See, for example, how the Lord explains that men whom He adjudges
"evil" nevertheless are capable of caring for their children:
"If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?"
If these people abused or neglected their children, we would blame them for it,
because these are certainly moral faults. And so these evil men, though they cannot find favor
or win acquittal before God, can nonetheless do something good, namely care for their own children.
Thus, absolute or utter depravity fails, by the Bible, and yet all men are
sinners, none is righteous in God's sight.
Some Calvinist authors seems to want to have it both ways:
"In Reformed theology, we distinguish between total
depravity and utter depravity. We say that fallen humanity is
totally depraved, meaning that depravity penetrates the whole of our
humanity — our minds, our wills, our hearts, and our bodies.
But we are not utterly depraved, in which case we would be as
bad as we possibly could be. The reason we are not as bad as we
possibly could be is because God has placed restraints on us."
(R. C. Sproul, The Promises of God, pp. 96-97).
This would seem to suggest that we will never encounter any natural man at all, only those
'restrained' by God's hypothesized 'common' grace, not otherwise known to the Bible.
In other words, absent God's grace, our state would indeed be utter
depravity. But since we will never encounter any human being not thus
'restrained,' therefore this theory can never be disconfirmed. Be watchful
for the substitution of this unbiblical, never seen 'utter' depravity
for the Biblical diagnosis.
To summarize: a.) absolute depravity is not encountered, either in life or
in the pages of the Bible, therefore God forbid we should claim
absolute or utter depravity b.) however, for purposes of analysis,
we will proceed as if absolute depravity were real, because c.)
absolute depravity would be real, if not for common grace: "One man
does not commit all possible sins. We all violate God's commandments
in thought, but not all of them in action. Everybody has hated, for
example; but not everyone has murdered. Almost everyone has lusted,
but not all have committed actual adultery. The reason for this
moderation of sin is that God, through his common grace (that is,
grace that is extended to unbelievers), restrains the evil that
people would do." (Edwin Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism, p.
13). The Calvinist God is in the business of 'moderating' sin, in
order that we may both assume, and also deny, utter depravity, as
appropriate. Follow their line of thought and see if you can catch it.
Be Ye Holy
"Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say
to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy." (Leviticus
The standard to which we are called is no low one! We are depraved,
by comparison with what? With God's holiness.
Guilty of All
"For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point,
he is guilty of all. For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said,
“Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder,
you have become a transgressor of the law." (James 2:10-11).
God does not grade on the curve. When we observe the pagans
performing noble acts, we often also observe their motives in so doing
are less than noble. For instance, the pagan heroes who threw themselves
into the breach to save the city often wanted, and said they wanted, to
win a name for themselves, to hear their praises chanted by their
people. But this is, by Christian lights, the vice known as vain-glory.
Nor does God want grudging obedience, service which is not heart-felt. His children are not to follow His
law while they really wish they could be doing something else. Absent
the Holy Spirit animating the sinner, none can make the grade.
All have Sinned
God's indictment of straying humanity builds and builds:
"What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously
charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin. As it is written:
'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...'Now we
know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law,
that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before
God...For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of
the glory of God..." (Romans 3:9-23).
The Bible teaches the radical sinfulness of human nature, that all are lost
and in need of a Savior, that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory
of God. If this were the sum and substance of 'Total Depravity,'
any Bible-believer could heartily concur. However, as will be seen, what the Calvinist
means by 'Total Depravity' does not stop with the Bible diagnosis.
