This is a 7 week series. Be sure to read part 1 here. Join us next Friday for part 3.
And so we arrive at the first petal of this glorious TULIP; Total Depravity. In theory, this might be the point of Calvinism that is the most broadly accepted. It essentially says that all of mankind is full of sin, and in desperate need of salvation. We establish this doctrine from certain sweeping statements in the Bible, like “God looks down from heaven on the children of man to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all fallen away; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.” (Psalm 53:2-3).
Most Christians seem to agree that, more or less, this is where man is; he is a sinner in need of grace. For some reason though, many Christians get tripped up when answering the question of how we got here. Or for that matter, to what extent a sinner is in fact in need of grace. Calvinism would answer these two questions with “original sin” and “totally.”
The Bible is pretty clear on its description of when sin came into the world. Genesis 3 chronicles the famed story of the Man (Adam), his Wife (Eve), the Serpent (Satan), and the first act of human disobedience on earth. God said, “You shall not” and Adam said, “I shall.” It’s important to recognize that the heinousness of this sin is not about the act itself, but who the act was committed against. This is true of all sin. A person’s act of defiance will carry gravity with proportion to the prestige of the person who is acted against. So for example, if a teenager pulls his friend’s pants down at school, this act of defiance will be relatively less significant than if he were to try to do the same thing to the President of the United States at the inaugural speech. This is why Adam’s original sin was so significant; it was treason against the Most High God.
Now, when Adam sinned, he sinned as a representative of the entire human race. He was standing as a federal head of man, and his defiance was counted to the mankind that he represented. Much like how our President speaks on behalf of our nation in diplomatic relations, Adam acted on behalf of all of mankind in his interaction with God.
See Romans 5:12-14, for example. In this passage, Paul is saying that when sin was brought into this world, he (that is, Sin) came in as a slave-driver. And when Master Sin established his authority, he established the authority of Mr. Death as his co-regent. The sovereignty of sin is evidenced by the presence of death, which only and always accompanies sin. This much is hardly disputed; the issue that distinguishes the Calvinists from the non-Calvinists in this regard is in what nature Adam’s sin affects the rest of mankind. The Calvinist position insists that all of mankind is not merely affected by Adam’s sin, but is guilty of it.
Therein lies the dividing line of total depravity: Are we struggling beneath the weight of Adam’s sin because we are casualties, caught up in the crossfire of divine wrath, or are we struggling beneath the weight of Adam’s sin because we are guilty of it? Are we guilty of a hypothetical original sin that we would have committed had we been there, or are we guilty of the actual original sin committed in Eden because, in Adam, we were there? Calvinism would say the latter.
Our reservation with this doctrine of Original Sin is due to a misplaced sense of entitled autonomy (which is, ironically, how Adam got in this mess to begin with); we feel as if it’s not fair that we should be counted guilty because of someone else’s crime. It certainly is unfair, in isolated situations, for an individual to be guilty of another individual’s sin. However, we are not entirely isolated, autonomous individuals. And by the way, we don’t want to be! We should love the concept of Federal Headship, because if we are not found guilty by Adam’s imputed sin, we can’t be made righteous because of the Second Adam’s imputed righteousness (Romans 5:15-20). So this is our plight as sons of Adam; we are guilty by birth; by nature (Psalms 51:5, Ephesians 2:1-3). By virtue of being born in Adam, we are deserving of the wrath that Adam deserves.
What Does “Total” Mean?
So to what extent does that depravity reach? How much of a person is depraved? The Calvinist would say, “all of him.” This means several things. First, it means that we are, by our now-adjusted-default, rebellious towards God. We are his enemies (Romans 5:6-10). We comfortably belong to the domain of darkness (Colossians 1:13). We are those who know the truth of God, but out of our hatred for him, we suppress that truth; we refuse to worship God as God, and thus fall utterly short of his glory (Romans 1:19-23, 3:23). Man, in his fallen state, does not want to be freed from his bondage to sin; Stockholm syndrome is woven in his DNA. In other words, man cannot, on his own, be reconciled to God because he has no desire to be reconciled to God.
The totality of man’s depravity not only refers to his volitional inability to befriend God, but it also refers to the scope of man as a holistic being. In other words, it’s not only his morality that has been touched by sin; his relationship to literally everything is tainted by sin. This is how Paul can say, “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” Sinful man can’t not sin. Even his own thinking is fallen (Romans 1:21). This makes sense when we think about what Adam separated himself from in the garden of Eden. The entire universe finds its ontological substance in the God who created everything from nothing. So to cut God out of thought by suppression of will is for man to cut himself off from true knowledge of anything.
So what of free will? The most common objection goes that if man is enslaved to sin, and has no freedom to choose liberty from that sin, it would be unjust to condemn him for being enslaved. There are a couple problems with this argument. To begin with, there is no such thing as the absolute freedom of the will–in the sense that the will is not bound by any desire. The will is that which pulls out of the heart what’s there; it can act upon the desires of a person, but it can’t arbitrarily create desires–that’s beyond the scope of the will’s function. People are always bound by the desires they have, and the desires they have are determined by the kinds of hearts they have (Luke 6:43-45).
Additionally, this argument completely undermines the Bible’s assertion of the graciousness of grace. Who gets bragging rights for your salvation? Did you “give your life to the Lord” or were you “snatched from the domain of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of his beloved Son”? To be fair, some non-Calvinistic theological systems insist that grace is key; but in most, that grace is less of a let-me-jump-into-a-burning-building-to-carry-your-unconscious-body-to-safety type of grace, and more of a let-me-hold-the-door-open-for-you-so-you-can-decide-what-to-do-from-here type of grace. Even if, as some insist, this special grace is richly lavished on all men who have their sinful fetters loosened long enough to make a free decision upon hearing the gospel invitation, they still have something to boast about. If salvation happens with 99.99999% God’s contribution, and 0.00001% the contribution of your free will, you still rightly have 0.00001% grounds for boasting. But Paul expressly leaves no room for boasting in anyone’s salvation (Ephesians 2:9). Our depravity doesn’t leave us injured, it leaves us dead.
The second objection has been succinctly expressed (sadly) by one of my greatest heroes of the faith, C.S. Lewis. He writes, “I disbelieve [Total Depravity], partly on the logical ground that if our depravity were total we should not know ourselves to be depraved, and partly because experience shows us much goodness in human nature.” (The Problem of Pain, pg. 61) Lewis’ main problem here is that he’s not really paying attention to the Calvinist when the Calvinist talks about Total Depravity. He is here assuming that “Total” means “Absolute.” But, of course, no consistent Calvinist would be so ridiculous as to say that man is as wicked as he possibly can be. There is relative “goodness” in this world. There are scientists who have cut themselves off from the only source of true knowledge, who have nevertheless made marvelous discoveries in God’s universe. There are men who have turned their back on the only perfect Father, who have nevertheless been relatively kind and generous to their children. We could all be a lot worse than we already are. You can chalk this phenomenon up to common grace, and it does not effect the doctrine of Total Depravity in the slightest.
But while “total” does not mean “absolute,” it still nevertheless means “total.” So this is where the doctrine of Total Depravity discovers mankind. Rebellious. Blind. Guilty. Hateful. Darkened. Dead. This may sound bleak, but it’s wonderful news; this doctrine is the great equalizer of men (and women; sin is all about equal opportunities)! The only contribution we can ever make to our salvation is the sin that makes the salvation necessary. But, that means every one of us is primed and ready for redemption. We can do nothing to save ourselves; which makes us excellent potential recipients of a Savior!