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  • Daniel Klassen

TULIP: Total Depravity

When total depravity is addressed, it is the problem of sin that is being talked about. The common tendency is to ask, "Why such a fuss? Isn't it simple that we are sinners?" However, this doctrine of total depravity is not a dispute as to whether or not we are sinful; it is a dispute over the extent of our sinfulness.

Differences between Arminians and Calvinists

How sinful are we? For starters, both the Arminians and Calvinists seem to have a similar view. In the Articles of Remonstrance (Arminian), it states in Article III. that "man has not the saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free will, inasmuch as he, in the state of apostasy and sin, can of and by himself neither think, will, nor do any thing that is truly good." The Canons of Dort (Calvinist) state that all men, born in sin, are "by nature children of wrath, incapable of saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage thereto … neither able nor willing to return to God, to reform the depravity of their nature."

Both these views, as I already mentioned, seem similar. Both have a sense of sin and sinfulness, and both are quite damning in the eyes of our modern Western culture. However similar these two views may seem, there is a world of difference. To give an illustration, let us imagine two rockets, side by side, taking off for the moon. They have the same starting point and destination, but one of them never lands on the moon. It sails past into outer space. As it turns out, the rocket that missed the moon had the wrong coordinates. They were off by only a few numbers, but it was enough for them to miss their destination. They both took off from the same spot with almost the same coordinates, but their outcome was much different. So it is with this doctrine. Both Arminians and Calvinists seem to start with a similar position on the sinfulness of humanity, but end up with different gospels.

If we are to take a closer look at both of these views, we will find that there is, in fact, a world of a difference between them. The Canons of Dort are quite a bit longer than the Articles of Remonstrance, and so they deal with the subjects in greater detail. Along with their affirmation of belief, the Synod of Dort also included their rejection of beliefs contrary to their own. By this, we see that they kept their belief system consistent with itself, not contradicting the rest of what they had written. The Remonstrants, on the other hand, contradict what they believe about sin in the rest of their articles. The beliefs stated in the other four articles do not claim that man is as sinful as their article on depravity claims. This is why the Arminians who followed had to change their view on depravity; it did not fit the rest of their belief system.

The summary of the Canons of Dort can be put into two words, radical sinfulness. Man is so sinful that he is completely unable to do that which is truly good, take hold of grace, or believe in Christ for salvation. According to the Calvinistic perspective of sin, man is dead and cannot do anything of himself to procure salvation. Man not only lost the fellowship he had with God in the fall, but all ability for holiness and godliness was also lost as well. He became a slave to sin, dead in sin, and without any hope of salvation within himself.

The Articles of Remonstrance definition of sin summed up in two words would be limited sinfulness. Man is sinful to a degree. His problem is sin, but if he only would take hold of Christ, he could be free from his problem. Man is perfectly capable of choosing Christ to free him from his sin. The only thing man lost in the fall was his relationship with God but retained his ability to live a holy and godly life.

The Calvinist position, according to the Canons of Dort, is most biblical. It is clear that man is born in sin, having inherited sin from Adam (Rom. 5:12). It is not that we are sinners because we have sinned, but we sin because we are sinners (Rom. 1:23-24). We are not able to keep the law so that our sin would be shown to be sin (Rom. 7:13). This is because we are dead in sin, without the power to obtain life (Eph. 2:1).

What do we make of the good and benevolent acts which sinners often do? They are only good in a general sense. They are good and benevolent towards others, but towards God, they are still an abomination because they are done from a heart that does not fear him. The righteous acts sinners do are detestable to God. No sinner does anything that is truly good (Rom. 3:9-18).

Implications for Today

The doctrine of sin, as explained by the Canons of Dort, is by far the minority perspective not only in our culture but in the Western Church. “People are generally good,” we say, “there are only a few who make us look bad.” I have often heard of how our faith in humanity is either lost or restored because of certain acts done by certain people. However, total depravity is a most necessary perspective if we are to retain our Christianity. The necessity of a saviour depends on our view of sin. If we aren’t that sinful, the need for a saviour is not that great. While we would still need saving, we wouldn’t be enamoured by our saviour to the extent of devoting our whole lives to him. Those who are saved from little, love little (Luke 7:47).

Our evangelism is directly influenced by our understanding of sin. What are we calling sinners to, a better life without the nagging problem of sin? Or are we calling them to Christ, who saves us from our dreadful situation? Are we just in need of a spiritual upgrade, or do we need life? How you see people will directly influence which gospel you will proclaim to them. Will it be a false gospel of good works, or the true gospel of salvation through Christ alone?

Sin is a greater problem than we are accustomed to thinking it is. When our sinfulness is explained, and our condition of being dead in sin is expounded, the quick response by many evangelicals is, “but….” We can list numerous reasons why we think we aren’t that sinful, but they all fall short of Scripture. The doctrine of sin found in the Canons of Dort teach us that sin is much worse than we think it is, and we are more in need of a saviour than we want to believe. The doctrine of total depravity is a heavenly doctrine, for it beholds the holiness and justice of God with the utmost clarity, and therefore must see sin as the great evil it is.

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