Paul said we are dead. Specifically, he said we are dead “in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1a).
The typical Calvinist interpretation of that passage suggests that prior to our conversion, we are completely devoid of any good or godly inclinations, or to say it another way, we are totally depraved.
As one author asserts:
[We] “are totally corrupt, in every part, in all [our] faculties, and all the principles of [our] nature, [our] understandings, and wills; and in all [our] dispositions and affections. [Our] heads, [our] hearts, are totally depraved; all the members of [our] bodies are only instruments of sin; and all [our] senses, seeing, hearing, tasting, etc. are only inlets and outlets of sin, channels of corruption. There is nothing but sin, no good at all.” /1
John Calvin parroted these thoughts when he wrote:
“The whole man, from the crown of the head to the sole of the foot, is so deluged, as it were, that no part remains exempt from sin, and therefore, everything which proceeds from him is imputed as sin.” /2
Now think about it. Is an individual outside of Christ, prior to conversion, incapable of any good whatsoever as these men suggest? If not, then how can we account for many of the people we read about in the New Testament?
- Devout men in Jerusalem for Pentecost: “And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). If man is totally depraved and thus incapable of any good, then how could these individuals be described as “devout” in verse 5, when their conversion didn’t take place until verse 41? The Greek word translated devout is eulabeis and means pious. How is it possible to be totally depraved and pious at the same time?
- The Ethiopian eunuch: “And behold, a man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace the queen of the Ethiopians, who had charge of all her treasury, and had come to Jerusalem to worship, as returning. And sitting in his chariot, he was reading Isaiah the prophet” (Acts 8:27-28). If a man prior to conversion incapable of any good, then how can we account for the fact that the eunuch had travelled a great distance to worship and was engaged in studying the Old Testament Scriptures? According to Calvinists, an individual who is totally depraved is an inlet and outlet of sin, a channel of corruption, and there is no good in him at all. He therefore isn’t capable of homage to the Father much less in learning his word.
- Cornelius: Luke describes him as “a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always” (Acts 10:2). It is difficult to find anyone who is more highly spoken of in Scripture than this Roman soldier (v. 1). Cornelius was devout, believed in Jehovah and embraced the moral and ethical standards of the Law, was generous to those in need, was prayerful, held in high regard by the Jews, and described later in the chapter as a “just” man (v. 22). Proponents of Calvinist theology insist that a person outside of Christ is totally depraved and therefore incapable of even the slightest aptitude for goodness until the Holy Spirit acts upon him. If this doctrine is true, how can we account for Cornelius’ behavior?
1/ Jonathan Edwards, The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners, 8-9.
2/ John Calvin, Institutes of The Christian Religion, 302.