The Total Inability of Man


Recall from the last post summarizing the historical developments of Calvinism that the 5 points of Arminianism were compared with the 5 points of Calvinism.  The first of these points is Free Will/Human Ability vs. Total Inability/Total Depravity.  A summary of the differences[1] is below:

Free Will or Human Ability
Although human nature was seriously affected by the fall, man has not been left in a state of total spiritual helplessness. God graciously enables every sinner to repent and believe, but He does not interfere with man’s freedom. Each sinner possesses a free will, and his eternal destiny depends on how he uses it. Man’s freedom consists of his ability to choose good over evil in spiritual matters; his will is not enslaved to his sinful nature. The sinner has the power to either cooperate with God’s Spirit and be regenerated or resist God’s grace and perish. The lost sinner needs the Spirit’s assistance, but he does not have to be regenerated by the Spirit before he can believe, for faith is man’s act and precedes the new birth. Faith is the sinner’s gift to God; it is man’s contribution to salvation.
Total Inability or Total Depravity
Because of the fall, man is unable of himself to savingly believe the gospel. The sinner is dead, blind, and deaf to the things of God; his heart is deceitful and desperately corrupt. His will is not free, it is in bondage to his evil nature, therefore, he will not — indeed he cannot — choose good over evil in the spiritual realm. Consequently, it takes much more than the Spirit’s assistance to bring a sinner to Christ — it takes regeneration by which the Spirit makes the sinner alive and gives him a new nature. Faith is not something man contributes to salvation but is itself a part of God’s gift of salvation— it is God’s gift to the sinner, not the sinner’s gift to God.

I’ve highlighted some of the important distinctions from the views above.  Fundamentally, the difference comes down to this, both sides agree that God’s grace is necessary in salvation; however, the Arminian view requires that man add to God’s grace by their own faith.  In other words, God provides the grace necessary for salvation universally and indiscriminately to all, but the final decision rests upon them to come to Him in repentance and faith.  The ultimate determination of salvation rests with man.  Therefore, the Arminian view neglects to properly weigh man’s sinful condition, the extent of their sin nature, and the bondage of their will toward sin and pleasures of the flesh.

Conversely, the Calvinists too recognizes that God’s grace is necessary, but that apart from God’s “irresistible grace” to change the heart of the sinner from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh, i.e. regeneration (born again), the sinner will never choose God on his/her own, indeed they cannot because they are dead in sin and although they are not as depraved as they could be, their depravity certainly causes their inability to believe.  Therefore, in this view, God’s grace must overcome the inability of the sinner and enable them to repent and believe through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit.  The ultimate determination of salvation rests with God.

Both sides in this debate will appeal to Scripture and both sides have some legitimately difficult verses for the other side to reconcile.  So it is the responsibility of the reader to examine what the Scriptures say and allow the Holy Spirit to illumine their mind as to the truth of what God’s Word says.  It could be that starting with those verses that the Arminians/Free Will’s champion would be an appropriate starting point.  However, the better place to start will be what God has to say about the human condition and how it relates to Him and then move out from there to conclude whether man is able or unable to come to God by his own free will.  Likewise, it will serve us better from a biblical standpoint and allow us to understand those passages which support Arminianism.

There are 4 primary passages in the New Testament that I’d like to examine.  Of course there are numerous others, in both in the Old and New Testaments, but these are familiar.  First up is Romans 3:9-19:

What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written:

None is righteous, no, not one;
11     no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
13 “Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
14    “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16     in their paths are ruin and misery,
17 and the way of peace they have not known.”
18     “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

This passage is the apex of the Apostle Paul’s argument for the condemnation of both Jew and Gentile under the wrath and condemnation of God.  Both have violated God’s law and both deserve God’s judgment.  In reaching this conclusion, Paul draws from several Old Testament passages to form one, single, consistent and logical idea, that there are none who seek God.  His quotation of OT sources proves that Paul is not the inventor of total depravity, but that instead it is a pervasive biblical theme.  As much as one would like to design a church using a “seeker-sensitive” model, there simply are no seekers.  Jesus states clearly in John 6:44 that “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”  Notice what the Apostle is saying from our Romans passage above: None is righteous, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God; all have turned aside; no one does good, not even one.  Their throats, tongues, lips, mouths, feet, and purposes are condemned.  No peace, No fear of God.  The question must simply be posed, based on this passage does man have any ability within himself to choose God?  If God’s grace is universally and indiscriminately given to all, then based on this passage which of those men would ever seek out God?  Which of those men understand God enough to desire Him and make Him the object of their ultimate affections?  Who among them fears God enough to choose to follow Him, abandoning self and the world and turning from sin to Christ?

