Total Inability: Responding to An Arminian

I do not learn something new every day; I’m not that studious. But the other day I learned that Arminians agree with Calvinists in affirming Total Inability. I was linked an article directly responding to my soteriological viewpoint and so I thought I would take a crack at it.

Those who deny the doctrine of Total Depravity, and especially its corollary Total Inability, demand we show them from Scripture where an inherent inner inability to freely believe in Jesus Christ and His Gospel is taught — why there must be an inner work of the Holy Spirit in the freeing of one’s will from the stranglehold that is our sinful nature.

Yes, that’s what we want. I appreciate this author’s acknowledgment of the request (edit: I have since been informed that the author of this article is William Birch). This is the first accurate framing of the discussion that I have read. Unfortunately, in my view, he is unable to do so in his article but I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

 Arminians affirm both Total Depravity and Total Inability.1 We affirm not free will but freed will — freed by the Holy Spirit in order to freely respond to the Gospel.

So there must be some sort of prevenient grace that enables men to believe, but they can still reject if they so choose. Understood.

 Whether mortals are born guilty of the sin of Adam is not under scrutiny here. What does possessing a sin nature entail? Or, better, what effects does possessing a sin nature produce? Can a sinful person perform a good act? Yes.

I completely agree.

But what of the spiritual realm? What can a sinful mortal accomplish spiritually? The simple answer: nothing.

Where, from the Bible, does he get the idea that there is a stark duality between the physical and spiritual realms? Mankind, as made in the Image of God, is both a physical and spiritual being whether we believe we are or not. I do not believe there is a single deed a human person could perform that does not have a spiritual component to it. Spirit is a part our nature. If a Christian volunteers at a soup kitchen and helps provide for the needy, in what way is that deed spiritual in a way that the exact same deed from an unbeliever is not spiritual? Do not evil deeds also have a spiritual component to them? The ghastly effects of rape cannot be seen as divorced from the spiritual realm. This idea seems to come out of an unbiblical anthropology.

Regarding the act of believing in Christ, the condition required of God for His saving of the soul, Jesus Himself confesses: “No one can [i.e., has the capability to] come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (John 6:44); “no one can [i.e., has the capability to] come to Me unless it has been granted [to give, offer] him from the Father” (John 6:44, emphases added).

Later on in the article, much to my delight, the author accurately quotes and directly responds to Dr. Leighton Flower’s position on Total Inability. He takes his discussion opponent head on. This is what great discussions are made of. Yet, when it comes to John 6 and the “draws” and “grants”, the author seems unaware if Traditionalists like Flowers have a position on those passages nor what it is if they do.

What Does it Mean for God to “Draw” and “Grant”?

So I’ll do the work the author does not. First, let’s point out the structure of the argument he is making.

  1. The author assumes that the drawing and granting is the salvation-enabling prevenient grace without showing it from the text.
  2. This interpretation is only necessary if one assumes Total Inability. His argument is circular. The author is using John 6 as evidence for Total Inability but his take on the passage requires the assumption of Total Inability to work in the first place.

If one does not assume Total Inability then “grants” and “draws” can have other meanings. If natural man is not unable to respond to the teachings of Jesus, then the “grants” and “draws” can be contained in the teachings themselves.

For example, let’s consider the pilot of a commercial aircraft. The pilot has a flight plan that goes from Houston to Chicago. By opening the door of the aircraft and lowering the ramp, he grants the passengers who climb onto the plane the ability to travel to Chicago. By proclaiming that the plane is now seating passengers, he is drawing passengers to the flight. It is not required to see the pilot as picking which passengers would board his plane, or him carrying unable to walk comatose passengers onto his plane, to accurately see him as drawing and granting passage.

In our estimation, this is a more biblical view of what Jesus is talking about in John 6. The Gospels see Jesus as actively hiding his identity from the Jews (Mat 16:20; Mark 9:9, 3:12, 8:30, 4:11-12; 33-34). Let’s look at that last reference.