As we shall see, there is a substitution going on here: we do not
ever see the natural man. What we see is masked by 'common grace,'
or so they tell us. If we were ever to catch a glimpse of the
unvarnished truth, the natural man unassisted by 'common grace,' we
would start back in horror, seeing nothing but evil. This we do not
see, neither in the Bible nor in common experience. The Calvinists
do not so much convince us to see what they see, but rather they
explain why we do not see it. But in explaining why we do not see
what should be there under their theory, they do not demonstrate
that it is there. Nevertheless they move on to the next step as if
Nature of Sin
The civic-minded deeds of a pagan like Camillus, whom Calvin mentions,
excite admiration. But they are flawed. Some of the pagan heroes confessed
they did their noteworthy deeds in the hope that generations to come would
sing their praises: an aspiration known to Christian moralists as the vice
"By a parity of reason, all works done before justification
are not good, in the Christian sense, forasmuch as they spring not of faith
in Jesus Christ; (though from some kind of faith in God they may spring;)
“yea, rather, for that they are not done as God hath willed and commanded
them to be done, we doubt not” (how strange soever it may appear to some)
“but they have the nature of sin.”
"Perhaps those who doubt of this have not duly considered
the weighty reason which is here assigned, why no works done before justification
can be truly and properly good. The argument plainly runs thus:—-
"The first proposition is self-evident; and the second,
that no works done before justification are done as God hath willed and
commanded them to be done, will appear equally plain and undeniable, if
we only consider, God hath willed and commanded that all our works should
be done in charity, in love, in that love to God which produces love to
all mankind. But none of our works can be done in this love, while the
love of the Father (of God as our Father) is not in us; and this love can
not be in us till we receive the “Spirit of Adoption, crying in our hearts,
Abba, Father.” If, therefore, God doth not justify the ungodly, and him
that (in this sense) worketh not, then hath Christ died in vain; then,
notwithstanding his death, can no flesh living be justified.
- No works are good, which are not done as God hath willed and commanded them.
- But no works done before justification are done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done:
- Therefore, no works done before justification are good.
"But on what terms, then, is he justified who is altogether
ungodly, and till that time worketh not? on one alone; which is faith:
He “believeth in Him that justifieth the ungodly.” (John Wesley, Sermon
5, Justification by Faith)
While a pagan who throws himself into a chasm to save his country is not
acting to glorify God, he is nonetheless acting bravely and selflessly. John Calvin
in his Institutes lifts such a pagan out of the realm of human nature and
into the realm of grace. He declares such civic-minded pagans recipients
of "special graces of God" not otherwise known to the Bible (Institutes,
Book II, Chapter III. 4). While it is certain that all good comes from
God, what is gained by defining 'nature' away? Human nature is concluded to be totally depraved
by defining anything not totally depraved as outside the realm of human nature: begging the question.
There is one incident where the Bible does seem to confirm the
Calvinist thesis in its most extreme form,
"Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart."
'Only evil continually' is 'utter depravity,' which, as we shall see,
disclaimers to the contrary, is the functional Calvinist thesis. But
look outside your window, dear reader; do you see water? If there's a
big old wave rolling in, your might want to abandon your computer screen
and decamp. Head for higher ground. Since "only evil continually" was the state of affairs that triggered the
flood, and there is no flood going on right now, is it to be taken as a
timeless truth, universally true in all states and conditions of the world? Did this
circumstance survive the flood and subsequent Noachide covenant?
The flood cleansed and purified the earth: "Let me give an
illustration. When the Creator was minded to purge the earth by
water, and determined that the soul should receive a cleansing from
its unutterable wrongdoings by washing away and purging out its
defilements after the fashion of a sacred purification, He charges
the man who proved righteous, who was not swept away by the oncoming
of the deluge, to bring into the ark, which was the body or the
vessel that contains the soul, 'from among the clean beasts seven,
male and female' (Gen. vii. 2). . ." (Philo Judaeus, The Worse
Attacks the Better, Chapter XLVI, Loeb edition p. 315). Had the
flood lacked any cleansing power, it would be a maladroit emblem of
baptism. While the survivors and their descendants remained sinners,
fallen children of Adam, it would not be accurate to say that
nothing had changed from before to after the flood.
