Hereditary Total Depravity And New Testament Proof Texts

By Almon Williams

This study will limit itself to four New Testament texts commonly cited by Calvinists as proof of their doctrine of hereditary total depravity: Romans 7:18; 8:5-7; 1 Corinthians 2:14; and Ephesians 2:1-3. In examining these passages, I shall endeavor to illustrate the shortcomings of Calvinistic exegesis and the inconsistency of their claims. Throughout this study, I shall always try to keep in mind the following two guidelines of Whiteside when he cautions, “We must not arrive at conclusions that contradict other plain statements of the Scriptures, or give the sinner any excuse for continuing in sin” (Doctrinal Discourses, p. 108).

Romans 7:18

Calvinists like to use this passage to prove that since “no good thing” dwells in man, he must be totally in bondage to sin. The problem is that Calvinists, generally, apply Romans 7:14 (15)-25 to the regenerated who have had the total power of sin over them broken by the Spirit. Their dilemma is obvious: they cannot exegete the power of sin over the sinner out of the passage and then later find it there to prove his total depravity. In other words, since the regenerated have been redeemed from the power of original sin, they are no longer totally depraved, regardless of how great their depravity was before they were regenerated. The extent of this depravity would still have to be assumed, for the degree of the sinfulness of one’s former self is nowhere in Romans 7:18 either stated or necessarily implied. This proof text on the sinner’s total depravity is no proof text at all!

However, if any Calvinist wishes to apply this passage to the unregenerated sinner, the language of the text is decidedly against the idea of total sinfulness. The passage, as well as its context (7:14-25), recognizes goodness in the soul of man, for Paul says, “For to will is present with me (i.e. to do the good of the law, ALW); but how to perform that which is good I find not” (7:18). Weakness, no doubt; total wickedness, hardly!

Romans 8:5-7

In this passage, Calvinists see the utter corruption of the sinner because “the carnal mind” of the sinner, to them, seems to be wholly at “enmity against God” and thus not able to be “subject to the law of God,” and, because the minding of the flesh seems to be a total minding of the flesh. (For example, see Calvin on Rom. 7:5-7.) In making their case here, they assume two things essential to their doctrine, and then, read these into (eisegete) the text.

First, they have not dealt evenhandedly with the two clauses of 8:5. They do not believe that the minding of the Spirit is absolute whereas, at the same time, they assume that the minding of the flesh is absolute. Calvin, while asking in 8:5, “who in this world can be found adorned with so much angelic purity so as to be wholly freed from the flesh?” insists that the carnal are “those who wholly devote themselves to the world.” Now, my question is: If the language about minding the Spirit does not necessarily have to be taken in a total or absolute sense, why does the language about minding the flesh have to be taken in a total or absolute sense? Let the Calvinists answer themselves on this point. What would they say to an advocate of perfectionism who argued that “to mind the Spirit” means to do so perfectly? Would they not accuse such a one of both adding to this specific Scripture and of making it contradict other Scriptures expressing the sinfulness of Paul and other good Christians? Indeed, there is no more proof in this “proof text,, for Calvinistic total depravity than for Wesleyan perfectionism.

Second, they assume that no one having either of these minds can change his mind and adopt the opposite mind. (For a reply, see Moses Stuart’s comments on 8:7 in his commentary on Romans [3rd ed., p. 351], to the effect that this is reading into the text what the text does not say.) The Scriptures teach, however, that a voluntary conversion is possible. In Ezekiel 18 God insists that both the righteous and the wicked can turn from their respective pasts. And in Romans 6, Paul argues individual responsibility for any change anyone might ever make. “Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?’ I (v. 16) Again, the proof text proves what no one denies, namely: that, when men mind the flesh, they are sinners.

1 Corinthians 2:14

From this passage, the Calvinists get utter impotency not only of the sinner to believe the gospel but also of the gospel to impart faith to the sinner. For example, Calvin emphasizes “how great is this weakness . . . of the human understanding of the sinner (italics mine, ALW), that is not only “not willing to be wise” but also not “able” to be so. “Hence,” concludes he, “faith is not in one’s own power, but is divinely conferred,” and “the gospel,” thus he denies, “is offered to mankind in common in such a way that all indiscriminately are free to embrace salvation by faith.”

