Do Arminians Believe in Total Depravity?

Leading Calvinist John MacArthur asserts that,

“THE contemporary idea today is that there’s some residual good left in the sinner.  As this progression came from Pelagianism to Semi-Pelagianism, and then came down to some contemporary Arminianism, maybe got defined a little more carefully by Wesley, who was a sort of, ah, um, messed up Calvinist, because Wesley wanted to give all the glory to God, but as you well know, but he wanted to find in man some place where man could initiate salvation on his own will… So that the sinner, un-aided by the Holy Spirit, must make the first move.  That’s essentially Arminian theology: The sinner, un-aided, must make the first move.” 1 (Emphasis mine)

Loraine Boettner writes,

“AS we read the works of various Arminian writers, it seems that their first and perhaps most serious error is that they do not give sufficient importance to the sinful rebellion and spiritual separation of the human race from God that occurred in the fall of Adam. Some neglect it altogether, while for others it seems to be a far away event that has little influence in the lives of people today. But unless we insist on the reality of that spiritual separation from God, and the totally disastrous effect that it had on the entire human race, we shall never be able properly to appreciate our real condition or our desperate need of a Redeemer.” 2

Not only does Boettner explicitly say that Arminians “do not give sufficient importance to the sinful rebellion and spiritual separation of the human race from God,” his last sentence is a slap in the face if ever I’ve seen one: Arminians are not able to properly appreciate the need for a Redeemer.

Calvinist duo Steele and Thomas claim that Arminianism teaches that,

“ALTHOUGH human nature was seriously affected by the fall, man has not been left in a state of total spiritual helplessness. God graciously enables every sinner to repent and believe, but He does not interfere with man’s freedom. Each sinner possesses a free will, and his eternal destiny depends on how he uses it. Man’s freedom consists of his ability to choose good over evil in spiritual matters; his will is not enslaved to his sinful nature. The sinner has the power to either cooperate with God’s Spirit and be regenerated or resist God’s grace and perish. The lost sinner needs the Spirit’s assistance, but he does not have to be regenerated by the Spirit before he can believe, for faith is man’s act and precedes the new birth. Faith is the sinner’s gift to God; it is man’s contribution to salvation.” 3

The Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM) claims,

“TOTAL Depravity is the doctrine that fallen man is completely touched by sin and that he is completely a sinner. He is not as bad as he could be, but in all areas of his being, body, soul, spirit, mind, emotions, etc., he is touched by sin. In that sense he is totally depraved. Because man is depraved, nothing good can come out of him (Rom. 3:10-12) and God must account the righteousness of Christ to him. This righteousness is obtainable only through faith in Christ and what He did on the cross.

Total depravity is generally believed by the Calvinist groups and rejected by the Arminian groups.” 4

William MacLean writes,

“ARMINIANS deny the total depravity of man, in that they hold that the will of man is free and has the ability to choose Christ and the salvation that is in Him.” 5

Despite how convinced the above Calvinists are regarding the beliefs of Arminians, their claims are quite baseless.  In fact, nothing could be further from the truth; Arminians wholeheartedly affirm the total depravity of man.

Jacob Arminius writes,

“IN the state of Primitive Innocence, man had a mind endued with a clear understanding of heavenly light and truth concerning God, and his works and will, as far as was sufficient for the salvation of man and the glory of God; he had a heart imbued with ‘righteousness and true holiness,’ and with a true and saving love of good; and powers abundantly qualified or furnished perfectly to fulfill the law which God had imposed on him.  This admits easily of proof, from the description of the image of God, after which man is said to have been created, (Gen 1:26-27) from the law divinely imposed on him, which had a promise and a threat appended to it, (Gen 2:17) and lastly from the analogous restoration of the same image in Christ Jesus. (Eph 4:24, Col 3:10)

But man was not so confirmed in this state of innocence, as to be incapable of being moved, by the representation presented to him of some good, (whether it was of an inferior kind and relating to this animal life, or of a superior-kind and relating to spiritual life) inordinately and unlawfully to look upon it and to desire it, and of his own spontaneous as well as free motion, and through a preposterous desire for that good, to decline from the obedience which had been prescribed to him.  Nay, having turned away from the light of his own mind and his chief good, which is God, or, at least, having turned towards that chief good not in the manner in which he ought to have done, and besides having turned in mind and heart towards an inferior good, he transgressed the command given to him for life.  By this foul deed, he precipitated himself from that noble and elevated condition into a state of the deepest infelicity, which is under the dominion of sin.  For ‘to whom any one yields himself a servant to obey,’ (Rom 6:16) and ‘of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought in bondage,’ and is his regularly assigned slave. (2 Pet 2:19)

