The Total Inability of Calvin To Explain Man’s Ability to Respond to God?

Man's Inability and Calvin

Total: Completely, Absolutely

Inability: lack of sufficient power, resources, or capacity

It’s true that humanity can’ come to Christ unaided. The Scriptures and the early church agree on this. Both sides of the Monergism vs Synergism civil war agree on it. Without God’s grace, no one is able to come to Christ. Period!

But how does it work? Nobody knows and those who say they do don’t understand what they’re saying. How God works this out in humanity lies within the mystery of God himself.

Calvin, and the the followers he inspired, believe this means humanity can not even respond to God unaided. People must first be born again and then after that, exercise faith in Christ. One can’t say “yes” to God until after the new birth takes place.  Which leads them to teach things like this:

“This doctrine of total inability which declares that men are dead in sin does not mean that all men are equally bad, nor that any man is as bad as he could be, nor that anyone is entirely destitute of virtue, nor that human nature is equal in itself, nor that man’s spirit in inactive, and much less does it mean that the body is dead… The inability under which he labors is not an inability to exercise volition, but an inability to be willing to exercise holy volitions.” (The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination)

“The inability under which he labors is not an inability to exercise volition, but an inability to be willing to exercise holy volitions.”

Essentially, reformed theology teaches that human beings do not have the capacity to desire God, to obey Him or answer when He calls. I have wrestled with this pretty much all of my Christian life for several reasons. Three of which I now share here.

#1 The Bible is full of people who willingly respond to God

If we have absolutely no ability to respond to God, how do we explain Gen 4:26 “At that time people (plural) began to call upon the name of the Lord.” How is that possible? Were all these people not affected by Adam’s sin? How could they begin to call on God if they were totally depraved? Were they regenerated before Christ even came to die for our sins?

Or how do we explain the Ninevites? An entire city of non-Jewish, idol worshiping pagans responded to God’s call to repent. They repented of their sins, urgently called out to God, and gave up their evil ways. Read the story in Jonah 3. We’re they born-again too?

Consider Job, whom God declared this of: “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil?” How is that possible, if he had no ability to even desire God? Job seemed to be doing a pretty good job if he impressed even God himself!

#2 The World is full of people who believe in a god

Look around today. Many people have a desire to know “god”. People on every continent, every tribe and every language can believe in any god they want to. Nothing holds them back from searching out, longing for and believing in a host of false gods. There is this undeniable, crazy missing part inside all of us that yearns for something beyond ourselves. Isn’t there? Yet Calvin would have us believe, based on his understanding of Scripture, that humanity is completely unable to even believe in the real God until they are born again.

Correct me if I am misstating this point: Because of Adam’s sin, it’s now impossible for us to respond to the real God or even desire to know Him or anything about Him unless we are born again first? But, we can desire and choose to follow fake gods all we want? We can choose to believe in and give our lives to follow a non-existent god and any other moral code we want, but His. AND we are totally unable to even consider the real God, whose image we’re made in?

#3 The Early Church was full of leaders who didn’t see it that way

When you combine these things with the fact that the early church fathers categorically reject the idea, it forces me reconsider Calvin’s idea.

” There is set before us life upon our observance [of God’s precepts], but death as the result of disobedience, and every one, according to the choice he makes, shall go to his own place, let us flee from death, and make choice of life.” Ignatius 35-107 AD. He was a Disciple of the Apostle John and appointed as Bishop of Antioch by the Apostle Peter.

“And again, unless the human race has the power of avoiding evil and choosing good by free choice, they are not accountable for their actions, of whatever kind they be. But that it is by free choice they both walk uprightly and stumble, we thus demonstrate… Justin Martyr c. 160

But this we assert is inevitable fate, that they who choose the good have worthy rewards, and they who choose the opposite have their merited awards. For not like other things, as trees and quadrupeds, which cannot act by choice, did God make man: for neither would he be worthy of reward or praise did he not of himself choose the good, but were created for this end; nor, if he were evil, would he be worthy of punishment, not being evil of himself, but being able to be nothing else than what he was made.” Justin Martyr c.160

“There is, therefore, nothing to hinder you from changing your evil manner of life, because you are a free man.” Melito c. 170

“But man, being endowed with reason, and in this respect similar to God, having been made free in his will, and with power over himself, is himself his own cause that sometimes he becomes wheat, and sometimes chaff.” Irenaeus c. 180

“to Obey or not is in our own power, provided we do not have the excuse of ignorance.” Clement of Alexandria c. 195

I could go on and on and on but I will stop here.

