Tiptoe Through the TULIP: Total Depravity

Durr hurr, my title is so clever. Any way…

I was asked by a sister in Christ to explain the five points of Calvinism, known today by the acronym TULIP. This will by no means be an in depth discussion of the five points, as plenty of resources like that are available online or in printed format. This is also not meant, in its primary goal, to convince anyone towards Calvinism, although God might use it in such a fashion. This is simply meant as a quick and brief explanation of what Calvinists believe and what the five points really mean, hopefully dispelling any misconceptions along the way. As we’re going through TULIP, it might make sense to start with the “T”, which stands for Total Depravity.

Total Depravity talks about the moral condition of man, and teaches that, morally speaking, he is a fallen creature. Most Christian churches and schools of thought already teach that man is fallen in some way, but Total Depravity goes to the very heart of the matter…literally. Man is a totally and utterly fallen creature, to the point of being naturally corrupt in regards to spiritual things.

Let’s go through a few immediate clarifications about what this means. This does not mean that the only thing man can do is evil and nothing else. This does not mean that non-Christians can’t do “good” things. What this does mean is that an individual, without the regeneration of the heart given by God, is unable, on his own, to come to God in saving faith. This is why many people use the phrase Total Inability rather than Total Depravity. Mankind is completely unable, by his own power, to convert himself towards God.

This brings us to the age old question: Does man have a will? Many people seem to presume that Calvinists don’t believe they do, and hence they think Calvinists believe men are like robots that have to be reprogrammed. However, Calvinists fully believe man has a will…the issue is, what is the state of  that? According to the position of Calvinists and other monergists (and some synergists), man’s will is enslaved to sin, and if left alone it will always pick sin. This is the essence of total inability. You could hold a brick and say “You have free will, go up or down” and let go, but if left to the power of gravity, the brick will always go down. In like manner, you can say to an unregenerated man “You can have life or death,” but if he’s still under the power of sin, he will always choose death.

A quote on this matter from someone who was far, far more learned than myself:

Man is a free agent but be cannot originate the love of God in his heart. His will is free in the sense that it is not controlled by any force outside of himself. As the bird with a broken wing is “free” to fly but not able, so the natural man is free to come to God but not able. How can he repent of his sin when he loves it? How can he come to God when he hates Him? This is the inability of the will under which man labors. [Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination; source]

But enough about what I can say – from here on, I’m going to let scripture do the talking. I could easily do the shotgun approach, throwing out a lot of verses and declaring victory, but I’m not fond of proof texting unless I’m in a hurry. As I’m trying to put some effort into this, I’m going to bring in some of the stronger sections of scripture that I think demonstrate the point, so that we have some solid grounds for discussion. We’ll start with one of my favorite moments of scripture: the second chapter of the apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. [Ephesians 2:1-3]

Paul begins this section by saying to the Ephesian Gentile believers (the “you” in verse 1) that they were dead in the trespasses and sins in which they once walked. These trespasses and sins, however, were not unique to the Ephesians themselves, as Paul says that they were following the course of the world, the “prince of the power of the air” (the devil), and the spirit now at work in the sons of disobedience (in other words, those who refuse to believe). Paul then says that “we all once lived” in this mode, the “we” here referring to Paul and his fellow Jewish Christians. All of them, Jews and Gentiles alike, were “children of wrath” – also translated as “objects of wrath” – like the rest of mankind were.

Paul’s point here is clear, and is vital for the following verses (which we’ll get to in a moment). The apostle is belaboring the point that the natural state of mankind is one of being spiritually dead. Before a person is regenerated by God, they are dead in trespasses and sins and are by nature an object of wrath – in other words, they are worthy of judgment, and little else. Just as a man who is naturally dead cannot do anything towards, a spiritually dead man cannot do anything towards salvation.

Now that might sound like grim news, but now we get to the good news. In many ways, Ephesians 2 is like the miniature version of what Paul discusses in the first three chapters of Romans, and it’s here that Paul switches gear and goes from sin and judgment to gospel and grace.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus [Eph 2:4-6]

Paul tells us that God, out of love for us, and while we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. Let me reiterate this: we (the believer) were still dead when God quickened us. This blows the idea of Pelagianism and to a large degree Semi-Pelagianism out of the water. When Christ raised Lazarus from the dead, there was nothing Lazarus contributed to that act. In a similar matter, Paul says that we, who are dead and objects of wrath, are made alive together with Christ by God, with no assistance from us. God is the main actor here, not man. Paul even belabors this point by writing that it is by grace we have been saved. He will reiterate this two verses later with: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”

So how is this related to the topic of Total Depravity? Paul is quite clearly teaching here that mankind is completely depraved – the natural state of man the world over is one of a dead being. We are objects of wrath because of our inclination to sin. If God left every man alone, no one would be deserving of eternal life. They would still be following the course of this world, and it won’t be until the quickening power of God comes upon them that they can change direction.

I should quickly note here (least anyone accuse me of misrepresentation) that Calvinism is not the only theological system which teaches Total Depravity. Most monergists (such as Lutherans) believe in Total Depravity, and most orthodox synergists do as well. John Wesley and George Whitefield – two famous street preachers who were Arminian and Calvinist respectively – would see eye-to-eye with one another on this. Where the different parties would start to differ is what they believe in regards to the other letters in TULIP, which we will, God willing, continue to tiptoe through as these posts progress.

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