“The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, ” ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’ …With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.“ (Mark 4:11-12; 33-34, emphasis mine)

Jesus sees the Jews He is hiding the truth from as able to “turn and be forgiven” because if He did not hide it from them “otherwise they might” do so! This is how Dr. Flowers puts it:

We believe that Jesus is only revealing His identity to His closest followers and hiding the truth from the rest . . . We understand that Jesus is using parabolic language to blind the self-righteous Jews of that day from recognizing Him as their long awaited Messiah. . . That, and that alone, is the reason His Jewish audience was incapable of coming to Him in faith (John 12:39-41).

This is much more consistent with Jesus’ own teaching in John 6. The Arminian article quotes John 6:44 but does not quote v. 45 where Jesus explains what He means by “draws/grants”. Look at the half the paragraph and see the flow of John’s thought:

41 So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43 Jesus answered them, “Do not grumble among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.45 It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me—” (emphasis mine) 

So the Jews are disbelieving and grumbling about Him and Jesus explains why they are disbelieving. He doesn’t say “because God has not given you the grace to believe”. He says “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me”. So if they had done their homework on the Prophets they would recognize Jesus as the Messiah and come to him. They have not and we see through out the Gospels that Jesus hides further revelation from them so they will not.

The Power of Words

The Arminian author goes on to make a strange argument that I have yet to hear in this discussion. I appreciate his direct approach in dealing with Dr. Flower’s actual position, something I have rarely seen.

Someone who denies this understanding of prevenient grace may argue, as does Leighton Flowers, “we must not presume that just because man is born fallen that the gospel is not up for the task of enabling the fallen man to respond to its appeal for reconciliation from that fall.” (link) (emphases added) But the message or words of the Good News are not magic words: words do not enable a person to believe in Jesus.

If “magic” accurately describes Dr. Flower’s position that the words of the Gospel enable, then I do not see how “magic” does not also apply to the super secret inner prevenient grace that comes with the proclamation of the Gospel. But, of course, Dr. Flowers does not mean to say that the words are a magic spell, but that men cannot believe in what they have not heard (Rom 10:14), and by hearing are thereby enabled to believe.

Now comes the author’s strange argument about words:

Words can inform an individual regarding information, but they cannot spiritually enable a person to assume action, and spiritual enablement is in focus here, since a carnal or natural person “does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness” to that person; indeed, that individual cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised, examined, or discerned (1 Cor. 2:14).

This is some philosophical gobbly-gook right here. He has accepted a philosophical presupposition, without biblical evidence, about what words can and cannot do. I cannot give some specific exegetical rebuttal because these are philosophical distinctions without reference in the Scriptures. Words can inform but do not spur people onto action? That’s silly on its face. Every political movement in the history of mankind, including the Church, has assumed that words can move people to action. He is forced to create a category of “spiritual action” to not make it sound silly and it fails.

Rom 10: 17, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”

The word of Christ is the means by which faith comes. Seems like words are powerful.

His 1 Cor 2:14 reference is Paul talking to Christians about gaining spiritual wisdom and he’s saying that Christians who are living according to their nature will not gain that wisdom. “The things of the Spirit of God” are not code for “repentance unto salvation”. Paul tells us what he means in the previous paragraph and it is wisdom, not accepting the message of the Gospel.

I called this argument strange because, perhaps without realizing it, the author has admitted that he believes the Gospel is not powerful enough to accomplish what it was sent to do (1 Cor 15:1-2; 2 Cor 5:20). The Gospel just informs, it can do nothing else. This view is consistent with prevenient grace, I have just never heard someone who believes in Total Inability admit it before. I respect the consistency.

I have good reasons why I think the Bible teaches that men can and must respond to the Gospel. Here are some passages that teach that unregenerate men can and must seek God. Does this seeking earn him salvation? Of course not. Does this seeking mean he can fulfill the law? Nay. But it does mean that the unregenerate are not corpses.

