Thursday, September 16, 2021

How Depraved Can We Be?

That’s a good question.

Our society is clearly messed up. It can be sick enough to think that promiscuity is normal, debauchery is freedom, and that homosexuality is love. It can be twisted enough to call killing the elderly “dignity” and butchering infants in utero “choice”. Morally, things look pretty bad.

That’s what the dictionary definition of “depraved” is. It means “very morally bad”.

But how far does this go? Do people know they are choosing evil, or are they actually oblivious to the fact that they are doing anything wrong? Are they genuinely aware of what they are doing, or are they so messed up they can’t even figure out who they are anymore? Wicked they are, yes; we can see that. But is all this evidence of some kind of mental incapacitation?

And if so, is it unreasonable and arbitrary on our part — or more importantly on God’s part — to pronounce judgment upon them? In condemning them, are we condemning the unconscious for their inability to understand, the blind for their inability to see, and cripples for their inability to walk?

Just how damaged and incapable of reason are they?

Total Depravity

According to neo-Calvinists these days, the answer is “totally”. By that they mean that an unsaved person is so mentally messed up that he is totally incapable of perceiving anything at all about God. They quote lines like “dead in trespasses and sins”, and draw from them the conclusion that the unregenerate person is actually “dead” in a sort of ultimate sense: he or she cannot even begin to perceive the reality of God, the truths of morality or the existence of spiritual things. Like a corpse, he or she is totally insensate to all that.

Not only that, they say, but he or she is “depraved” in that his or her mental functions and values are that of a moral lunatic. There is zero chance that such a mentally ill specimen can make any good judgments on his or her own, or even perceive reality accurately.

This “total depravity”, then, is why they think that the unsaved person is incapable of understanding and receiving the offer of salvation, and hence, they say, God has to regenerate this depraved mind before salvation can even become practical: for them, regeneration precedes salvation. God renews the mind first, and then the person can respond to the offer of salvation. And if God chooses not to renew the mind, then the person in question simply cannot be saved.

So, they say, there is no offer of salvation to the lost — only to the “elect”, meaning those whom an arbitrary “God” arbitrarily chooses to regenerate and allow to be saved. To hell with everyone else: they can’t even potentially understand or accept the offer of salvation.

Depraved Theology

If you haven’t figured out that I think the neo-Calvinists are wrong about a whole lot of things, then you haven’t been reading my earlier posts. And I think they’re wrong about this as well. Maybe I can tell you why.

A main reason is this: there is a basic principle in common law; it’s that someone who is insane cannot be charged as guilty. If a man were sleepwalking and killed someone without knowing about it, or if he were drugged through no fault of his own and in that state committed a crime, or if it were the case of a child prior to the age of knowledge, or an insane person who was incapable of right judgment, then treatment or deliverance would certainly be warranted, but no criminal charges.

If you have no knowledge, you cannot be blamed. That simple principle, basic to common law and common sense as well as of scripture, means that a “totally depraved” person cannot be incriminated.

The Knowledge of Sin

And this principle of justice is upheld by the Ultimate Judge as well. He says that people who do not “see” cannot be held responsible:

“Those of the Pharisees who were with him heard these things and said to him, ‘We are not blind too, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, “We see”, your sin remains.’ ”

Likewise, consider the words he uttered on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

But what could this mean? The participants in his death did know, at least in part. They knew, at least, that he was an innocent man — Judas knew, and Pilate knew, and if he said he didn’t, then we could just ask Mrs. Pilate; then the crowd that yelled for his blood knew at least something of what they were doing, as did the thief on the cross. The watching centurion had pretty good insight, however belatedly.

So they DID “know”. Then why did Christ say, “they do not know”?

Of course, they could not possibly realize the full enormity of their crime, the murder of the Son of God, but all these had at least a partial measure of knowledge of what they were doing, if not a full grasp. To the extent of their “knowledge”, they were culpable. And to the extent that they acted in ignorance, Christ himself found reason to ask the Father for forgiveness for them. The measure of their ignorance was the measure of the extenuation of their conduct; the measure of their knowledge was the measure of their guilt.

So here’s the principle: according to scripture, one must have knowledge of sin before one has guilt for sin.

Knowledge of Sin Today

Now, we needn’t worry that today’s sinners don’t “see” enough to warrant their genuine guilt. In fact, the Bible explicitly says that they DO see. In fact, it says that God has MADE them able to see it:

“… that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.”

