Post Author: Bill Pratt
John Calvin and his theological offspring are famous for the doctrine of total depravity. What does this doctrine mean?
Theologian R. C. Sproul, himself a Calvinist, describes total depravity as follows in his Essential Truths of the Christian Faith:
The Bible teaches the total depravity of the human race. Total depravity means radical corruption. We must be careful to note the difference between total depravity and utter depravity. To be utterly depraved is to be as wicked as one could possibly be. Hitler was extremely depraved, but he could have been worse than he was.
I am a sinner. Yet I could sin more often and more severely than I actually do. I am not utterly depraved, but I am totally depraved. For total depravity means that I and everyone else are depraved or corrupt in the totality of our being. There is no part of us that is left untouched by sin. Our minds, our wills, and our bodies are affected by evil. We speak sinful words, do sinful deeds, have impure thoughts. Our very bodies suffer from the ravages of sin.
Sproul goes on to quote Romans 3:10-12:
There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no, not one.
This doctrine often leads to the question, “If people are totally depraved, sinful to our core, then how do we explain seemingly virtuous non-Christians, people who have never been regenerated by the Holy Spirit? Doesn’t the doctrine of total depravity tell us that these people shouldn’t exist?”
Not exactly. In order to answer this question, it is useful to look at the words of Calvin from his most famous literary work, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin admits about the virtuous non-Christian,
Such examples, then, seem to warn us against supposing that the nature of man is utterly vicious, since, under its guidance, some have not only excelled in illustrious deeds, but conducted themselves most honourably through the whole course of their lives.
Calvin’s response is that the ability of a person to live virtuously at all is due to God’s special grace upon that individual in order to restrain his sinful nature. Citing the many kinds of wickedness found in man, Calvin argues that
in the elect, God cures these diseases in the mode which will shortly be explained; in others, he only lays them under such restraint as may prevent them from breaking forth to a degree incompatible with the preservation of the established order of things.
Without God’s special grace, man would degenerate into complete corruption and the world would plunge into chaos. Calvin further explains natural men’s true motives for seeking good:
Some are restrained only by shame, others by a fear of the laws, from breaking out into many kinds of wickedness. Some aspire to an honest life, as deeming it most conducive to their interest, while others are raised above the vulgar lot, that, by the dignity of their station, they may keep inferiors to their duty.
The man that appears to live more virtuously owes all of this virtue to God’s special grace. God distributes his special grace in a way that prevents the world from descending into chaos. If we admit that these people exist, must we say that there is something good in them that earns them credit before God? No. Calvin argues,
But as those endued with the greatest talents were always impelled by the greatest ambitions (a stain which defiles all virtues and makes them lose all favour in the sight of God), so we cannot set any value on anything that seems praiseworthy in ungodly men.
In addition, righteousness is absent “when there is no zeal for the glory of God, and there is no such zeal in those whom he has not regenerated by his Spirit.” He concludes, “The virtues which deceive us by an empty show may have their praise in civil society and the common intercourse of life, but before the judgment-seat of God they will be of no value to establish a claim of righteousness.”
Here is the bottom line. Calvin allows that some men live lives of relative virtue. These men, however, owe all their excellence to God’s special grace, a grace that restrains their wicked natures like a bridle. Calvin also argues that since men only pursue the good for their own personal ambitions, they merit no righteousness before God.
Although I do not consider myself a 5-point Calvinist, I think that Calvin’s ideas on man’s sinful nature are mostly correct. The regenerated Christian lives his life in a completely different way from the unregenerated non-Christian. I see this every day.
I am curious to know what you think about this doctrine and whether you think all men are born sinful at their core. Please leave comments!