by George Sidney Hurd
The following is an excerpt from the book The Universal Solution which presents Universal Reconciliation as the solution to the debate between Calvinists and Arminians.
Total depravity is a term used to refer to the spiritually fallen and corrupted state into which every descendent of Adam is born. Due to Adam’s original sin, man comes into the world spiritually stillborn in relation to God and therefore unable to contribute in any way towards his own salvation. Even the faith by which we appropriate salvation must be received as a gift from God through regeneration due to man’s spiritual blindness.
Depravity: Three Views
Calvinism - Total Depravity
The doctrine of Total Depravity was first formally presented and expounded upon by Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 AD). It was also the belief of Martin Luther, John Calvin and other prominent reformers, and continues to be the belief of the Reformed Calvinist tradition to this day. The term “Total Depravity” can be easily misunderstood. It is not intended to say that man is as evil as he can possibly be. Clearly some men commit more evil than others and one can become more evil if he follows his carnal instincts or less evil in an ideal environment.
Total Depravity means that mankind, since Adam, is spiritually dead towards God, his Maker. Man was created for communion with God but when he died spiritually, he ceased to be God-centered and turned in upon himself, becoming self-centered. In this fallen state, even his apparently good and religious activities are carried out independently of God and for self-interest rather than being the outflow of a dependent relationship of loving communion with God. The Greek word for sin is hamartia, which means “to miss the mark.” Utter dependence upon God is the mark. All that we do, whether it comes from the “good” branches or the “evil” branches of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, constitutes a missing of the mark and therefore is sin.
One may religiously keep the law and yet be depraved, since his works are done in the flesh and not in God. Based upon 1John 3:4 many think that sin is defined as transgression of the law. However, the phrase “transgression of the law” is the single compound Greek word anomia, composed of “a-” meaning “no” and “nomos” which means “law.” A better translation would be “lawlessness” or doing one’s own will, rather than submitting to God. Some may be able to live a relatively moral life independently from their Creator. One can keep the law with great zeal and not be walking in submission to God, as we see exemplified in the Pharisees. Sin is simply doing what is right in one’s own eyes - partaking of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the power of our fallen flesh rather than walking in submission to God.
Pelagianism – Denial of Depravity
Pelagius, a contemporary of Augustine, strongly opposed Augustine’s doctrine of predestination and denied that man inherited Adam’s original sin. According to Pelagius, man is not born depraved but neutral and free from sin, and with a totally free-will. According to him, God did not give us His law in order to reveal our sin and need of grace but rather He gave it to us actually expecting us to keep it perfectly. He taught it was possible to live without sin.
Arminianism – Partial Depravity
The Arminians, for the most part, do not believe in self-salvation as taught by Pelagius. Most of them believe, as do the Calvinists, that we are entirely incapable of saving ourselves and that the entire work of Salvation was accomplished for us by Jesus Christ in His death and resurrection on our behalf. The only participation required of man in his own salvation, according to them, is appropriating it by a personal decision of faith and continuing in that faith to the end. Paul makes it clear that true saving faith is not a work in which one can boast: “Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith” (Rom 3:27-29). Therefore, one cannot, in all fairness, accuse Arminians of Pelagianism simply because they insist that our decision of faith procures one’s salvation.
The three different views of man’s condition before God can be illustrated by a man in a river. The man, according to Pelagius, does not need to be saved because he not only can swim but he is also perfectly able to swim upstream against the current. This imaginary man does not even need a Savior and therefore could not be said to be “saved.” Jesus did not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. The truth is that all mankind are born sinners and in need of salvation. “There is none righteous, no not one.” (Rom 3:10).
The second man, according to the Arminians, cannot swim and is drowning, and at the same time he is being swept helplessly downstream by the current. God, in His mercy and grace throws him the lifeline. If the drowning man has the faith and presence of mind to take hold of the lifeline, God will pull him to safety. Otherwise, God will not further intervene to save him out of respect for his own free-will and He will leave him to drown, being swept downstream to certain destruction.
The third man, according to the Calvinist interpretation, is not only drowning and in need of being rescued - he has already drowned. He is dead and at the bottom of the river, being swiftly swept downstream towards an eternal hell which God has prepared to receive all except for the few elect whom He has predetermined to rescue. All the elect, who are chosen to salvation, are drawn out of the river and brought back to life. However, the great majority (the non-elect) were either predestined by God to eternal doom before even entering in the river or, according to some moderate Calvinists, simply left to their fate without the divine intervention which He provides exclusively for the elect.
It should be obvious to any believer that Pelagianism is an outright denial of our need of the Savior who redeemed us with His own precious blood upon the cross and is therefore a denial of the faith. Although Calvinists often accuse Arminians of Pelagianism or Semi-Pelagianism, it must be recognized that most Arminians equally believe in salvation by grace alone apart from works.
