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A description of calvinism as a belief in that man is totally depraved

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Historically, the occasion for them is to be found in the Arminian controversy of the 16th and 17th centuries. At that time a certain man by the name of Jacob Arminius began to teach, in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands, doctrines contrary to the Reformed faith and to Scripture.

In the early part of the 17th century, to be exact, his followers, known as the party of the Remonstrants, drew up five statements of doctrine in which they set forth their own views. They submitted these statements for the consideration of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands in the hope that these statements would be adopted and approved.

It was not until the Autumn of that a General Synod of the Reformed Churches was called to consider these statements of the Arminians. At this Synod were present, not only delegates from the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, but delegates from all the Reformed Churches on the continent of Europe After careful consideration, these five points of doctrine presented by the Arminians were found to be contrary to Scripture and were rejected.

But as an answer to these statements, our fathers, at the Great Synod of Dordrecht, set forth five doctrines which they considered to be the Scriptural and Confessional answer to the position of the Arminians. These doctrines have been put into the five Canons of Dordt and have become known as the five points of Calvinism. The very fact, however, that these doctrines were called the five points of Calvinism proves that our fathers at Dordrecht did not consider these doctrines to be original with them.

They were not, at that Synod, making any claims to developing doctrine. They consistently maintained the position that the Arminians had set forth doctrines which were contrary to the historic faith. And they, in answer to these Arminians, simply reiterated what had been the position of the Reformed Churches since the time of the Calvin Reformation.

In fact, our fathers at Dordrecht knew well that these truths set forth in the Canons could not only be traced back to the Calvin Reformation; they could be traced back to the theology of Saint Augustine who lived almost a millennium before Calvin did his work in Geneva. For it was Augustine who had originally defined these truths.

  1. Thus the Living Bible translates Acts 13. He was master of his own will and power…For a law would not be imposed upon one who did not have it in his power to render that obedience which is due to law.
  2. This of course would make sense if were only true that an unregenerate man was unable to believe the gospel. You can understand why this was necessary.
  3. He chose to cast his lot with Satan who tempted him.
  4. This is why all the human race's sin culminates at last in that man of sin, the Son of Perdition, Antichrist.

Calvin himself, again and again, pays tribute to the work of Augustine and points out that what he is saying has been said before him by the Bishop of Hippo. The Synod of Dordrecht was conscious of this. This is worthy of note because we ought to understand that the truth of total depravity, with which this speech has to do, is not a novel doctrine.

It has a long and illustrious history. It has been the confession of the church since the Fifth Century after Christ. The fathers at Dordrecht, after they had formulated these truths, made a note of this in the conclusion of the Canons where this statement appears: This doctrine the Synod judges to be drawn from the Word of God, and to be agreeable to the Confessions of the Reformed Churches.

Now all this means that the truth of total depravity which has been confessed for a long time in the church of Jesus Christ has been part of the confession of the church because the church has always believed that this truth is founded upon the Word of God. This bears special emphasis. So often it happens that those who have serious qualifications about the truth of total depravity make these qualifications, not on the basis of the Word of God but on the basis of personal observation.

They look about them at their fellow men and they notice in their observations that they find apparently a great deal of good which men succeed in accomplishing apart from the power of sovereign grace.

And on the basis of these observations, they come to certain conclusions which, in effect, deny the truth of total depravity. But this is incorrect. It must be emphasized that this truth must not be formulated on the basis of our own personal observations. Rather this truth must be set forth as Scripture itself sets it forth. In other words, we must bow before the sovereign infallible authority of Scripture.

We must listen to God's sentence which He pronounces upon men and upon us. We must listen to what God has to say concerning our depravity. And only when we listen to what God has to say, shall we discover the truth concerning mankind in general and ourselves in particular. There are three subjects which we must notice in our consideration of Total Depravity: Before we enter into a discussion of the meaning of depravity as it is set forth in Scripture, it is important to survey briefly the history of this doctrine from the time of Augustine to the time of the Synod of Dordt.

This history perhaps holds for us some surprises. The occasion for Augustine's formulation of the truth of total depravity was the teaching of a certain Pelagius who appeared in Rome in the early part of the Fifth Century. He began to teach views which were totally at variance with Scripture. He taught that every child which is born into the world is born good, without any sin.

In fact he insisted that every child was as good as Adam when he came forth from the hands of his Creator and before he ate of the forbidden tree.

If you would ask Pelagius: In fact there have been in the history of the world men who have lived their entire lives without sinning at all. But some people sin.


And they sin because of the fact that they pick up from their fellow men bad habits. Sin therefore, in the view of Pelagius, is a habit. And as is true of any habit, the more a particular sin is committed, the stronger also the habit becomes. The more a man is guilty of one particular type of sin, the more deeply this habit becomes rooted in his nature.

Nevertheless, sin always remains nothing more than a habit. And inasmuch as sin is only a habit, the solution to the problem of sin lies in the breaking of the habit.

