Total Depravity

If the doctrine of total depravity (see Romans 3:9-20) seems strange to modern ears, it is only because we have been shaped by the (largely) a-theological milieu of the evangelical American church. Doctrines like this were standard fare for earlier generations of saints. This morning, in preparation for my sermon, I was using an old Puritan prayer book to help me call on God. The specific prayer I was reading is titled “A Minister’s Praises.” Notice the things the Puritans considered “normal” in a MINISTER’S struggle against sin:

O God,
Thou art in Jesus the object of inexpressible joy, and I take exceeding pleasure in the thought of thee.
But Lord, I am sometimes thy enemy; my nature revolts and wanders from thee.
Though thou hast renewed me, yet evil corruptions urge me still to oppose thee.
Help me to extol thee with entire heart-submission, to be diligent in self-examination, to ask myself whether I am truly born again, whether my spirit is the spirit of thy children, whether my griefs are those that tear repenting hearts, whether my joys are the joys of faith, whether my confidence in Christ works by love and purifies the soul.
Give me the sweet results of faith, in my secret character, and in my public life.
Cast cords of love around my heart, then hold me and never let me go…
Let me love thee in a love that covers and swallows up all, that I may not violate my chaste union with the beloved;
There is much unconquered territory in my nature: scourge out the buyers and sellers of my soul’s temple, and give me in return pure desires, and longings after perfect holiness.

For some additional reading on depravity and why it is “the hinge on which the gospel turns,” check out this (very) abridged version of Luther’s Bondage of the Will. May it whet your appetite for the whole book – it is Luther at his very best.


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  1. You strange seducer of the soul, who hungers for mischief from impulses of mirth and wantonness, who craves another’s loss without any desire for one’s own profit or revenge — so that, when they say, “Let’s go, let’s do it,” we are ashamed not to be shameless.

    Who can unravel such a twisted and tangled knottiness? It is unclean. I hate to reflect upon it. I hate to look on it. But I do long for thee, O Righteousness and Innocence, so beautiful and comely to all virtuous eyes — I long for thee with an insatiable satiety. With thee is perfect rest, and life unchanging. He who enters into thee enters into the joy of his Lord, and shall have no fear and shall achieve excellence in the Excellent. I fell away from thee, O my God, and in my youth I wandered too far from thee, my true support. And I became to myself a wasteland.

  2. Calvinism teaches that men and woman are totally depraved—absolutely evil from birth. Every single baby coming into the world is born with an evil heart—totally depraved and completely inclined to wickedness. (For those of you who are parents — you should have this part figured out…) Total depravity teaches that men and women from birth are rotten to the core. A man or woman can do nothing whatsoever good or pleasing to God—it is impossible, for we are born absolutely and altogether sinful. Since we are born so sinfully inclined, we are therefore totally incapable of any good. Even little babies are absolutely sinful.

    Bob, you are correct, most Christians today are far more Arminian. They may not use a Wesleyan theological term like “prevenient grace” or “common grace” but they have a hunch that God has granted some sort of grace or “light that lighteth every man” to all people on earth. In fact, even these worldlings sometimes do good things out of this positive impulse in them—an impulse planted there by God. Though this impetus is not enough to save them… it is a “God-shaped Vacuum” drawing them toward God. This prevenient grace—the “grace that precedes”—enables naturally sinful men and women to seek God and to feel conviction over their sins. Most of today’s Christians have a hunch that their unbelieving associates at work are really hungry for God deep inside. This approach is a mostly Arminian view.

    There is little doubt about it: Arminianism has triumphed in the pew, if not in the seminary. The average Christian is a practicing Arminian, even if he claims to be a Calvinist in theory. “Practical” modern church members are increasingly rejecting traditional “five-point Calvinism.” While Arminianism has been a “minority view” for decades, today there is a major drift toward Arminianism in most Calvinist churches.

    I don’t mean to sound like an unappreciative Arminian. But, to be quite frank, I am thankful for you Calvinists who hold down the right flank. If you don’t hold down your side of the line we’ll eventually be swept off our feet and washed out to new age humanism and universalism. And don’t worry, we Arminians will hold down the left, protecting the church from absolutism, determinism, cold-hearted formalism, and too much talk about the judgment side of God. We can handle these errors, if you’ll defend the faith on the right. After all, we’re both on the same team, aren’t we?

  3. Wesley…

    1) If you are inclined not to use your real name, I will be inclined to delete your posts in the interest of PUBLIC conversation;

    2) Because I don’t know who you are, I’m going on a hunch here… but it seems that you are posting on this blog without actually listening to the sermons preached at Coram Deo. If you continue to do so, your posts will continue to display some crucial misunderstandings.

    Total depravity does not claim that people are as bad as they could possibly be. It refers to the EXTENT of sinfulness, not the DEPTH of sinfulness. Every part of you is marred by sin; but you are not as bad as you could possibly be. I made this point abundantly clear during Sunday’s sermon, so the fact that you missed it may mean you are attacking a caricature of “Calvinism” instead of the real thing.

