Total Depravity or Total Inability

by Terry W. Benton

Calvinism is commonly summarized and remembered by use of an acrostic formula using the word TULIP. The first letter stands for "Total Depravity" or "Total Spiritual Inability". Let me let a Calvinist explain what is meant by this term.

"Total depravity is a concept that everyone including the elect and non-elect is incapable of choosing God because he is sinful. In my opinion, Arminians, who reject this point, do not understand Romans 3:10-11 as it is written, THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE; THERE IS NONE WHO UNDERSTANDS, THERE IS NONE WHO SEEKS GOD; Romans 3:10-11"

They say that the reason none seek God is because they are incapacitated or unable to do so. That is why some prefer to call it total spiritual inability.

"(T) - Total Spiritual Inability (Sinners are unable to come to Christ unless the Holy Spirit regenerates them)"

This idea says we were totally unable to choose God and righteousness from birth, thus inborn with total depravity. But, if we are totally depraved from birth, then we were never able to be responsible before God, and therefore at no time were we ever alive spiritually and safe from sin and condemnation (Romans 7:9). But, if totally depraved from birth, then unable to be held accountable. None who are totally disabled are accountable. It cannot be the baby's fault that he is totally unable, and at no point in time as he grows to manhood can a totally incapacitated person ever be responsible to do what he has always been unable to do. Imagine how useless and silly it is to talk to a hammer and command the hammer to go build you a house and then warn the hammer that if it does not obey you, you will throw it into the fire. That is the scene with God trying to command people who never had ability to hear and obey and then acting like they can be moved by warnings.

While guilt is a necessary conclusion for all, the responsibility is within ability. In other words we are guilty because we do not seek God to understand, not because we can't do so. Total depravity says we don't even have the ability to seek God. If we can't do so, then we are not responsible to do so. Romans 3 does not speak of our inability, but of our guilt, and guilt implies that we did not use our ability to seek God, and therefore, we could not be anything but guilty before God. Furthermore, the passage says that we all have "gone out of the way" (which implies that there was a time when we were not "out of the way"). Total inability implies that we never had any ability and therefore were always out of the way.

This passage does not support the Calvinist doctrine: "God made men upright but they sought devices" (Ecclesiastes 7:29) (plural can't refer only to Adam). The verse talks about being upright (not totally depraved), but then tells what goes wrong with these upright men. They "sought" many devices. Watch this verse carefully. "This only have I found: God made mankind upright, (not totally depraved and totally unable to do upright things and be upright) but men have gone in search of many schemes." (It was not built into them. They went from an upright state to seeking schemes that were not already built into their totally depraved nature). (Ecclesiastes 7:29, NIV).

But, also remember that if man was born totally depraved, then there can be no good feature in a child that we need to mimic, yet Jesus said we have to become as little children if we would enter the kingdom (Matthew 18:1ff). Why would God want us to mimic those totally depraved little brats?

If all people are totally and inherently depraved, then when God said "Hear O Israel", they couldn't hear or obey the command to obey. They were "totally unable" to hear and obey. In fact it is silly to command a hammer to do anything on its own or to even take a first step toward cooperating with another. If the Calvinist's doctrine of Total Inability and Total Depravity is true, then Israel could no more "Hear" than a hammer could hear and it would be just as silly for God to be talking to totally unable people as it would be for me to command a hammer to listen to me and obey me. Nor could God hold us accountable anymore than I can hold my hammer accountable for being lazy and always just lying around doing nothing, a total waste of existence. The scene that Calvinism creates is actually blasphemous to God. It makes Him look as ridiculous as a man talking to his hammer and then getting angry at it for not obeying commands.

Steve Rudd observed:

"If every newborn is "utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil", then how do we account for the goodness of the "unregenerate" like Cornelius, Acts 10:1-4, 22, or anyone else today. How do we account for all the good things that non-Christians do? Then how can "evil men proceed from bad to worse" 1 Ti 3:13?"

