Total depravity is the biblical doctrine that sin permeates all aspects of our being—mind, will, and sensibilities. For Strict-Calvinists, total depravity means total inability. That is, lost sinners cannot respond to God at all, as they are spiritually unable (dead) to respond apart from God’s granting life and ability to believe. This leads them to conclude two things. First, God sovereignly acts by Himself to regenerate the spiritually dead and make them spiritually alive (monergism). Second, God gives the newly regenerate a special kind of faith whereby they can and will trust in Christ as Savior. According to Wayne Grudem, regeneration is “the act of God awakening spiritual life within us, bringing us from spiritual death to spiritual life. On this definition, it is natural to understand that regeneration comes before saving faith. It is in fact this work of God that gives us the spiritual ability to respond to God in faith.” This argument of a special kind of faith as a gift is largely taken from Ephesians 2:8-9. According to John MacArthur, “Our response in salvation is faith, but even that is not of ourselves [but is] the gift of God. Faith is nothing that we do in our own power or by our own resources…Paul intends to emphasize that even faith is not from us apart from God’s giving it.” The result of these divine actions in God’s elect means they will produce good works and will persevere in those works all their life until they die. John MacArthur states, “The same power that created us in Christ Jesus empowers us to do the good works for which He has redeemed us. These are the verifiers of true salvation.” Thus, good works from regeneration to the end of one’s life are the proof of salvation. Failure to produce ongoing good works until the end of one’s life is offered as proof he was never saved (Matt 7:21). Others who hold this view include notable scholars such as B.B. Warfield, R.C. Sproul, John Piper, Wayne Grudem, John Frame, and J.I. Packer.
However, the Biblicist takes a different view. He understands that total depravity means total unworthiness, not total inability to respond in faith to God’s offer of salvation. He sees regeneration as entirely the work of God in saving lost sinners who cannot save themselves (Rom 5:6-10). The sinner brings nothing of worth to salvation, but receives all that God has to offer by grace. Regeneration follows faith in Christ. John Walvoord states, “Regeneration is wholly of God. No possible human effort however noble can supply eternal life.” According to Lewis Sperry Chafer, regeneration refers to “the eternal life which comes into the believer in Christ at the moment of faith, the instantaneous change from a state of spiritual death to a state of spiritual life.” Paul Enns states, “Succinctly stated, to regenerate means ‘to impart life.’ Regeneration is the act whereby God imparts life to the one who believes.” Regeneration occurs in the one who believes in Christ as Savior. According to Charles Ryrie, “Salvation is always through faith, not because of faith (Eph 2:8). Faith is the channel through which we receive God’s gift of eternal life; it is not the cause. This is so man can never boast, even of his faith. But faith is the necessary and only channel (John 5:24; 17:3).” The Biblicist believes there is only one kind of faith, and that only those who place their faith in Christ will be saved. Faith does not save. Christ saves. The Strict-Calvinist believes there are two kinds of faith, one that is common to all, and another that is special and imparted only to God’s elect.
As a prooftext, Strict-Calvinists often point to Ephesians 2:8-9, which reads, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:8-9). Much of the debate centers around the demonstrative pronoun that (Grk τοῦτο touto). In Greek grammar, “A demonstrative pronoun is a pointer, singling out an object in a special way.” The Strict-Calvinist believes it refers back to its nearest antecedent, which is faith. But this fails to hold weight in Greek, as the demonstrative pronoun must agree with its antecedent in gender. In Ephesians 2:8, the demonstrative pronoun that (Grk τοῦτο touto) is neuter gender, whereas the nouns grace (χάρις charis) and faith (πίστις pistis) are feminine, thus showing the two are not necessarily connected. Daniel Wallace states, “On a grammatical level, then, it is doubtful that either ‘faith’ or ‘grace’ is the antecedent of τοῦτο.” Greek scholar, A. T. Robertson, states that “salvation does not have its source (ἐξ ὑμων) in men, but from God. Besides, it is God’s gift (δωρον) and not the result of our work.” According to Arnold Fruchtenbaum, “Never is saving faith the gift. The only passage the proponents of this doctrine go by is Ephesians 2:8-9, [whereby] they have to violate the rules of Greek grammar to claim that saving faith is a gift. Grammatically, that is an impossible interpretation. It is the salvation that is the gift, not the saving faith.” What’s ironic is that John Calvin did NOT believe that faith is a gift. In his commentary on Ephesians, John Calvin said, Paul’s “meaning is, not that faith is the gift of God, but that salvation is given to us by God.” John Calvin understood it properly.
There are numerous passages in the Bible that place faith as the necessary prerequisite to regeneration. It is written, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16), and Jesus said, “This is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life” (John 6:40). In these and other instances, “eternal life” is given after we believe in Jesus as our Savior. Furthermore, people are condemned, not because God has not made a way for them to be saved, but because of their unwillingness to come to Christ as Savior. The issue is individual choice, not inability. The apostle John said, “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18). Jesus, speaking to unsaved persons, said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life” (John 5:39-40). Jesus said the Holy Spirit convicts everyone of sin (John 16:8), particularly the sin of unbelief, “because they do not believe in Me” (John 16:9). There is only one sin that keeps a person out of heaven, and that is the sin of unbelief; of rejecting Jesus as the only Savior. Apparently unbelievers may resist the Holy Spirit, as Stephen said in his sermon, “You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:51a).
Scripture reveals that “God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent” (Acts 17:30). This means they must not trust in themselves or any system of good works to save, but must trust in Christ, and Christ alone to save. Faith does not save. Christ saves. Faith is the non-meritorious instrument by which we receive eternal life. The Strict-Calvinist believes Christ died only for the elect (Matt 1:21; John 10:15), and only the elect are savable. The Moderate-Calvinist believes Christ died for everyone (John 3:16; Heb 2:9; 1 John 2:2); therefore, everyone is savable, though only the elect will believe. Paul said, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men” (Tit 2:11), and that God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). Peter stated, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9). Like the apostle Paul, I “beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20). You can be saved by believing the gospel message “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:2-4).
Dr. Steven R. Cook
- The Gospel Explained
- A Look at Grace
- A Biblical Look at Volition
- God’s Imputed Righteousness
- Not of Works
- The Meaning of Sin
- God’s Righteousness at the Cross
- Soteriology – The Study of Salvation
- Three Phases of Salvation
 Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004), 702.
 John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary on Ephesians (Chicago, Ill. Moody Press, 1986), 98.
 Ibid., 101.
 John F. Walvoord, The Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids, Mich. Zondervan Publishing, 1977), 132.
 Lewis Sperry Chafer; Major Bible Themes (Grand Rapids, Mich. Zondervan Publishing, 2010), 97-98.
 Paul P. Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1989), 338.
 Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1999), 377.
 Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Zondervan Publishing House and Galaxie Software, 1996), 325.
 Ibid., 335.
 A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1933), Eph 2:8.
 Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, God’s Will & Man’s Will: Predestination, Election, & Free Will (San Antonio, TX: Ariel Ministries, 2014), 70–71.
 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1855), 228–229.