A Robust Depravity – A Return To Calvinism

Total Depravity ill-defined:

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. I believe they are also lacking. If Total Depravity is true, the rest of Calvinism is a mere footnote. Therefore, we do well to get the “T” of TULIP right. 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 did not escape traditional Augustinians.

Agreement gives way to oversight

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? What is striking to me is that we rarely read what was understood by Augustine and echoed by Calvin, that all the “good” unregenerate man does is merely the result of one lust restraining another. In other words, what is absent from contemporary Calvinism is the idea that man’s so-called good, not wrought in regeneration, suits him for totally depraved and sinful reasons. 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 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? Emotional turmoil? That the will is no longer pristine and even in bondage does not begin to address the profound moral affects of the fall. My hope is that a largely forgotten theological insight will become unearthed below, that we might recognize how watered down this doctrine has become.

God’s common goodness restrains fallen man through the providential employment of man’s sinful passions in conjunction with man being created in God’s likeness. 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’m 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 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? (Pause)

Do we appreciate that man is unable to do other than what God has decreed? Are we aware that in this world, contrary to what we typically read from those who try to uphold Total Depravity, that man is as bad as he possibly can be – both in a metaphysical sense as it relates to the intentions of the heart but also in a decretive sense, which in fact secures our metaphysical intentions? By affirming that man isn’t as bad as he can be, how do we not eclipse that it is for sinful reasons that depraved men and women don’t desire to behave more sinfully?

So, why is it that we so often hear that man is not as bad as he might be? What is hoped to be communicated by this mantra?

For one thing, that assessment is usually based upon works alone – that which we can observe. Yet God judges motive and the intentions of the heart. 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 other than God has determined, or contrary to what either chooses according to his own evil intentions? In what sense can either be worse?

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 she 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 possibly commit more heinous acts than God has determined, or whether anyone is as bad as she can be or desires to be. (One fascinating difference pertains to the means by which God restrains man includes conscience, whereas with Satan that is not a means of restraint. Notwithstanding, even man’s conscience is totally depraved. Depraved consciences often produce acts born out of fear of God, but never out of reverential fear.)

Man’s natural affection is 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 restraint suits him for sinful motives, which too will be judged sinful on the last day. Yet to be thoroughgoing we must also maintain that man can become increasingly hardened, but not any more depraved. 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.

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 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 pardon, man can do no spiritual good. In other words, external good is internally sinful. It is that essential component of Total Depravity that is absent in contemporary Calvinism. Perhaps 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 behind his conforming choices. (We lose out on praising God in our appreciation of the delicious doctrine of concurrence).

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. In hell man’s depravity will be fully manifested. Man won’t become more depraved, just like the converted cannot become more regenerate. 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 the accent has been placed on “common grace” and how wonderful it is that the “unchurched” do such wonderful things. Little to no reflection is given to God’s wisdom and power as he meticulously restrains the utterly evil intentions of the ungodly by their sinful passion 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 sinfully motivated.)

When we water down Total Depravity, grace isn’t 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 no 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 all that splendid after all.

The Free Offer Of The Gospel

WSC Q&A 31:
Q. What is effectual calling?
A. Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.

Canons of Dort 2.5:
Moreover, it is the promise of the gospel that whoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish but have eternal life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be announced and declared without differentiation or discrimination to all nations and people, to whom God in his good pleasure sends the gospel.

The free offer of the gospel (abbreviated “free offer”) has meant different things at different times. From a confessional standpoint, it can only mean that God sincerely offers salvation to all who repent and believe. The meaning is at best narrow. The confessions do not speak in terms of God’s desire for all men to be saved; they merely teach that God promises the gift of everlasting life to all who would turn from self to Christ. This promise of life through faith is sincere. It is a genuine offer. If you believe, you will be saved. This gospel is to go out to all men everywhere.

