The Depraved and the Diminished

How rotten is the human spirit? How vile are we as a whole and individually? The battle of the flowers find’s its first conflict here on this point…

As noted briefly last week, the matter of depravity comes down to the Calvinist view of “Total Depravity” while the Arminianist rather holds to the notion of “Diminished Depravity.” The former declares that humanity is so stained by the dark consequences of the Fall (Genesis 3) that they are utterly incapable of being holy and righteous on their own, being driven headlong toward unalterable sin and evil. The later however holds that, though mankind is indeed sinful, indeed depraved and incapable of being righteous on their own merits, they are not so far gone that they can’t accept Christ’s offer of salvation through the application of God’s prevenient grace, enabling – but not forcing – sinful man to believe.

What’s the truth of the matter? Is man so fallen that they cannot – on their own, in some capacity – understand the reality of God and choose His ways over the evil of the heart? It’s a vexing issue, to be sure, but one that isn’t without common ground amongst the two sides. As Roger Olson wrote,

“Arminians together with Calvinists affirm total depravity because of the fall of humanity in Adam and its inherited consequence of a corrupted nature in bondage to sin. A common myth about Arminianism is that it promotes an optimistic anthropology.””¹

Another commentator, Charles Ryrie (a Calvinist, mind you) wrote:

“Because of the effects of the fall, that original relationship of fellowship with God was broken and man’s entire nature was polluted. As a result no one can do anything, even good things, that can gain soteriological merit in God’s sight. Therefore, we may concisely define total depravity as the unmeritoriousness of man before God because of the corruption of original sin. The concept of total depravity does not mean (1) that depraved people cannot or do not perform actions that are good in either man’s or God’s sight. But no such action can gain favor with God for salvation. Neither does it mean (2) that fallen man has no conscience which judges between good and evil for him. But that conscience has been affected by the fall so that it cannot be a safe and reliable guide. Neither does it mean (3) that people indulge in every form of sin or in any sin to the greatest extent possible. Positively, total depravity means that the corruption has extended to all aspects of man’s nature, to his entire being; and total depravity means that because of that corruption there is nothing man can do to merit saving favor with God.”²

In other words, what these commentators are saying is that both sides of the argument see mankind as utterly condemned by the bondage of sin – born all the way back in the Garden of Eden. Though all exist under the weight of this dark burden, man is still capable of making moral decisions, and even acting within reasonable limits of the laws of society and the tenets of conscience, though in no case to the end of enabling one’s own salvation through their own actions. The total depravity of man – according to these commentators – is such that every aspect of man’s existence has been impacted by original sin, even though their general behavior and being may otherwise exhibit what we would say is “goodness” to us.

As David Watson put it, “…apart from the saving work of Christ, we will desire the wrong things and see the world in the wrong way… Apart from God, we are powerless to overcome the corruption of our nature.”

You see, the real crux of the issue though is the same old matter that often – and boldly – underscores the difference between the two sides: free will. Yes, man is fallen. Yes, we carry the stain of sin upon us from our kind’s advent in Eden. Yes, we have a predilection to evil and sin and all manner of ungodliness, but the question at hand is to what extent are we individually bound to that sin and the fate that follows it!? Are we, as the Calvinist claims, locked in so tightly that we cannot escape, relying only on God to open the eyes of a few and limited “elect” to an irresistible salvation? Or, conversely, in that fallen and depraved state, does our good Lord extend to us a enabling grace by which we are able to decide on a better path, to choose in faith – as a small child reaching up toward the outspread arms of his father – a better way?

The matter, you see, comes down to how much freedom we have in extricating ourselves from our fallen state. Are a select few forced from it, or are all given the opportunity through grace to accept freedom from the bondage of sin?
Arminius himself wrote on the matter with these words:

“THIS is my opinion concerning the free-will of man: In his primitive condition as he came out of the hands of his creator, man was endowed with such a portion of knowledge, holiness and power, as enabled him to understand, esteem, consider, will, and to perform the true good, according to the commandment delivered to him. Yet none of these acts could he do, except through the assistance of Divine Grace. But in his lapsed and sinful state, man is not capable, of and by himself, either to think, to will, or to do that which is really good; but it is necessary for him to be regenerated and renewed in his intellect, affections or will, and in all his powers, by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that he may be qualified rightly to understand, esteem, consider, will, and perform whatever is truly good. When he is made a partaker of this regeneration or renovation, I consider that, since he is delivered from sin, he is capable of thinking, willing and doing that which is good, but yet not without the continued aids of Divine Grace.” ³

Free will cannot be overlooked, no matter how thoroughly the Calvinist seeks to remove it. Going all the way back to our earliest ancestors, to Adam and Eve themselves, we find that it must have been in action even there in Eden, for why else would God give them commandments to obey and then punish them for their disobedience? Did God will them to disobey? Surely not! For their choice, this reality as a whole yet groans under the bondage of sin! Their choice – their free will – necessitated the cross!

Choice is found all through the Scriptures, from Genesis to Revelation.

In the Torah, amongst the Mosaic Laws, we have clear guidelines for specific votive, or free will, offerings, to be given – among other things – as a voluntary act of worship. That seems to indicate a matter of choice to some extent.

Looking quickly to the New Testament, we find in Acts 17 (verses 29 – 31) a clear instance of choice:

“Then he called for a light, and sprang in, and came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas, And brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved? And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.”

Believe! The Word doesn’t tell us that Paul told the jailer to wait and see if he was among the “elect!” He told him to believe!

Jumping to the end, in Revelation 3, in the Letter to Laodicea, we find this familiar passage whereby Christ addresses the individual among this unfaithful church:

“Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.”

He’s knocking on the door of this church (outside the church, one might note), extending mercy and salvation to the individual that hears His call and opens the door to Him. Does that not seem to imply that the individual, hearing the beckon of the Lord, has the choice as to whether or not to open the door? The matter seems quite clear indeed to me.
Dave Hunt once summed the matter up wonderfully, if a bit sharply. He said:

“If Calvinism is true, God mocks the vast majority of mankind. He calls, “Come unto me,” to those who can’t respond because He doesn’t cause them to come. Yet He will send them to the Lake of Fire for not coming, even though He could have caused them to come! The literally hundreds of times in the Bible that God calls men to repent and weeps over Israel through His prophets are a further mockery. And He damns forever in the Lake of Fire for not believing the gospel those who can’t believe unless He regenerates them and gives them the faith- and yet He refuses to do so? This is not the “God” in whom I believe.”

I ask you, friend, which flower seems to point to a good and loving God: The Tulip? Or the Daisy?


  1. Olson, R., Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (2006: InterVarsity Press), pp.55-6
  2. Ryrie, C., Entry for ‘Depravity, Total,’ in Walter A. Elwell, Editor, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (2001: Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, 2nd Edition), p. 337
  3. Arminius, J., Complete Works of Arminius, Volume 1, Public Disputations of Arminius, Declaration of the Sentiments, 5:3

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