by Clint Archer
Calvinism is a word that I believe would make John Calvin roll over in his grave. His life and ministry were marked by a passion for the centrality of the glory of God. He was so effective in showing from the Scriptures that God is central to everything, that the very concept became wedded to his name— Calvinism. But he would have called it “theocentrism.”
Calvin was born in 1509, making him eight years old when Luther nailed the 95 theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg that sparked the Reformation flame, 500 years ago this month.
We know very little about Calvin himself because, in a self-conscious effort to minimize his fame, he almost never referred to himself in any of his voluminous writings or revealed any personal details in his sermons. We do know that he possessed a brilliant mind, was fluent in five languages, published his first book at age 23, and at 27 wrote what has become arguably the most influential and respected theological work ever penned: Institutes of the Christian Religion.
Calvin believed it was his calling to proclaim the glory of God to a world that had been in ignorance of the Bible during the Dark Ages. So he worked constantly at teaching lectures and Bible studies, writing commentaries and articles, and preaching hundreds of sermons every year. He never rested from this task, contributing to his early death at age 54. His prolific output made him known as “a bow always strung.”
As is so often the case with effective instruments in God’s hands, Calvin’s life was marked with much suffering. He had tremendous and constant physical pain due to kidney stones, stomach aches, coughing fits that spat blood, migraines, gout, and hemorrhoids. He controlled the agony by eating only one, small meal a day and injecting milk into his bloodstream. One month he was so ill that he took the closest thing to sick leave he knew how—he described his convalescing this way:
Apart from the sermons and the lectures, there is a month gone by in which I have scarce done anything, in such a wise I am almost ashamed to live thus useless.” He had delivered only twenty sermons and lectures that month!
Like his Savior, Calvin was acquainted with emotional suffering. In 1541 he married an Anabaptist widow, Idelette who had two children. In the seven years that followed he lost three babies and his wife, leaving him with two teenage step-children whom he raised as a single parent.
To give you a taste of his unshakeable trust in God’s sovereignty Calvin wrote after his first infant died:
The Lord has certainly inflicted a severe and bitter wound in the death of our baby son. But he is himself a father and knows best what is good for his children.”
He was banished from his Geneva on multiple occasions. He was slandered, maligned, and threatened almost daily. He was also constantly hounded by death threats and mobs gathering outside his house, firing shots. But Calvin was immovably committed to the verse by verse exposition of Scripture. He never took a break for topical studies or special occasions, including Christmas and Easter!
Let the pastors boldly dare all things by the word of God….Let them constrain all the power, glory, and excellence of the world to give place to and to obey the divine majesty of this word. Let them enjoin everyone by it, from the highest to the lowest. Let them edify the body of Christ. Let them devastate Satan’s reign. Let them pasture the sheep, kill the wolves, instruct and exhort the rebellious. Let them bind and loose thunder and lightning, if necessary, but let them do all according to the word of God.”
This became the standard of the Reformation.
Throughout October, each Monday, we will look at the five points of Calvinism, also called the doctrines of grace, and sometimes known by the acronym TULIP.
Today we examine the first point of five – the T in TULIP.
TOTAL DEPRAVITY or COMPLETE INABILITY of man
It is important to understand what is being claimed by the term Total Depravity. As authors David N. Steele and Curtis C. Thomas put it…
The adjective ‘total’ does not mean that each sinner is as totally or completely corrupt in his actions and thought as it is possible for him to be. Instead the word ‘total’ is used to indicate that the whole of man’s being has been affected by sin. The corruption extends to every part of man: his body, his soul…his mind, his will.”
So total depravity is not believing that everyone is as despicable as they can be, but that every part of the human (significantly including their reasoning, will, desires, and ability to process truth) has been tainted by original sin.
People do restrain their behavior if they fear consequence, are educated, have been raised well, etc. While some people are incredibly evil, sadistic, murderous, others are very sweet, kind, and loving. But even in “good people” sin has tainted their thinking at some level, preventing them from coming to saving knowledge without God’s supernatural intervention.
Anything we give God is imbued with a twinge of sin. Like moneybags with ink bombs in them. When the robber opens the bag, the ink bomb stains the bills so they can be traced. Even a tiny spec of ink corrupts the cash and makes it unusable.
Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man…is not able by his own strength to convert himself or prepare himself thereunto.
So, sin is universal in extensiveness and intensiveness: it has spread to all people, and to every part of each person.
Man with all his shrewdness is as stupid about understanding by himself the mysteries of God, as an ass is incapable of understanding musical harmony.
Rom 3:10-12, 14-28, 23 as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; [mental/spiritual ability] no one seeks [will] for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one… “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood… and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”… for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
Rom 8: 7 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.
If I offered you 10 million bucks to stop speaking, it would be difficult, but possible. If I offered you 10 million bucks if you stopped thinking, you could not do it. Or if I offered you salvation if you stopped sinning, you could never do it. Why? Because sinning is in your nature.
Jer 13: 23 Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil.
Jer 17:9 the heart is deceitful above all else and desperately sick, who can understand it?
If you wanted to stop sinning, what part of your being would you employ? Your heart or thinking or will. But Jeremiah says you can’t use your heart to clean your heart. Because it is tainted by the sin too. That is like trying to wipe a spot of gravy off your sofa with an oily rag.
1 Cor 2: 14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand [complete inability] them because they are spiritually discerned.
It’s like trying to pick up cable TV without a decoder. Or play a CD on a record player. A sinner does not have the mental equipment to believe the gospel in a saving way.
What’s the APPLICATION?
When you evangelize, you don’t try to appeal to the person’s reason alone. Proof alone will never convince anyone. It is God’s power that will make them believe. We need to pray for God’s intervention.
When someone comes to Christ, we give God all the glory. We don’t congratulate them on making the right choice, we glorify God for changing their mind and heart.
We can make this world better by education and police and democracy. I agree. But we cannot make people better. Only the gospel can do that.
And that is the doctrine of Total Depravity.
Can you think of any other applications to our lives?
Clint Archer has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.