There is no need, Pelagius insisted, for salvation. There is no need for grace; much less for sovereign grace. All that a man has to do if he wants to break the habit of sin is have a firm enough resolve. By a choice of his own will he will presently succeed. Augustine raised a long and loud protest against these anti-Scriptural views.

Augustine himself knew better. And he knew better, on the one hand, because he had in his own life experienced something quite different. In his early life Augustine was very evil, even immoral. He had committed many grievous sins. He had learned from his own personal experience that sin was more than a mere habit.

It was a vicious, destructive, and powerful force in man's very nature. And he had learned too, by the grace and mercy of God which he never ceased to extol, that the only possibility of deliverance from sin was through the power of sovereign grace. And so, on the other hand, he found these truths set forth in Scripture. He insisted that while indeed Adam was created by God in a state of perfect righteousness, nevertheless the fall brought such consequences upon Adam and upon his posterity that man became totally incapable of doing any good at all - of any kind.

Augustine was so insistent on this point that he included in his condemnation the apparent good deeds of heathen men - of heathen philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Cicero.

He claimed that these deeds were not good in any sense of the word; that they were a perversion and corruption of the good; that the only power of doing good was to be found in the power of sovereign grace. Now the views of Augustine did not prevail in the church of his time, except among a few. But there arose instead in the church a view which became known as Semi-pelagianism.

The men who held these views did not want to go to the ridiculous and absurd extremes of Pelagius himself. And yet, at the same time, they did not want the system of Augustine either. They attempted a compromise.

  • Those views come straight out of Gnosticism;
  • Contrary to modern evangelicalism, the Bible teaches that the penalty for sin spiritual death, etc;
  • This distinction therefore is intended precisely to leave room for some good which man is able to perform.

And as is true of all compromises, they only invented a new heresy. They taught that it is indeed true that a man who is born into the world is not good. He does not stand in the state in which Adam stood in Paradise before the fall. But while they insisted on that, they nevertheless also insisted on the fact that man was not totally depraved.

  1. And only when we listen to what God has to say, shall we discover the truth concerning mankind in general and ourselves in particular. What follows is a summary of the biblical teaching regarding the state of fallen, unregenerate man.
  2. Therefore, Calvinists sometimes refer to Total Depravity as "Total Inability" which implies man is totally unable to believe the gospel message. God never claimed such love as his own.
  3. Calvinists also do not like to be accused of believing in Fatalism which by definition is "the philosophical doctrine holding that all events are predestined to happen and that human beings cannot therefore change their destinies" even though they themselves believe that all events are predestined to happen and that human beings cannot therefore change their destinies. Since the Bible teaches that the fall has rendered man incapable of believing in Christ and repenting, the idea that God looked through time and chose those who first chose him is absurd and impossible.
  4. He does not stand in the state in which Adam stood in Paradise before the fall. Calvinists often charge others of misrepresenting their beliefs.
  5. Since Christ did not die for everyone, then those for whom he did not die must and will go to hell and there is nothing they can do about it since God did not elect and predestine them for salvation. That was Adam's desire.

They said he was sick. And indeed, while the kind of sickness which he had was a fatal sickness, so that if this sickness was not cured, presently it would result in death, nevertheless, in this period of sickness man was capable of accomplishing a great deal of good. Particularly, he was capable, by an exercise of his own will, to summon to his aid the Great Physician to come with the balm of healing grace to save him from his fatal disease.

God on His part, said the Semi-pelagians, has prepared salvation for all men. He has prepared the cure for this malady which afflicts mankind. And God is also prepared to give this healing balm to all men. In fact, God even goes one step farther than this, and offers this balm to all men to be accepted or rejected by them.

But beyond that, the Semi-pelagians insisted, God will not go. That healing balm will ultimately be applied to man to cure his malady if man himself wants it. The whole matter of his cure therefore, of his salvation, turns upon the choice of his own will.

If this position of the Semi-pelagians sounds somewhat familiar to you and appears to you to be characteristic of much of modern day preaching, be assured of the fact that it is indeed an ancient heresy. This whole system of Semi-pelagianism became the foundation for the doctrine of Roman Catholic work-righteousness. The whole imposing structure of Romish work-righteousness was founded foursquare upon this modification of Pelagianism.

It was not until the time of the Protestant Reformation that the truths which Augustine set forth were once more truths publicly proclaimed in the Church.

  • Since God elected who will be saved in a conversion event, then the Calvinist also concludes that God will make sure that person will be saved at the end of the age at the final judgment;
  • And God says that man is dead;
  • But Paul says just the opposite:

Martin Luther began this. In opposition to Roman Catholic work-righteousness he saw that the whole structure of Semi-pelagianism had to be torn away and that the firm foundation of total depravity had to be set forth once more. And he insisted that so complete is that total depravity that even the will of man itself is completely enslaved by sin.

He wrote a book about it. It is available today. It is called "The Bondage of the Will. It is not necessary to go into detail regarding the teaching of Calvin. Anyone who is at all acquainted with Calvin's writings especially in his "Institutes" knows that this truth of total depravity is taught or presupposed on almost every page. One quotation will suffice for our purpose. In it he demonstrates his dependence upon Augustine.