Total Depravity – Part Four

By: Dr. Roger Smalling

Excerpt from his book Unlocking grace


Special questions on total inability

 Question A: How can God make us responsible for doing good if we cannot do it? How can God condemn someone for practicing sin if he can do nothing else?

 Place a Bible at one end of a table and bottle of wine at the other. Then take a drunk and put him between the Bible and the wine, with the liberty to choose between the two. Which will the drunk choose? Obviously he will choose the wine, because that his nature. He has full liberty to choose right, and the responsibility to do so. But he lacks the ability to choose the Bible. Having the liberty does not help him much, because his internal nature determines what he really wants.

 We may misinterpret many Bible texts if we fail to consider this difference between liberty and ability. Such texts reveal what man ought to do, rather than what he can do.

 The sinner is never free from his responsibility to obey God. Yet he is never able to fulfill that responsibility. The Scripture outline below exposes this terrible paradox between the responsibility of man versus his inability.

 Responsibility: Come to Christ, Matthew 11:29

Inability: Nobody can come, John 6:44


Responsibility: Repent, Acts 3:19

Inability: Repentance is a gift of God, 2Timothy 2:25


Responsibility: Circumcise their hearts

Inability: God circumcises their hearts.


Responsibility: Believe, John 3:16

Inability: Believe is a gift of God,  Philippians 1:29


Responsibility: Keep the Law, Romans 2:13

Inability: Nobody can keep the Law, Romans 8:4


Man’s inability does not free him from his responsibility to obey God. After all, it is not God’s fault that mankind fell into sin. Man’s ungodliness does not deprive God of his own holiness, nor does it mitigate his right to require from his creation what is just.

 The power that compels man to sin is not external but internal, from within his own nature. But isn’t the will of man sort of neutral, able to choose between good and evil?

 Many assume the neutrality of the human will, as though it were an organ floating somewhere in our brain, disconnected from our moral state. If this were so, in what sense could we label it our will? How could we be held responsible for what our will decides, if it were independent on what we are?

 The Bible always presents the will of man as an extension of the character of that person. In the case of the unregenerate, a person always rejects Christ until God changes him.

 Finally, the Biblical base of our responsibility before God is not our ability, but our knowledge. We see this in Romans 1:18-20. The sinner KNOWS certain things by the revelation of God in nature. But he does not SEEK God because he prefers sin.

 Question: In the first chapter of this book, titled sovereignty of God, you claim that God is controls of everything, even the will of man. Doesn’t this make man a puppet? Are not the doctrines of the sovereignty of God versus the responsibility of man in conflict?

 True, there exists a profound philosophical tension between these two aspects of Biblical theology. It becomes easier to grasp however, if we remember that God’s control is normally indirect, using human nature itself. Since a person chooses whatever agrees with his own nature, then God must change that nature to motivate the individual to choose salvation. This way, the will of the person chooses freely, according to the revelation God gives. God conserves his own sovereignty, without forcing the person against his will. With some, God leaves them in the sinful situation that they themselves have chosen.

 The question of the new birth

How do we come to accept Christ?

 If the sinner has no internal motivation to repent and choose Christ, how then are some converted and others not? We resolve this question by considering the order of events in the New Birth.

 Two different viewpoints exist about what happens in the New Birth:

 One viewpoint says that the sinner makes a decision to believe in Christ and this results in the New Birth. The sinner produces in himself a degree of faith through an act of his free will. God responds to this act, and rewards him with grace, causing him to be born again. The sinner himself initiates the process. God is the passive agent, waiting for the human response. Faith, according to this view, produces the New Birth, so that the sinner contributes to his salvation through faith and obedience.

 Another viewpoint says that the sinner is dead in sins, completely unable to believe. God therefore, by a sovereign act, regenerates those whom He has chosen for salvation. The sinner is totally passive in the act of being born again. God is the initiator. Upon being born again, the sinner has a new nature, perceives correctly divine things, and places his faith in Christ. So, being born again produces saving faith, not vice versa. Faith and obedience are results of the new birth, not causes of it. The sinner contributes nothing to his salvation.

 Which of these two scenarios is Biblical? By examining the Bible texts on the New Birth, we can compare the interplay between cause and effect. Is our obedience the cause of being born again? Or is being born again the cause of our obedience?


Cause: John 3:3 Born again

Effect: See the kingdom of God


Cause: Jeremiah 24:7 God gives a new heart

Effect: That they may know him


Cause: Ezekiel 16:62,63 God confirms his  covenant       

Effect: And He will forgive their sins


Cause: Ezekiel 36:26,27 Gives a new heart

Effect: Obedience


Cause: James1:18 Of his own will

Effect: Born again


Cause: Psalms 65:4 Chosen by God

Effect: Drawn to him                      

 If any doubt remains as to which of the two scenarios mentioned above is correct, then read,

 …who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.  John 1:13

 We can illustrate the point another way via the question, where does saving faith come from? Does it come from the free will of man, or is it a work of the grace of God? A similar outline below answers:


Cause: Acts 13:48, As many as had been appointed to eternal life believed

Effect: Acts 18:27, through grace believed.


Cause: Hebrews 12:2, Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.

Effect: Ephesians 2:8, for by grace you have been saved through faith


Cause: Philippians 1:29 it has been granted to believe in him            

Effect: John 6:65, granted by my Father come to Me.


Does this mean that the will of man remains an inert faculty before, during and after salvation? Is our will a mere puppet, manipulated by a celestial puppeteer? No way!