A theology that works should be able to expound what the Scriptures clearly teach and accurately reflect the real world we live in. Calvin’s idea on Total Inability fall short here. From my view in the cheap seats, it appears to be a doctrine that doesn’t really work, or at least only works in a classroom.

For these reasons and many others, I have had the most difficult time accepting Calvin’s idea as gospel. It would appear that though we can’t come to Christ unaided, we do have the ability to say yes to God whenever and however that works. Though the Reformed brothers and sisters among us would disagree with this, they are in the minority among Christ followers. The Catholic church, the Orthodox church have throughout history rejected Calvin’s idea. Not to mention the many Protestant theologians who do as well.

Having said all that, don’t you think we spend too much time splitting hairs on this topic! The reality is that both sides of the Monergism vs Synergism debate believe that one must exercise faith in Christ and follow Him. In the final analysis, how that actually happens doesn’t matter as much as that it does happen.

Now, play nice!

Not sure what to think? Read my post on “Does God Care About Your Theology As Much As You Do? It goes hand in hand with this one.

About Jim

Not For Itching Ears is a blog dedicated to discussing the American Evangelical church. It is a place for people to share their thoughts on a host of issues relating to this subject. Jim is available to speak at weekend services, and retreats at no cost to churches in Florida. Contact us for more information.

Posted on January 12, 2015, in Christianity, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. I found this statement by Justin Martyr very interesting:

    “And again, unless the human race has the power of avoiding evil and choosing good by free choice, they are not accountable for their actions, of whatever kind they be.”

    This nails the whole idea of God being justly able to hold man accountable for his sins if he does not exercise his free will (which he received from God as he is made in His image) and choose Christ. Otherwise how could God fairly judge anyone? There would be sinners in hell who could quite rightly protest that they were there because God never gave them the capacity to believe in Him.

    Thank you for a very thought-provoking post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Naomi,

      I remember exactly where I was the first time I read that!

      I had been flirting with Calvinism and was just about to propose! Then I read Justin’s words and they stopped me dead in my tracks. From there, I began to read the early church documents extensively. Once I did that, I had to break up with Calvin, but we are still friends.:)


  2. I like Augustine’s “God-shaped hole” that we long to fill, even though we don’t know what belongs there. Knowing God is then more a recognition of something that was hovering on the edge of consciousness, and we can choose whether to follow it up or walk away.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jim

    As you know there are 4 views on how we are “able” to respond

    In a very quick nutshell

    1. Pelagian – we are not affected by the Fall & don’t need any help
    2. Semi-Pelagian – we are broken by the Fall, but can call to God, we do need some help
    3. Arminian and most Catholics – we are totally broken by the Fall, unless God gives us resistible (and non-regenerative) grace we can’t respond.
    4. Calvinist- we are totally broken by the Fall, unless God gives us irresistible (and regenerative) grace we can’t respond.

    Which do you ascribe to?


    • I reject #1 #2 and #4

      #3 seems to make the most sense to how the world actually is, though I would not call myself an Arminian and I am not sure we are totally broken. I would hold more of an Eastern view on this as I lean towards rejecting total depravity.

      The question I have, and it can’t be answered, is this:

      How does God pour out his grace on humanity so that they can respond to Him? However this works, I think the net is a lot wider than Calvin would have us believe.

      Practically speaking holding to view 3 or 4 makes no difference in how it actually does work, because both views require God’s grace.


      • I would not call myself an Arminian

        Is that b/c you lean toward rejecting total depravity (TD) or is there another reason?

        If you lean toward rejecting TD but also accept #3 (the need for prior grace before a decision can be made to believe) then how would you describe the effects of the Fall on man?

