Session 3: Study of verses used to support total depravity (inability to believe) (part 1)
This is session 3 of an 8-part series which will help readers study the Bible and come to their own conclusions regarding Calvinism. Please see session 1 for an overview of these 8 parts and further background on this series.
A review of session 2
In session 2, we demonstrated that the doctrine of unconditional election – arguably the core distinctive of the Reformed faith – is dependent on the understanding that people are inherently unable to respond to the Holy Spirit’s convicting ministry. For this session, this understanding will be termed total inability.
Unconditional election and its corollaries (unconditional condemnation to hell, or reprobation, and irresistible grace) comprise an airtight, unassailable fortress resting upon the foundation of total inability.
Unfortunately, much of the criticism against Calvinism has been aimed directly at the walls of this fortress: trying to speak for God’s criteria behind election and predestination. As mere mortals, we cannot dogmatically say we have peered into the mind of God as yet to be authoritatively revealed, and so the debate has continued for centuries.
More ground can be gained if we focused on the foundation of this fortress: on people and whether they require God’s sovereign intervention in order to receive Jesus. If the answer were “no,” or “potentially no,” or even “likely yes, but cannot be confirmed,” that would alter the Calvinist’s understanding of unconditional election.
An overview of sessions 3 and 4
There are four primary categories of verses used to support total inability:
- A: Verses which describe people as unable to do anything to merit God’s favor
- B: Verses which describe spiritual blindness on the part of unsaved people
- C: Verses which describe saving faith and repentance as a gift
Session 3 will go over A and B, and session 4 will go over C.
Divorcing depravity from ability to receive forgiveness
All orthodox Christians agree that people are sinful and are unable to please God, much less merit righteousness. Because of Adam and Eve’s rebellion, we are born spiritually dead and separated from God. Sin permeates every part of our being, from our heart, to our will, mind, desires, and affections. Our natural disposition is one that is hostile to God, and our natural bent, apart from divine intervention, is a journey to eternal separation from God.
However, there is an essential difference between A) committing sin against God and being unable and unwilling to stop committing sin against God; and B) receiving forgiveness for sins. Ephesians 2:8-9 states that we are saved not by works, but by receive grace through believing (belief, or faith, is not meritorious). Faith is contrasted with works in Romans 4:5: But to the one who does not work, but believes in the one who declares the ungodly righteous, his faith is credited as righteousness. So while people cannot merit favor with God through works, they can through faith in Jesus.
The critical question then is whether people have a genuine choice in whether they receive grace through faith. The non-Calvinist answer is yes: God grants people more illumination leading to saving faith if they stop resisting the convicting work of the Spirit.
The Calvinist answer is no: people are unwilling and unable to believe unless God sovereignly regenerates and makes them willing and able. There are two categories of Scripture used to support this: those which describe repentance and saving faith as a gift, and those which describe unsaved people as spiritually blinded and unable to believe. The remainder of this session will go over this latter category:
A pattern observed in Scripture: God blinds those who resist conviction
There is a pattern across Scripture: if people are confronted with revelation but demonstrate that they are unwilling to be convicted, then in time God may pronounce judgment so that they are unable to believe. We will ask you to look into a few examples this session, including Saul, Abimelech, Ahab, and the Pharisees.
Here is where the Calvinist and the non-Calvinist differ in terms of interpretation: the Calvinist would argue that these people were unwilling because they are unable, and God’s judgment is a pronouncement of fact. The non-Calvinist would argue that these people were made unable as a condemnation for their unwillingness.
- For example, 1 Samuel 2:25 states that Eli’s sons would not listen to their father, for the Lord had decided to kill them. We know why Eli’s sons died: because the Lord decided to kill them. But the verse is silent as to why God decided on to kill them. The non-Calvinist would argue that this is because of their continued evil behavior (1 Samuel 2:22-23) despite the privilege of being sons of a high priest. This willful rejection, which continued throughout Eli’s life until he was “very old,” resulted in God’s judgment of hardening of their hearts so that they became no longer able to repent. The Calvinist would counter that asking for a reason for God’s judgment is moot: God had simply decreed to leave them in their natural, evil state and this is the righteous outcome. However, whether these sons ever had a genuine choice is not explicitly answered by the text.
This is one of several examples in the Bible of spiritual blindness or hardening being rendered on people who have already resisted God. Because there is a high degree of correlation here, it is difficult to deny from Scripture data alone the possibility that a person’s free choice to reject revelation may lead to a total inability to receive salvation.
