“T” for Total Depravity
The first point of the Calvinist system is “T” for total depravity. This is a widely misunderstood concept; it does not mean that human beings are as evil as they can possibly be. The “total” is what misleads people to think that. Rather, typically, it means that every part of every human person (except Jesus Christ, of course) is infected and so affected by sin that he or she is utterly helpless to please God before being regenerated (born again) by the Spirit of God. According to Boettner, the natural person, before and apart from the regenerating grace of God, always freely sins and delights in it because “he is an alien by birth, and a sinner by choice.”12 The “natural virtues” of people do not count as good because they are done with wrong motives; depravity lies in the condition of the heart inherited from Adam. Human beings are born with a corrupt nature but are nevertheless fully responsible for the sins they cannot avoid because of this condition.14 Boettner claims that “only Calvinists seem to take this doctrine of the fall [original sin] very seriously.”
Again, is this strongly pessimistic view of humanity consistent with Calvin’s own teachings? Without any doubt it is. Calvin wrote that because of the fall of Adam “the whole [of every] man is overwhelmed—as by a deluge—from head to foot, so that no part is immune from sin and all that proceeds from him is to be imputed to sin. As Paul says, all turnings of the thoughts … are enmities against God … and therefore death.”
Is this also consistent with contemporary Calvinist teaching after Boettner? Indeed it is. Sproul expresses it succinctly: “In our corrupt humanity we never do a single good thing.” Like Boettner and Calvin before him Sproul attributes this hopeless and helpless condition of the natural person apart from God’s regenerating grace to the fall of Adam. For all of them—at least for most, if not all Calvinists—all humans except Jesus Christ inherit Adam’s corrupted nature and are accounted guilty for Adam’s sin. Boettner writes: “Adam’s sin is imputed to his descendents.”18 Sproul sums up the dour Calvinist view of humanity because of the fall this way: “Man is incapable of elevating himself to the good without the work of God’s grace within. We can no more return ourselves to God than an empty vessel can refill itself with water.”
Many Calvinists explain the human condition after the fall and before regeneration by the Holy Spirit as literally spiritually dead, basing that on Ephesians 2. In other words, for typical Calvinism, the natural, fallen human person is utterly incapable of even desiring God or the things of God. There is no moral ability (as opposed to a hypothetical natural ability that does not exist in spiritual matters) to reach out to God or to accept God’s offer of salvation. Everything that flows from the dead person is putrid and filthy even if it seems to be virtuous. The reason is that true virtue is defined by the motive, and the sinner’s heart, blackened by sin, has a constant disposition toward self rather than toward God or neighbor. This account of the human condition is important to keep in mind because it is why Calvinists argue that no one can be saved without unconditional election and irresistible grace.
Like Calvin, Calvinists typically acknowledge the existence of “civic virtues” in fallen, natural people who are spiritually dead. Calvin waxed eloquent about the “natural gifts” of fallen people, who are able by the help of God’s Spirit through common grace to achieve great things in the arts and sciences. Of course, none of these abilities or achievements has anything to do with salvation. Sproul comments on the reality of “civil virtue” by which people outwardly conform to the law of God and perform acts of charity, but he denies that these are any signs of spiritual life because they are all done out of self-interest.21 The natural, fallen person may achieve great things, but he or she cannot please God because the heart is still corrupt and self-centered. Sin lies in the motives, and they are entirely wrong until the Holy Spirit regenerates the person.
Roger E. Olson, Against Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 42–43.