I was recently reviewing Piper's TULIP notes. I'm also aware of What is the Biblical Basis for Total Depravity

Here, however, is something that I no longer understand. How do Calvinists jump

  • from: "X is sinful"
  • to: "X is incapable of believing in Christ"

It seems like we need one of two intermediate steps:

A. "X is sinful" -> "everything X does is sin" -> "X is incapable of believing in Christ" or

B. "X is sinful" , "no one with sin can accept Christ" -> "X is incapable of believing in Christ"

I don't see biblical scripture for the intermediate steps for either (A) or (B). How do Calvinists make this work? [I'm really looking for Biblical verses, rather than Edwards's Freedom of the Will or Luther's Bondage of the Will]


What is the intermediate step?


4 Answers 4

A. "X is sinful" -> "everything X does is sin" -> 
     "X is incapable of believing in Christ" or

B. "X is sinful" , "no one with sin can accept Christ" -> 
      "X is incapable of believing in Christ"

Neither (A) nor (B) are acceptable terminal points in Calvinistic theology. These are not doctrines that are taught, but rather ones that you have probably either misunderstood or else that someone else has misunderstood and passed on to you.

The distinction between Reformed belief and what you mention is the difference between what R.C. Sproul calls Utter Depravity vs. Radical Corruption. It's not just that we're sinners and so therefore we cannot receive Christ (although the Holiness of God does make this true), it's that our wills are bound by sin so that we have no desire whatsoever to focus on the things of God and to be saved.

I'll filter out Piper's verses to show the most pertinent ones:

We see that the mind set not on things of the spirit is not capable of being subject to the Law of God.

Romans 8:5-9 For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.

This is our natural state.

Ephesians 2:1-5 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.

You asked what the "middle point" was so that we come to receive Christ, even though we are incapable. The answer lies in the end of the Ephesians passage cited. God made us alive.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved).

The other verses he lists summarize it quite well and offer more support, but these two are probably the crux of the matter.

  • 1
    Can I summarize your argument as: "X is sinful" -> "X is slave to sin." -> "X has no desire to search for God." -> "X does not accept Christ."
    – user1694
    Commented Aug 14, 2012 at 10:25
  • 1
    @Matthew7.7 That's more accurate. A better logical ordering may be "X is a slave to sin" -> "X is sinful" -> "X has no desire..." Or to remove the "X is sinful" entirely, as it is redundant and adds confusion. Commented Aug 14, 2012 at 10:27
  • 1
    To iterate again; in your argument, the full chain is: (1) "X inherits sin from Adam" (2) "X is a slave to sin" (3) "X has no desire to search for God" | One of: (4a) "X does not search for / rejects Christ." (4b) "God injects X with desire to search for Christ. X finds Christ."
    – user1694
    Commented Aug 14, 2012 at 10:34
  • This is different from my original question. Is it possible to support step (3) with purely sayings of Christ? [I.e. without referring to Paul's work] -- or can it only be supported via Paul?
    – user1694
    Commented Aug 14, 2012 at 10:35
  • @Matthew7.7 It's different because what you originally posted is inaccurate. Even what I said isn't quite precise enough. Plenty of people want to search for god, just not the God of the Bible, in all of His majesty and complexity. You can make the same argument from the words of Christ, and such is argued in the works you mention in your post. You're not giving me the feeling that you've read either Luther's or Edwards's works. Why don't you set some time aside and read them and ask questions on what you don't understand? Commented Aug 14, 2012 at 10:41

You have it right: "X is sinful" -> "everything X does is sin" -> "X is incapable of believing in Christ without the additional work of the Holy Spirit" --> is the basic belief held by Calvinism. One of the best explanations of the doctrine of original sin is by Jonathan Edwards, entitled ‘without surprise’, ‘The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended; Evidences of its Truth Produced.’ Here he argues, among other things, the imputation of guilt on infants as displayed in the flood and in Sodom and Gomorrah.

