[Introduction] [Total Depravity] [Unconditional Election] [Limited Atonement]
The first of the five points is, of course, Total Depravity: the idea that sin touches every aspect of our lives and makes us naturally incapable of doing anything at all that is good in God's sight. This does not mean, of course, that we do not do anything good (more below); but, when applied to the soteriological question, we cannot do anything that merits our salvation. The most straightforward Biblical statement of the doctrine, it seems to me, is Romans 8:7-8 (ESV):
For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.As with many doctrines, there have been major misunderstandings of Total Depravity by those who don't hold it. One of the foremost that comes to mind was that of one of the men God has used in my life: C. S. Lewis. Lewis said:
"The doctrine of Total Depravity -- when the consequence is drawn that, since we are totally depraved, our idea of good is worth simply nothing -- may thus turn Christianity into a form of devil worship" (The Problem of Pain, HarperCollins edition 2001, p. 29)... "I disbelieve that doctrine partly on the logical ground that if our depravity were total we should not know ourselves to be depraved, and partly because experience shows us much goodness in human nature. (ibid, p.61)I cannot begin to explain the extent of influence Lewis has had in my life for the better - it was his writings that largely led me to intellectually accept the truth of Christianity - but I cannot agree with his statement here. Lewis is begging the question in a subtle, unstated way. The doctrine does indeed mean that sin affects every part of us, including our moral judgments. However, Lewis judges the doctrine based on a synergistic understanding of salvation: the doctrine says that our depravity causes us to be unable to respond to God, which (in his view) makes believers power worshipers or, at best, robots. In other words, Lewis is using an Arminian understanding of salvation (that sinners can freely respond to God) to judge a non-Arminian doctrine. Naturally, if Arminian soteriology is true, then Total Depravity is to be rejected.
However, just you don't judge a football game according to the rules of baseball, you don't take an Arminian assumption and use it to judge Calvinism. The Arminian assumption is that we can choose to follow God, which negates the doctrine. However, the Calvinist understanding is based on the idea that we cannot choose to follow God: that sin has so infected our spirits that none of us wants to follow God. In other words, using Arminianism to argue against Total Depravity is begging the question. Total Depravity must not be determined by Arminian presuppositions - or Calvinistic, for that matter - but rather Biblical support. (There's lots of support, of course: see comments by John Piper, R. C. Sproul, Herman Hanko, and many others. My main purpose here is not to defend the doctrine per se, but to relate my own thoughts on the subject.)
The last part of the quote above, that there is "much goodness in human nature," is also a question-begging assumption. The assumption seems to be that human nature, per se, contains much that is good. But that assumption is simply a negative statement of Total Depravity. In fact, I believe that the Bible does support the idea that in my flesh there is nothing good; all good things come from God Himself. It is not our nature that causes us to do good things, but rather God, who causes rain to fall on the just as well as the unjust. If we are thoughtful and caring towards our fellow-man, there's only one reason: God's grace, poured out on us though we don't deserve it.
Among those who demur from the Arminian position, Total Depravity seems to me to be among the most popular of the five points. People sometimes claim to be one-, two-, three-, or four-point Calvinists (a former pastor of mine called himself a three-and-a-half pointer), but it seems that the one they always include is Total Depravity. This seems to me to be based on a misunderstanding as well. In fact, the five points of Calvinism are not things you can really pick and choose (same for the five points brought forth first by the Remonstrants). The five points of both are the constituent parts of the appropriate Biblical understanding. If you do not have the basic Biblical understanding, you almost certainly do not subscribe to any of the parts.
In fact, in a very real sense, Total Depravity is not just one of the five points: it is THE foundational point. Sin has completely permeated our being: mind, soul, and spirit. It has made us spiritually dead, unable to initiate love towards God (such as the Pelagians would say) or even respond to the love God shows us (such as the Arminians would say). If you really believe in Total Depravity, it seems to me that you cannot believe in any form of synergism. God loves us, but due to our depravity, we cannot respond to His love; we are dead in our sins and trespasses.
The idea that I am able to respond to God's love in such a state seems to negate the idea of Total Depravity, as well as (more importantly) the Biblical analogy of being dead. Lazarus didn't reach out and accept the resurrection Jesus was offering him - he was unable to do anything until Jesus brought him back from the dead. So, it seems that if one wants to reject Total Depravity, one should reject it; but to cling to the idea of Total Depravity and reject the other soteriological tenets of Calvinism makes no sense to me.