We should not make general statements in the Bible more
fine-grained than as written. The Bible says if you're lazy you'll
be poor: "Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of
the hands to sleep: So shall thy poverty come as one that travelleth,
and thy want as an armed man." (Proverbs 6:10-11). But surely we can
all think of exceptions: the heiress who never worked a day in her
life, the ne'er-do-well who bought the winning lottery ticket, or a
shiftless lazy-bones living in a modern welfare society where people
are protected from want no matter what. Proverbs are true as
generalizations, they are not intended to be categorical statements
which admit no exceptions. A proverb is not invalidated if we can
find an isolated exception to the general rule. And our statement
here turns out to be less categorical than at first appeared. Keep reading and
almost immediately we stumble upon an exception to the rule, "Noah was a just man, perfect in his generations. Noah walked with God.
. .The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence.
So God looked upon the earth, and indeed it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth."
(Genesis 6:9-12). Certainly Noah's righteousness is not intrinsic but
borrowed from the sole source, God, as is all good. "All flesh" were corrupt, except Noah a righteous
man; eight souls were saved out of that catastrophe, a righteous
remnant, descendants of Adam born into sin but not counted by God with
sinners. The Lord's condemnation of "the wickedness of man" fell
upon the world, those outside the ark, the drowned; should it be
seized as a heritage by the righteous who were saved?
The antediluvian world is a lost world: "For this they willingly
are ignorant of, that by the word of God the heavens were of old,
and the earth standing out of the water and in the water: Whereby
the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished. . ."
(2 Peter 3:5-6). It is hard to imagine the kind of corruption then extant,
with the cultures of the world ordered toward evil rather than
good. Let us see whether its statistics are still
applicable. In the Mosaic law, things soiled are cleansed by three
means, fire, blood, and water. Peter likens Christian baptism to the
flood: "Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering
of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing,
wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. The like
figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting
away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience
toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. . ." (1 Peter
3:20-21). To Peter, the flood is like baptism. If so, was nothing accomplished by
it, nothing cleansed, nothing renovated? A statement which, when
uttered, was intended to be true of millions save eight, applicable
to a lost world since sanitized, may not be a stable enough
foundation upon which to rear such a weighty edifice as total
The Bible teaches we are all sinners unable to look upon a holy God without
a mediator. The Bible does not teach, though, that all of us sinners are
wicked in every way it is possible for a human being to be wicked. Not
only does the Bible not teach this, it is a logical impossibility. One
who falls short of the mark by being a 'miser' cannot also be a 'spend-thrift.'
Though both are moral failings, they cannot co-exist. Likewise a 'coward'
who is bold to the point of being reckless; there ain't no such animal.
The pagan moralist Aristotle built a system upon these pairs, theorizing
that virtue is the mean between. Carrying out his system required him to
invent novel and artificial vices, but there is a kernel of truth to the
insight that some vices cannot co-exist.
Introspection shows that not all struggle equally with temptations toward
pedophilia, much less necrophilia, or bestiality. In fact upon first encounter
with these aberrations in a text-book some cannot shake the suspicion that
someone is pulling their leg; do people really do that? So be alert to
this version of 'total depravity' which sometimes turns up in Calvinistic argument.