    If, by “on the same team,” you mean that Arminianism and Reformed theology are both right, then the law of non-contradiction requires me to disagree. But if you mean that God elects Arminians as well as Calvinists, then yes, I certainly agree!

    PS common grace is a Reformed doctrine, not an “Arminian” one…

    But thanks again for contributing to the dialogue!

  4. Wesley, after reflecting further on your post, I am troubled that you seem interested in fomenting debate about theological “isms” instead of talking about the Bible.

    So, I challenge you: if you would like to propose an exegesis of Romans 3:9-20 that differs from mine offered in the sermon on 11/5, be my guest. In your exegesis, you’ll have to explain how YOUR claim that most of your “unbelieving associates at work are really hungry for God deep inside” squares with the BIBLE’S claim (Romans 3:11) that there is “none who seeks for God.”

    If you are not interested in doing the hard exegetical and theological work to make your points from the Bible, then I’d simply ask you to refrain from trying to stir up dissension on this blog.

  5. Bob,
    I have a quick question for you. I am reading the link to Luther’s “Bondage of the Will” and I am really enjoying it. I never really thought that we had free will, and for some reason I’m okay with that. God is perfect, and I am not, so having him in control is much better than leaving me to my own “free-will.” Here is my question, I noticed that often times in church we say the Westminster Confession of Faith and I think I remember it saying that we sin by our own free will. After reading Luther, it doesn’t really seem like we have the “free-will” to sin. I am sure these two ideas totally work together, I am just wondering how. Luther says, “That is to say, man should realize that in regard to his money and possessions he has a right to use them, to do or to leave undone, according to his own “free-will” – though that very “free-will” is overruled by the free-will of God alone, according to His own pleasure.” So does that mean that God, in His “free-will”, willed us to sin in the Garden?

  6. Andy, I’m sure Bob will have a better much more eloquent and coherent answer, but I can tell you how I have learned to look at it.

    Scripture is clear that God is sovereign and nothing happens outside of his control. This would lead me to believe that none of my decisions are my own and I have no free will of my own. It would also lead me to a sense of fatalism. However, scripture is also clear that we are held responsible for our decisions and the resulting actions. To be held responisble for my actions suggests that I have a free will and by my will I make these decisions.

    It seems to me that we have a bit of a paradox here. I had a professor in college who had this kind of question brought up to him in a class on Acts. He didn’t have the time to really get into it so he condensed his thoughts into a few sentences. “I see in scripture that God is completely sovereign, yet I also see that we are held accountable for our actions. How does that work? I don’t know.”

    I’ve also found that my definition of free will has changed in the past five years or so. Most of us tend to think of free will as being completely free to make decisions absolutely independent of any outside influences. I dont think that is biblical though. The bible talks of us as “slaves to sin” without Jesus’ gospel. I don’t think we could be a slave to something yet make decisions independent of our master’s influence. Through Jesus we become “slaves to righteousness.” Our master has changed but our free will (in the sense that most of us define it) is still non-existent. I have come to define free will as being free to do as my heart desires. There’s a difference there that took me a while to catch on to when I first heard it, but it’s huge.

    Bob or anyone, please correct me anywhere I might be off theologically. 🙂

  7. I think you’re getting at “non-autonomous” free will. Which is that we have free will under the sovereignty of God. And God wills that his decrees come about through certain means, like prayer, decision making etc. . .

    So, fatalism doesn’t work because at times God is willing that you do something to bring something else about, etc. . . That’s how we can pray for the lost, pray for healing, and be passionate about life choices. God is not some puppeteer, but at the same time his will cannot and will never be thwarted.

  8. I didn’t mean to say that I thought fatalism was the conlusion I came to, rather that a view of God’s sovereignty without an understanding of free will can lead to fatalism. I don’t think I finished that line of reasoning very well. My bad!

  9. Trav… nice work. You’re right on, and so are you, anonymous person (aargh!).

    There is no such thing as autonomous free will. You are not free to fly. Only God is completely, utterly, totally free. We have contingent freedom. We are free to act in accordance with our desires – which is exactly the problem. “There is none who seeks God.” Apart from God’s electing grace, we don’t WANT to follow God, and therefore we do not.

    “A man without the Spirit of God does not do evil against his will, under pressure, as though he were taken by the scruff of the neck and dragged into it… he does it spontaneously and voluntarily. And this willingness or volition is something which he cannot in his own strength eliminate, restrain, or alter.” (Luther, in Bondage of the Will)

  10. Bob,
    I like the last couple comments…but I wonder something…Why are Christ followers and non-Christ followers so much alike? VERY generally speaking, there are many Christ followers who still give in to their fleshly desires, and many others who don’t even know who Jesus is are doing a lot of good in the world. I (being a Christ follower) understand the former, but the latter troubles me in light of your comment, “Apart from God’s electing grace, we don’t want to follow God, and therefore we do not.” This is a pretty rough subject, but I’d love for you to tackle it!

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