Jesus and Total Depravity | Matthew 13

November 24, 2014

Bob Hadley | Pastor
Westside Baptist Church, Daytona Beach, FL

Calvinism claims men are totally depraved in that they have no ability to respond to God unless and until God regenerates them or gives them spiritual life to THEN be able to repent and believe and be converted or saved. It is one thing to claim “no man come to God unless the Spirit draw him” and claim the necessity for regeneration for man’s response to God. It is also one thing to claim the necessity for God’s drawing in revelation and reconciliation and it is another to claim that man has the innate ability in and of himself to “come to God on his own.” All too often, these scenarios get easily lumped together as if they are mutually synonymous when they obviously are not.

Consider Jesus’ dialogue with the crowd of people who followed Him and His discussion that followed with His disciples in Matthew 13.

In verse 1, a “great crowd of people gathered together to listen to Him”. One would have to understand the vast majority of these people needed to be saved. Even though they were Jews, they were not all “the elect” in the Calvinist sense. At best, there were “the elect” in this crowd along with the “non-elect.” One must also remember that Jesus is laying the foundation for the gospel message and seeking to establish His authority as the Messiah for He has not yet gone to the cross nor is He addressing that aspect of His coming at this point. However, He does make some interesting comments that are significantly relevant to the discussion of total depravity and inability as posited in Calvinism.

In verses 3 through 8, Jesus gives the crowd a parable; He gives to them an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. He uses an agricultural story as a setting for His parable of the sower who went out to sow seed. His story will contain some aspects that will be easily understood and then some that will not be so obvious. One obvious aspect would be the purpose of the sower who goes out to sow and that is the necessity of the harvest. Anyone who goes out to sow seed does so with a harvest in mind; otherwise there is no reason to sow seed in the first place.

Calvinists will argue this sowing is tantamount to what they call a “general call.” They will argue the necessity of sowing the seed of the gospel because no one knows who is and is not the elect and no one knows who will and will not respond to the gospel message and be saved. This is an accurate statement. While it is true that this parable deals primarily with the ground that the seed falls on, it must be understood that without the sower who goes out to sow there is no opportunity for a harvest. The same is true in the spiritual realm as well; if the gospel is not proclaimed, then there is no possibility of a spiritual harvest for “there is no other name under heaven whereby men may be saved.” Every believer has a mandate to go and sow.

Everyone listening to this earthly story being told by Jesus will understand the different places scattered seed will fall. They will be familiar with the hard, packed ground; they will relate to the stony ground as well as the ground that is covered in thorns and weeds and they will understand that the importance of that seed falling on fertile soil that has the best chance of producing a harvest. As Jesus finishes His story, He gives them a mandate in verse 9: 9 He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” This is a command for the crowd to consider what He has just said and then respond to it.

Calvinism will argue that there is a general call that is available to all men and then there is a special call of God where salvation is concerned that is given to a select group they call “the elect.” They will contend there is God’s general will that all men would repent but there is also this hidden will that God has that extends some special call for a select group to repent and these are those who will do so and be saved. This latter group is represented by the good soil that Jesus is talking about in this parable.

What is obvious at this point to anyone is the fact that some seed falls on bad ground and there is no growth nor is there any real potential for a harvest. The application that is not so obvious is what are the determining factors illustrated by the different types of ground and possibly even the implication of where the seed falls. What do the different types of ground represent and who is responsible for where what seed falls where? Remember one thing.

In a story there are obvious implications that are necessarily applicable but there may be aspects that are applicable to the story but not necessarily applicable to the implications being employed. A great example might be the human characteristics given to God. While references to God’s hands and His eyes for example may be used to talk about His activity in the world, there are certain aspects and limitations that apply physically that do not apply to God. There is always the caution to read enough into the illustration and then not read too much unto it as well. This may well explain the disciples’ question in verse 10: “Why do You speak to them in parables?” They no doubt were confused themselves and they knew the crowd would be.

Jesus answers His disciples. He tells them in verse 11, “It has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” This is an interesting answer. One might argue, “Here is Scriptural justification for the concept for total depravity and inability. Obviously it is God who has given this ‘special grace to understand the mysteries of the kingdom that He has not given to others’.” If Jesus had stopped there, one might find that argument valid. However, Jesus did not stop there. He went on to explain why they had been given the ability to understand the “mysteries of the kingdom” while others had not.

Jesus said, “12 For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.” Verse 12 offers some interesting commentary on Jesus’ illustration. What does He mean when He says, “For whoever has, to him more will be given”? In looking at the context, one would have to conclude that He is saying, “For whoever has ‘understanding’ more understanding will be given to him.” “Those who do not have an accurate understanding will lose out altogether.” This is an interesting perspective for it certainly brings to light the command He gave to the people as He finished the parable for “those who have ears to hear, let them hear.” The question at this point still remains; is God responsible for those who have “ears to hear” or are men responsible for their response to what they hear? Calvinism stands on the former while others will argue, the thrust of Scripture stands on the latter. At this point in Matthew 13, both positions can be substantiated.