In this state, the free will of man towards the true good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost.  And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace.  For Christ has said, ‘Without me ye can do nothing.’  St. Augustine, after having diligently meditated upon each word in this passage, speaks thus: ‘Christ does not say, without me ye can do but Little; neither does He say, without me ye can do any Arduous Thing, nor without me ye can do it with difficulty.  But he says, without me ye can do Nothing! Nor does he say, without me ye cannot complete any thing; but without me ye can do Nothing.’  That this may be made more manifestly to appear, we will separately consider the mind, the affections or will, and the capability, as contra-distinguished from them, as well as the life itself of an unregenerate man.” 6

Arminius further writes,

“THIS is my opinion concerning the free-will of man: In his primitive condition as he came out of the hands of his creator, man was endowed with such a portion of knowledge, holiness and power, as enabled him to understand, esteem, consider, will, and to perform the true good, according to the commandment delivered to him.  Yet none of these acts could he do, except through the assistance of Divine Grace.  But in his lapsed and sinful state, man is not capable, of and by himself, either to think, to will, or to do that which is really good; but it is necessary for him to be regenerated and renewed in his intellect, affections or will, and in all his powers, by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that he may be qualified rightly to understand, esteem, consider, will, and perform whatever is truly good.  When he is made a partaker of this regeneration or renovation, I consider that, since he is delivered from sin, he is capable of thinking, willing and doing that which is good, but yet not without the continued aids of Divine Grace.” 7

Dr. Brian Abasciano and Martin Glynn, President and Vice-President respectively8 of the Society of Evangelical Arminians, write thus concerning the depravity of man:

“HUMANITY was created in the image of God, good and upright, but fell from its original sinless state through willful disobedience, leaving humanity sinful, separated from God, and under the sentence of divine condemnation … Total depravity does not mean that human beings are as bad as they could be, but that sin impacts every part of a person’s being and that people now have a sinful nature with a natural inclination toward sin, making every human being fundamentally corrupt at heart … Therefore, human beings are not able to think, will, nor do anything good in and of themselves, including merit favor from God, save ourselves from the judgment and condemnation of God that we deserve for our sin, or even believe the gospel … If anyone is to be saved, God must take the initiative.” 9

The Opinions of the Remonstrants:

“MAN does not have saving faith of himself, nor out of the powers of his free will, since in the state of sin he is able of himself and by himself neither to think, will, or do any good (which would indeed to be saving good, the most prominent of which is saving faith).  It is necessary therefore that by God in Christ through His Holy Spirit he be regenerated and renewed in intellect, affections, will, and in all his powers, so that he might be able to understand, reflect upon, will and carry out the good things which pertain to salvation.  We hold, however, that the grace of God is not only the beginning but also the progression and the completion of every good, so much so that even the regenerate himself is unable to think, will, or do the good, or to resist any temptations to evil, apart from that preceding or prevenient, awakening, following and cooperating grace.  Hence all good works and actions which anyone by cogitation is able to comprehend are to be ascribed to the grace of God… The will in the fallen state, before calling, does not have the power and the freedom to will any saving good.” 10

Roger Olson, author of Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, and Against Calvinism, writes that,

“ARMINIANS together with Calvinists affirm total depravity because of the fall of humanity in Adam and its inherited consequence of a corrupted nature in bondage to sin.  A common myth about Arminianism is that it promotes an optimistic anthropology.” 11

Even Calvinists Peterson and Williams acknowledge that Arminians hold to the doctrine of total depravity:

“ARMINIANS and Calvinists alike believe in total depravity: because of the fall, every aspect of human nature is tainted by sin.” 12

John Wesley, commenting on Genesis 6:5, openly taught that,

“CONCERNING man in his natural state unassisted by the grace of God… every imagination of the thoughts of his heart is still evil, ‘only evil,’ and that ‘continually.'” 13

Arminians thus wholeheartedly affirm the following definition put forth by Calvinist Charles Ryrie:

“BECAUSE of the effects of the fall, that original relationship of fellowship with God was broken and man’s entire nature was polluted.  As a result no one can do anything, even good things, that can gain soteriological merit in God’s sight.  Therefore, we may concisely define total depravity as the unmeritoriousness of man before God because of the corruption of original sin.

The concept of total depravity does not mean (1) that depraved people cannot or do not perform actions that are good in either man’s or God’s sight.  But no such action can gain favor with God for salvation.  Neither does it mean (2) that fallen man has no conscience which judges between good and evil for him.  But that conscience has been affected by the fall so that it cannot be a safe and reliable guide.  Neither does it mean (3) that people indulge in every form of sin or in any sin to the greatest extent possible.

