Many of my non-Calvinist friends are afraid of depravity. But the Bible really does teach we are depraved. We shouldn’t be scared of that. Paul said it. It’s true. The problem is how Calvinism defines this depravity and explains it. I believe in my own depravity. But I still don’t want to be a Calvinist. Keep reading to find out why.
You have stumbled across a series of posts in which I hope to explain a third alternative in a major religious debate today. Some seem to believe there are only two choices: 1) Believe we are not saved by grace or 2) Be a Calvinist. This series of articles proposes a third alternative: 3) Rely completely on God’s grace without becoming a Calvinist. For more insight to this series, click here to read the introduction. Or click here to read the first true installment of this series on God’s sovereignty and glory.
Total Inherited Depravity
So, now it begins. TULIP. Having examined the under girding foundation of the Calvinistic system, let’s start looking at its five pillars. Notice how Calvin and his successors describe this doctrine.
“Original sin, then may be defined a hereditary corruption and depravity of our nature, extending to all the parts of the soul, which first makes us obnoxious to the wrath of God, and then produces in us works which in Scripture are termed works of the flesh” (John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, tr. Henry Beveridge, Eerdman’s Publishing, Grand Rapids, MI, v I, p 217).
“Because of the fall, man is unable of himself to savingly believe the gospel. The sinner is dead, blind, and deaf to the things of God; his heart is deceitful and desperately corrupt. His will is not free, it is in bondage to his evil nature, therefore, he will not—indeed he cannot—choose good over evil in the spiritual realm. Consequently, it takes regeneration by which the Spirit makes the sinner alive and gives him a new nature. Faith is not something man contributes to salvation but is itself a part of God’s gift of salvation—it is God’s gift to the sinner, not the sinner’s gift to God” (David Steel and Curtis Thomas, The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, Documented, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., Philipsburg, NJ, 1963, p 16).
What Calvin Got Right
This point is where Calvinophobia strikes deepest. Of course, there are actually many who claim not to be Calvinists who agree whole-heartedly with this tenet. There are many who agree with the tips of the TULIP, accepting completely the ideas of Total Inherited Depravity and the Perseverance of the Saints. However, for my friends who, like me, reject the entire TULIP, hinting that there really is some depravity gets the label of Calvinistic Heretic faster than Shawn Spencer can pronounce a crime scene as murder. (The really sad part here is most of you theological types won’t even get that reference, because you probably don’t waste your time watching TV like I do. Sorry.)
Let me list some things Calvin got right, then I’ll explain a little more.
- Every one of us is a sinner (Romans 3:23).
- We are completely incapable of purifying our own hearts (Proverbs 20:9).
- As sinners, we do not have the power or ability to carry out and continue in what is right (Romans 7:18).
- Like every person in the world, we became children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3).
- If we are faithful disciples, the difference between us and the worldly is not based on all the righteous things we have done, but based on the Holy Spirit who has renewed us (Titus 3:3-7).
This is where complete non-Calvinists balk, but I hope you will stick with me. Because this is also the heart of being able to hope fully in the grace of God. Many non-Calvinists will balk at words like “can’t” and “powerless.” But we really shouldn’t. This is exactly what Paul expressed in Romans 7:13-20.
“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (ESV).
Please don’t scoot past this passage without noticing what Paul actually says. First, Paul says he wants to do right, but doesn’t do it. This is important because I don’t know how many times I’ve said and heard other non-Calvinists tell everyone that the only reason they sin is because they want to. If anyone else had said what Paul did, we would call him a liar and preach that the reason he keeps on sinning is because he wants to sin more than he wants to obey God. But this is Paul, the inspired apostle. He said he did what he did not want to do and that he didn’t do what he did want to do. It isn’t about the wanting.
Second, notice that Paul said he did not have the ability to carry it out. He said, “I can’t.” He claimed depravity. He wanted to perform righteousness, but he couldn’t. Considering this is the same person who claimed to be blameless according to the law (Philippians 3:6), Paul must not mean he never did anything righteous. Rather, he is talking about the ongoing performance of what is right and the freedom from unrighteousness.
This is why we must rely completely on and hope fully in God’s grace. We are depraved. We do not have the power to become righteous. We may want to do right, but there is a law of sin and death in our members enslaving us to sin. Praise God Paul had a solution to this. “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25, ESV). That is relying on God’s grace.
But I still don’t want to be a Calvinist.