If there were no capability of knowledge, neither would there be any guilt. But the scriptures say that man in his sinful state “knows God”, and knows his responsibility to “honor him as God”. He just doesn’t want to do it. Having “understood” enough, and yet having willfully chosen to disregard it, man is truly “without excuse”.


It is true that there is such a thing as someone having a “depraved mind” as a result of sin. But the Bible says that if human beings are depraved it is their own fault, the result of a free choice to ignore what they know to be true about God:

“For even though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened … Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity … For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions … And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind …”

Rejection comes first, and the depravity comes after: it is a late stage of the process by which sinful man knowingly denies God and abandons the way of truth in favor of his own passions. It does not cause his rejection — sinful will is enough to produce that — rather it is a product of it. And because it is a product, they can and should be held responsible for their sinful choices and the ensuing depravity.

Literal Death

Now, the neo-Calvinists say that the reason we do not accept their definition of total depravity in verses like “and you were dead in your trespasses and sins” is because we aren’t taking the word of God literally, and we should.

The problem with that argument, though, is that Calvinism doesn’t consistently take “death” literally either. For example, they would readily concede that when Adam ate of the fruit of the tree he “died”; and yet he kept going places, and doing stuff, and even producing children for 930 years after this “death”. Not only that, it says right in Ephesians, in the next phrase, “in which you walked in time past”. So these “dead” people were “walking” around, having a whole way of life after “death”!

So when today’s proponents of Calvinism indict others as non-literalists about this, they’re just talking nonsense. Neo-Calvinists themselves don’t believe “death” is literal in such passages either: the real disagreement is over how to interpret what all sides recognize as a metaphor.

Dumping Depravity

Now, everywhere in the Bible we can find plenty of evidence that mankind is sinful. There’s even plenty of evidence that the effects of sinfulness are not just physical death but mental instability. But there is no teaching in scripture that warrants the doctrine of Total Depravity. Neo-Calvinists are just so earnest to deny the importance of human will that they’ve invented their own anti-scriptural and counterintuitive interpretation to support their stupefying doctrine of Divine Determinism.

And for them, this is a cornerstone of doctrine. If it is true, as I have been saying, that mankind knows what they are choosing, knows their sinfulness, and even knows God but willfully rejects him, then they are indeed “without excuse”; but if they do not know any of these things, then God can only condemn them by a sheer act of arbitrary choice. That is, God must send people to hell for nothing that can be blamed on them, and for no reason other than God capriciously decides to want them there. And that is exactly what they believe: mankind cannot respond to God, since they are spiritually dead and utterly depraved; and yet mankind (apart from “the elect”) is condemned anyway.

But God calls us to respond to his Son. He expects us to respond. And he rightfully calls us to account when we do not respond. What sense would this make if we could not respond?

A Parable

When I was in Grade 10, I had a classmate in music who was paralyzed from the waist down. His name was David. He was a good lad, and courageously participated in all school activities until he passed away prior to graduation as a result of physical complications. One day, though, we were in class, and the national anthem began to play. And Mike, one of my able-bodied classmates, suddenly turned to David and said, “Hey, David … stand up.”

Around him several people chuckled nervously. But what I remember today is the evil of that joke. To tell a crippled boy to stand up wasn’t witty; it was simply an act of cruel mockery. Mike’s indifference to David’s pain and his willingness to amuse others and aggrandize himself at David’s expense was a signal act of wickedness.

Would God ever act like that? Would he tell cripples they were responsible to walk? The neo-Calvinists seem to think so. And I don’t think their conviction does them any more credit than Mike’s sarcasm did him.


No response-ability means no responsibility: anyone sufficiently “depraved” that he or she cannot understand morally what he or she is doing cannot be blamed for it either.

Neo-Calvinists do not believe this. They say that being “totally depraved” and having no potential for responding to the gospel, mankind cannot help being what it is. Though they recognize that this would seem to excuse wickedness, they deny that it does, and reinforce this by making God out to be arbitrary and cruel rather than just.

So then they are obliged to cover up the faults of this horrid doctrine with artificial pronouncements about the “public will” and the “secret counsel”* of God; that is, they admit that God publicly offers salvation to all, but privately saves only the elect and condemns everyone else without a chance.

In other words, that God says one thing, but does another.

