The Flower of Calvinism
Among many who have a Reformed heritage, the flower of Calvinism–the TULIP–is wilting. In examining each of the doctrines of Calvinism more closely we will follow the usual order of the acrostic “T U L I P”:
- Total Depravity
- Unconditional Election
- Limited Atonement
- Irresistible Grace
- Perseverance of the Saints
The Canons of Dort were written in a different order from what we will study since its authors answered the Arminian Remonstrance in the same order in which it was presented to them.
The doctrine of total depravity is the first of the Five Points of Calvinism that we will study. We might also call this the doctrine of total inability. Since this doctrine is very foundational to all the rest, we should first summarize the Arminian position so we can more clearly contrast it with the doctrines of Scripture as set forth in the Canons of Dort.
Free Will of Arminianism
The Arminian doctrine states that, although human nature was seriously affected by the Fall, man has not been left in a state of total sinfulness and inability. God graciously enables every sinner to repent and believe, but he does so in such a manner as not to interfere with man’s supposed freedom. Thus, they are able to speak about the need for “grace,” but it is not total or sovereign grace. God cannot give it unless man has decided to accept it by his own free will. Salvation is by grace as far as its provision is concerned, but not as far as its application is concerned. It is this latter teaching which we reject as unbiblical.
They contend that man has a free will, and his eternal destiny depends on how he uses it. Arminianism contends that man’s freedom consists in his ability to choose good over evil in spiritual matters; his will is not enslaved along with his sinful nature. The will of man was not totally corrupted by the Fall. The sinner has the power either to cooperate with God’s Holy Spirit and be regenerated or resist God’s gracious attempts and perish. The lost sinner needs the Spirit’s assistance, but he does not have to be regenerated by the Holy Spirit before he can believe. Arminians say that faith is man’s act and it precedes the new birth. After faith comes, man receives the gift of the Holy Spirit. Hence you may hear the description that a person is a “born again Christian” (when in fact, there are no Christians who are not born again). Faith, in their estimation, is a gift we give to God; it is man’s contribution to his salvation.
We are able to observe the consequences of this doctrine when we see the Arminian as he engages in mission work. Much of the emphasis in that work is directed at the proper methodologies that will cause man to change his mind and believe. This may often be done to the exclusion of or at the expense of biblical doctrines. Many of the methods that we observe center around a variety of entertainment, logical and emotional appeals, and sensationalism that are designed to convince the sinner to repent and believe. It would be their claim that if we could just get a person in a room and have enough time, he would eventually break down and become a believer.
In Arminianism there is no actual admission that the will of man is enslaved by nature to serve the Devil. Yet the Scriptures say that man’s will is unable by itself to choose Christ. “Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:7, 8 emphasis mine). The word “flesh” here does not refer to the physical body, but the sinful nature which we inherit from Adam, as opposed to the “spiritual” nature which we are given by the Holy Spirit of God (cf. Rom. 8:1).
It is the Arminian position that sin has “hurt” man’s original state badly, but the will of man has escaped this total sinful corruption. So, within man there is a strange mixture of good and evil, each with an equal opportunity to win out. Hence, we hear the expression even in reference to the unregenerate person, “There’s a little bit of good in everyone.” They interpret Romans 7:16ff., not as the life of a believer (as Paul was when he wrote this), but as the life of someone struggling to become a believer. Man, then, is not dead in sin (Eph. 2:1ff.), but he is just very sick–sick unto death, but not dead in sin. They claim that man still has the ears to hear and the eyes to see, despite what the Scriptures say.
We should add here that man does indeed have a will after the Fall. He is still a free moral agent; able to make choices in his life. The problem is not an absence of a will, but the total depravity of the will which makes it prone to all evil in all things. Man’s will always chooses to serve himself and not God until he receives the Holy Spirit. “He is prone to hate God and his neighbor.” (Heidelberg Catechism Q. 5) What may appear to be a good work in man’s eyes, is not a good work in God’s eyes unless it proceeds out of true faith, is performed according to the Law of God, and is done for the glory of God (Heidelberg Catechism Q. 91).
Blog post content is taken from Rev. Paul Treick’s book, Faith of Our Fathers, Living Still: A Study of the Five Points of Calvinism, available for purchase. It is posted with the gracious permission of the author.
If you’d like to read the blog series from the beginning, start here.