John Calvin himself admitted that a man subject to all the vices by
which human nature can be infected would be a logical impossibility:
"Indeed, I grant that not all these wicked traits appear in every man;
yet one cannot deny that this hydra lurks in the breast of each." (John
Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book II, Chapter III,
The Bible does teach the radical sinfulness of unregenerate human
nature, but does it teach this?: "Therefore let us hold this as an
undoubted truth which no siege engines can shake: the mid of man has
been so completely estranged from God's righteousness that it
conceives, desires, and undertakes, only that which is impious,
perverted, foul, impure, and infamous. The heart is so steeped in
the poison of sin, that it can breathe out nothing but a loathsome
stench." (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book
II, Chapter III, Section 19). There seems to be an agenda of
exaggerating what is, in its kernel, a true Bible teaching. In truth, the
Calvinist doctrine should be denominated as 'total inability' rather
than total depravity: "Another way of describing total depravity is to call
it total inability. As a matter of fact, many prefer this term to total depravity, since the latter term leads some to think that man is as bad
as he can be." (Edwin H. Palmer, Five Points of Calvinism, p. 17). What
they mean by this, "So when the Reformed tradition refers to 'total
depravity,' it does not mean that we do as many bad acts as we possibly
could. It means that we are totally unable
to trust Christ and do the 'work of faith' (1 Thess. 1:3, 2 Thess. 1:11)
without the decisive intervention of God's enabling grace." (John Piper,
Bloodlines, Part Two, p. 134). They wish to find that no sinner can respond
even by one finger-flick to the gospel call, even if awash in God's
grace, but must be made to do so against his wishes, against his nature. This they consider a simple inference from the latter
condition. But total inability is no Bible doctrine; it is a supposition
built upon Bible doctrine. Recall, we must avoid 'utter depravity' because
the Bible clearly does not teach this, nor does our common experience in
the world in dealing with pagans teach this. The Calvinists admit we do
not see 'utter depravity,' although they claim we would see it, were it
not for 'common grace.' Because the real situation is masked, they then
proceed as if it were conceded that 'utter depravity' had been
demonstrated. 'Total inability' is just 'utter depravity.' See, once we have
swept aside 'common grace' as an irrelevance and the "natural man"
stands revealed in his true colors: "He does care: he hates the good and
its source, namely, God." (Edwin H. Palmer, The Five Points of
Calvinism, p. 19). 'Inability' is Biblical, for which the cure is grace, inserting 'total' is an innovation.
No Such Animal
This shell game goes back to the founder. After painting the character of the natural man in the blackest possible dye,
John Calvin helpfully informs us that. . .we've never seen such a
monster, nor ever will! You see, if men were really that bad, they would
gnaw away at each other, and God has providentially supplied His 'common
grace' to keep that from happening. This 'common grace,' not known to
the Bible, is spilled out so liberally that no one has ever seen a
"If every soul is subject to such abominations as the
apostle boldly declares, we surely see what would happen if the Lord
were to permit human lust to wander according to its own
inclination. No mad beast would rage as unrestrainedly; no river,
however swift and violent, burst so madly into flood." (John Calvin,
Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book II, Chapter III, Section
But lucky for us, God restrains these evil-doers; how otherwise could human
civilization or any sort of communal life endure:
"Here, however, is the surest and easiest solution to this question: these are not common gifts of nature, but special graces of God, which he bestows variously and in a certain measure upon men otherwise wicked." (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book II, Chapter III, Section 4).
What a furious kind of tail-chasing, to paint human depravity, admitted by the Bible, in such dark colors as
to require the invention of a form of grace unknown to the Bible to keep it from devouring us all!
Better to keep within the Bible bounds in describing the problem. Both
'grace' and 'nature' are realms under God's sole sway; what we receive
from one we receive from the hand of God, as also the other. If human
nature were as ruined and depraved as Calvin's case requires, civil
society would be impossible. . .so therefore, manifestly, it is not so utterly
ruined. There is no Biblical warrant to invent an otherwise unknown
species of grace.
'Common grace,' a commodity not known to the Bible, is needed to remedy a
defect in Calvinist 'Total Depravity,' namely its failure to conform
to observed experience:
"Now I proceed to consider the dogma of 'common grace'.
. .Sin places before us a riddle, which in itself is insoluble. If
you view sin as a deadly poison, as enmity against God, as leading
to everlasting condemnation, and if you represent a sinner as being
'wholly incapable of doing any good, and prone to all evil,' and on
this account salvable only, if God by regeneration changes his
heart, then it seems as if of necessity all unbelievers and
unregenerate persons ought to be wicked and repulsive men. But this
is far from being our experience in actual life." (Abraham Kuyper,
Calvinism: Six Lectures Delivered in the Theological Seminary at
Princeton, Lecture 4, p. 104).
With one slash of William of Ockham's razor, we rid ourselves of two
unnecessary entities: the man-made theory of 'Total Depravity,' and the
man-made theory of 'common grace.'