Thus neo-Calvinism ends up producing things neo-Calvinists would never want to admit — an excuse for sin, and a slander against God.

In this, they make a mockery of God’s truthfulness and the free offer of salvation so clearly presented in the gospel.

And how depraved is that?

* Examples:

“It is thus, I think, clearly brought out and proved who they are whom God calls by the Gospel to the hope of salvation, whom He engrafts into the body of Christ, and whom He makes heirs of eternal life; that they are those whom He had adopted unto Himself by His eternal and secret counsel to be His sons; and that He was so far from being moved by any faith in them to come thus to adopt them, that this His election is the cause and the beginning of all faith in them; and that, therefore, election is, in order, before faith.”

— John Calvin, A Treatise of the Eternal Predestination of God, 1552.

“By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life, while others are foreordained to everlasting death. These angels and men, thus predestinated and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed: and their number is so certain and definite that it cannot be either increased or diminished. Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to his eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of his will, hath chosen in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of his free grace and love alone, without any foresight of faith or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving him thereunto … The rest of mankind God was pleased … to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin.”

— Westminster Confession, 3:1-7


  1. Brother,

    I say this in all charity: your characterization of Calvinism is probably accurate for a certain breed of A. W. Pink fans-- where the offense of the truth is valued more than relating it in a nuanced fashion, but in the main I believe you are tilting at a straw man.

    Calvinist "Total Depravity" relates to the total *scope* of man's corruption, not depth: "there is no aspect of man's nature which is not corrupted in some degree". Among other things, this specifically targets man's "Reason" whereby one might, apart from the Spirit, think himself to trust in Christ and therefore be saved. What you are describing is, as you note above, the "utterly depraved" position, and is denied by Calvinism. That is "being as bad as you can be", and would rightly be attributed to none but Satan.

    Beyond that, the argument of "without knowledge/ability" is, I grant, a bit more subtle. For the proper sense, I would suggest 1 Cor 2.14:

    The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.

    The Calvinist doesn't argue that an unbeliever is incoherently insane, but rather (with Rom 1) that he knows so much that he *ought* to know, but his sin is that he doesn't *love* what he "ought to know" and rebels against it, loving his sin.

    Taking the former point with the latter, all of us-- elect and non-elect, were in this rebellious, sin-loving state and couldn't (really "wouldn't"! It's a moral- and will-based inability) until God came and made us able by regenerating our hearts.

    In specific response to your anecdote: yes, God *did* tell a cripple to get up and walk *several times*, but he always healed him first. To stay within the anecdote, the Calvinist position would be more like the captain of every sports team in the school rising for the pledge and then, seeing an *able-bodied but unwilling* classmate continue with his comic book, command him to rise as he is able to do and knows he ought to do.

    All in all, I'm a Calvinist, as are most of my fellow congregants and friends, and we would with one voice affirm with you:

    "And for them, this is a cornerstone of doctrine. If it is true ... that mankind knows what they are choosing, knows their sinfulness, and even knows God but willfully rejects Him, then they are indeed 'without excuse'"

    I understand that you may disagree with several of those conclusions; that you may find them more porous than a Calvinist would admit or placing too much tension on verses that nakedly command an unbeliever to repent (where we would say he has no ability to do so apart from God also granting him that), but I just wanted to encourage you to hit at the heart of the disagreement, not mischaracterizations.

  2. Nice to hear from you again, dicarrol. As much as we might disagree, I find you a congenial and reasonable conversation partner.

    I admit that my description is of a certain set of Calvinists and not entirely of another. But I would suggest that this is unavoidable, given the muddy state of Calvinist thought. The version upon which my article relies is that given me in a long conversation with a personal friend who is a Calvinist. And he is not made of straw...though I confess I sometimes wonder if he hasn't a bit of the Tin Man in his nature. :) His views on the subject are representative of at least a large portion of Calvinists, if not of you personally.

    It was he who gave me the "dead in trespasses" argument, though he was (at least temporarily) stumped by my reply. He thought "dead" was spiritual-literal, and I showed him it's not. You didn't mention that part of my discussion, but I point it out again.

    However, you did point out 1 Cor. 2:14. And I would suggest it won't bear the interpretation you would apparently like to take from it. It speaks of "the things of the Spirit of God," which naturally the man who does not have the Spirit could not understand. Whatever these "things" are, they cannot be the things which a natural man *should* know, such as that there is a God, that he does not know this God, that he is doing evil, and so on...just as Romans so clearly says. In other words, they must not include the knowledge of one's need for salvation. So "total depravity" cannot be thus justified.

