A Robust Depravity – A Return To Calvinism

Total Depravity, as often depicted:

In the Reformed tradition, total depravity does not mean utter depravity. We often use the term total as a synonym for utter or for completely, so the notion of total depravity conjures up the idea that every human being is as bad as that person could possibly be… As wicked as Hitler was, we can still conceive of ways in which he could have been even more wicked than he actually was. So the idea of total in total depravity doesn’t mean that all human beings are as wicked as they can possibly be. It means that the fall was so serious that it affects the whole person…The will of man is no longer in its pristine state of moral power. The will, according to the New Testament, is now in bondage. We are enslaved to the evil impulses and desires of our hearts. The body, the mind, the will, the spirit—indeed, the whole person—have been infected by the power of sin.

R.C. Sproul

To change the metaphor, God’s reflection in us has become distorted like a face in a carnival mirror. Such is our depravity that every part of every person is warped by sin. Sin corrupts our hearts so that we set our affections on unholy desires. It corrupts our feelings so that we are in emotional turmoil. It corrupts our wills so that we will not choose the good. Our whole nature is corrupted by sin. This is what theologians mean when they speak of “total depravity”—not that we are as sinful as we could possibly be, but that we are sinners through and through.”

Phillip Ryken

These accounts of Total Depravity are somewhat typical. And although they might be technically correct and even mildly offensive to the world, there is considerably more to the story.

If Total Depravity is true, the rest of the Five Points is a mere footnote. Therefore, we do well to get the “T” of TULIP exhaustively correct. After all, our understanding of the glory of God’s grace is directly proportional to our understanding of man’s fallen condition.

Let’s look at this doctrine a bit more closely by considering whether that which we read in most contemporary explications of Total Depravity overlooks a profound insight that does not escape traditional Augustinians and those who haven’t adopted a Thomistic understanding of the extent of the fall, if not a form of libertarian Calvinism.

Indeed, many unbelievers lead impeccable lives, even engage in philanthropic work – even work that benefits the kingdom of God. Yet has that ever been a bone of contention or a misunderstanding of the doctrine of Total Depravity? What I find striking is that we rarely read what was understood by Augustine and echoed by Calvin, that all the “good” unregenerate man does is the result of one lust restraining another. In other words, what is absent from much of contemporary Calvinism is the idea that man’s so-called good, not wrought in regeneration, suits him for totally depraved and sinful reasons. So, the miserly man does not spend his money on licentious living, but the reason for such respectable refrain is attributable not to man not being as bad as he can possibly be, but to man’s sinful lust for money (if not also an insatiable desire for self-respect and the respect of others). But is that what we typically hear when this doctrine is explained? Or do we hear that we are in “emotional turmoil” and not as bad as we could possibly be (in this world)? Emotional turmoil? That the will is no longer pristine and even in bondage does not begin to address the profound moral and noetic affects of the fall or God’s use of sinful intentions to bring about “good” behavior. My hope is that a largely overlooked theological insight will become unearthed below, that we might recognize how watered down this doctrine has become.

God’s restraining power, a thing to behold:

God’s common goodness restrains fallen man through the providential employment of man’s sinful passions unto external good in conjunction with man being created with a conscience and in God’s likeness. What restrains the unregenerate isn’t the love of Christ or an internal work or grace but rather self-serving motives. Accordingly, I for one may not say that Hitler’s judgement will be more severe than any of the popes or many of Rome’s sacrificial nuns. How could I possibly know? Such speculation is beyond my pay grade. What I do know, however, is that Hitler was obviously evil; yet it was the popes, not Hitler, who for centuries promulgated doctrines of demons that paved the road from self-righteous indulgences to eternal torment. Some bad guys wear white hats, even a mitre at times. God judges righteous judgement taking all into account. I am finite and my judgement worthless, but what I do know is “all have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” Romans 3:12

When we say that “man isn’t as bad as he can possibly be,” or that “man can always do worse” or that “Hitler had some affection for his mother,” have we adequately reflected on the sinful restraining-motives that keep men and women respectable? We’ve internalized what fallen man does, but have we come to grips with why he doesn’t do much worse? (Pause)

When it’s said that man isn’t as bad as he can possibly be, do we appreciate that man is unable to do other than what God has decreed? Are we aware that in this world, contrary to common depictions of Total Depravity, that man is as bad as he can be both in a metaphysical sense as it relates to the intentions of the will but also in a decretive sense, which secures metaphysical intentions? By affirming without remainder that man isn’t as bad as he can possibly be, how do we avoid eclipsing that it is for sinful motives, decreed by God, that depraved men and women cannot desire to behave even more sinfully?

I’m afraid we’ve become sufficiently satisfied with the what with little theological inquiry into the why. A contributing factor to such complacency could be that the inroads of humanistic libertarian-Calvinism have been smoothly paved from classroom to pulpit, even unwittingly. Apropos, an adequate answer to why fallen men aren’t as bad as they “could possibly be” is absent among too many of the Reformed, at least it’s not understood in a way that reflects Old Princeton’s view of divine causal determinism, (which is compatible with free will, whereby God possesses free knowledge of counterfactual creaturely freedom.) Rather, the supposed answer to why is more recently indexed to man’s autonomous will that supposedly retains some heart for truth, beauty and goodness, consigning God to surmise free choices through a species of Middle Knowledge, or through the divine advantage of seeing the future by virtue of God’s atemporality through which all contingent free will possibilities are eternally present to the divine eye.

So, why is it that we so often hear that man is not as bad as he might possibly be? What is hoped to be communicated by the mantra? (Surely the aim is not to stake out philosophical ground through possible world semantics, for that would lead to the Reformed conclusion that man is as bad as he could possibly be in this actual world, just as God has determined!)

