As you probably guessed it from the title, I’m not a fan of “Total Depravity.” But, lest I am instantly defined by those who do not like my title, let me provide some definitions. Total depravity is:
…man’s natural condition apart from any grace exerted by God to restrain or transform man.
This quote, by John Piper, seems on its face to be acceptable, I would agree. However, it is the defining of the above statement that leads me to beg to differ. Moreover, the definitions and presentation of Total Depravity, as well as the other 4 points of Calvinism, irritate me for this reason. I almost never hear a Calvinist come out and make his positions clear in one breath, especially when speaking with a non-Calvinist. Among each other the code is apparently understood: “doctrines of grace,” “effectual call,” “sovereign grace,” etc. However, among others you will practically never hear a Calvinist say “I believe that all men are so sinful that everything they do, think, feel and say is inherently evil and that they never and cannot seek God, believe or repent.”
I hear the one in the back saying, “You misunderstand Total Depravity.” Actually, what I wrote is just a summary of Mr. Piper’s article on his position on the TULIP. In this article, I want to rebut his version of Total Depravity. And, lest any Calvinist sympathizers say I haven’t read what actual Calvinists say, I chose the writing of one of the most popular modern Calvinists.
Let me make a couple of other things clear. Just because I don’t believe in the definition of “Total Depravity” as defined by Mr. Piper does not mean that I
- believe a man can save himself.
- believe that man has a spark of divinity.
- believe that men are basically good.
Some will read that and just deny that I actually mean what say. I can’t make it any more clear. Even Piper said this:
But if the mercy by which we are brought to faith (irresistible grace) is not part of what Christ purchased on the cross, then we are left to save ourselves from the bondage of sin, the hardness of heart, the blindness of corruption, and the wrath of God.
So, if I don’t subscribe to the Calvinist system I have to believe this? Well, I don’t on both accounts. Every honest Calvinist knows that if any one petal of the TULIP withers the entire flower falls because the points are mutually dependent. If one point stands, as a Calvinist defines it, they all must stand.
John Piper asserts this of Romans 14:23:
Therefore, if all men are in total rebellion, everything they do is the product of rebellion and cannot be an honor to God, but only part of their sinful rebellion.
In his total rebellion everything man does is sin.
At the beginning, however, he says this:
There is no doubt that man could perform more evil acts toward his fellow man than he does.
So, more than once Piper says that everything man does is sinful. So, whether or not man is doing as much sin as he possibly can, the result is the same: everything he does is sin. The problem is Piper’s proof verse, or rather the second part of his proof verse, Romans 14:23:
And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.
This verse has a clear context. If it didn’t, and you amputated it from its context, then nearly everything people do, Christians and non-Christians, would be sin. Mowing the grass would be a sin. Walking down the street would be a sin. Driving the car would be a sin, because we do these things without forethought all the time. Piper explains the verse like this:
This is a radical indictment of all natural “virtue” that does not flow from a heart humbly relying on God’s grace.
So, the “faith” in the verse is not referring the persuasion that doing a doubtful act is indeed pleasing to God, as in the context, but relying on God’s grace for salvation? So, he redefines the context to basically mean, “If you are not a Christian, whatever you do is sin.” The context is clear in verses 5, 6, 14 and 22. In fact, in verse 22, God says:
Hast thou faith? have it to thyself before God. Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth. (emphasis mine)
The scripture actually mentions faith and sin in the previous verse! So, Romans 14:23 cannot be honestly used to argue that every, single deed, word or thought of a lost man is sin. Yet, Romans 14:23 is the main pillar of the entire Total Depravity argument. If his argument about the meaning of Romans 14:23 stands, then men can never seek God, believe, repent, etc. That’s the subtle direction the argument is going. In other words, it is impossible for man to make any kind of movement toward God. No matter the difference of opinion of the timing of regeneration among Calvinists, it necessitates an act of God to cause a man to be able to do those things. That act, according to Piper, is regeneration.
Because Piper’s interpretation of Romans 14:23 is clearly overturned, we must examine how depraved man actually is, according to the Bible. Before we do that, we must make another definition clear: sin. Piper asserts that everything an natural man does is sinful. Yet, according to the Bible, sin is not defined in the reverse sort of way: if he does it, it is therefore sin. No, sin has a very clear definition in scripture, the transgression of God’s Law:
Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law (1 John 3:4).