The issue, here, is: Can the natural man’s attitude about the things of God be changed from the presumption of “foolishness” to the conclusion that these things are, in fact, “the power of God, and the wisdom of God” (1:24)? Since this verse speaks only of the continuing attitude of the worldly man, what are the facts regarding the possibility of him changing his mind and becoming a believer without God’s directly enabling him to do this? What is the nature of the “can not” of the natural man? Is it an inborn ability or an inability born simply of his present antagonistic mindset? (For a perceptive analysis of the natural man’s inability due to his antagonistic mindset, see William Barclay’s The Letters to the Corinthians, p. 32.)

The proof that the natural man’s problem is an antagonistic mindset is found in Paul’s solution for the natural man. To change the natural man’s mind, Paul relied on two things: (1) the Spirit’s wisdom, i.e. the simple, non-philosophical preaching of Christ; and, (2) the Spirit’s power, i.e. the miracles or signs of God (1 Cor. 2:14). Such reliance was in order “that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (2:5). And what were the results? See Acts 18:8 where “many” obeyed the gospel. Undoubtedly, some of them had the mindset which had pronounced as foolish the message of the Gospel; namely that an executed Jewish “criminal” was the Savior of the world. (To see how Paul handled the worldly mind of Christians, carefully study his argument in 1 Cor. 3.) In conclu sion, Paul’s natural man is simp ly the sinner who does not obey the gospel until he changes his views and becomes willing to do so.

Ephesians 2:1-3

Calvinists try to exploit the terms “dead” (v. 1), “nature” and “children of wrath” (v. 3c) to construct their doctrine of hereditary total depravity. They argue that the sinner by his innate nature is born dead in Adam’s sin and thus from birth is under the wrath of God.

Their first problem is that the terms they focus on are ambiguous in meaning, and that their clausal relationship of thought to the statement of 1-3b is, also, ambiguous. The questions, in the first case, are: Is “nature” inborn or acquired, and if inborn, is it neccessitarian nature or permissive nature? Is “wrath” God’s wrath or man’s wrath? And does children of wrath mean characterized by wrath on man’s part or liable to wrath from God’s side? In the second case: Does 3c give the cause for man’s actual sins (i.e. inherited sin) or the consequence of sinful deeds (i.e. “And so were by nature the children of wrath”)? Clearly, this passage cannot be used to prove anything until these ambiguities are cleared up.

Their second problem is that the context of Ephesians is against them regarding the nature of death and the reason for God’s wrath coming upon man.

The Calvinists are wrong both on the cause of death and its extent. Paul does not attribute death to original sin but to actual sins when he remembers that the Ephesians “were dead in (i.e. through, ASV) trespasses and sins” (2:1). Calvin himself confirms this when he states, “He (i.e. Paul, ALW) says that they were dead,- and states, at the same time, the cause of the death trespasses and sins. ” Here, Calvin’s exegesis is right; his theology is wrong. Further, Calvin answers himself on the necessity of the totality of death via his inconsistency on the totality of life, which is its opposite. On the one hand, he overstates theologically the extent of the fact of death, “Out of Christ we are altogether dead, because sin, the cause of death, reigns in us,” but, on the other hand, he admits that “regeneration only begins in this life; the relics of the flesh which remain, always follow their own corrupt propensities, and thus carry on a contest against the Spirit” (Rom. 7:14). In short, if the life is not total, why should the death, which is its opposite, be total?

The Calvinists are also wrong on the cause for God’s wrath coming on man and the time when it does so. In Ephesians, Paul has God’s wrath coming on man as the result of his actual sins and at the time when he sins (see 5:6). The issue is: Does it come upon sinners because (and thus after) they sin, or is it already upon man, even as a baby, because of inherited sin? If it does not come upon the person in 5:6, an unambiguous statement, until they are sinners, how could Paul say in 2:3c, an ambiguous statement, that it had already come upon them at birth because of original sin?


Due to limitations of space, I have not been able to show what each of these passages does teach; I have only been able to show that they do not teach what the Calvinists say they teach. Throughout this study, I believe it has been shown that Calvinists cannot prove their doctrine from the Scriptures. They try hard indeed, but their efforts are doomed to failure because they have to assume that the Scriptures teach that which they need to prove from the Scriptures. And if we were to grant, for argument’s sake, their assumptions, what would the result of their doctrine mean for man?

It would be very discouraging indeed, for as Whiteside says:

People who reach the stage of depravity are utterly beyond the hope of redemption. Such were the people before the flood, and such were the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. To be totally depraved means to be totally lost now and in the world to come (Romans, p. 162).

Guardian of Truth XXXI: 1, pp. 34-35
January 1, 1987