True saving faith, rightly understood, is not a work, according to Paul, and therefore does not invalidate salvation by grace alone (Rom 3:27). I personally believe, with the Calvinists, that the Scriptures indicate that even our saving faith is a gift of God, as I hope to demonstrate. However, God’s power to save has in no way been limited by this minor distinction. Jonathan Edwards, a Reformed Calvinist, was mightily used of God as was the former Arminian, George Whitefield who became a Calvinist under Jonathan Edwards’ influence. But we must not forget the other great revivalists such as John Wesley, Charles Finney and William Seymour, just to name a few, who were greatly used of God being Arminians.
God doesn’t seem to be limited in His power to save by whether or not one understands saving faith itself as being a gift rather than an independent personal response. His purpose in creating us is primarily relational and therefore His eternal decree must also include our personal volitional participation. I believe that God imparts faith but in such a way that it includes the personal willful response of the individual. Rather than it being a matter of “either or”, I see it as “both and.” Faith is both a gift received and personally activated by the one receiving it - much as Jesus’s command to the paralytic, “rise, take up your bed and walk” required the participation of the paralytic, even though the work of healing was performed by Jesus. Thanks be to God that we don’t have to become theologians in order to be saved! Most of us would die while still in the process of trying to split our “theological hairs.”
Depravity: Scriptural Testimony
I believe, and hope to demonstrate, that the overall testimony of the Scriptures confirms that man is totally destitute of any ability to contribute in any way to his own salvation. It will be demonstrated that even our saving faith must be imparted to us by God in order for us to be able to believe. True saving faith is a gift from God. Our only part is the spontaneous voluntary exercise of that faith, receiving the irresistibly glorious good news of the gospel by faith.
“And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, 2 in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, 3 among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.” (Eph 2:1-3)
The Scriptures declare that we were dead prior to having been made alive by God through the new birth. In what sense were we dead and when did this death take place? Obviously, it is not referring to physical death. Neither could it be said that man is dead in a moral sense before the new birth. Not all unregenerate sons of Adam are incapable of living relatively moral lifestyles. Indeed, God holds all mankind responsible for their moral acts and the day will come when they will be judged for the deeds done in the body (Rom 2:12-16).
What Paul is saying is that we all came into the world dead towards God. Apart from Jesus Christ, who was God himself clothed in human flesh, the only two individuals who were initially alive in relationship to God were Adam and Eve. They were commanded to abstain from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and warned that if they were to eat of it, they would die in that very day. God literally said: “for in the day that you eat of it, dying you shall die.” (Gen 2:17 LITV). Implicit in this verse we see that death, in a certain sense, would occur the moment Adam and Eve ate of the tree. Even those who partake of the “good” branches of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil are dead to God. Their righteous deeds, as such, are done in the flesh, alienated from God and therefore they are unacceptable to Him (Isa 64:6).
It is worthy of note that Paul; of all men the most “morally” religious - the Pharisee of all Pharisees, includes himself in this indictment: “we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others” (Eph 2:3). The “wickedly righteous” are just as much partakers of the forbidden tree as the “wickedly unrighteous” and inadvertently are in rebellion against God, just as the rest.
Death in Scriptures conveys, not cessation of existence, but separation. In their act of independence Adam and Eve separated themselves from God and therefore died spiritually. Although they continued to live for many more years before finally dying physically, they became independent entities – separated from the life of God from that day forward. This condition of spiritual death passed on to all the descendants of Adam:
“Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned.” (Rom 5:12)
The phrase “all sinned” is in the aorist tense, expressing a singular act in the past. It is referring back to Adam’s original sin as being that which caused all of his descendants to be born under Adam’s curse of death. Adam’s spiritual DNA was altered, so to speak, in such a way that we were all still-born in relation to God and also destined to die physically – not simply because of our own sins, but because of the curse of death transmitted through our first father, Adam. This is what is referred to as Original Sin. All sinned in Adam. By one man’s sin (Adam), death has reigned over all his descendants (Rom 5:17).
So, we all, as descendants of Adam, were born dead in relation to God – cut off from His life from birth (Ps 51:5). One does not expect a response from a dead person. A physician may be able to tell an ill person to entrust himself into his care, and he may be able to assist in his own recovery, but once that individual is physically dead there is no possible way to get a response from him. Only the miracle of resurrection can raise one who is already physically dead.
The same applies to our spiritual condition. One who is born dead towards God cannot possibly know or respond to God who is spirit. Before one can relate to God in any manner, he must first experience the miracle of the new birth – having been born from above, of the Spirit. We must be made alive before we can respond to God in any way, and that is precisely what Paul says God did for us: “And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins.” In God’s timing He makes us alive through the rebirth of our spirit, enabling us to understand and respond in faith to the gospel.
The Universalist, however, does not limit God by saying that only the elect of this age will be made alive and saved. Paul says that eventually all who die in Adam will be made alive in Christ, and that the time will finally come when the last enemy – death will have been destroyed forever:
“For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. 23 But each one in his own order…The last enemy that will be destroyed is death.” (1Cor 15:22-23a, 26)
The traditional concept of “eternal death” is foreign to the Scriptures which declare the final restoration and reconciliation of all – the gathering together of all in Christ Jesus in the dispensation of the fullness of the times (Acts 3:21; Col 1:16,20; Jn 12:32; Eph 1:10, etc.).