Indeed! How can one move from "totally depraved" to worse than total? I would add that if we are all inborn with total inability and total depravity, how can there be a situation where Gentiles "do by nature the things contained in the Law"? (Romans 2:14). I guess they were pre-programmed and regenerated first, which leads us back to the question of how any man is really guilty at all. It looks like all the guilt falls on the ProgrammER, not the programmED. A computer can only do what it is programmed to do. If the programmER does not allow and give the computer the capability to do anything else, how foolish to destroy the computer for not doing what it couldn't do anyway.

Now, I fully anticipate that the Calvinist will say the issue of fairness was raised in Romans 9:20 and we have no right to question God's justice and fairness. Wait just a minute! This context is not about leaving the Jews programmed to reject God, but of God's right to choose between the fleshly seed of Abraham and the spiritual seed of Abraham. At the end of Paul's discussion he tells us that the reason many Jews were rejected and Gentiles accepted was "Because they did not seek it (righteousness) by faith" (Romans 9:32), putting the responsibility where it really belonged. The context is not showing that God has a right to be arbitrary about SALVATION, but that He had a right to reject Jews who did not believe in Jesus even though He promised to bless the seed of Abraham. God made the choice to reject the descendants of Abraham who did not seek righteousness by faith but as it were, by the works of the Law.

He had as much right to make that decision as He did to make the decision to select Jacob over Esau or Isaac over Ishmael. He affirms there is no unrighteousness with God. He was not arbitrarily making a decision to send Esau and Ishmael to Hell. It was not a decision about eternal destinies in their cases. It was a decision about which seed-line to use to bring the Savior into the world.

The decision to bless only believing Jews is not arbitrary, but well within the right of any just ruler to choose the avenue and conditions of blessing that he chooses. Was it unjust for God to not bless some of the descendants of Abraham? Not at all. He argues that they call still yet seek it by faith (Romans 9:33; 10:1-3,13,16; 11:20,23). So, though a Sovereign Lord may choose certain conditions for blessing without it being unjust, His conditions made some Jews think that God had not kept His promise to bless them if Christians were correct. They argued that they were Abraham's descendants, had the law and circumcision from God, and now Christians seem to be claiming that that counts for nothing, that God is only going to bless a few Jews and a lot of Gentiles. That appeared to make God unfair and unjust. So, Paul lays out the case for God having the right to have mercy on whom He wills and make the choices He made without really being unjust and totally arbitrary. He lays the blame squarely on the shoulders of the unbelieving Jews because their own Scriptures told them an unpopular "rock of offense" would be the one they would need to believe in order to not be put to shame (Romans 9:33; 10:11). They stumbled anyway over that rock and their unbelief was what put them to shame. So, Paul argues that God was indeed just and He warned the Jews fairly of what would happen. If they failed to believe, it was fair of God to choose not to bless them. God never chose people to salvation or condemnation arbitrarily. If He did, that would indeed make God unjust.

We may have more to say about this passage when we analyze the doctrine of Unconditional Election, the next link in the TULIP chain. Right now we are establishing that God did not pre-program the Jews to be unbelievers, which would indeed be unjust and unfair. If all of us were totally depraved and totally incapacitated due to no fault of our own, and God chooses to leave many incapacitated and blame them for it and send them to hell, then that is unjust. If God decided arbitrarily to give a few the capacity to believe and actually programmed them to believe, and then acted like He was "rewarding" them and blessing them with eternal bliss for the way He programmed them, then that would indeed be unfair and unjust. If the Judge of all the earth acts that way, then it would be just for a Judge to dismiss all juries, file some criminals by his desk, hand some walking papers out arbitrarily and sentence the rest to death on no basis other than the Judges' own "goodness". That is not right or justice at all.

