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WHOSOEVER WILL: Total depravity

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–In the well-publicized internal discussion among evangelical Christians concerning Calvinism, the fact that the biblical teaching of man’s hopeless depravity, however defined, is the doctrine that the world vociferously rejects is often overlooked.

However defined, depravity, in its self-sufficient arrogance, pictures man as fallen, rebellious toward God, and helpless in his ability to please God even in his noblest acts. Such a picture is alien to human confidence in antiquity, modernity, or post-modernity.

The witness of Scripture is uniform. “There is none righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10 HCSB). In fact, “there is none who understands.” Worse still and despite the intense religiousness of the world, “There is none who seeks after God” (Rom. 3:11). The litany of human deeds, provided in Romans 1:29-32 and buttressed by Paul’s description of the state of the natural man in Ephesians 2:1-12, move one to conclude that anyone outside of redemption in Christ has “no hope” and is “without God in the world.”

The condition of the human heart that renders a man in his natural state the enemy of God (Col. 1:21) suggests the impossibility of adequate reformation. Even when an individual prompted by some noble impulse seeks to please God by either moral conduct or religious exercise, his failure to please God is abject and doomed to rejection by a transcendent, holy God. Were it not for the gracious act of God in Christ, no one could ever be right with God. No one could be saved. No one could be forgiven. Because the human condition is sufficiently deplorable, discussions of the sinful state of man began to embrace the terminology of “total depravity.”

Most evangelicals would embrace this terminology if it means that man is depraved in all aspects of his being. The clearest human thinking is always both flawed and limited due to sin. Illness, age, and ultimately physical death, regardless of the advances of medicine, are still inevitable. When it comes to matters of the Spirit, the deleterious effects of depravity register themselves alarmingly in the best of men. Even if no one is as bad as he might be, the fact that no one can be described as “good” is the verdict of the Judge of the universe.

In this helpless estate, can a man seek God? Can he feel sorrow for his sin, repent, and by faith seek God under the impulse of his soul?

The biblical answer seems uniformly to reject such a notion. No man seeks God. Jesus said, “No one comes to me unless my father draws him” (John 6:44). The Holy Spirit convicts a man “of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment” (John 16:8), which is necessitated by the fact that all men are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). But the Scriptures also hold men responsible and everywhere call them to repentance, even promising that whosoever will may come (Acts 3:19; John 3:16-18).

The question arises: How can a just God acting under the aegis of His own definition of justice require the dead to raise himself to life when such is clearly impossible?

Many Calvinists (though not all) argue that regeneration precedes repentance and faith. But this position seems necessitated by human logic rather than the teaching of Scripture. To be sure, salvation is the act of God from beginning to end so that our redemption is by grace alone, the act of a sovereign God.

Robert Picirilli speaks of an act of pre-regenerating grace as specified by the case of Lydia in Acts 16:14, where God “opens her heart,” or in the case of Paul on the Damascus Road. A just and righteous God works through the proclamation of His word to call the dead, who respond by repentance and faith, to the call of God just as Lazarus though dead came forth when summoned by the Master (John 11:43-44).

But can the dead do this?

Calvinists often press the analogy of “deadness” in ways that the Scriptures do not. The spiritually “dead” are actually quite active since those who are “dead in trespasses and sins” are “walking according to the course of this world” (Eph. 2:1-3). The Spirit of God issues a call to salvation to all men because “God is not willing that any should perish” (2 Peter 3:9). Those who hear and respond, repent and believe the Gospel — and they are regenerated simultaneously.

A wonderful example of this principle operative in the physical realm is recorded in Romans 4:16-22. Promised by God that he would be the father of many nations and that all the world would be blessed through him, Abraham grew old as did Sarah, his wife. Having tried to resolve the issue by his own devices through the concubine Hagar, an experiment that failed and caused more sorrow, Abraham determined to act by faith:

“This is why the promise is by faith, so that it may be according to grace, to guarantee it to all the descendants — not only to those who are of the law, but also to those who are of Abraham’s faith. He is the father of us all in God’s sight. As it is written: I have made you the father of many nations. He believed in God, who gives life to the dead and calls things into existence that do not exist. Against hope, with hope he believed, so that he became the father of many nations, according to what had been spoken: So will your descendants be. He considered his own body to be already dead (since he was about a hundred years old), and the deadness of Sarah’s womb, without weakening in the faith. He did not waver in unbelief at God’s promise, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, because he was fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform. Therefore, it was credited to him for righteousness” (Rom. 4:16-22, HCSB).

Depravity renders man hopeless and helpless. But the witness of the Spirit enables that hopelessly and helplessly depraved individual to hear the call of God to salvation resulting in the invitation extended to whosoever will.

“Both the Spirit and the bride say, Come! Anyone who hears should say, Come! And the one who is thirsty should come. Whoever desires should take the living water as a gift” (Rev. 22:17).
Paige Patterson is president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

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  • Paige Patterson