Arminians are often quick to point out that the free offer is inconsistent with Calvinism. They reason that if the offer of the gospel is sincere and to go out to all people without exception, then God must desire the salvation of all people without exception. Otherwise, they say, the offer isn’t sincere. How can God desire the salvation of all men without exception if God as the ultimate decider of man’s salvation chooses to pass over some? In other words, Arminians reason that unless God desires to save all men, which they observe does not comport with Calvinism, the free offer of life through faith is insincere when given to the reprobate. Their axiom is that a sincere gospel offer implies a sincere desire to see the offer accepted, a well-meant offer. More on that in a moment.

The OPC’s Majority Report

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), representative of possibly most Calvinists today on the matter of the free offer, under the leadership of John Murray and Ned Stonehouse, adopted as a majority position the Arminian view that God desires the salvation of all men. While still holding fast to the Reformed view of predestination, the OPC affirmed the view that that the free offer cannot adequately be disassociated from a divine desire of salvation for all men without exception. In other words, such Calvinists assert that the genuineness of the gospel offer presupposes God’s desire that all embrace Christ.

Subsequently, the free offer has taken on the additional meaning of a well-meant offer, or desire, that the reprobate turn and be saved. Accordingly, a major difference between Arminians and such Calvinists as these is on the question of consistency. Arminians find the free offer inconsistent with unconditional election, whereas these sorts of Calvinists (who hold to an expanded view of “free offer”) do not.

Back to first principles. What makes an offer genuine or sincere?

Can we judge whether an offer is genuine or sincere simply based on whether it is true or not? If God intends to keep his promise, then isn’t the offer genuine? With respect to the gospel, if one meets the condition of faith, he will one day enter the joy of Lord. Isn’t that enough to make the offer of salvation sincere?

Let’s do some basic theology…

What does it mean that God desires the salvation of the reprobate? Are we to believe that God desires the reprobate to do something he cannot do, namely regenerate himself and grant himself union with Christ? Or, is that to check our Calvinism at the door? Isn’t it Jesus who saves? Isn’t salvation of God after all? At best, if we are to remain consistent with our Calvinism, then wouldn’t it follow that to argue for a well-meant offer of the gospel we’d have to posit that God desires that he himself would regenerate the reprobate unto union with Christ and salvation?

Simply stated, since Calvinism affirms total depravity and compatibilism, wouldn’t it stand to reason from a Calvinistic perspective that if God desires someone’s salvation, God must desire that he save that person? Accordingly, the question that should be considered in this regard is either (a) “Does God desire the reprobate to turn himself and live?” Or (b), “Does God desire that he himself turn the reprobate so that he can live?” Given that man is blind and deaf to spiritual things and cannot do anything to to turn himself Godward, how are we not strictly dealing with the theological plausibility of (b), that God desires to turn the reprobate contrary to what he has already decreed? If TULIP  is true, then (a) is a non-starter.

Now then, is it reasonable to think that the Holy Spirit desires to turn the reprobate Godward when the Father, in eternity, did not choose the reprobate in Christ? Moreover, if Christ did not die for the reprobate and does not pray that the efficacy of the cross would be applied to the reprobate, then in what sense does God desire the reprobate’s salvation? Does God desire that for which Christ does not pray? Does the Trinity desire that persons of the Godhead work at cross purposes? Does God desire true contradictions after all? Or is this a matter of mystery? Does God have multiple wills, let alone multiple wills that are at cross-purposes? Or is this a matter of two truths that we should accept by faith? Apparent contradiction or true contradiction?

Not only can God not save the reprobate whom he did not elect in Christ; 2000 years ago didn’t God act in time sealing that inability by securing salvation only for the elect? If so, then does it not follow that for God to desire the salvation of the reprobate, we should be willing to say that God, today, desires that Jesus would have died for the reprobate 2000 years ago? Or is there a third way of living looking at this? Does God live with a sense of regret or un-fulfillment? 