Why I Don’t Want to Be a Calvinist
Calvinism misunderstands how I got in this depraved, powerless state. According to Calvinism, our sinfulness is a hereditary state. Adam’s sin changed the very nature of man. When man then had children, he passed that changed nature to them, and they to their children, and so on until our parents passed it to us.
The problem is that is just not true. The Bible does not teach it no matter how badly Calvinists want to claim it does.
Ezekiel 18:20 says, “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (ESV). Notice, the soul who sins shall die, not the dead soul shall sin. That is important. Calvinism claims we sin because we are dead, not the other way around. But the Bible teaches the exact opposite.
Isaiah 7:16 gives a sign for King Ahaz. He was supposed to be looking for a boy. Before that boy was able to choose good over evil, his kingdom would be delivered. According to Calvinism, that doesn’t happen. The non-elect can’t choose good over evil. But this passage says the natural growth process is to get to a point to be able to choose good over evil.
What I find really interesting is how Calvinists get Romans 5:12 exactly backwards. It says, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…” (ESV). Calvinism says all men die because Adam sinned. Paul, however said, all men die because all men sin. Of course, the Calvinist will say, “But babies die without sin.” The problem is this passage isn’t talking about physical death or leaving this life. This is all in the context of Romans 6:23 which says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (ESV). This is the death and life we are talking about. We are talking about spiritual, eternal life and death. What brings about death? Sin. Not the other way around. All men didn’t sin because all men were dead, they died because they sinned. If you don’t believe me, look at Romans 7:13. What does Paul say sin did? It produced death in him, but he was still physically alive. Paul isn’t writing about physical life and death. He is writing about spiritual life and death.
So how did the depravity of Romans 7:13-20 happen? Look in Romans 6:16: “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?” (ESV). There it is again, sin leads to death, not the other way around. But what leads to slavery to sin? Was it Adam? Were we born that way? No. When we submit in obedience to sin, it becomes our master and what a hard master it is.
Of course, my Calvinist friends believe that the fact that everyone makes this same choice demonstrates an inbred nature to make this choice. However, everyone recognizes that neither Eve nor Adam had this inbred nature to choose sin. Yet, both of them made that choice. In other words, we don’t need a sinful nature to choose sin. Is it any surprise that being brought up by people who choose sin, we might make the same choices we saw made before us?
Secondly, Calvinism misunderstands the extent of our depravity. Claiming that we can’t even choose God, Calvinism says we are so depraved that we can’t even want righteousness apart from God’s predestining work in our lives. Amazingly, Calvinism declares that God’s righteousness is diminished if any one of His creations actually wants righteousness just because they want it. God’s glory is diminished if even one of His creations has a glimmer of desire to glorify God from some means other than God predestining it to happen. If you haven’t already read part one of this series demonstrating that our choosing God does not detract from His glory but magnifies it, click here to do so.
But Romans 7:15-16, 18-19 provides what seems to me to be a conundrum for the Calvinist. Paul, while proclaiming his powerlessness and inability to maintain sinlessness, proclaimed that he did want to do right. He did desire right. He hated sin. His depravity and powerlessness did not extend to his ability to choose or want. He was free to want right. He was free to not want sin. Had God merely quickened him enough to want righteousness, but then left him dangling there away from it? Of course not. Though he had given himself over to sin and sin was his master, he still longed for God and righteousness. He was free to do that.
While a law of sin and death took over us when we submitted to it and its enslaving power is more than we can vanquish, we are not so depraved as to be unable to even want what is right or choose what is right. No doubt, many people have seen the evidence and turned against it. But many have seen the truth and longed for God. If they want to be saved, though, they cannot do it. Only God can. They must choose to rely completely on His grace.
An Illustration of the Third Alternative
In Numbers 21:4-9, we see a wonderful illustration of this third alternative. Israel had grumbled against God’s good blessing for them. So God sent fiery serpents among them. These were unable to heal themselves. They didn’t have the power to gain life. What did they do? They confessed their sin. God gave them grace. He provided a bronze serpent that if they would look at it, they could be healed. This is a great illustration of our depravity. They were unable to heal themselves. We are unable to heal ourselves. But they weren’t unable to lift even a finger to contribute to their healing. We are not unable to life even a finger to contribute to our healing. They were able to choose the grace that God offered. We are able to choose the grace God has offered. They could choose to look at the bronze serpent. We can choose to look to Jesus.
Like you, I chose to sin. I became a slave to sin. Because of that, I became depraved and unable to save myself. However, God has offered His grace and I am able to rely on it. I am able to choose it. That doesn’t make me special, you are able to choose it as well. Will you rely completely on His grace?
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