09 June, 2019

“Total” vs. “Absolute” Depravity?

Prof. Herman C. Hanko

[Source: Another Look at Common Grace (2019 edition), pp. 123, 134-136]

Some defenders of common grace speak of a distinction which must be made between “total depravity” and “absolute depravity.” By the latter is meant that the depravity of the human nature is as complete as it can possibly be. Man is as wicked as it is possible to be in his nature. Although it is not always clear exactly what is meant by “total depravity” in distinction from “absolute depravity,” generally speaking the defenders of this distinction mean that, although every part of man’s nature is corrupt, every part is not as corrupt as it could be. This surely implies some modification of the corruption of the nature by the work of the Holy Spirit …

The distinction between “total” depravity and “absolute” depravity will not hold up. It is, first of all, a distinction not found in the Scriptures. No one who has supported this distinction has ever, so far as I know, made any effort to find it in Scripture. Scripture and the Reformed confessions teach, in keeping with the Calvinism of the historic Reformed and Presbyterian faith, that man is totally depraved.

If by total depravity, in distinction from absolute depravity, is meant that man is depraved in every part of his being, though every part is not totally depraved, this is a denial of total depravity on the very surface of it. Total depravity means that depravity is total. And any effort to mitigate that simple truth is a playing with words which cannot be tolerated in any theological discussion.

Scripture and all the confessions of Reformed and Presbyterian people teach that man is as bad as he can possibly be. That does not mean that he sins in every possible way, is perpetually guilty of the most heinous crimes, lives like a mafia gangster or heroin addict, behaves like a lust-filled homosexual every single second of his life. Of course not. Total depravity has to do with man’s nature. That nature—the nature of a man, a rational and moral nature—has, since the fall, become corrupt. It is totally corrupt in every respect.
That total corruption means on the one hand that such a man is totally incapable of any good. The Heidelberg Catechism is, e.g., quite clear on the point: “Is man then so wicked and corrupt that he is incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil? Indeed he is, except he is regenerated by the Holy Spirit” (Q&A. 8).
That total corruption means, therefore, that he cannot think one thought pleasing to God; he cannot desire one good thing; he cannot even will to be savedhis will wants only sin. He is incapable of any good word or deed which is according to God’s law and is pleasing to Him. He is, indeed, as wicked in his nature as it is possible to be.
That sinful nature does not always reveal itself in overt sins of the most heinous kind. It is apparently this that confuses those who want to find good in man. Does a man have to spend every moment lying, cheating, murdering, fornicating, blaspheming, etc., to be totally depraved? By whose standard? According to whose criteria?
Sin is, after all, not limited to the outward violations of the law which are manifestly wrong. The sins which are particularly awful in the sight of God are often of other kinds. The man who smiles at his fellow member in the church with hatred in his heart, and who will destroy his neighbor with his tongue just as soon as he is out of earshot, is hateful in God’s sight as much as (or more than) the man who sticks a knife in his neighbor’s back. The man who sits in his pew in church looking pious while figuring out ways to cheat at his business is just as bad as (if not worse than) the man who lies on his income tax. The latter may be caught and imprisoned as a thief, but the former is as great a sinner, though he has done no overt wrong.
The fornicator may contract the HIV virus and show to all the world that he is guilty of crass fornication, but the man who is outwardly faithful to his wife in a monogamous relation and works every day to support his family may be considered a man with an abundance of common grace; but God knows that in his heart he lusts after every woman he sees. Who can say that the one is a greater sinner than the other?
The totally depraved sinner can do no good in the sight of God. His total depravity does not manifest itself as fully as it did in Hitler or Stalin. But that does not mean that his nature has been improved to the point that it is no longer totally depraved, though it remains depraved in all its parts. This is nonsense on the surface of it. A man may not be “as bad as he can be” in his outward actions, but this does not mean that he is not “as bad as he can be” in the depravity of his nature.
That the notion of total depravity as proposed by the defenders of common grace is absurd is evident from the fact that common grace of this sort proposes to us the possibility of a man who is no longer totally depraved (in the sense, at least, of being as bad as he can be in his nature), but is nevertheless unconverted and can very well go to hell. The Holy Spirit works in his heart so that sin is restrained by a change in his nature which, while leaving every part of his nature depraved, results in a nature which is partially good. Yet he remains unregenerated and unconverted, and unless regeneration and conversion is given him, will still go lost. Such a man is a spiritual and ethical monstrosity.
But such a denial of total depravity leads to outright Arminianism. For, after all, common grace teaches that part of the good, which such a man in whom sin is restrained by an inward operation of the Holy Spirit is capable of doing, is to accept the overtures of the gospel and hear the pleadings of God who expresses in the gospel a desire to save him. Two points may be observed in this connection. The first is that common grace implies a revelation of God’s love and favor towards all men by expressing in the gospel His desire to save all men. The second point of connection is that by an inner restraint of sin upon the heart through the work of the Holy Spirit, man is put into such a spiritual condition that he is able to accept or reject the offers and pleadings of the gospelwhich reaction to the gospel will determine his ultimate fate in heaven or hell. It is impossible to separate the restraint of sin by the Holy Spirit from the “well-meant offer of the gospel.” The Holy Spirit enables the sinner to accept or reject the gospel, on the basis of which decision he will be saved or perish. And here is the Arminianism of it all. Total depravity means, after all, that salvation is by grace alone. It is the free gift of God in our Lord Jesus Christ. Common grace means that now man is able to make a decision, by the activity of his own free will, which becomes decisive in salvation.
One more point needs to be made. Should the proponents of common grace hold to a total depravity which is indeed total and still maintain a restraint of sin which is able to produce good works, it is a strange total depravity indeed. A depravity which makes it impossible for one to do any good is nevertheless a total depravity, which, under the restraining power of the Holy Spirit, can make room for good. A thoroughly rotten apple still has good parts to it. A totally dead man still has some signs of life. A totally dead tree still produces some branches which bear fruit. This is a strange depravity which is a flat contradiction in terms.
Thus the Reformed faith is lost and the truth of Scripture is cast to the winds. God’s glory is sacrificed on the altar of man’s pride.

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