“At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, 2 a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God.  3 About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, “Cornelius.” 4 And he stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5 And now send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is called Peter. 6 He is lodging with one Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea.”” – Acts 10: 1-6

“And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us,”‭‭ – Acts‬ ‭17:26-27‬ ‭

“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.”‭‭ -Isaiah‬ ‭55:6-7‬ ‭

Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do his just commands; seek righteousness; seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the anger of the Lord.”‭‭ -Zephaniah‬ ‭2:3‬ ‭

“And he did evil, for he did not set his heart to seek the Lord.”  -‭‭2 Chronicles‬ ‭12:14‬ ‭

“Fill their faces with shame, that they may seek your name, O Lord.” –‭Psalms‬ ‭83:16‬ ‭

“Then Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah.”‭‭ -2 Chronicles‬ ‭20:3‬ ‭

“For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.” –Luke‬ ‭12:30-31‬ 

‭“He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.”‭‭ -Romans‬ ‭2:6-8‬ ‭

“And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you.” –‭‭Psalms‬ ‭9:10‬ 

“And those who had set their hearts to seek the Lord God of Israel came after them from all the tribes of Israel to Jerusalem to sacrifice to the Lord, the God of their fathers.” –2 Chronicles‬ ‭11:16‬ ‭

Putting Blindfolds on Dead Men

The author goes on to further argue his case for Total Inability. I would like to contrast two statements he makes:

 …we are born innately incapable of responding willingly to the Gospel apart from the inner work of the Holy Spirit. This is part of what being “dead in sins” entails. (Eph. 2:1)

and

St Paul teaches that, with regard to the Jewish people, their minds are hardened; even to this very day a veil remains unlifted over their minds (2 Cor. 3:14), by which veil they are incapable of freely trusting in Christ.

So which is it? Are the unregenerate Jews capable of respond to the Gospel so that God must put a veil over their eyes so they do not? Or are they “born innately incapable of responding willingly to the Gospel”? It cannot be both unless you are picturing God putting blindfolds on dead men. What is God veiling if not eyes that can see? What is God hardening if not hearts that were softer before He did so? Why is Jesus hiding the truth of the Gospel from men who could not see if if He showed it to them plainly?

In our view, the biblical narrative is that the Jews were hardened for a particular time for a particular purpose. 1 Cor 2 tells it nicely. If the Jews had understood that it wasn’t about the political power to overthrow the Roman empire, but instead it was about the power of God made manifest in human weakness, they wouldn’t have killed Jesus and we would not have been saved from our sins.

But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. – 1 Cor 2:7-8

So that is why God blinded them for a time, to accomplish Calvary. Explaining the reason why Jesus hid is identity, and shockingly did not preach the Gospel He brought, is called the Messianic Secret. We can explore this doctrine at another time.

It’s strange that this author thinks that the Jews are beyond help, when Paul does not. Paul’s entire argument starting at the end of Rom 10 and all of Rom 11 is that God has not cut off the Jews from salvation.

But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.” – Rom 10:21

I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham,a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.” Rom 11:1-2

So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather, through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. 12 Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean! – Rom 11:11-12

And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. – Rom 11:23

So the Arminian author frames the discussion fairly and makes an honest crack at it. However, he starts with the assumption of Total Inability in order to use passages to prove Total Inability. Then he uses an a-biblical philosophical assumption about the power of words, completely misunderstands the Messianic Secret, and unbiblically sees the Jews as beyond hope of salvation. For these reasons, I remain still have not seen a biblical passage that clearly teaches Total Inability and therefore I do not see the purpose for prevenient grace.

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11 Responses to Total Inability: Responding to An Arminian

  1. admin says:

    Reblogged this on SOTERIOLOGY 101 and commented:
    I recommend reading this if you’d like a better understanding of why Traditionalist reject both the Calvinistic and Arminian grid of anthropology:

  2. parsonsmike says:

    Can an unsaved person do good? You said yes.
    It’s the wrong question. Correct question:
    Can an unsaved person obey God’s Law?

    Telling the truth is good, and an unsaved person can tell the truth, but obeying God’s Law is more than just telling the truth. James takes us that if you break any of God’s Law you are a law breaker. So can one tell the truth and love God with all if they are an unbeliever? The answer is no. For either you are bowing to the One True God or you are bowing to an idol. There is no middle ground.

    Since an unbeliever can’t by definition act in faith, and without faith it is impossible to please God, see above, and thus they can’t obey God’s Law, that is what is meant by inability.