Certainly there are men of appalling evil, like Genghis Khan and
Osama bin Laden, who murder with no more pangs of conscience than we
would suffer swatting a fly. But just as none is so good as to leave
no room for improvement, so none is so wicked as could not be made
worse in thought. Adolf Hitler was a mass murderer, but he did not
murder his mother, as did Nero Caesar. Before he and his companion
Eva Braun did away with themselves, they married; he could have
omitted to do that, and been worse. He was affectionate to his dog, although
"It [election] denies that the unregenerate are capable of predicating a
right thought, generating a right affection, or originating a right
volition." (Arthur W. Pink, The Doctrine of Election, p. 11). He was
not evil in every way he could possibly have been evil. Was the
reason for this 'common grace:' a special, secret type of grace not known to the Bible? There is no reason to think so, other than to salvage 'Total Inability.'
According to advocates, 'T' is the entire system in embryo: "The Five Points of
Calvinism all depend on each other. If T is true, the[n] U is true, and
so are L, I, and P. They all hang or fall together." (Edwin H.
Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism, p. 72). To see how, let us
recapitulate the argument: Apparent Depravity = Innate Depravity
counteracted by Common Grace. Think, Gray = mixture of Black and
White. Apparent, or Observed, Depravity is far from utter depravity. Nothing like
utter depravity is either experienced in life or taught in scripture, except in
connection with the flood, and was the flood inefficient in its
stated mission of cleansing the earth? John Calvin, a classicist,
was well aware of exemplary pagans who displayed civic and patriotic
virtues. Although the sources which describe these heroes are propagandistic
and slanted, we all know from our own experience, and the Bible
confirms, that the pagans are not all bad all the time. Of course these people are 100 per cent unsaved, as they
have no covering for sin and cannot stand in the presence of a holy
God. Contra the Bible, these model citizens are described in this
system as masterpieces of grace not nature, because nature is obliged to be 100 per cent bad.
Since Common Grace is not ordered to
salvation, it cannot be relevant to a discussion of salvation. So we leave
it behind; it is cancelled out from the equation. Out with the gray, which
we agreed is what's sometimes seen in scripture and in life, in
with the black. Cancelling out 'common grace,' what is left?: "The biblical
doctrine of total depravity emphasizes that natural, unregenerated man
is never able to do a single good thing for even a fraction of a
second. He is dead to good actions." (Edwin H. Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism, p. 99). So
'utter depravity,' driven out the front door, returns through the back
door. (What Calvinists mean by 'nature' is fallen nature, ruined by the fall.) Now we are left with natural, or innate depravity, which
from this point forward will be equated with utter depravity: hating
God, behaving as wild beasts, etc., although these same rambunctious wild men are
simultaneously dead. As anyone who's ever lived near a cemetery can tell
you, dead people are prone to rest there peacefully. They are quiet neighbors. Perhaps
we have strayed into the territory of mixed metaphor. This being so, salvation cannot be accomplished
except under compulsion.
This argument is internally consistent, but be alert to 'common
grace' being inserted, then removed. The
skeptic should ask, where is the Bible proof there is any such thing
as 'common grace'? If we never see man except veiled by this
heavenly shower of grace come down from above, though the Bible does
not characterize the pagans in quite this way, then how can we say
anything about a nature which is always concealed and unseen, never seen
naked? The Bible says
the pagans are people "without God in the world:" "That at that time ye
were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel,
and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and
without God in the world:. . ." (Ephesians 2:12). They are αθεοι,
without God, not recipients of His grace. By their system, this
universal common grace has rescued man from his own nature, but we
then must imagine him without this covering, without which we never
encounter him. Ask them how they know anything about the natural
man, who is, in their system, never seen?
A chemical company wanted to use a process patented by a
competitor, but without paying any royalty. So they employed the
same procedure, but added aspirin, salicylic acid. . .and then took
it out at a later stage. This was a different process, they said.
Shame, shame; the courts were not fooled. Adding aspirin and then
taking it out was a diversion. When they tell you that utter
depravity is not seen, because common grace masks its effects, tell
them that since you know they are going to drop this ingredient
later, they need not bring it up to begin with. Either prove utter
depravity, or if you cannot, cease troubling people with an