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Total Depravity and Divine Knowledge (Part 1)

Following the article I posted on Saturday, which you can read here, Michael Spencer posted a link to it on Boars Head Tavern and included the following comment, which I would like to address today: Those who believe in total depravity have more confidence in the possibility of humans having divine knowledge- detailed, down to the footnotes knowledge- than many who don’t call themselves Calvinists.

For some time I have been intending to write an article on the clarity of Scripture (also known as the “perspicuity of Scripture”) and I believe this affords an opportunity to include that topic. Since this could become a lengthy topic, and since most people cease reading shortly after the 1,000 word mark, I will divide this into a three-part series. In the first part I will define and examine Total Depravity, in the second I will define and examine the clarity of Scripture, and in the third I will put it together to respond to Spencer’s comment.

We would be remiss to discuss this topic without first adequately defining “total depravity” so we will begin with that today. But first, I would like to indicate that this article is not meant as an opportunity to debate whether Total Depravity is a biblical doctrine. We will define it and move forward with the assumption that it is true, since it forms the basis for Spencer’s comments.

Total Depravity is the first of the points of doctrine that have come to be known as the Five Points of Calvinism or The Doctrines of Grace. These doctrines were defined in response to the teachings of Jacobus Arminius, who denied Calvin’s understanding of Divine sovereignty and human depravity. The Doctrines of Grace are built upon Calvin’s understanding of God’s complete and overwhelming sovereignty in everything, including saving a people for Himself. Directly related to God’s sovereignty is human inability, for when man fell into sin, his very nature became corrupt to the greatest extent.

The term “total depravity” has fallen out of favor in recent days, in large part because “total” seems to be a word that confuses, rather than clarifies the doctrine. James Boice and Philip Ryken suggest “Radical Depravity,” R.C. Sproul suggests “Radical Corruption” and Michael Horton goes with “Rebels Without A Cause.” Regardless of the terms used, the doctrine reads something like this:

“Total Depravity is a theological term primarily associated with Calvinism, which interprets the Bible to teach that, as a consequence of the Fall of man, every person born into the world is enslaved to the service of sin. In other words, a person is not by nature inclined to love God with his heart or mind or strength, rather all are inclined to serve their own interests over those of their neighbor. Put another way, even with all circumstances in his favor a man without God can do nothing but work for his own destruction; and even his religion and philanthropy are destructive, to the extent that these originate from his own imagination, passions and will” (Wikipedia).

There is a sense in which Total Depravity undergirds the doctrines which follow it (Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance of the Saints). Without Total Depravity, for example, it is possible for God to base election on the condition of a free will choice, thus rendering Unconditional Election invalid.

There is a bounty of biblical support for this doctrine. Genesis 6:5 tells us that “God saw that the intent of every heart was only continual evil.” Just two chapters later we read of man that “The intent of every heart is evil from its youth” (Genesis 8:21). Romans 3:10-18 tells us that there is none righteous. There is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside. Other passages include 1 Corinthians 2:14, Ephesians 2:1-3 and 2 Timothy 2:25 and 26.

In any discussion of Total Depravity, it is crucial that we carefully define the difference between extend and degree. To affirm that fallen human beings are totally depraved in extent is to say that the fallenness of man extends to every part of his being. There is no part of man that has escaped the Fall, for mind, body and spirit all fell with our first parents. Thus we are all totally corrupt in extent.

Total Depravity in Degree refers to something being exactly as depraved as it could possibly be. This is an effective illustration of the differences between extent and degree:

Consider the illustration of three glasses of water. The first glass contains clean, pure water and represents Adam in his perfect state before the Fall. Now consider a second glass which contains this same clean, pure water. We can put one drop of deadly poison in that glass and it renders that entire glass poisonous so that if you were to drink it, you would quickly drop dead. That one drop extended to every part of the glass even though the entire vessel is not filled with poison. This represents humans after the Fall. While they are not wholly corrupt, the corruption they do have extends to every part. And finally consider a third glass which is filled entirely with poison. From top to bottom there is nothing but deadly poison. This represents Satan, who the Bible portrays as being absolutely corrupt so there is no good left whatsoever, but this does not represent humans here on earth. Humans are not as depraved as they could possibly be. We must note that sinful men who have been cast into hell will also be in this state where they are wholly depraved. What a terrifying thought this ought to be!

Thankfully God gives His grace to all men so that while we are all totally depraved in extent, none are totally depraved in degree. But for His grace and His restraining hand, the world would be uninhabitable due to the degree of man’s corruption.

In an article I wrote a few months ago, I provided a reflection on Total Depravity and indicated that it is the great equalizer, for it shows that the best and worst of men are all equally corrupt in light of God’s perfect standard. “The man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it–he will be blessed in what he does.” (James 1:23) The extent of our depravity is what condemns even the best of men to hell – not the degree. Allow me to quote Rebecca Stark who wrote, “Total depravity is both the nastiest and loveliest of truths, because it’s only by seeing exactly what I was that I can understand what has been done for me. Knowing the depth of God’s love comes only as I fathom how far he had to stoop to grasp me.” God had to stoop just as far for the least of sinners as for the greatest.

In summary, then, we can say that man’s will is in complete bondage to his nature. Man is free to choose for or against God according to the way his nature dictates, but his nature is so wholly corrupt that he could never choose for good. He is free to choose, but he cannot contradict his nature. With a sinful nature it is impossible to take an action that would be anything other than sinful and rebellious. It is impossible to choose a righteous or pleasing work capable of pleasing a holy God. Similarly God is able to choose according to His free will, but cannot contradict his nature, which is perfect. Therefore God could never take an action that was anything but perfect and holy.

In the next article we will turn to the clarity of Scripture.