    • Eric Kemp says:

      I agree that an unbeliever cannot fully obey God’s Law. Neither can a believer for that matter. But proof that an unbeliever cannot obey God’s Law is not proof that an unbeliever cannot admit they cannot obey God’s Law and so throw themselves at the mercy of the One who obeyed it for them. The former is taught in Scripture but, in our view, the latter is not. Do you see the distinction?

      Through out the narrative portions of the New Testament we see unregenerate men, God-fearers, being blessed by God for the part of the Law they did follow. Cornelius is a good example. How does that jive with Total Inability?

  3. Deacon John says:

    Can’t you have prevenient grace without “total” inability. Man never became total depraved and totally disabled by the fall. God never completely removed his graces from man. So he retained by grace the ability to be knowledgeable of good and evil. God is always with man, working with man so that man has an ear to hear the Gospel and a heart to receive it. He enlightened minds and opens hearts, He brings his powerful word to our remembrance. These are workings of his permanent grace acting with his word. So I deny total depravity and affirm that any good work we do, any exercise of faith is a synergy between God and Man based on incarnational principles. Monergism on the divine side is heresy. Monergism on their human side is also heresy. It is synergism. Without Him we can do nothing. Our sufficiency is from God. Jesus is fully God and fully man with neither taking away from the other. This principle applies to our life of faith and conversion to God as well.

    • Eric Kemp says:

      That’s a good question, Deacon, I am not aware of the different views on Total Inability within Arminianism. Maybe there are some that hold to prevenient grace without Total Inability. I agree with the rest of your comment wholeheartedly but I would still affirm Total Depravity in the sense that mankind’s nature and will has been warped by Adam’s sin. We are predisposed to sin and need special revelation from God to overcome that disposition and be reconciled to God.

      • Deacon John says:

        I affirm man’s fallen nature. Man inherited death from Adam and because of this death, we sin. We have weakness, sickness, a propensity due to our weakness to succumb to sin. However, I do not believe we inherited guilt from Adam. We inherited consequences of his sin but. not the guilt. .we are only guilty of our own transgression. We were dead in our trespasses and sins in that we were as Saint Paul says, “separated from the Life of God…” under the condemnation of death. That is why Paul says, “the body is dead because of sin, but the spirit is life because of justification. ” It does not mean totally like a corpse, as Calvinists say, but simply under death. Just like Abimelech was told in Genesis, Thou art a dead man. I also affirm prevenient grace. We have nothing that we did not receive. We cannot give to God anything that he didn’t first give to us. Synergism is the right doctrine. It affirms all that the scriptures say instead of using some passages and ignoring others. Ezekiel talks about God taking out hearts of stone and giving hearts of flesh as if it taught monergism. Calvinism uses this verse a lot to teach the false doctrine of irresistable grace, But in the same book it says, make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. Which shows that God gives grace,he does the saving but we also must give our assent and Co operate with that grace. It is not irresistible. I guess it is a different view of where we were before the fall and the condition we were in after the fall. We are fallen, but are natures are not sin. We are still in the image of God. It may be fallen but it is still there and can never be obliterated.

        • Eric Kemp says:

          Absolutely, great stuff. I would still have an issue with the term “prevenient grace” because of the idea that this grace is somehow different/seperate and prior to the message of the Gospel. I don’t see that taught in Scripture.

        • JP says:

          Deacon – in my study of this subject, total depravity and inherited guilt are strong themes of true Arminius-proper teaching. In fact, it’s one of the points that often matches closely with what Calvinism teaches. Arminius is very Reformed on this subject.

  4. Tom Franseen says:

    Can you please elaborate more on the initial statement: “I was linked an article directly responding to my soteriological viewpoint and so I thought I would take a crack at it.” I don’t understand. Thanks. I’m trying to understand how this response came about – the order of it. Thanks!

    • Eric Kemp says:

      Sure, I was in a discussion with a buddy and he linked me that article and stated that he aligns with it. When I read the article, I saw that Birch was directly respoinding to the Traditionalist viewpoint which I hold to and thought it would be a great opportunity for a response. Does that help?

  5. Tom Franseen says:

    Yes. Thank you sir… 🙂

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