For one thing, such a sanguine view of the fall is based solely upon observable external works. Yet God judges internal motives and intentions of the heart, which too are decreed. Surely we would not say that “Satan isn’t as bad as he can be.” Yet why not say the same of man since God has man on the same restraining leash of providence as Satan? Satan doesn’t devour more than he does, but isn’t that because God has determined to restrain him? Is fallen man any different in this regard? Can either Satan or man do more evil than God has determined, or contrary to what either chooses according to evil intentions of which each volitional creature approves? In what sense can either do worse than they do?

Satan and image bearers:

Let’s be critical in our analyses. There are vast differences between man and Satan. Man is created in God’s likeness and when effectually called, recreated in Christ’s image. Another distinction is most men, most of the time, are restrained by conscience whereas Satan is not. Satan is evil personified. Satan might be constrained by his creaturely confusion but unlike man, not by conscience. Satan is confounded and utterly unconscionable. Whereas man can have natural affection, Satan has none. Man, though evil (per Jesus), doesn’t typically pursue that which intrinsically evil; whereas with Satan it is his ultimate delight. (Matthew 7:11; Luke 7:13) Indeed, there is a difference. Humans are not Devils. Notwithstanding, we have it on biblical authority that God’s providence restrains both the serpent and his offspring so that none can commit worse acts than he does, “for who can resist His will?” (Romans 9:19) That human creatures are providentially restrained through being God’s image bearers is certainly a distinction, but this is no relevant difference pertaining to the question of whether man or Satan can commit more heinous acts than God has determined, or whether anyone is as bad as he desires to be. Indeed, a most fascinating difference pertains to the means by which God restrains man, which includes through conscience; whereas with Satan conscience is not a means of restraint. Notwithstanding, man’s conscience is totally depraved. And although depraved consciences often produce good acts born out of personal glory and fear of consequence, never do creatures do so out of reverential fear, God’s glory or in a way that doesn’t earn divine condemnation.

Man’s natural affections are utterly self-serving and when judged by God will be found purely and totally sinful. Again, man desires not to sin more than he does, but only because his desire for self-restraint suits him for sinful motives. Yet to be thoroughgoing we must also maintain that God, through the intentional ordering of secondary causes, could have decreed to effectually move man to become increasingly hardened in heart, but not any more depraved in a fallen sense. Man’s depravity is indeed total. He is as bad as he desires to be and as bad as God will allow him to be. Indeed, man cannot possibly be worse than God has determined.

Jesus is the light that is given to all men who come into the world. (John 1:9) Yet the light in man will accuse him on the last day apart from repentance. Ultimately it is God alone who allows the candle to continue to flicker and not go out. God alone restrains the unregenerate man either directly or through secondary causes. God restrains man through conscience, for a time, but there will be no such restraining goodness in hell.

Lord over motive and sinful good:

When conscience and self-glorification restrains unconverted free moral agents from behaving worse than they otherwise would, such self-control is no less due to sinful motives than when one violates conscience and externally breaks God’s moral law. Even motive not to sin is sinful for the lost. The Reformers and the Divines captured this distinction by noting that outside regeneration in Christ and judicial pardon, man can do no spiritual good. Yet today, few reflect adequately upon that doctrine that even children recite.

The Reformed doctrine of Total Depravity grounded Van Til’s antithesis and unearths the need for a distinctly Reformed apologetic, but that’s for another day. For now we might merely consider that it is too unpleasant to think of our respectable friends and neighbors in this way. What we forgo, however, is standing in awe of God’s meticulous providence as it relates to man’s immoral intentions that often produce conforming choices. (We lose out on praising God in our appreciation of the delicious doctrine of concurrence, man’s dire plight, and our deep need for electing grace).

The Rich Man and Lazarus:

If the account of the rich man and Lazarus teaches us anything it is that unconverted man in his depravity will try to correct God forever – the living will listen and repent if only one is sent from the dead! In hell man’s depravity will be fully manifested. Man won’t become more fallen or spiritually dead, just like the converted don’t become progressively regenerate or increasingly alive in Christ. The blackness of man’s heart finally will be on full display in the life hereafter.

I hope we might see a bit more clearly that in contemporary Calvinism, although some distinguish degrees of depravity (total from utter), the accent is too often placed on “common grace” and how wonderful it is that the “unchurched” do such wonderful external law-works. Little to no reflection is given to God’s wisdom and power as he meticulously restrains the external evil works of the ungodly by their predetermined internal sinful passions for respectability and enlightened self-interest. God doesn’t just work externally evil acts for good (as most Calvinists recognize, citing Joseph and his brothers), but also God ordains sinfulgoodacts from those who are perishing, for his own glory and the benefit of the called according to his purpose. (We mustn’t confuse the two. The former contemplates sinful actions that are sinfully motivated; whereas the latter is more subtle as it relates to non-sinful actions that are also sinfully motivated.)

When we water down Total Depravity, grace doesn’t seem so amazing. In many respects, grace was more amazing 150 years ago among Arminians than it is described by many Calvinists today.

The profound truth of this doctrine is the very backdrop for the glory of God’s saving grace in Christ; yet do we confess the totality of Total Depravity? I believe we are in need of recouping the biblical teaching, that there is no mild antithesis between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. The antithesis is a deep-seated enmity inflicted by none other than God Himself. (Genesis 3:15) Man’s hatred of God often manifests itself in indifference, but that shouldn’t fool us. I suppose “splendid pagans“ aren’t really so splendid after all.