The doctrine of total depravity is probably one of the less-frequently disputed of the five points of Calvinism, but it is certainly not understood or agreed to by everyone. I was reminded of this recently at a Bible conference in which the speaker (a Godly man whom I have a great deal of respect for) made it clear what he thought of this doctrine. In particular, he raised two objections that he believed refuted the idea that human nature is totally depraved:
1) Even unbelievers are made in the image of God.
2) Even unbelievers do many good things, like showing genuine, unselfish love for their families, sometimes even better than most believers.
Of course, those who have more than a surface-level familiarity with Calvinism will realize that this was a bit of a misrepresentation: The Calvinistic idea of total depravity most certainly does not deny that unbelievers are made in the image of God or that they can and usually do love their families. Nevertheless, these objections still raise an important and interesting issue which is perhaps not often enough thought through by many on either side of the Calvinism debate. How do we explain the fact that unbelievers, who according to the Bible are sinful by nature, are still often rather “good” people, in the sense of doing things that we would all readily acknowledge as kind and generous and good?
The Bible certainly appears to recognize the fact that unbelievers can do “good” deeds and therefore be described as “good” people, at least in one very real sense of the word. This is implied in the following Scriptures, for example:
Deut. 5:28 - “They [the Israelites who left Egypt, the
majority of which turned out to be unbelievers] have done well in all that
they have spoken.”
Matt. 7:11 - “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children...”
Luke 6:33 - “If you do good to those who do good to you...even sinners do the same.”
Rom. 5:7 - “Perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die.”
Yet at the same time, it seems the Bible also unequivocally affirms that unbelievers cannot do “good” or be described as “good” after all:
Gen. 6:5 - “The Lord saw...that every intent of the thoughts of
[man’s] heart was only evil continually.”
Jer. 13:23 - “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good...”
Rom. 3:12 - “There is none that does good...”
Mark 10:18 - “No one is good except God alone.”
Rom. 7:18 - “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.”
Clearly, unless we believe the Bible is in gross contradiction with itself, we have to recognize that these latter Scriptures are using the word good in a different sense than the former Scriptures. Unbelievers can be “good” and do “good” in a sense, but it is not in the same sense in which God Himself is described as good, or in the same sense in which He views those of us who have been given new natures by being born again.
It is important to realize that this distinction in the ways the Bible uses the word good is not just a quantitative distinction, it is a qualitative distinction. In other words, it is a whole different sense of the word. Many Calvinist authors actually prefer to use the term radical instead of total when descibing human depravity, precisely to emphasize this fact that they are using a qualitative rather than a quantitative description of man’s lack of goodness. The point is, it is not that man’s depravity is simply a reduction of his amount of goodness to a lower level, or even to the lowest possible level so that he is as bad as he could possibly be. It is rather that his depravity is at the very core of his nature. It is a description of who man is by nature. Even his “good” deeds are marred by depravity and thus not truly “good” in the ultimate sense. In fact, man’s depravity is so radical that he is not even able to do good in this ultimate sense. Following are a few verses that help clarify what this means:
Rom. 8:7 - “The mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for
it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do
Rom. 14:23 - “Whatever is not from faith is sin.”
When an unbeliever does something “good,” while it may very well be from altruistic rather than purely selfish motives, it certainly isn’t from a true faith in God, or from a true desire to be subject to Him. Thus, the Bible can say that it is in ultimate reality a form of sin, even while being “good” from an abstract consideration of the deed itself. If the greatest commandment is to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30), then anything we do that is not at some core level an act of such love for God is fundamentally worthless. To put it another way, “if I give all my possessions to feed the poor..., but do not have love, it profits me nothing” (1 Cor. 13:3). It’s not that such righteous deeds simply aren’t enough to merit salvation; it’s that they don’t even count for anything whatsoever—they are “like a filthy garment” (Is. 64:6). In the ultimate sense, they don’t make us one whit “better” in God’s sight than if we hadn’t done them at all.
Of course, there is a reason this idea of radical (or total) depravity is so important in the Calvinistic understanding of election. The Calvinist understands that the depravity of man is of such an intrinsic character that it prevents him from doing anything whatsoever out of a true subjection of heart to the command of God. Even when man does something “good,” it is not out of true faith or obedience to Him. And we believe this is why Scripture implies (in our understanding of it) that man cannot obey the command of the Gospel to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ unless God steps in and gives him the faith to do so. Those who believe that faith is ultimately a matter of our own choice only, apart from God’s sovereignly imparting it to us, have not only misinterpreted various Scriptures that teach election (according to our understanding of them), they have also not really understood or accepted the truth of total depravity.