So, sin is not “everything lost men do,” but that which violates God’s Law. So, the unsaved man taking his kids to school, kissing his wife or working on the construction site is not sin, for it does not violate God’s Law. This is very important. Redefining the very definition of sin totally changes and fits into the argument, from the Calvinist’s perspective. But I still haven’t answered how depraved man is. John Piper’s own use of very good verses will suffice.
Romans 3:9-10, 18 are fine verses to show man’s depravity. Piper quotes them as well, and rightly so:
As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God..There is no fear of God before their eyes.
God says men do not seek God. Can they seek God? This verse does not answer that question. Then Piper asserts that men do seek God:
It is a myth that man in his natural state is genuinely seeking God. Men do seek God. But they do not seek him for who he is. They seek him in a pinch as one who might preserve them from death or enhance their worldly enjoyments. Apart from conversion, no one comes to the light of God.
On the one hand, Piper wants to take a strict view of Romans 3:9-10 to argue that no one seeks God. But, that would have to include us Christians. It does say “none.” On the other hand, he says that men do seek God, but reminds us of this caveat: men do not genuinely seek God. He says they only seek God in a pinch, etc. Psalm 107 gives several examples of sinners whom God saved out of their trouble when they sought Him in a pinch:
Such as sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, being bound in affliction and iron; Because they rebelled against the words of God, and contemned the counsel of the most High: Therefore he brought down their heart with labour; they fell down, and there was none to help. Then they cried unto the LORD in their trouble, and he saved them out of their distresses (Psalm 107:10-13).
There is nothing to indicate that these men knew God, notwithstanding the verses in the early part of the chapter. To say they did to fit the argument is dishonest. Yet, they sought the Lord in a pinch. God thought it was genuine enough to save them (not from sin, but) out of their distresses. So, we have a number of examples of men seeking God. Also, Piper adds an additional requirement by saying men must seek God for Who He is. Whatever that means, it’s not in the Bible. He provides no proof of that. Then, Piper says, “apart from conversion, no one comes to the light of God.” No one argues with that. But, that is not the issue at hand. The issue is that Piper asserted that men do not genuinely seek after God, which is patently false.
Let me clarify something. God does indeed say that men do not seek God. God is always the initiator in contact with men. This is the whole point of Romans 3. Men don’t seek God because they don’t want to (John 3:19). This is supported by Romans 8:7-8, which Piper also quotes. Ability to seek God is not in view in Romans 3. When unregenerate men do indeed seek God, and they do as has already been shown, it is because of the grace of God. Don’t forget that in the scripture God is constantly found seeking men out. Consider our most recent passage, Psalm 107, verse 24:
These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep.
Even the works of the Lord are symbols of God’s seeking man! This is also found in John 1:9:
That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.
So, to summarize, men do not naturally seek God. This is clear. Yet, when God makes himself known to them, as he does, they do indeed seek Him. Many a Calvinist would simply reverse the perspective and say that it is because they are effectually called, or chosen. Nothing merits this manipulation of plain truth. This argument is critical to the Calvinist’s view of Total Depravity, because if the scripture says man can indeed seek God, then he might also be able to believe when presented with the truth of God’s Word.
Next, in an attempt to assert than man cannot do “good,” Piper feels it necessary to make sure we understand what he calls “good.” Actually, those three paragraphs are pretty nebulous. Whatever the case, it is irrelevant. As we have seen, sin is not enumerated by what a lost man does, but by God’s Law. It is surprising how out-of-the-way Piper goes to define “good.”
Then, John Piper brings up Romans 8:7-8:
Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.
This is the first and only time a verse of scripture used by Mr. Piper uses the word “can.” This is the crux. Can man seek God, believe or repent? Piper uses this verse to assert:
So natural man has a mindset that does not and cannot submit to God. Man cannot reform himself.
I have no problem with that. Yet, I fail to see how “man reforming himself” has anything to do with that verse; that is, unless Piper is setting up a straw man by intimating that those that do not hold a Calvinist position think that man can reform himself. I don’t believe that because of Romans 8:7-8, which Piper is using. Remember, no matter how we try to interpret it, the verse does not say that the carnal mind “cannot believe or repent.” The verse says the carnal mind, which surely includes lost folks, “is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.” Absolutely true. This is a truth also found in Romans 3:19-20:
Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
The lost man cannot be subject to God’s law. This verse says nothing of whether a man can seek God or believe. Yet, Piper asserts:
So natural man has a mindset that does not and cannot submit to God. Man cannot reform himself.
