“The Link” – August 2018: TULIP pt. 1 – Total Depravity

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

A theological aspect of the PCA, among many other elements of theological and ecclesiastical confessions, is that we are “Reformed,” holding to Reformed Doctrine. This aspect is really a “header” of a system of doctrine, derived from the scriptures, that encompasses many various distinctive teachings. Over the next few months I’d like to focus on a particular teaching that came out of the Reformation, which is central to Reformed Doctrine, called TULIP, popularly known as The Five Points of Calvinism. While tulips are beautiful flowers, TULIP is an acronym for certain biblical principles of the beautiful salvation of the Lord: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. We’ll look at each in turn.

It is a mistake to think that Calvinism is all about the five points. Calvin did not outline these in the form we have now. Rather, the principle doctrines underlying and built upon these points are found in the vast body of teaching of Calvin. Challenging the doctrine inextricably linked with Calvin’s name, the Arminians (so-called after Jacobus Arminius), called the “Remonstrants,” put forward five points of argument. In response to their points of argument, the Canon of Dort in 1619 formulated The Five Points of Calvinism. Hence, TULIP actually came about as a response to the Arminian challenge to the Reformed teaching of John Calvin concerning the doctrinal principles of salvation.

Total Depravity is encapsulated in the Westminster Confession of Faith (IX.3):

Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man, being altogether averse from good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.

R.C. Sproul suggests a “better term” for Total Depravity is “radical corruption.” He describes the doctrine in Grace Unknown: The Heart of Reformed Theology (p.118):

The word radical derives from the Latin radix, which means “root.” To say that mankind is radically corrupt is to say that sin penetrates to the root or core of our being. Sin is not tangential or peripheral, but arises from the center of our being. It flows from what the Bible calls the “heart,” … the “core” of our being.

Essentially, humankind is corrupted by “original sin,” meaning we suffer from the fallout of Adam’s sin, being conceived and born as sinners. When Adam, the natural father of us all, sinned, sin entered into the human race, and was imprinted on our very being. Indeed, sin corrupts our whole being, effecting our mind, heart, will, emotions, body, and relationships. We sin because we are sinners and do not become sinners the first time we sin. Humankind is basically sinful, and the fallout of this sin nature is our depravity.

Total Depravity is alternately called Total Inability. This highlights the effect our sinful state has to do with our ability to come to know the Lord. The human race’s sin broke the relationship of intimate and loving fellowship with God. It has made us “unable to love and serve God, and that the sinner, of himself, cannot repent and believe” (Arthur W. Pink Sovereignty of God, p. 187). Pink further elaborates (p. 128): “In and of himself the natural man has power to reject Christ; but in and of himself he has not the power to receive Christ.” So, as corrupted sinners, unregenerate, we cannot of our own free will choose to receive Christ and his salvation from God’s wrath. This is because we are enslaved to sin. Without God doing something to rectify this problem, we have no hope.

Total Depravity is revealed throughout the Bible. Here is a brief selection of verses:

Gn 2:17 (ESV) – but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.

Jb 14:4 – Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? There is not one.

Ps 51:1 – Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.

Jer 13:23 – Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil.

Jn 3:19 – And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.

Rom 3:10-12 – as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

Rom 5:12 – Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—

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.

Eph 2:1-3 – And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

Other verses include Prv 30:12; Mt 11:25; Jn 3:3; 5:21; 6:53; 8:19; 14:16; Acts 13:41; 1 Cor 1:18; 2 Cor 1:9; 5:17; and Eph 2:12.

The doctrine of Total Depravity paints a bleak picture for the human race. Our only hope is for God to do something about it, restoring our relationship with him. The good news is that God did do something, sending us his Son, Jesus, to redeem us. Over the next few months, we’ll see how the other points of TULIP address God’s action towards our redemption, and our status as a redeemed people.

In Christ,