Spiritually in Bondage
“in which (trespasses and sins) you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in (energéo) the sons of disobedience.” (Eph 2:2)
In Ephesians 2, after stating that we were dead in our trespasses and sins, Paul explains further that we were under the power and influence of Satan, the prince of the power of the air. The Greek word translated here “works” is energéo from which we derive our word “energize.” In essence, Paul is saying that we were under Satan’s power. This is further substantiated in other passages as well:
“in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, 26 and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will.” (2Tim 2:25-26)
“We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one.” (1Jn 5:19 NIV)
At what point in time did Satan gain control over the collective will of the whole of humanity? In the Garden of Eden when Adam relinquished his God-given authority to the tempter. Since that time, mankind outside of Christ has been held captive to Satan and is under his oppressive, blinding control.
When nations such as North Korea have fallen under communist dictatorship, all media is restricted, and their citizens are brainwashed and blinded by propaganda, leading them to think that they are the ones who are free and prosperous, while the outside world is the evil, oppressive society. In the same way, the god of this age keeps his subjects blind to the glorious gospel which can set them free:
“But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, 4 whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them.” (2Cor 4:3,4)
Why do those in the world not believe in the gospel? Partly because the god of this age has blinded them, keeping them from seeing the light. Therefore, Adam’s race is not only dead to God or cut off from His life, but also blinded under Satan’s oppressive dominion. Apart from the miracle of the new birth one cannot even see the kingdom of God – let alone believe unto salvation:
“Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (Jn 3:3)
Jesus, repeatedly said: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” Obviously, since every descendent of Adam comes into the world spiritually dead in relation to God, we must be made alive in order to hear God. While even the regenerate may become carnal and dull of hearing (Heb 5:11), the unregenerate do not even have the capacity to hear God. They are not simply unwilling to hear but are literally unable to hear God’s voice:
“Why do you not understand My speech? Because you are not able to listen to My word.” (Jn 8:43)
Note that Jesus did not simply say that they were unwilling to hear Him but that they were unable to hear His words. The civilized world has harnessed the radio waves and we are now able to listen to music and messages in a way unimaginable in past generations. However, there are still some remote tribes who know nothing of the radio waves transmitting music all around them. Why? Because radio waves can only be heard if one has a receiver. Many of them have been amazed as they listen for the first time by means of a radio what was around them all the time.
In a similar way, we were born without the ability to even hear the good news of Jesus Christ. We may have even been raised in the church, with the gospel being proclaimed from the pulpit in every message but without really hearing it until God gives us ears to hear. In the Father’s time He draws us, permitting us to truly hear Him for the first time. All who hear Him are irresistibly drawn to Jesus, as He himself tells us in John chapter six:
“No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Therefore everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me.” (Jn 6:44,45)
Jesus here says that none of us are able to come to Him until the Father draws us. However, He also says that everyone who is given ears to really hear the Father will come to Him without fail. In the same manner, in the Father’s time, all who died in Adam will be made alive in Christ and not just the elect of this age - all will eventually be irresistibly drawn to Christ (1Cor 15:22). Jesus states that we cannot come to Him unless the Father draws him. In the present age only a chosen few are being drawn by the Father to be of the Church of the firstfruits, the Bride of Christ. However, in the times of the restoration of all, Jesus will draw all men unto Himself and not only the elect of this age:
“And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” (Jn 12:32 KJV)
The Word “draw” in both John 6:44 and here is the Greek word helkô, which expresses something much stronger that a simple attraction. Strong’s Dictionary defines it: “drag (literally or figuratively).” It appears eight times in the New Testament and in each case, it expresses the idea of being drawn by a force greater than the resistance of the one being drawn:
“Simon Peter went up and dragged the net to land, full of large fish, one hundred and fifty-three; and although there were so many, the net was not broken.” (Jn 21:11)
“… they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to the authorities.” (Acts 16:19)
“…. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts?” (James 2:6)
“Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest's servant, and cut off his right ear.” (Jn 18:10)
Man, separated from God, is so lost that he must be drawn or dragged to Christ. Otherwise he would not come to Him. Our “free-will” is of no avail if we can’t even see or comprehend the glorious gospel, and that is the situation in which God finds every individual. They are incapable of going to Him until He, in their day of visitation, draws them to Himself, which He will do for every man in due time (1Peter 2:12; 1Ti 2:6 KJV). In His time, He will remove the veil from the eyes of all people (Isa 25:7-8). Until then they remain blinded and incapable of finding Him.