He misquotes the verse. The law could never save anyone, because man is sold in sin and under sin. The verse simply does not support Piper’s point. The fact that sinners are not and cannot be subject to God’s law is the very reason why Christ died (Gal. 2:16)! Lastly, it is also absolutely true that the man in the flesh cannot please God. This speaks nothing of man’s good, but of God’s displeasure with his sin. At this point I can imagine a Calvinist saying, “If a man can seek God, believe God and repent, then he can please God!” Nothing like that is in view in the verse at all. God does not receive the believing sinner because of the merit of his faith. God receives a sinner because of the merits of Christ’s work and because God promised he would receive them if they believed.
Finally, the favorite analogy is used—death. Piper brings up Ephesians 2:1:
And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins.
The interesting thing about the use of this verse is that it is an entirely deductive argument. Again, Piper injects incapability:
The point of deadness is that we were incapable of any life with God…We were totally unable to reform ourselves.
Whereas it is true that man cannot raise himself from the dead, spiritual death is often used by the Calvinist to make a point that a dead man cannot seek God or believe. Of course, because men are dead “in trespasses and sins” those dead men can still sin, but only not make any move toward God, as it goes. That would be fine if we were talking about a physically dead man. However, spiritual death is in view. Spiritual death is reworded in Ephesians 4:18:
Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart.
So, if spiritual death is anything, it is the absence of life. Yet, consider these verses:
And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life (John 5:40).
But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name (John 20:31).
If you’ll notice that in both of these verse, faith is the requirement for life. Faith comes first, then life. So, the Calvinist, like John Piper, uses the analogy to assert that dead men cannot believe or seek God. However, Jesus said on at least two occasions that a man must believe to have life. So, awakening from death happens after faith—upon faith.
Let us hear the conclusion of the matter. There are other verses used by Calvinists to argue their definition of Total Depravity. I have addressed these because these were chosen by one of the most popular Calvinists around. My point was to show that the Calvinists’ understanding of the depravity of man is flawed. Depravity makes men—all men—totally deserving of an eternity in the lake of fire. Depravity makes all men totally defiled before God and unable to please Him. Depravity makes all men desperately need a Savior. However, the scripture simply does not support the idea that depravity renders a man incapable of responding to God seeking him. Therefore, I believe the other points should also be considered suspect.
So shall he sprinkle many nations; the kings shall shut their mouths at him: for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider.
Coincidentally enough, in my personal Bible reading I just happened to be at the well-known place in Isaiah in which the Lord is talking about his “righteous servant,” who is none other than our Lord Jesus Christ. I love and appreciate when the Lord’s timing in my Bible reading is spot-on.
In this verse (Isaiah 52:15) I was struck by such a clear declaration that Christ would save the Gentiles. To the Jewish mind in the New Testament times, it seems that was totally not on the radar, even a point of great contention (Acts 22:21-22). Yet, in the Scripture it is plainly recorded. Praise the Lord! The word “sprinkle” hearkens back to the sacrifices in which the priests would sprinkle the blood of the sacrifices on the various instruments in the performance of their duties (Leviticus 1:5; etc.).
Another thing in this verse that was a blessing to read was how that the ignorant would see and consider. In the context, it seems to be referring to the Gentiles and their kings. If there is a verse of Scripture that rings true in the country to which I have been called, it is this one. Here in Cambodia there is so much misinformation about who Christ is and what He has done. I seems like almost no one understands how our Lord “sprinkled many nations,” notwithstanding all of the crusades, Jesus movies, etc. Yet this is exactly what this verse is saying.
Some seven hundred years before Jesus Christ was born, God led the prophet Isaiah to proclaim that the Gentiles would hear that which they had never heard, see that which they never seen, and consider that which they had never considered. This is being fulfilled in our very day here in Cambodia and all over the world. It is being fulfilled in places awash with ignorance about Christ’s great sacrifice. Of course, many people around here know a little about Jesus, but what Christ truly has done is almost totally unknown.
However, there are some that have heard and seen. There are some that have understood and considered. For dozens of generations, their forefathers have dwelt in darkness. Yet now, in a moment, they see it! They understand it! They believe it! This is the joy of being in God’s field: showing people that Christ has already sprinkled them. It is illuminating the truths of the Gospel, the great truths found in the 53rd of Isaiah.
So, I’m curious. Why haven’t you seriously considered going out into the field to tell those “many nations” what Christ has done for them? Why haven’t you put your strength to the task of piercing the darkness for the name of that righteous Servant whose soul was made an offering for sin? Why haven’t you taken, personally, the Gospel light to those in darkness (Matthew 4:16) that they abide not still in the midnight of ignorance?
Image courtesy of Luc B
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