The OPC is quick to point out that they are not advocating a position entailing God both desiring and not desiring his decree. Fine, but then what does it mean for God to desire that men act contrary to his decree? Can God desire his decree while also desiring men to act in such a way that would thwart it? Moreover, aside from the question of whether God desires that man act contrary to God’s decree, what does it mean for God to desire that he himself act contrary to how he decreed he would act? Of course, I know no Calvinist who affirms the well-meant offer of the gospel who would also say that God desires that he elected more unto salvation, or anything like that. Yet if man cannot turn himself, as Calvinism clearly affirms, then isn’t the implication of a well-meant offer that God desires to save those he has determined not to save? So much for a well meant offer.

Competing desires and unfulfillment

John Piper has posited that God desires the salvation of the reprobate but that he desires their damnation for his own glory even more. There’s something attractive about Piper’s theory. It makes no apology for God positively desiring his decree, which includes his decree of reprobation. The downside is that it implies competing desires within the Godhead, a priority or ordering of pleasures within the same decree. Although perhaps an improvement upon John MacArthur’s view that in some sense God is “unfulfilled“ in his desire for the reprobate’s salvation, it nonetheless leaves God wanting. It’s an affront on God’s impassibility.

Abstractions, perhaps a useful tool…

If I desire to go to the doctor but it requires I get soaking wet in the rain, which ordinary I would not desire, then in one sense I do not desire to go out in the rain but in another sense I do. I do not want to go out in the rain if we consider going out in the rain as an abstraction from the overall plan of going to see the doctor. Yet I do desire to go out in the rain given that is what is necessary to get to see the doctor. The notion of abstracting particulars from the whole can be useful in this context. Although God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked, God most certainly takes pleasure in his eternal decree coming to pass. He desires all the components of his comprehensive plan because it serves his purposes. As a matter of an isolated instance, God takes no pleasure in punishment. As an abstraction without purpose salvation is pleasurable, judgement is not. Yet in the context of all things – God himself, his plan, his glory etc., God takes the highest pleasure in himself, which includes his just indignation against the impenitent who have been ordained to judgement (Jude verse 4) for his own glory. God answers to no one.

God does not consider isolated instances outside the whole. In isolation we can consider something evil, but God who transcends time and space ordains evil for good. Therefore, as an abstraction, God does not desire reprobation for the mere sake of reprobation. Rather, God desires reprobation for his own glory and the good of the elect in the context of his one plan and purpose for this world.

God’s love and ours…

God hates the reprobate (Psalm 5:5; 11:5) and, therefore, has an active love only for those who love him. We may safely say that a necessary condition1 for God’s love to be presently active in the life of a sinner is for the sinner to love God (Proverbs 8:17) and love the Savior (John 14:21,23; 15:10; 16:27). But for sinners to love God, they must first be loved of God (1 John 4:19), which is the cause of the love relationship. Therefore, for the sinner to love God in order for her to experience God’s love in her life, she must first be the object of God’s predestinating love (Ephesians 1:4). Does God desire to grant predestinating love to those he has ordained to wrath (Jude 4)? If not, then in what sense does God desire to save them?


 

1. Condition in this context is not causal. The converted sinner’s love for God does not cause or produce God’s love for the sinner. Neither is the relationship between the two a quid pro quo. It’s a relationship predicated on pure grace. To say that the believer’s love for God (x) is a necessary condition for God’s active love in the life of the converted sinner (y) is simply to say that it is impossible to have y without x. Which is to say, the absence of x guarantees the absence of y. It’s also to say that the presence of y guarantees x.

God’s active love in the life of the sinner, which is a transforming love, is also biconditional. Not just only if the sinner loves God does the sinner experience God’s Iove but also if the sinner loves God. (The latter being the prima facie rendering of the texts.) The sinner’s love for God are necessary and sufficient conditions for receiving God’s love (and likewise for God’s active love in the sinners’s life as it relates to the believer’s love for God). And again, conditions pertain not to cause but state of affairs.