        Liked by 1 person

        • That is a good question, Mike. I would say that my answer to that is still being formulated. See my post later today called “Are We REALLY Totally Depraved?”.

          As I mentioned, I lean more towards the Eastern view of the fall. Their view is summed up pretty well in that post.


        • Totally Depraved is a really bad term, but at the heart of it a person can not respond to God or the gospel without prior grace. This grace must give the person an ability to respond in faith. That is the primary point of differentiation btwn #2 and #3. How that grace is given and what it does is of course what further divides within #3.

          Other further points of differentiation within #3 can be found in what else is coupled with the points noted above.

          Now the Eastern Church, countering that these views are both wrong, says our nature was only marred, not completely changed.

          Generally speaking, this view is considered more Semi-Pelagian (#2)
          This is b/c it implies/allows that man without a prior act of grace can respond to God or the Gospel.


        • A view is either semi-pelagian or it isn’t. It must be Pelagian or semi-P to be heretical. Kinda sorta doesn’t matter.

          But the Eastern view requires God’s grace to respond to salvation, so that is not what we are taking about here.


        • Jim

          definitely not meaning to imply you are a heretic. 😉
          I have to admit I don’t know much about EO.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Mike, Since I am a Redskins fan, you may want to reconsider!


        • Redskins fan. Ouch. With a team like that who needs purgatory… 😉

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow, there’s so much been posted in our absence that I’ve really no reasonably good idea where to start. But, here is as good as place as any, especially since it fits nicely within where my studies have recently attracted me to.

    I am confident that the likes of the Calvin’s and the Luther’s were sincere in their efforts to pull the church back closer to the truth, but I am not so sure of their methodology. We Protestants take pride, even build our presuppositions, upon the teachings of these guys and their contemporaries, but I wonder if there weren’t something in their gut driving them beside the mere intent to stand against. It is, as we all must admit, possible of any of us.

    If a person will be honest and refuse to adorn any human heroes aside from Jesus himself, it is most provable that scripture supports both the sovereignty of God and the freewill of man. We can explain this no more than the Church’s demand of the the Trinity, but while we surrender to that acknowledgement, we bicker abusively of the other. It is sad. Bodies divide daily over this ridiculous disagreement.

    Personally, I firmly believe if Calvin were here today he would aggressively denounce all of these arguments, and demand we be disciples of Christ… but then, who am I?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I may not be as well-versed in theology as some of you, and I suppose I often take my Calvinist up-bringing for granted, but here’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. We humans are the ones who argue about theology, and it’s very good to argue in a civil, fair manner. So I’m Calvinist, and I believe in total depravity and unconditional election and all of the other TULIP points. I believe God is in total control of this entire world and all that goes on in it. But I have been thinking that God is not Calvinist or Reformed or Arminian or Catholic. God is God, and He can choose to save someone through a sermon at church or through a vision in the bathroom. It is all totally up to Him. These differences between you and me are differences in how we try to understand these things about God that maybe are too difficult for us to understand.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post!


    • Hi Amy,

      Good stuff and it is so true! I am grateful that God is NOT a theologian! He knows who he is and how everything works, and he invites us to come and follow His Son. How he works that all out He has chosen not to tell us.

      I am just grateful that He poured out His grace on my life and puts up with me!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. OK, what do you suppose hinders men from accepting the gospel if they are able to do so, as you suppose they are?


    • Hi Rod,

      I just answered this on your awesome blog! I repeat it here for clarity. For the rest of you, Rod and I have been having a great discussion about this over at his blog. Check it out at

      The historical teaching of the church is very clear that God’s grace is indeed needed for someone to come to Christ. The ECF, the Catholic church, The Orthodox church, the Coptic church, the Anglican church and all forms of the Protestant church agree on this. It is settled.

      What is not settled in the Protestant world is how this grace works. Does it work in the way Calvin understood it? That a person can’t come to Christ, in the way we typically understand that to happen, without first being Born-again? I am not convinced that this is how it works, neither is most of the Christian world. Calvin, after all, is the new kid on the block.

