. But what about life AFTER salvation? According to the London Confession,
“When God converts a sinner, and brings him out of sin into the state of grace, He frees him from his natural bondage to sin and, by His grace alone, HE ENABLES HIM FREELY to will and to do what is spiritually good. NEVERTHELESS, CERTAIN CORRUPTIONS REMAIN IN THE SINNER, SO THAT HIS WILL IS NEVER COMPLETELY AND PERFECTLY HELD IN CAPTIVITY TO WHAT IS GOOD, BUT IT ALSO ENTERTAINS EVIL” (“Debating Calvinism,” pp. 64-65).
Notice that the London Confession says that “by HIS GRACE ALONE, HE ENABLES HIM FREELY TO WILL...what is spiritually good.” These words are of magnanimous importance in arguing for Classical Arminianism. The London Confession seems to argue for an “enabling grace,” instead of an efficacious grace. This poses some problems for Calvinism, although Dave Hunt fails to point this out in his debate with James White.
Remember what question I posed at the beginning of the post? If Calvinism argues such a hard view of depravity, that man gladly rebels against God and slips even deeper into sin, then how is that man is not that depraved after salvation? The words above say that “certain corruptions remain in the sinner,” but notice what happens when one ties this to the Calvinist Doctrine of Perseverance (Eternal Security) according to the Westminster Confession:
“They whom God hath accepted in His Beloved, effectually called and sanctified by His Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace; but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved” (“Reformed Doctrine,” page 182).
The language of the Westminster Confession is Calvinistic (of course), containing phrases such as “effectually called.” Let’s go back, though, to the 1689 London Confession:
“CERTAIN CORRUPTIONS REMAIN IN THE SINNER, SO THAT HIS WILL IS NEVER COMPLETELY AND PERFECTLY HELD IN CAPTIVITY TO WHAT IS GOOD, BUT IT ALSO ENTERTAINS EVIL” (“Debating Calvinism,” pp. 64-65).
So what we find here is that, even though one is saved, these “certain corruptions” still remain in the sinner, so that the saint doesn’t just choose good all the time. Sometimes, the saint will choose to do that which is evil.
But the question becomes, why are the saints “guaranteed” to persevere? If a person still fights sin after salvation, and the flesh and Spirit war against each other (Romans 7:19, 22-23), then doesn’t this mean that the person could either persevere OR fall away? Doesn’t this make more sense when we consider that Paul writes to the Roman believers, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13, NKJV)? If a believer can still live according to the flesh, then this means that a believer can still live an ungodly lifestyle. And if a believer can live an ungodly lifestyle, that believer can still possibly suffer the second death. I don’t see how one can get around this argument unless he or she denies that Paul is talking to genuine believers (which is something that is not visible in the text).
For Calvinists who believe that man’s will is ultimately “overcome” with God’s grace and that all genuine believers persevere, they hold to a view of “limited depravity.” Somehow, when a person comes to Christ, as God’s elect, he or she seems to have a somewhat “limited depravity,” not quite as total as before. Why? because God limits the depravity of the believers. They can live out some of their depravity through daily sins and such, but they will never totally fall away. While believers in this system can reject God completely as unbelievers, they will not completely reject God as a believer, but will ultimately yield to God’s desires.
What does the Doctrine of Total Depravity (and the Calvinist Doctrine of Eternal Security) have to do with each other? Well, if total depravity is true, then the doctrine of eternal security cannot be; for if a person struggles with sin before salvation, and struggles with sin after salvation, then the Spirit’s work is RESISTIBLE, and therefore, cannot be IRRESISTIBLE. If the Spirit’s work can be resisted, then passages such as 2 Peter 2:20-21 confirm this view of grace. How does 2 Peter 2:20-21 fit into this? I’ll deal with it in my next post.