Doctrines of Grace: Total depravity and unconditional election

Today I’m beginning a new series of articles on what are commonly known as the Doctrines of Grace. These doctrines are the foundation of Calvinism, but I am sometimes reluctant to refer to ‘Calvinism’ because I do not want to reinforce the idea that Reformed theology is the work of one man. Indeed, these ideas formulated systematically by Calvin, the Reformers and the Westminster Divines can be traced back to the church father Augustine and ultimately, I aim to show, their proof lies in the Holy Scriptures. The five points, also known by the acronym TULIP, are as follows:

  1. Total depravity
  2. Unconditional election
  3. Limited atonement
  4. Irresistible grace
  5. Perseverance of the saints

In this post, I will endeavour to cover total depravity and unconditional election. This first point should by no means be controversial: Christians in all periods of history have accepted original sin. There are some with a broad church mentality who perceive humans to be inherently good, but I believe this is due to a misconception. Scripture is clear that ‘there is none who does good, not even one’ (Psalm 14:3)  and ‘we have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment’ (Isaiah 64:6). Total depravity means that sin permeates every part of our mind, soul and flesh, affecting everything we think and do. It does not mean that we are all absolutely evil, and we are still capable of performing outwardly righteous deeds because we are made in God’s image despite our fallen state. What it does mean is that – outside of a relationship with God – everything we do, whether outwardly good or bad, is inwardly out of rebellion against God, not to his glory. Hence, such deeds are a polluted garment, tainted by sinfulness.  The only way for us to be acceptable to God is through our intercessor, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Calvinism and its opponent Arminianism both teach total depravity (according to what is said in the gospel), that only divine grace (by the internal work of the Holy Spirit) can enable man to truly do good. However, Arminianism is self-defeating because its nominal position on man’s total depravity is contradicted by its other arguments. Notably, Arminianism teaches that salvation is conditional on human choice – but if a person can only do good by divine grace, how can this act be conditional on totally depraved human will?

Arminianism is human-centred rather than God-centred. It skirts around the issue of election by teaching that God elects based on foreknowledge of who will believe (belief being the condition for salvation). While it is true, also under Calvinism, that God does indeed foreknow who will believe, it must be acknowledged that – because of total depravity – he is the one who has given them belief in the first place! Can one who is dead to sin freely accept God’s call any more than a corpse can take hold of a lifeline? John 1:13 teaches that those who are born again are ‘born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God’. To preach that God elects according to foreknowledge and not according to his eternal unsearchable will denies the sovereignty of God. Those who receive God by faith past, present and future have been elected by God to do so before creation and predestined to salvation:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1:3-6)

So why does Arminianism get itself in a twist over election and foreknowledge, why does it make itself human-centred when it acknowledges humans are depraved? The answer seems to be that it is the only way to avoid double predestination, which for many Christians is understandably awkward (seen from a human perspective) and has led some to react to Calvinism with disgust. Double predestination (I exhort you to contain your initial reaction) teaches that God actively predestines some to salvation and foreordains others to hell. Without denying God’s sovereignty over creation, unless we instead deny the extent of human sinfulness, we cannot escape double predestination.  This idea is fully biblical:

As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is moulded say to its moulder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honourable use and another for dishonourable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory. (Romans 9:13-23)

This passage distinguishes between Jacob, who represents the elect, and Esau, who represents the reprobate. God’s hate for Esau is not malicious in terms of human hate, but it does mean that – regardless of the common love between Creator and creature – he is given over to his sinful desires. God is just to elect some and not others, since he is not obliged to elect anyone who acts contrary to his moral will. Double predestination only becomes distasteful if we view God as the author of sin. God is not the author of sin. He does not force people to sin or create them explicitly in order to sin, but he does harden those who are already in sin and allows them to be so in order to bring about his ultimate purpose. God changes the will of those whom he chooses and passes over others so that they will face the consequences of their own actions. How can we bring a case against God if we ourselves reject him and choose hell? Hell is a place where God is absent; if we remain cut off from God, he gives us exactly what we desire – his absence. There is no evil in double predestination, but there is great mercy that even a single person might be predestined to salvation.

There were no conditions when God determined his elect before creation, only a gift of grace which is being realised in many every day according to God’s timing. It isn’t too late until we have breathed our last. If you, reader, feel offended at this article or if you worry that you are foreordained to hell, why are you concerned? Take the offer of salvation and if you believe, the Father has drawn you and you can therefore be assured of your salvation. Double predestination is not an excuse to hate or condemn others – we should never tell people they are going to hell, since we cannot discern God’s purpose – but we must extend salvation to all in the hope that all will accept it even if many will not.

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2 Responses to Doctrines of Grace: Total depravity and unconditional election

  1. I put it to you, Sir, that you are more than adequately versed in the sin of onan.

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