Positively, total depravity means that the corruption has extended to all aspects of man’s nature, to his entire being; and total depravity means that because of that corruption there is nothing man can do to merit saving favor with God.” 14


Notes

1 Sermon: The Sinner Neither Able Nor Willing – The Doctrine of Absolute Inability, preached at the Together for the Gospel (T4G) Conference, 2008.  Relevant Time: 31:54 – 33:15

2 Boettner, L., ‘Man’s Totally Helpless Condition,’ in The Reformed Faith

3 Steele, D., Thomas, C., and Quinn, S., The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented (2004: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 2nd Ed.), pp. 5-6

4 ‘Total Depravity,’ in the Dictionary of Theology: <http://carm.org/dictionary-total-depravity&gt;

5 MacLean, W., ‘Arminian Errors,’ in the tract Another Gospel

6 Arminius, J., Complete Works of Arminius, Volume 1, Public Disputations of Arminius, Disputation 11 (On the Free Will of Man and its Powers)

7 Ibid. Declaration of the Sentiments, 5:3

8 According to announcement made on 20 July 2011: <http://evangelicalarminians.org/node/1179&gt;

9 Abasciano, B., and Glynn, M., An Outline of the FACTS of Arminianism vs. the TULIP of Calvinism: <http://evangelicalarminians.org/Outline.FACTS-of-Arminianism-vs-the-TULIP-of-Calvinism&gt;

10 The Opinions of the Remonstrants, 1618: The Opinion of the Remonstrants regarding the third and fourth articles, concerning the grace of God and the conversion of man, sections 1, 2, and 4

11 Olson, R., Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (2006: InterVarsity Press), pp.55-6

12 Peterson, R., and Williams, M., Why I Am Not An Arminian (2004: InterVarsity Press), p.163

13 Wesley, J., Sermon XLIV: Original Sin, in The Essential Works of John Wesley (2011: Barbour Publishing Inc.), p.128

14 Ryrie, C., Entry for ‘Depravity, Total,’ in Walter A. Elwell, Editor, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (2001: Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, 2nd Edition), p. 337

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7 thoughts on “Do Arminians Believe in Total Depravity?

  1. The Seeking Disciple October 9, 2012 / 2:13 pm

    Excellent points. Clearly Arminius does not differ from his Calvinist brethren in affirming the sinfulness of mankind.

  2. Rose December 4, 2012 / 4:40 am

    I am trying to decide if I am an Arminian or a semi-pelagian but am having trouble with one detail. Does an Arminian believe that the Holy Spirit working through the reading or preaching of the Scriptures and the prayers of believer’s for the unsaved, (and perhaps there are others) are the means by which God enables faith in the unregenerate. Because this is what I find the Scriptures to teach, and I’m not sure if that makes me an Arminian or a Semi-Pelagian.

  3. Arminian December 4, 2012 / 5:16 am

    I dare say that it would make you an Arminian. As I understand the issues, Semi-Pelagianism is the belief that man, though corrupt, retains both his free will and the power to choose Jesus Christ as Saviour, apart from God’s initiative of Prevenient Grace. In Semi-Pelagianism, man initiates, and God responds. On the Semi-Pelagian view, prevenient grace is neither necessary nor sufficient, because fallen man still retains enough moral goodness and power to accept Christ apart from God’s grace.

    Arminianism, however, teaches that man, being totally depraved and corrupt, has no free will to choose to accept Christ as Saviour. It is only through God providing Prevenient (enabling) Grace that man is able to turn from his sins, and accept Christ as Saviour. In Arminianism, God initiates and enables man to respond, and man responds. On the Arminian view, prevenient grace is both necessary and sufficient to enable fallen man to respond to the gospel. It is thus necessary for salvation, but not sufficient in and of itself to cause salvation apart from man’s faith, as salvation is available to whosoever will freely choose to accept Christ as Saviour. In order to be saved, man must freely choose to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 16:31). Arminians believe 1) The human will must first be ‘renovated’ or enabled by prevenient grace, but the human will is also necessary in order to accept the free gift of God, which is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord, and 2) that when dealing with the exercise of the human will, we are dealing with influence and response, not cause and effect.

    What you’ve described above (“the Holy Spirit working through the reading or preaching of the Scriptures and the prayers of believers for the unsaved”) is essentially God’s means of bestowing prevenient grace upon the unregenerate. Hence, your position lines up more with Arminianism than Semi-Pelagianism.

    I hope that makes sense.

  4. Chas G July 26, 2015 / 1:46 am

    Since, it appears from your article, that you are making the claim, in the end, that the Arminian view of Total Depravity does not differ substantively from the Calvinist view, wherefore the need to ‘counter[] the rise of Calvinism’ from which you claim not to differ?

  5. Arminian July 26, 2015 / 1:41 pm

    You do realise that there are many other points of contention between the Arminian worldview and the Calvinist worldview, don’t you?

  6. PubliusNH July 26, 2015 / 11:56 pm

    I think the nut of distinction lies at this junction. Your grasp here will likely determine your grasp over all.

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