      As I look at the world and how it actually works, it seems there is absolutely nothing that hinders a person from coming to Christ WHEN God’s grace is extended to them. How he extends his grace, I don’t know and I don’t think anyone does. To what extent is his grace extended to the people of the world? I also don’t know, but based on the entirety of scripture and church history, I think it is offered on a much wider basis than Calvin’s system allows.

      Once it is extended, however that works, a person can choose to embrace God or choose to reject him. If they can’t, the totality of scripture makes no sense.


  7. Well that was a good presentation of Calvin’s ideas. I guess that settles it for you, but it doesn’t even get close for me.

    When one realizes that Calvin’s ideas are the new kid on the block and that the church for centuries understood this differently, it should humble one. The church, long before Calvin wrote the Institute’s at the ripe old age of 23, understood this issue. Those early church fathers, if they were alive today, would categorically reject Calvin’s theological system.

    That means a lot to me. I imagine that it doesn’t matter to you at all. Of course, I could be wrong, that is an assumption on my part.

    What I have learned over the many years that I have wrestled with this issue, is that we all interpret scripture by our own theological framework. When we do, we typically come out the victor in any debate we have with ourselves or others. At least in our own estimation. It takes a wise person to realize this and it takes a fearless person to willingly look at the issue from other perspectives, with an open mind, and with an eye to know the truth. Even if that means one has to abandon their theological framework.


  8. Of course the doctrine of total depravity offends the rebellious sinner who says in their heart, there is no God who rules over me.

    If the doctrine of total depravity is wrong, then, how do you explain Romans 3? Oh, I know, you don’t explain it, you ignore it, just as you ignore the rest of Holy Scripture.

    Romans 3
    1 What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision?
    2 Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God.
    3 For what if some did not believe? shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect?
    4 God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar; as it is written, That thou mightest be justified in thy sayings, and mightest overcome when thou art judged.
    5 But if our unrighteousness commend the righteousness of God, what shall we say? Is God unrighteous who taketh vengeance? (I speak as a man)
    6 God forbid: for then how shall God judge the world?
    7 For if the truth of God hath more abounded through my lie unto his glory; why yet am I also judged as a sinner?
    8 And not rather, (as we be slanderously reported, and as some affirm that we say,) Let us do evil, that good may come? whose damnation is just.
    9 What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin;
    10 As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one:
    11 There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.
    12 They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.
    13 Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips:
    14 Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness:
    15 Their feet are swift to shed blood:
    16 Destruction and misery are in their ways:
    17 And the way of peace have they not known:
    18 There is no fear of God before their eyes.
    19 Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.
    20 Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
    21 But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets;
    22 Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference:
    23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;


    • I think it’s interesting that the early church Fathers, some of who personally knew Apostles, didn’t understand salvation this way. They believed that anyone could come to God. So I think Romans 3 may not bean what you or Calvin think it means. They earliest disciples didn’t believe it means what you think it means. Does that bother you, at all?

      Total Depravity, the idea that is so normal to us today, was unheard of to them. That means something to me.


      • Of course “anyone” can come to God. The question is, are any of these “anyones” not totally depraved? The Bible clearly says that Jesus came to save totally depraved sinners, and that non-depraved non-sinners have no need for salvation or a savior just as those who are not sick do not need a physician.


        • I don’t think you understand what total depravity means. That’s true for a lot of people. It means that unless you are born again, you can not come to God.

          Can you point me to the verse, and version, that uses the phrase “totally depraved sinners”?


        • “I don’t think you understand what total depravity means. That’s true for a lot of people. It means that unless you are born again, you can not come to God.
          Can you point me to the verse, and version, that uses the phrase “totally depraved sinners”?”

          It is you who do not know what Calvinists mean when they use the term “total depravity.”
          The reason one must be “born again” is because until we are born of the Spirit we are spiritually dead in trespasses and sin.
          The words “Totally” and “depraved” do not appear in the AV nor in any version of the Bible that I’m aware of. The words are not important, the idea is, and the idea is expressed throughout the Bible, not just in the verses from Romans that I previously sent to you.


        • Isn’t that what I just said? I understand your point. And on that note, we agree to disagree. Or at least, I agree to disagree. 🙂


  1. Pingback: Are We REALLY Totally Depraved? | Not For Itching Ears

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