Total Depravity?

This is one of various articles in our Discipleship Series. You may read the other articles here .

Most who hold to Calvinistic doctrine claim that man is completely incapable of interaction with God, and cannot understand the truth of the Gospel, without first being regenerated. They believe man is born in what they call “total depravity.” They define this by illustration, and liken sinful man to a “corpse” without any ability to see, hear, comprehend, or respond to God in any way. However, this is not the Biblical picture. The doctrines describing the nature of fallen man don’t liken him to a non-responsive corpse, but as spiritually dead, i.e. laden with sin, and separated from the life of, intimacy with, and fellowship of God. Man in his sinful condition is as much a tri-part being, (body, soul and spirit) as he is when regenerated. However, when dead in sin, he “lives” in a state of separation from the life and manifold blessings of God.

Adam, the first man to be spiritually dead, is our Biblical example. No sincere Bible student will suggest that the condition in which Adam existed after the fall is any different than the state of all mankind prior to regeneration. He was spiritually dead, in trespasses and sin. (Romans 5, 1 Cor. 15) Yet, in that condition Adam was ashamed, hid himself from the Lord, and even communicated with Him when spoken to. Adam was not unresponsive but was a man who experienced shame, self-consciousness, and broken fellowship with God. If he were left in this condition, Adam would have no hope for remedy and would be eternally separated from God. The Lord alone provided all Adam needed for restoration.
Cain, who according to scripture was born in trespasses and sin, likewise experienced interaction with God. Within the dialog Cain had with the Lord, he chose to resist the instructions given and rebel against the opportunity God presented to him. As a spiritually dead man, he consciously chose to defy the Lord and refuse the blessings of obedience.

In fact, all mankind prior to the church age lived an un-regenerated life. No one experienced being born again prior to the resurrection of Jesus. However, the scriptures are filled with the history of men and women interacting with God.

It is said that Paul taught “total depravity” in his letter to the Corinthians when he stated, “the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Cor. 2:14) However, this does not suggest that the natural man has no knowledge of God, conscience, or spiritual perception. Paul makes it perfectly clear that all men are responsible for their own sin and rebellion against the truth God has revealed to everyone. He taught that all men are without excuse before God, “because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God has shown it to them. For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:19-20 emphasis added)

In 1 Cor. 2:14 (above) Paul is writing to carnal Christians and is illustratively rebuking them for their inability to understand the spiritual truths, they (as regenerated persons) should have easily understood. Earlier in the same chapter Paul said, “we speak wisdom among those who are mature.” (1 Cor. 2:6 emphasis added) “the deep things of God.” (1 Cor. 2:10 emphasis added) Therefore, later he adds, “I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; for you are still carnal.” (1 Cor. 3:1-3a) Remember, he was speaking to Christians who had been regenerated. (See 1 Cor. 1:1-3 where Paul writes, “…unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, … Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.”)

It is true that the un-regenerated man does not receive the things of the Spirit, “Because the carnal mind is enmity (hostile towards and in opposition) against God; for it is not subject (under obedience) to the law of God, nor indeed can be.” (Romans 8:7) Those who refuse to appropriately respond to the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and the knowledge of God, cannot please God. Nor can they understand the wisdom and deep things of the Spirit. These facts only support the fact that God has revealed Himself to men, all men. Man’s hostility toward, and opposition to God, evidences His existence.

Those who embrace Calvinism claim that God must regenerate man in order to enable him to believe the Gospel. However, the Bible is replete with examples of the progressive order. “So they said, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved…’” (Acts 16:31) “In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise.” (Eph. 1:13 emphasis added)

Some say Paul taught regeneration prior to faith in Ephesians 2 when he wrote, “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…” (Eph. 2:4-5) Paul is not declaring that God made us alive prior to faith but is saying that because of His great mercy, He loved us even when we were dead in trespasses and sin. Remember, Paul was writing to believers in Ephesus. He was reflectively reminding them of the salvation God had provided them. The Ephesians were losing their first love (Revelation 2:4) and Paul was kindling their love for the Lord.

Paul also explained God’s great love to the Romans when he declared “…God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) As it was with the Ephesians, the focus was on the love of God for man, not regeneration prior to faith.

The Bible teaches that all people are by nature sinful and separated from God. We are responsible for our own sin. Man in and of himself has nothing to offer God in exchange for his soul, and will spend eternity in hell should he reject the provisions provided him in Jesus. Salvation is freely offered to all through the grace of God by faith alone in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Salvation is not granted by any human merit or offering of good works. All sinful men are invited into life everlasting through the love of God and the merciful work of our Lord Jesus Christ.

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)

“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.” (Titus 2:11)

Paul D. Van Noy, Pastor