Three key passages used to support total inability from the standpoint of spiritual blindness
So far, we have only considered passages discussing spiritual blindness as a judgment to people who have already demonstrated persistent unbelief, and demonstrated that both the Calvinist and non-Calvinist interpretations are tenable.
Branching out, if there were even one example of God spiritually blinding someone who had been seeking (or had stopped resisting), the Calvinist case would be immensely bolstered. Yet, this is an unfair demand, as the Calvinist framework forbids someone from seeking unless God has granted irresistible grace.
Even though there are no such Bible passages, there are a few verses which describe a spiritually blinded group of people who have not explicitly described as having resisted God prior. The following are three such key passages which can be potentially argued to support the doctrine of total inability:
1 Corinthians 2:14: The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him. And he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.
The Calvinist interpretation of this is very straightforward and concise. A natural man cannot receive from God and cannot understand spiritual matters. Therefore, the natural man must be made supernatural (regenerated) in order to believe in and receive Jesus as savior. This must be an act of God, outside of the will of the natural man (who is inherently unable to believe and receive). Therefore, unconditional election and irresistible grace can be deduced from this passage, which affirms total inability. Here are three of the five TULIP petals in one verse!
One question the non-Calvinist may ask is, what is a “thing of the Spirit of God,” and does that include an offer of salvation? It can be argued that these “things” are a direct reference to spiritual wisdom and the “deep things of God” which are discussed a few verses earlier, as the passage is contrasting mature and immature believers. As Paul does not define these things to include the Gospel message, either interpretation is possible.
A second question that can be asked is whether the Gospel message is more accurately defined as A) a spiritual matter, or B) a plain matter that unregenerate people can receive once they stop resisting conviction (which leads to the question whether an unregenerate person is able to choose to yield to God’s conviction of sin). Again, the Bible does not specifically espouse one interpretation (A or B).
There is another interpretation of this, which considers the two statements in this verse as building off of one another. It is possible that a natural man does not receive spiritual things because he will not believe (in which case, he would be a spiritual man). The “cannot” is only found in the second statement of this verse; in other words, because he will not believe, he remains a natural man and cannot discern spiritual things.
2 Corinthians 4:3-4: But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing, among whom the god of this age has blinded the minds of those who do not believe so they would not see the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God.
The two key questions here both pertain to those who are perishing: why are they perishing, and why has God allowed the god of this age to blind their minds? It is certainly conceivable that they are perishing because they have no alternative as they are not among the elect and have not received an irresistible call of regeneration. But it is also conceivable that they are perishing because they would not believe, which resulted in God’s judgment: allowing the god of this age to blind their minds. Both are possible. Further, this passage does not specify whether this is an irreversible blinding, or whether there is still an opportunity for these perishing people to believe and be saved.
1 Peter 2:7-8: So you who believe see his value, but for those who do not believe, the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone, and a stumbling-stone and a rock to trip over. They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
The key here is what exactly these unbelievers were destined to do: A) to not believe, or B) to stumble because they do not believe. Both interpretations are tenable, and if B were true, this would not be a verse that supports total inability, but rather the Bible’s exclusive claim of truth.
There are a few Bible translations which indicate that this destiny includes a certain “doom.” The reader can consult a free online Interlinear Greek Bible to see that the word “doom” is not in the original text; they were understandably added by scholars who believe in the interpretation that these people were destined to not believe: http://biblehub.com/interlinear/1_peter/2-8.htm.
This week’s exercises
Because there is no definitive case to be made for these three verses, 1 Corinthians 2:14, 2 Corinthians 4:3-4, and 1 Peter 2:7-8, these verses will be considered as potentially offering evidence for the doctrine of total inability.
However, the majority of verses pertaining to spiritual blindness typically used to support total inability actually fit under the first category, where people are confronted with revelation but demonstrate that they are unwilling to be convicted, which results in God pronounce judgment so that they are unable to believe.
Please consider the following passages under both the Calvinist (people were unwilling because they are unable, and God’s judgment is a pronouncement of fact) and the non-Calvinist (people were made unable as a condemnation for their unwillingness) framework:
- Ephesians 4:18
- Judges 9:23
- 2 Chron 18:19-22
- Jude 1:4
- 2 Peter 2 (entire chapter)
Next session we will consider whether repentance and saving faith are gifts from God, distributed arbitrarily from a human perspective.
Session 6: Romans 9, Acts 13:48, and 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14
Session 7: Understanding predestination
Session 8: Comparison with Arminianism
Session 9: Big picture suggests one of God genuinely striving with humanity