But we still haven’t answered the original question before us. Even granting the truth of total depravity and understanding that unbelieving man is fundamentally depraved in spite of his “good” deeds, how do we explain how it is that radically depraved man is able to do such deeds in the first place? The difficulty is brought out in the following Scriptures:
Matt. 7:18 - “A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a
bad tree produce good fruit.”
Matt. 12:34 - “You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure that which is evil.”
In these verses the Lord is clearly using the terms good tree and good man to refer to those who are truly good (i.e., have been born again with new natures), not to those who are simply “good” in the broader sense. His point is that good fruit cannot spring from a depraved nature. So how can a radically depraved nature produce fruit that can even be described as “good” in any true sense at all?
It seems to me that the implication of Scripture is that it can’t. When natural man does things that are “good,” he is not acting out of his own depraved nature, but rather God is sovereignly overriding his nature and producing the good deed in him in spite of his evil nature. This aspect of total depravity is admittedly not as clearly presented in Scripture as we might like, and is not interpreted in this same way by all who hold to the doctrine of total depravity itself. But I believe it is a logical inference and one that is at least hinted at in several passages:
Gen. 20:6 - “I [God] also kept you [Abimelech]
from sinning against Me...”
Ezra 7:27 - “Blessed be the Lord...who has put such a [good] thing as this in the the king’s heart...”
Ps. 16:2 - “My goodness is nothing apart from You.”
The tragedy is that natural man does not recognize this sovereign, silent work of God in his life. This is a big part of why he has such a hard time realizing that his “good deeds” are as worthless as filthy rags in God’s sight. He does not think of his “goodness” as springing from God, as David did, but rather imagines it to spring from his own nature. He does not realize that his conscience, which God uses to steer him into oftentimes doing good instead of evil according to Rom. 2:15, is a precious gift from God, but rather imagines that it was his own character or intelligence or will that kept him from doing evil on various occasions when he had the opportunity but refrained.
Scripture speaks of God “restraining” the “mystery of lawlessness” that is at work in this world (2 Thess. 2:7). We should not underestimate the value of this restraint! It makes the world a much nicer place to live in, not only for believers, but for unbelievers as well. It is a vital part of God’s kindness and goodness to all men, which ought to lead them to recognize it as such, and to be thankful for it and repent (Rom. 2:4). If God did not show this kindness to unbelievers, but instead gave them completely over to the depravity of their own evil natures (see Rom. 1:24, 26, 28), I believe they would not be capable of doing any “good” thing whatsoever (Rev. 22:11). They would be in a state of utter misery not unlike hell itself, “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thess. 1:9).
My intent in writing this defense of the doctrine of total depravity has not been to criticize or be argumentative, but rather to illustrate what I see as the positive value in this doctrine. In particular, I believe the primary importance of this doctrine is in that it leads to a richer understanding and appreciation of God’s marvelous grace. It is only when we recognize the radical depravity of mankind that we can also recognize the full value of God’s “common grace” (by which I mean His goodness to all men), not only in giving them rain and food and all manner of earthly blessings, but also in kindly restraining the evil of their natures and enabling them to do “good” things that are certainly a blessing to themselves and to those around them (though being worthless as far as salvation is concerned). And it is only when we recognize the radical depravity of mankind that we can also fully recognize the even more exceeding value of God’s “special grace” to His elect, in bestowing upon them a true faith in Him that simply cannot spring from their own depraved, fleshly natures. This is why I consider this doctrine not something to be disturbed over, but rather something to rejoice in. It is something we ought to thank and glorify the Lord for. And I believe anything that leads us to do that is well worth pondering and defending.
|||Some examples of this would be R. C. Sproul in his book Chosen by God (Tyndale House Publishers, 1986) and James Montgomery Boice and Philip Graham Ryken in their book The Doctrines of Grace (Crossway Books, 2002).|
|||The Hebrew for this verse is apparently very difficult to translate. This is the NKJV rendering. The old KJV does not seem meaningful to me.|
This page copyright © 2009 Edward A. Morris. Created March 11, 2009. Last updated March 13, 2009.
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