Totally Depraved by Nature
In the passage we have been considering in Ephesians 2:1-3, Paul, after saying that we were dead in sin and under the power of Satan, concludes by saying that we “were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.” Adam was a spirit in a body of flesh before separating himself from God. When Adam sinned, his spirit died to God and he became “flesh” by nature instead of a “spirit” in a body of flesh (Gen 6:3). Sinful flesh is by nature incorrigibly hostile towards God, and no matter how much one partakes of the “good” branches of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he cannot change what he is by nature – independent “flesh.” We cannot change our nature by self-effort or will-worship any more than an Ethiopian can change the color of his skin or a leopard can remove his spots (Jer 13:23). And our fleshly nature is irreparably hostile towards God:
“because the carnal mind (mind of the flesh) is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. 8 So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9 But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His.” (Rom 8:7-9)
Not only is our essential fallen nature as sons of Adam inherently hostile to God, making us by nature sons of wrath. The natural, unregenerate mind of the flesh is also unable to perceive, much less receive the things of the Spirit:
“But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (1Cor 2:14)
“And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever — 17 the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.” (Jn 14:16,17)
Once again, we see that the problem with fallen humanity is not simply that mankind will not believe, come, yield, understand, or know the things of God. The Scriptures repeatedly declare that man, by nature, cannot believe, come, yield or understand so as to be saved. The preaching of the cross is foolishness to the natural mind because the unregenerate are incapable of comprehending it (1Cor 1:18).
Paul in Romans, before introducing the free grace of God, beginning in 3:21, establishes incontrovertibly that all of mankind, Jews included, are totally depraved and in need of divine grace in order to be able to respond to God or contribute in any way whatsoever towards their own salvation:
“What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin. 10 As it is written: "There is none righteous, no, not one; 11 There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. 12 They have all turned aside; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no, not one." 13 "Their throat is an open tomb; with their tongues they have practiced deceit"; "The poison of asps is under their lips"; 14 "Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness." 15 "Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 Destruction and misery are in their ways; 17 and the way of peace they have not known." 18 "There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Rom 3:9-18)
Numerous arguments have been presented by the Arminians in an attempt to limit the universality of “all” in this indictment or diminish the extent of man’s depravity as argued here by Paul. However, they unwittingly end up contending against the obvious intent of Paul’s own argument, which is that all are hopelessly under sin, totally depraved and entirely dependent upon God’s free gracious gift of righteousness provided in Christ Jesus in order to be saved.
Paul’s presentation of humanity as totally depraved and in need of divine gracious intervention is not a new revelation unique to Paul. Jesus also presented mankind as being in the same hopeless, fallen condition apart from God:
“It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.” (Jn 6:63)
“No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day… 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who would betray Him. 65 And He said, ‘Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.’” (Jn 6:44, 64,65)
Once again, we see presented, not simply unwillingness to come to Him, but inability: No one can come apart from being graciously drawn by God.
Total Depravity Revealed by the Law
Arminians often argue that God would not call upon man to do anything, nor would He have given us His laws, if we were incapable of positively responding. However, the revealed purpose of the Law of Moses was to expose our inability and depravity in order to shut us up unto grace. It was given to show our depravity – not our ability. The law’s purpose was to arouse sinful passions innate to our sinful adamic nature, causing us to despair of our own independent self-efforts to achieve godlikeness. Rather than bridling evil, it produced in us all manner of evil desire:
“For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death. 6 But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter. 7 What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, ‘You shall not covet.’ 8 But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire.” (Rom 7:5-8)
Therefore, rather than God’s giving of the Law being an argument against man’s total depravity, as some Arminians affirm, we see that the law was given for the express purpose of revealing to us our depravity. It was given to bring us to an end of all confidence in the flesh. In our utter inability to attain to godlikeness through independent self-efforts by partaking of the “good” branches of the forbidden tree, we, through the Law, are slain. We are then, in this manner, prepared to receive the revelation of the grace that is in Christ Jesus our Savior:
“Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. 22 But the Scripture has confined all under sin that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. 23 But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. 24 Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. 25 But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.” (Gal 3:21-25)
So, the law served as a tutor to reveal our depravity and bring us to faith in Christ. Now that we are in a relationship of faith and dependence upon Christ, we are no longer under the law. It wasn’t given for us to live by, but rather to die by.
Inability to Believe the Gospel
We have seen so far that man is dead to God. In his fallen condition under Satan’s rule, he is blind and deaf in relation to God’s kingdom. We have seen that man’s problem goes beyond unwillingness to inability. Unregenerate man is by nature “flesh” and therefore cannot perceive, come, submit, know, believe nor receive the things pertaining to the kingdom of God. Jesus said: “unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:3).
In spite of all Scriptural testimony to the contrary, the Arminians insist that regeneration is the result of our own free-will decision of faith. Jesus said that we cannot even see the kingdom apart from the new birth or regeneration. How is it possible for fallen flesh to respond to truth that one is totally oblivious to? Faith comes by hearing and hearing the Word of God, but flesh cannot hear, perceive or in any way submit to divine truth. That which is born of flesh is flesh. Until one is born of the Spirit, man is flesh, period. In him, that is in his flesh, dwells no good thing (Rom 7:18). Jesus said:
“’It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who would betray Him. 65 And He said, ‘Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.” (Jn 6:63-65)
Fallen man is referred to in Scripture as “flesh” (Gen 6:3). Flesh only perceives “flesh words.” The words of Jesus were “spirit words” and for that reason those present who were of the flesh were incapable of believing and coming to Jesus apart from the Father who gives life by His Spirit to whom He wills. Jesus knew from the beginning whom the Father had granted life by His Spirit so as to be able to hear and respond in faith to His “spirit words” which the natural man (flesh) is incapable of even hearing – not to mention believing.