In a nutshell I have found many classic authors, including Luther, Owen and Edwards, often start by using this verse to say that anybody born of ‘flesh’ is only ‘flesh’.

That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. (ESV John 3:6)

In other words anyone born in the sinful nature is in ‘entirely sinful.’ This means they can’t do anything good but are totally depraved.

The idea of ‘flesh’ is derogatory as ‘human nature separated from God’. Even as a believer who has ‘both’ good and evil natures, as a result of the new birth, only a sinful disposition remains in that nature they first obtained through Adam.

For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. (ESV Romans 7:18)

This is understood by all classical Calvinists (as far as I know) as a description of Paul ‘as a Christian’.

Edwards’ book which I referenced argues the case so very well. Unlike Owen who is difficult to read, I challenge anyone to read ‘even just a dozen pages’ of Edwards and they will quickly understand the concepts of original sin as 'originally taught' by the reformers.

  • I would caution you to reconsider what you've posted and reword it to be "They cannot do good in light of God's Holiness" rather than simply saying "They cannot do good." How you have it worded leaves ambiguity such that the doctrine can be maligned. Even Paul makes the argument early in Romans that Godless people do good things because the Law of God is written on their hearts. Commented Aug 14, 2012 at 10:24
  • @SanJacinto - Most Calvinistic commentators I have read would say Romans, or any Bible verse, does not implies true virtue in any act that a sinner commits - that's the point of total depravity. In Romans Paul is merely arguing that the law ‘that condemns sinners’ is in the mind of sinners who do not know about the Laws of Moses. Their conscience acts as a law, just as sinner who knows ‘the Law’. At most it implies that a sinner can externally conform to the law, just like a Jew, but does not imply any true goodness in man. I believe this view held by Edwards.
    – Mike
    Commented Aug 14, 2012 at 11:38
  • 1
    Don't get me wrong, I concur. I'm just pointing out that man's definition of "good" is different that God's. For instance, both heathens and Christians consider helping widows to be a "good" work. To the uneducated, your remarks sound like nobody is capable of helping widows when what you mean is the Biblical doctrine that in our best moments of helping the neediest widows, apart from Christ, God only sees our wickedness and works that flow from it. Commented Aug 14, 2012 at 11:44

I think your problem comes in your understanding of the statement, "X is sinful". In context, when a Calvinist says "Fred Jones is sinful", he does not simply mean, "Fred Jones has committed many sins". What he means is more like, "Fred Jones mind is totally controlled by sin."

It's like if I said, "X is wet -> X will never be dry without radical intervention". If when you read "X is wet" you think of something that has been left out in the rain, the logic doesn't follow. Why can't I bring it inside and dry it out? Won't it dry out when the sun comes out? Etc. But if the person who said "X is wet" was thinking of a fish that lives at the bottom of the ocean, then the logic makes perfect sense.

When the Calvinist says that people are sinners, he is thinking of the relationship of a human to sin as like a fish to the ocean, not a rag to the rain.

  • To a Calvinist, does the Romans 5:12 "Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned:" mean that Sin completely controlled everyone in the world? (Like a water bottle filled in the bottom of an ocean).
    – user1694
    Commented Aug 18, 2012 at 8:55
  • @user1311390 Short answer: Yes. A Calvinist would say that a person can only escape the control of sin by the grace of God.
    – Jay
    Commented Aug 21, 2012 at 7:03

I am not sure I see "sin" as even part of the equation.

John 6:44 No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day.

It seems pretty straightforward. No one can come to Jesus without the work of the Father.

X -> work of the Father -> belief in Christ

  • This isn't an explanation of the doctrine of Total Depravity.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Nov 6, 2014 at 22:15
  • The question was not about total depravity but about how sinfulness (assuming total depravity) was a barrier to the ability to believe in Christ. My post was to show that election trumps sinfulness of any kind.
    – timf
    Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 14:06

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