 When our perceptions change, our other faculties of mind follow. When we see the kingdom of God through the illumination that regeneration brings, then conversion to Christ becomes inevitable. God reveals Christ to us as so attractive that his very Person becomes irresistible. The irresistible nature of grace consists in this perception, rather than in a forcing of the human will. Christ is just too good to resist when revealed as He is. Such illumination does not transgress any aspect of man’s freedom, nor does any injustice to those who refuse to look to Christ.

 Why God grants this illumination to some and not to others, is a mystery hidden in eternity.

 The words of the Canons of Dort, a Protestant document written in 1618, express it with beauty and clarity:

 He opens the closed and softens the hardened heart ...infuses new qualities into the will, which, though heretofore dead, He quickens; from being evil, disobedient, and refractory, he renders it good, obedient, and pliable; actuates and strengthens it, that like a good tree it may bring forth the fruits of good actions.

 The order of events in salvation

New Birth-Faith-Justification

Saving faith is a divine gift, not the fruit of human ‘free will’. The new birth is a sovereign act of God. The sinner does not convert himself.

 Warning For Pastors

The notion of neutral free will is like a weed in a garden. Just when think you have it rooted out, it sprouts up again. Of all the erroneous ideas about salvation, this one is the most difficult to eradicate among Christians. As a teacher, you will experience more resistance on this point than any other aspect of the doctrines of grace. Proud human nature persists in its desire to make a contribution to salvation, however minimal.

 As we teach the doctrine of total human inability, it is advisable to repeat constantly what we are NOT saying. This helps avoid misunderstandings. For example, it helps to say something like: We are not saying that man has no will. He does. But sin enslaves his will. Or, Man is responsible for his actions, although he lacks the strength to fulfill this responsibility because of the power of sin. And, God commands us to do right because He is holy, not because we can obey properly. And We are NOT saying that the sinner has no right to choose salvation, only that he cannot do so without the grace of God.

 As a pastor, it may be costly to clarify to the congregation the doctrine of total inability. But it is worth the trouble to insist on it. God will use your teachings to reveal more clearly to them what is the true grace of God. You will be giving them a precious jewel that will enrich their lives forever.

 The news of our inability is a blessing

When I teach this doctrine, students generally suppose that they misunderstood when they hear that understanding our Total Depravity is one of the finest blessings they can experience. Although they may be used to hearing paradoxes from me, this one surprises them. At least it gets their attention, and prepares them for the following quotation from the great reformer Martin Luther.

 On the comfort of knowing that salvation does not depend on free will

Martin Luther, the famous 16th century reformer commented,

 I frankly confess that, for myself, even if it could be, I should not want ‘freewill’ to be given me, nor anything to be left in my own hands to enable me to endeavor after salvation; not merely because in face of so many dangers, and adversities, and assaults of devils, I could not stand my ground and hold fast my ‘freewill’ (for one devil is stronger than all men, and on these terms no man could be saved); but because, even were there no dangers, adversities, or devils, I should still be forced to labor with no guarantee of success, and to beat my fists at the air.

 If I lived and worked to all eternity, my conscience would never reach comfortable certainty as to how much it must do to satisfy God. Whatever work I had done, there would still be a nagging doubt as to whether it pleased God, or whether He required something more. The experience of all who seek righteousness by works proves that; and I learned it well enough myself over a period of many years, to my own great hurt. But now that God has taken my salvation out of the control of my own will, and put it under the control of his, and promised to save me, not according to my working or running, but according to his own grace and mercy, I have the comfortable certainty that He is faithful and will not lie to me, and that He is also great and powerful, so that no devils or opposition can break him or pluck me from him. ‘No one, ’ He says, ‘shall pluck them out of my hand, because my Father which gave them me is greater than all’ (John 10:28-29) Thus it is that, if not all, yet some, indeed many, are saved; whereas, by the power of ‘freewill’ none at all could be saved, but every one of us would perish.

 Furthermore, I have the comfortable certainty that I please God, not by reason of the merit of my works, but by reason of his merciful favor promised to me; so that, if I work too little, or badly, He does not impute it to me, but with fatherly compassion pardons me and makes me better. This the glorying of all the saints in their God. [i]

Questions on Total Human Inability

Certain verses appear to support the idea of free will, in the sense of moral neutrality. We can organize these according to the following categories:

 Verses showing that man chooses evil

Some suppose that because man can choose to sin, he must also have the ability to choose righteousness. This would be like saying that a log has the ability to float upstream merely because it can float downstream. Insisting that man has the power to choose evil is no evidence that he can choose submission to God without a work a grace.

 Exhortations and commands to choose the right

Occasionally verses are quoted from the Old Testament in which God commands people to choose the good. God commanded Israel to keep his Law. Is this evidence that man can keep the Law? Of course not. The New Testament shows us that nobody keeps the Law. It was given, rather, to reveal what man CANNOT do, rather than what he CAN do. Why then take verses out of the Law to prove moral free will?

 God commands us, be perfect. Does this prove we have an innate ability to be perfect without God and without grace? Why then imagine that unconverted mankind has the ability to choose the good on the mere basis of a command?

 God commands people to do right because he could hardly command them to do otherwise. Being good himself, he could not command them to do evil. God commands us to do right because HE is just, not because WE are capable.

 Verses which show man responsible for his actions

We do not deny that man is responsible for his conduct. We only deny that responsibility implies ability.

 The only kind of verses which could possibly refute the doctrine of Total Human Inability, would be those showing that sinful man, without God and without grace, can convert himself. But such verses do not exist. Commands, exhortations, examples of sinners choosing evil, and explanations regarding our responsibility, have nothing to do with the question.


[i]              The Bondage of The Will by Martin Luther. Section XVIII , No.783.

Questions or comments for Dr. Smalling