Arminians appeal to the many passages calling upon men to repent and believe as evidence that the unregenerate man has within himself the potential to freely respond in faith. However, they once again fail to realize that, as with the commands of the Law of Moses, God’s commands are not given to show our ability but rather our inability. Even our faith is seen to be of necessity a gift of God, to the praise of the glory of His grace:
“Now when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.” (Acts 13:48)
The word “appointed” in this passage is from the Greek word tasso which speaks of arranging in order. The idea expressed is that the Father has an appointed time for the salvation of each individual. Only when ones appointed time comes will he believe to eternal life. For example, even though Paul knew about Jesus and His teaching during His ministry, he did not believe on Him at that time because it wasn’t his appointed time. He was also present when Stephen gave his defense by the power of the Holy Spirit but wasn’t given ears to hear and even participated in his stoning. He was doubtlessly familiar with the gospel being proclaimed by the Church he persecuted, but he could not believe because it had not yet been granted to Him by the Father to come to Christ. It wasn’t until he was on the road to Damascus that the Father’s appointed time came, granting him saving faith.
Some Arminians would argue that Paul was the exception to the rule, but I believe that all who have had a true saving encounter with Christ would say that they were brought to faith in a similar manner even though the details may have been less dramatic. Saving faith is a gift from God. There is no other way to explain how it happens that all who are appointed to eternal life believe without fail. It is the only way to explain how it is that all whom the Father gives to the Son will come to Him. The Lord opens our hearts to believe. Left to our fallen, depraved flesh we would have never been open to receive Him.
It is said of the religiously pious Lydia that “the Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul” (Acts 16:14). If the Lord had not opened her heart, she would have continued to be just another religiously pious unbeliever like many of us were before we came to saving faith in Christ. Saving faith is a gift of God:
“For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ… to believe in Him…” (Phil 1:29)
Paul, in the context of suffering on behalf of Christ, reminds us as believers that our faith was given to us as a grace-gift. The word translated “granted” is charitzomai which is a derivative of the Greek word for “grace” (charis), indicating that it was graciously given to us to believe in Him. We cannot even boast in our faith since it was given unto us to believe by God Himself.
Paul says that boasting is excluded with saving faith (Rom 3:27). Is Paul saying that all faith excludes boasting? Absolutely not. For years I attended a church which included a time of “testimonies” in each service. Many “testimonies” were simply sanctified boasting. Some of the most repellent testimonies were those in which they boasted of their faith as though God moved or did such and such because of their great faith. Only recognizing that one believes by grace is boasting excluded.
Arminians insist that faith is the one thing required of our independent self before receiving His benefits, but even our faith is by grace and grace alone. In Acts 18:27, it says of Apollos that he “greatly helped those who had believed through grace.” Those of us who have believed the gospel must humbly admit that we would have never believed were it not for the grace of God enabling us to see and believe unto salvation.
The apostle Paul exults in “our God and Father, who has loved us and given us everlasting consolation and good hope by grace” (2Thess 2:16). In what do you place your hope of eternal life? In your own personal, faith or do you rejoice with the recognition that, apart from the grace of God you would still be an unbeliever in your sins and without hope? Are you believing Satan’s lie that God has done His part, but it is up to you to do your part if you want to have any consolation or hope in eternal salvation?
Arminians argue that faith must precede regeneration, while Calvinists insist that faith must of necessity follow regeneration, since fallen flesh is totally depraved and unable to respond to the gospel. Jesus said that we cannot even see the kingdom apart from regeneration. How then are we to believe the gospel apart from the new birth which opens our eyes to see it in its glory for the first time? Arminians point out that, in the New Testament, the invitation is often extended to sinners, telling them to believe without any reference to the need for a prior regeneration. However, it is not to be anticipated that each invitation would be accompanied with a theological discourse explaining that if the hearers do not believe it is because it was not given to them to believe at that time.
Considering all that we have already seen concerning man’s total depravity, I cannot agree with the Arminians when they say that we independently believe as a personal free-will decision, and then God follows up on our faith by regenerating us. We exercise the faith that is granted to us when the Lord opens our heart for the first time, thereby enabling us to perceive and receive the gospel. Perceiving, which is necessary in order to believe and receive Christ, requires regeneration (Jn 3:3). Many have confused the order as set forth in John 1:12,13:
“But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: 13 who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” (Jn 1:12-13)
Since “receiving” and “believing” are mentioned in the sentence before regeneration, they think that faith chronologically precedes regeneration. However, upon closer examination, we see that regeneration takes place because of God’s will – not because of our faith and receiving. God brings about regeneration as an act of His sovereign will – not by a decision of our own will. This is further confirmed by James who says:
“Of his own will he gave birth to us by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” (James 1:18 WEBA)
If it was our own free-will act of faith that brought about regeneration, then it would be regeneration by the will of the flesh. We were born of God or regenerated because God first willed it. Those who were chosen in Christ from the foundation of the world, in the time preordained by God, exercise their God-given faith, believing and receiving Christ.