The next passage is also from Romans:

For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Romans 8:6-8

Within the Apostle Paul’s argument here of the flesh vs. the spirit, we glean insight into our discussion concerning the inability of man.  We have already seen the condemnation against all men, that none seek God, indeed none understand.  Here, we read that natural man, those who are in the flesh, i.e. those who are unbelievers, are hostile to God and do not submit to God’s law.  One might ask, if those who are in the flesh are hostile to God, yet God has extended His grace universally to all, then what causes the sinner to overcome their own hostility to God?  A simple change in attitude toward God one day on a whim? As if this were not enough, Paul extends his condemnation by saying that those in the flesh do not submit to God’s law, indeed they cannot.  Totally unable to submit to God’s law.  How then does one overcome this inability?  By free will?

Based on just the two passages we have seen so far, the will is bound and the evidence is that no one seeks God, no one in the flesh submits to God’s law and in fact can’t.  Finally, Paul says those in the flesh cannot please God.  Certainly coming to faith in Christ would be deemed pleasing to God, yet the condemnation from Paul is all-inclusive and leaves man in a sinful, helpless, quagmire of sinking sand unable to choose God, simply because he does not desire to do so, indeed he cannot.

For the third evidence of man’s condition, we turn to 1 Corinthians 2:14:

14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

In this passage we find another explicit example of man’s inability as it pertains to spiritual things.  The Apostle Paul again concludes that the natural man, that is man in his natural, unregenerate state, is simply unable to understand the things of God, because they are spiritually discerned.  He is emphatically stating once again that man not only doesn’t choose God, or doesn’t choose to delight in spiritual things, but that he is unable to do so, even unable to understand them.  If the Arminian view is correct, that God has bestowed and lavished His grace upon all men freely and indiscriminately, then those men in their natural condition should be able to be handed God’s Word and understand the things that are written in it.  Only Paul contradicts that notion and says no, they are not able to understand spiritual things.  It requires spiritual discernment and that comes only by the indwelling Spirit, as a result of the regenerating work of the Spirit.

Finally, the common view of man, at least from the Arminian perspective, is that man is sick in need of medicine.  God’s free grace is that medicine given to him enabling him to be well and now it is up to man whether he, working with the assistance of the physician, would rise up out of the hospital bed and walk.  The problem is that Scripture does not view man’s spiritual condition as a sickness.  It views man as spiritually dead.  Note our final passage from Ephesians 2:1-10 below:

“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. 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, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

It is clear from this passage than man is not simply well (as Pelagians say), man is not merely sick (as semi-Pelagians and Arminians say), but man is born dead in trespasses and sins.  Therefore, man is not morally neutral, nor is he in a position to simply cooperate with the physician, but is in need of resurrection.  God doesn’t visit the hospital bed and apply the medicine, He visits the morgue and performs a heart transplant.  He then doesn’t say whosoever will, He says “Lazarus come forth!”

All the whosoever’s of the Bible must be viewed in light of the spiritual condition of man.  We must understand that God views man not merely as sick, but as spiritually dead.  We must come to understand that our sinful condition is far more dire than simply being able to choose out of our own natural volition to follow God.  Scripture is clear about our inability to do so.  It must be remembered that the “whosoever believes” of John 3:16 follows the “you must be born again” of John 3:3; 3:5; 3:7.  The “whosoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” from Romans 10:13 follows after the passages that we just listed above; the condemnation of man from the first three chapters of Romans, the inability of man described in chapter 8, and even the sovereign purposes of God from Romans 8-9 that we will examine in a subsequent post.

In all these things the sinner is in great need of the grace of God, not to be improved upon by their own faith, but to utterly and completely save them and draw them out of the pit, severing the bondage of the will with sin an enabling the sinner through the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit to believe in Christ by grace alone.  His grace is sufficient and we should be cautious to either state, assume, or believe otherwise.

IT IS: But for the grace of God go I; NOT: I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.


Sola gratia.

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Christian saved by grace through faith.


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