    As for your explanation that the unbeliever "ought to know": there is a basic axiom in moral philosophy that comes from Kant, actually, and says, "Ought implies can." What this means is that it is simply incoherent to say someone "ought" to do X or Y when he or she had no ability at all to do X or Y.

    So you say an unbeliever "ought to know"; but you also say he *can't* know, because he's so utterly sinful he cannot "accept the things of the Spirit of God," which you assume includes his need of salvation (or so it would seem to me). This amounts to saying, "He ought to know to be saved, but also he can't know, or even that he needs to be saved." It would be as irrational as saying that we "ought" to flap our arms and fly -- since we cannot even possibly do it, we cannot have any moral responsibility for any failure to do it. Thus God gives unsaved man no power to repent, then demands we all repent. Again, it's mocking a cripple.

    You point out that the Lord did indeed make cripples walk. But He did so as a response to faith (Matt. 9:22, Mark 10:52, Acts 14:8-10, etc.), not as the *preliminary* to faith. But Calvinism says people can't even have faith unless God regenerates them. This again makes nonsense of the plain meaning of Scripture, and denies what these narratives clearly affirm.

    In short, I find that Calvinisms (for there are many) are not a single doctrine, but a wide spectrum of mutually-contradicting and self-contradicting positions. There is three-point Calvinism and Five-Point Calvinism, and both of these are continually denying they hold the position of what they call "Ultracalvinists" -- for even most Calvinists recognize that their doctrine leads to excesses they would fain avoid. But if rational consistency is a good idea, then I think there would be nothing but Ultracalvinists, for Calvinism itself is an unbalanced and unScriptural preoccupation with the man-made doctrine of Determinism.

    I congratulate you therefore on having escaped some of the worst implications of Calvinism. But I suspect my Calvinist friend would accuse you of denying the "total" in Total Depravity, and thus of being a compromiser.

    In fact, I know he would.

    But in that matter, your quarrel is with him rather than me.

    Will the *real* Calvinism please stand up?

    1. Comparing mankinds total depravity to one who is mentally insane or to one who commits murder while sleepwalking is totally off. Not only is mankind guilty before God due to their totally depravity inherited by our first parents but we also are guilty due to our love of sin and choice to habitually practice it. By general revelation ( conscience, creation) we all stand guilty before God because as the book of Romans tells us we “suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness”.Don’t paint the picture that God sends many people to hell simply because they were good but not chosen. That is one of the most inaccurate understanding of Calvinism I’ve ever heard. Mankind in its natural state, is evil and is a God hater (Romans 1:30). God is simply giving Christ rejectors the horrible freedom they demanded what He sends them to hell forever

    2. Thanks for your comment, Anon. You open up a can of worms, so for brevity’s sake, may I offer a resource? It’s at It’s by a former-Calvinist pastor, who is highly sympathetic but also very precise and listenable — highly recommendable for anyone interested in untangling these subtleties.

      Yet I owe you a short answer here, as well. So I ask, what are we to make of quotations like Calvinist John MacArthur, who says a sinner is “no more capable to respond than a cadaver”? Or Piper, who says, “Total depravity means that our rebellion against God is total, everything we do in this rebellion is sin, our inability to submit to God or reform ourselves is total, and we are therefore totally deserving of eternal punishment”? It’s really not possible to argue that Neo-Calvinists do not believe that “depravity” means “total incapacity even to understand”. It is, in fact, why their theology also insists that God has to regenerate the sinner before he is even saved; or, as R.C. Sproul has affirmed, “At the heart of Reformed theology, this axiom resounds — regeneration precedes faith.” So man has no “freedom” by which to “demand” Hell … he goes to Hell without any freedom or choice, according to Calvinism. Even Calvin himself believed in double damnation, and wrote, “All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death … The decree is dreadful indeed, I confess.” Those are four pretty authoritative sources showing that the Calvinist or Reformed view is as I have represented it to be: that they think men have no “freedom”, and thus do not willfully “suppress the truth” but rather (a Calvinist might say) are suppressed from knowing the truth. However, as you note, this view is very much contrary to Romans 1, especially verse 19.