We see the same sequence in 1John 5:1, where John says: “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God.” Although the New King James Version conceals it, this verse clearly indicates that regeneration precedes faith. “Is born” is not in present tense as the translators rendered it. It is in the perfect tense and the passive voice. The verb translated “believes” is in the present, active. Therefore, it should read “Whoever is believing that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” In other words, if one is believing that Jesus is the Christ, it is because he had already been born again prior to believing.
However, I don’t see a discernible separation in time between regeneration and our willing response of faith. To argue about which came first is comparable to asking what came first in creation - the chicken or the egg. The obvious answer is neither. The chicken was created together with the eggs in one creative act, just as the plants were created already bearing seeds. The same can be said concerning the new creation. We were re-created, with faith being as much a part of the miracle of the new creation as regeneration itself. Faith is just as integral and spontaneous in the new birth process as is the first breath of a new-born coming out of the birth canal.
In Adam all die – we are born separated from God and dead in sin. However, the good news, which was proclaimed in the Early Church, but was suppressed upon entering the Dark Ages, and even to this day continues to be overlooked both by Calvinists and Arminians, is that, in God’s own time, all who die in Adam will be made alive or regenerated through the gift of faith in Christ at the time ordained of the Father, from before the foundation of the world.
“For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order…. Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him that God may be all in all.” (1Cor 15:22,23a, 28)
In conclusion, we have seen that the overall testimony of Scripture is that man, in his fallen condition is totally depraved, dead towards God, under the power of the god of this world, spiritually blind, without ears to hear God, and by his very nature a child of wrath. His nature, which is flesh, is at enmity with God. God’s purpose in giving us the Law was to confine us all under disobedience in order to finally have mercy upon all (Rom 11:32). In this present age, the Father is drawing a few elect people to make up the Bride of Christ. However, before Christ delivers up all things to the Father and God becomes all in all, Christ will have drawn all men unto Himself.
“For of (ek) Him and through (dia) Him and to (eis) Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.” (Rom 11:36)
Depravity: The Universal Solution
Obviously, one can be a Universalist and a Pelagian at the same time. Many liberal Universalists downplay or deny man’s lost condition and absolute necessity of salvation through faith in Christ’s redemptive work on the cross. Nevertheless, the Scriptures are clear in that we are all under sin, and one must repent and believe the gospel, having been born again of the Spirit, in order to even see the kingdom of God, let alone enter it. Since Pelagianism is self-salvation a Pelagianist cannot be said to be saved, since biblical salvation requires a Savior outside of oneself.
A religious Pelagian Universalist would be like the Pharisees in the sense that they trust in their own righteousness. Jesus said of them: “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you” (Matt 21:31). It is not that they will never enter but that they will have to enter in the same way as the tax collectors and harlots – through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. Those who early recognize their depravity are the first to come to repentance and faith, being born again into the kingdom of God. No one will enter the kingdom of heaven as a Pelagianist. He must enter in by the straight and narrow way – by grace through faith, having been born again of the Spirit.
Biblical Universalists, however, would agree with the Calvinist in that all are not only born sinners in Adam but born dead in our sins and totally dependent upon being made alive by grace through Jesus Christ. The only difference is that the Universalist believes with Paul that “as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive” (1Cor 15:22). The Universalist can say without apologies, to the praise of the glory of God’s grace, that the same all who die in Adam will, in due time, be made alive in Christ. All who originated in Christ by creation will be finally restored to Christ before He delivers the kingdom back to the Father and God becomes all in all. As Paul declares:
“For of (ek) Him and through (dia) Him and to (eis) Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.” (Rom 11:36)
All of creation came out of (ek) of God, exists through (dia) Him and will be finally reconciled to (eis) Him. The Universalist does not see the elect as having been chosen to the exclusion of the rest but rather for the benefit of the rest of mankind. We are chosen to be a royal priesthood, a light to the nations, the Church of the firstfruits of the rest of God’s new creation:
“Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.” (James 1:18)
We, the elect of this age, are only the first to hope in Christ (Eph 1:12). We are only the firstfruits. The firstfruits of a harvest are the first chosen, but only a very small part of the total harvest. Jesus said: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (Jn 6:44). But He promised that He will eventually draw all men unto Himself (Jn 12:32). All of God’s creation will finally be restored and set free into the glorious liberty of the manifest sons of God – the firstfruits of God’s new creation, in the time of their manifestation, when He makes all things new (Rom 8:18-23; Rev 21:4-5). In the coming ages, the Church of Jesus Christ – we who have first believed, will be put on display – manifested to the rest of creation, for the praise of the glory of His grace, bringing about the final restoration of all (Eph 1:10-12; 2:7; Acts 3:21; Rom 8:18-23).
The Arminians have difficulty explaining why our loving Father, seeing that man is lost and drowning in a river he didn’t choose to be in in the first place, after throwing out the lifeline, simply leaves those who fail to take hold of the rope to drown without further intervention. It is even more irreconcilable with the Love of God considering that the vast majority of mankind never even saw the lifeline – they never heard the good news of salvation, or else they were too spiritually blind and disoriented to avail themselves of the lifeline.