If the reason Jesus was sinless was because God did not allow Him to inherit the totally depraved nature that would have totally disabled Him, then why does God hold others responsible and accountable for sin? God made us so that we could not walk upright, and then condemned us for doing what we had absolutely no control over. Why did He not give us the same advantage as Calvinists assert that He gave Jesus? This totally perverts justice. Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? It is like sending mentally retarded folk to eternal fire for being born mentally retarded. If we inherited mental retardation from Adam's sin, then true justice would hold only Adam responsible. The rest of us could not help being totally incapacitated, and true justice will not condemn the innocent. Romans 3 says we have all "gone out of the way," which implies that we moved away from the state of innocence and uprightness that we were born with. So, even though we have all sinned, the guilt is ours for going out of the way and letting sin dominate and control our thoughts and actions. A drunkard sinned somewhere along the way by taking that first drink. He was totally responsible, but he never stopped and then it mastered him, and he became a slave to it. But, he was not born a slave to it. He was responsible for his own sins.

Now consider this doctrine and apply it to particular cases of conversion you see in the book of Acts. Here is the scene from a Calvinistic outlook. Let's start with the first case of conversion found in Acts 2. All were totally unable to listen to the Spirit speaking through Peter because all were inherently totally depraved and had "total spiritual inability." Yet, Peter preached and "they heard this" (Acts 2:37) and they cried "...what shall we do?" Have they already been "regenerated" by the Holy Spirit? If so, why did the Holy Spirit only regenerate 3,000 and not all? Is that just and fair?

Further, if the reason they had power to hear and ask "what shall we do?" is because of God's desire to only save a few, so He made only those few "hear" and seek, then the reason the others did not hear and seek is because God desired that most of them perish for no fault of their own, but solely on arbitrary grounds. That is not justice at all.

Further, this doctrine makes a liar out of God. Peter said of God that He "is not willing that any should perish" (II Peter 3:9-10). Yet, if He desired all to be saved and none to perish, then He would have given all the same ability to hear and seek. Yet, this same Peter is preaching to all the Jews because God is not willing that any should perish, and then God only regenerates 3,000 enough to allow them to "hear" and obey? The others had no ability given to them. That is not justice. It is injustice. All had been equally totally disabled, but only 3,000 were given ability to hear and obey.

Furthermore, no one was actually guilty, and no one was actually guilty of crucifying Jesus. Inborn total depravity can do no better or worse than total depravity dictates, and total inability means that the Jews were unable to do any better than crucifying Jesus.

But, if the reason the 3,000 heard and asked "what shall we do?" is because they were already "regenerated" by the Holy Spirit, then Peter's answer makes no sense. How can you "repent" (Acts 2:38) if you have already been regenerated? If "regeneration" has occurred already, and that regeneration is what gave them ability to "hear" Peter's spiritual message, then the "washing of regeneration" has already occurred (Titus 3:5) and the "renewing of the Holy Spirit" has already occurred. If they have already been washed and renewed by the Holy Spirit, then Peter should have answered the question this way, Acts 2:38 should read: "There is nothing for you to do. God has already done it all for you. You have already received the gift of the Holy Spirit".

But, "those that gladly received his word were baptized" (Acts 2:41). But, that is odd. They could not do otherwise than "gladly receive his words" since they have already been "regenerated" to do that very thing. Keep looking at this case of conversion and ask yourself if you can see any trace of the five points of Calvinism. Calvinism makes a total mess of the Bible, and they will tell us that the reason we cannot see it that way is because we have not been regenerated. When and if we get regenerated (which is totally out of our control and totally up to God, if this doctrine is correct) only then will we be able to see the Bible the Calvinists' way. But, that is much like the Jehovah's Witnesses. They say we cannot see things their way until we first get enlightened by WatchTower publications. The Mormons say that we can see it their way only if we pray to see it and receive Joseph Smith's records and revelations of God. Calvinism teaches that none of us can actually understand Peter's sermon until the Holy Spirit first does something to our totally enabled ears and heart and understanding. They call this "regeneration". But, their version of regeneration is totally arbitrary, which is totally unjust.


We reject the whole stack of cards of the TULIP doctrines because the very foundation of it is false. If man was made upright, then we were not born totally disabled and depraved. We have "gone out of the way", but we were not born out of the way. We bear responsibility only if we have ability. But, if we all have "ability", then there can be no "total" disability or total inability. If we are responsible for sin at all it would only be because we could have done better. Thus, the first point in the TULIP acrostic must be rejected as false. In our next article we will consider the next link in the chain: Unconditional Election.