We all know that no loving father would allow his own child to drown simply because the child resists his efforts to save him. He may wait until the child stops struggling before intervening to save him, but to let the child drown simply because he, in his confusion, resists his father’s efforts to rescue him, would be unthinkable. Are we as fathers, made in the image and likeness of God, more compassionate than our Heavenly Father?
Traditionalists would say that we should not question God’s ways. However, it is not a matter of questioning God. What we are commanded to do is to question man’s interpretations of God’s ways when they go against God’s revealed nature as seen in Scripture, or when they fly in the face of all reason. Did not Jesus rebuke the multitude saying: “Why don't you judge for yourselves what is right?” (Luke 12:57). Are we not told to be like our loving heavenly Father who loves all, including His enemies? (Matt 5:44-45). How can we be like Him by loving our enemies and doing good to them while at the same time believing that God will actually be torturing them throughout all eternity, accordingly as it has pleased him, for the praise of the glory of His infinite justice? [i]
The Calvinists have an even greater dilemma than that of the Arminians, because, according to the illustration of the river, the God of the Arminians at least throws out the lifeline for all those who are drowning. Although most drown anyway since they do not take hold of the lifeline in time, either for lack of knowledge or lack of will, at least Arminians can come closer to saying that there is no partiality with God.
The Calvinists, on the other hand, say that God in eternity predestined only the few chosen elect unto salvation. [ii] The rest were (at least by default) predestined to eternal wrath. They insist that His election is not based upon any merit or demerit of the individual, but solely upon God’s good pleasure, in order to receive glory unto Himself. In the case of the elect, it is for the praise of the glory of His grace. But for the vast majority, who were not chosen to salvation, He is pleased to consign, from all eternity, to an everlasting fiery hell, to the praise of His glorious justice.
More will be said about this at a later time, but for the moment it should be obvious that the Calvinists present God in a manner which more closely resembles the vindictive pagan deities who find glory in the misery of their subjects in order to demonstrate how mighty they are, rather than the God of Scripture who declares that He not only loves all, but that He Himself is love, and demonstrated it by reconciling all His creation unto Himself by the blood of the cross of Jesus Christ (2Cor 5:19; Rom 5:8; Col 1:16,20).
Traditionalists, both Calvinists and even many Arminians, generally acknowledge, with the Biblical Universalist, that God is sovereign, having foreknown and predetermined all things from eternity, and is working all things according to His own will. While Calvinists emphasize the predetermined will, based upon a particular love for the elect only, the Arminians would base His election upon Him having foreseen their choice. They both recognize that the fall and redemption were both foreknown and included within His plan for the ages, as do the Universalists. However, according to them, ultimate salvation only benefits a select few. The rest, according to them, are destined by God Himself to an eternal fiery hell which has no redemptive purpose.
The eternal plan for the vast majority, according to them, is to subject them to an eternal - never ending torment, by a “loving” God, whose wrath against them is never placated throughout all eternity. This unending wrath is against their sins, which, even according to them, is due to their misfortune of having been born enslaved by nature to sin and Satan, due to Adam’s disobedience.
Lorraine Boettner, a prominent Calvinist, explains the sinner’s plight: “Human beings are born with a corrupt nature but are nevertheless fully responsible for the sins they cannot avoid because of this condition.” [iii] This traditional model of eternal torment for helpless victims is perhaps more compatible with the ancient pagan demigods of Greek mythology, who were humanlike and capricious, but this barbaric doctrine is in no way worthy of the all-knowing, all-wise God of the Scriptures whose essential nature is declared to be love.
The Arminians attempt to resolve this contradiction of the divine nature by saying that God voluntarily limits His sovereignty by the free-will decisions of His fallen children. He loves all equally, and in love took away the sins of the whole world once and for all in the person of Jesus Christ upon the cross. Now He can be just and at the same time justify the ungodly who receive Him by faith.
Nevertheless, according to them, those who for one reason or the other fail to make the free-will decision for Christ during the brief window of opportunity between the “age of accountability” and death, will forever lose their free-will to choose Christ – even if they didn’t choose Him for the simple reason that they never heard the gospel. And the “sovereign” God who loved them so much that He reconciled the whole world unto Himself, having taken away their sins, will later find himself bound by His own holiness to torment them forever in His wrath even though He loves them and gave His Son to be a propitiation for their sins, thus enabling Him to maintain His holiness and at the same time be propitious to them in spite of their sins.
Arminians not only unwittingly limit God’s sovereignty in order to protect the free-will of man to choose or reject Him: They also deny His sovereignty to save the lost after death. God’s sovereign will for an individual, which is their salvation, is limited, according to them, to one’s lifetime, because He chose to limit Himself to the limited “free-will” of fallen, confused and lost mortals.
However, after death when they can finally see clearly what Christ accomplished for them upon the cross, somehow they lose forever their free-will to repent and believe the gospel. In turn, God who loves all without exception of persons and desires that all be saved must now also somehow eternally limit His own “sovereign” free-will, condemning forever those whom He loves to eternal torments. His love and mercy which never come to an end must now somehow end forever for the only ones still in need of mercy – the lost multitudes. The loving Father, who does not reject forever (Lam 3:31-33), must now somehow violate His own word and subject the objects of His love to eternal wrath without any motive other than that of unending vengeance for their sins which Christ already bore in their place upon the cross.
The Calvinists, on the other hand, get around this problem by denying that love is a part of God’s essential nature. To them, love is not God’s essence but only an attribute. It is not even God’s governing attribute. According to them His holiness is His essential attribute, as though God’s nature could somehow be divided.
However, our God, who is love, found a way to be holy and just while at the same time justifying the ungodly through His greatest demonstration of love on the cross. In the cross, mercy and truth met together, and righteousness and peace kissed each other (Ps 85:10). In the cross, God demonstrated that His nature is not divided. He is love, and at the same time He is holy and just in forgiving unworthy sinners. He shows wrath, but in corrective love. He rejects, but not forever, because He is love. He is a consuming fire, but His fire only consumes the dross and refines the gold, because God is love.
Calvinists, in order to justify the traditional doctrine of an eternal hell for the majority, must deny that love was God’s motive in creation. To them God’s purpose in creation is to magnify His glory, period. God, from eternity, created hell and predetermined that the majority of humanity would suffer eternal torment for the sole purpose of magnifying His infinite justice. God receives glory by creating an eternal fiery hell and predestining the vast majority of mankind to suffer at His hands in order to bring praise to His name, magnifying the glory of His infinite justice in the form of implacable wrath.
In contrast, the Universalist sees the glory of both God’s infinite justice and His infinite love demonstrated in the cross of Jesus Christ, taking upon Himself the sins of the whole world, instead of presenting Him as one who eternally torments all but a select few eternally in hell in order to receive admiration.
If God indeed needed to receive praise by showing not only His love but also His holiness in the form of unending wrath and eternal torture, we would at least expect Him to choose the majority for salvation and only destine a few to eternal torment, since He could adequately show all creation how holy He is by torturing just a few, without needing to torment the majority. To torment the vast majority, while only showing mercy on a few would actually mitigate His glory rather than magnifying it.
Clearly in the Scriptures, God’s glory is best displayed in the Cross. God is ultimately glorified in the praise of the glory of His grace. His infinite wisdom is best revealed in converting His enemies into His most devout subjects. The God of infinite love and mercy would never seek to receive glory by setting in motion a plan for the ages which would end in eternal ruin and misery for the vast majority. The glory of agape love is in giving – not receiving. While God is seen at times to be glorified when the enemies of His people are defeated, His glory should not be seen in the act of avenging, but rather in the act of graciously delivering his people from their enemies. Ultimately, His glory is magnified by conquering His enemies by the power of His love:
“Say to God, ‘how awesome are Your works! Through the greatness of Your power your enemies shall submit themselves to You. 4 All the earth shall worship You and sing praises to You; they shall sing praises to Your name’.” (Ps 66:3-4)
The psalmist declares that all the earth will worship and sing praises to Him, when, through the greatness of His power, even His worst enemies submit themselves to Him. His glory is displayed in the greatness of His love, not His wrath. I personally feel greatly troubled and indignant when I contemplate how much God’s glorious loving character has been villainized by the traditional doctrine of eternal torment. Even John Piper who has put forth his best effort to present the traditional Calvinistic doctrine of Total Depravity in a manner worthy of God, when set alongside of the Calvinist doctrine of the Limited Atonement, refers to it as a “terrible truth.” [iv] And this in spite of the fact that he modifies the traditional model in order to make it more palatable. Any way you approach this terrible traditional doctrine, one cannot help but feel a sense of blasphemy just contemplating the logical conclusions implicit in both Arminian and Calvinist dogma.
Traditionalists designate these “truths” as doctrines too “terrible” and mysterious for mortal man to contemplate. They discourage any sincere criticism, calling it “divine mystery.” According to them, to bring into question the Scriptural validity of these terrible, dark mysteries is to exalt one’s own reason to the point of becoming judges of God’s ways and borders on blasphemy. However, with all due respect, we are not questioning God but rather man’s interpretations of God in the light of the Scriptures. We are commanded in Scripture to test all things, to hold fast what is good and abstain from every form of evil (1Thess 5:21-22). I do not believe that anyone can sincerely and critically carry these traditional doctrines to their inevitable, logical conclusions without recognizing that they are monstrously evil, unscriptural and unworthy of our God, and that we should therefore reject them without reserve.
I recognize that there are many dear men and women of God who hold to these doctrines whose love and devotion towards God are unquestionable. However, I believe that the majority of them have not dared to critically examine these “terrible dark truths” in the light of God’s nature as revealed in the Scriptures. Sadly, for many, the approval of man is more important than the approval of God, and for that reason, they are not willing to think outside of the traditional box.
[i] The Westminster Confession of Faith of Calvinism states: “The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of His own will, whereby He extendeth or withholdeth mercy, as He pleaseth, for the glory of His Sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonour and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice.”
[ii] They would argue that the elect are not just a few but a great multitude. Nevertheless, throughout history not even ten percent of all humanity could be said to have been Christians.
[iii] Lorraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, p. 63
[iv] Piper, John (2013-11-10). Five Points (Kindle Locations 223-229). Christian Focus Publications. Kindle Edition.