Verse 13 begins to shed some light on Jesus’ position. He told His disciples, “Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” One could argue that Jesus was saying He intentionally used parables so that they would continue to not understand or it could be argued that He was using a simple illustration that everyone SHOULD have been able to understand but they refused to accept the obvious meaning of the message and so they did not understand. In the former example, they were confused because Jesus did not want them to understand and in the latter, they failed to understand because they did not want to accept what He was saying. The latter explanation would seem to be the better interpretation for if He did not want them to understand the parable, which is a simple story to illustrate a spiritual principle, then it would stand to reason He would have simply NOT have given the story at all. If He does not want them to understand it, then there is no reason to tell the simple story in the first place. After all, the whole purpose for sowing seed is to reap a harvest! If Jesus had no intention of them understanding the story then it could be argued that He would have been guilty of the very lesson He was communicating in the first place.

Jesus is going to use an Old Testament prophesy from Isaiah to explain why some do not understand. This reference is a very interesting one. He will quote Isaiah 6:9-10. He said, “‘Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, and seeing you will see and not perceive;” obviously, Jesus was drawing their attention to the prophecy that would foretell of the people’s refusal to understand or accept the Messiah when He finally came. This is where Jesus’ use of the Old Testament sheds some serious light on the issue of total depravity as presented by Calvinism. Listen to what Isaiah wrote and Jesus quoted: “15 for the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, So that I should (or would) heal them.”

The hearts of the people “have grown dull.” That is an interesting statement. The hearts of the people had “grown dull” because some of them were represented by the different kinds of soil. The differing types of soil represent different responses to the truths found in the Word of God. The hearts of the people had grown dull because their ears became hard of hearing and notice this next statement: “their eyes THEY HAVE CLOSED.” God is not responsible for those who refuse to hear Him! The people who closed their eyes are responsible for their own understanding or lack thereof! Their refusal to see and to hear is the reason they have not understood! The whole purpose of Isaiah’s prophesy was to point the children of Israel to Jesus! Again, the sole purpose of the Scripture was to produce a harvest; Isaiah’s prophesy was to point people to Jesus but God was saying through him many would refuse to see and refuse to hear and therefore fail to understand the significance of Jesus’ ministry.

Jesus continues, “But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear; 17 for assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” Understand something. Jesus is not commending them for their understanding because God had given it to them and not to others, He is commending them for listening to Jesus’ Words and accepting them as truth and seeing the things He did and accepting the significance of those things. That is what Jesus told the disciples of John when they came asking, “Are You the One who is to come or should we seek another?” in Matthew 11:3.”4 Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: 5 The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. 6 And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.” Jesus’ final statement to the disciples of John lends credence to the importance of an individual’s response to Him and His ministry. This statement makes no sense in a total depravity/inability setting.

Jesus’ explanation of the different types of soil in verses 18-23 highlights the response of those who hear the Word of God. This is the clear implication of Jesus’ explanation. Each response builds until the final response, which is understood to be the expected response of all who hear. This is why Jesus told the crowd, : 9 He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” Revelation and reconciliation demand a response. Verse 23, “But he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”

Jesus shares the parable of the wheat and the tares and then the parable of the mustard seed. Both of these parables deal with the acceptance of Jesus’ teaching among the people. There is the parable of the hidden treasure and then the parable of the hidden pearl. In these latest two parables, a reward awaits the one who is willing to sell all he has to secure the prized possession. Once again, it is the responsibility of the hearer of the Word of God to see its value and do whatever it takes to hold onto that truth. The parable of the dragnet echoes the parable of the wheat and the tares; there is a day that is coming when the unrighteous will be separated from the righteous and those who do not believe will be separated from those who do believe.

In verses 53-58, Jesus is rejected at Nazareth. After all the words of warning to see the things Jesus has been doing and to listen to the things He has been teaching and comparing them to the Word of God found in the Old Testament prophesies, most refused to see Him as the long awaited Messiah who had come to usher in this new kingdom God had promised.

The truth of this passage is this; the message is clear. This message has been revealed to all who are willing to listen to it and consider the merits of it in light of the Word of God that has given to men so that they might believe it and be saved by it.

“Blessed is the one who is not offended because of Me.”

 

*This post was originally published HERE and was used by permission.

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Tom

I still find it odd that this blog keeps posting reactionary expositions instead of pure ones. The above post sets up a weak straw man of a Calvinist’s position on certain aspects of the parable of the soils without citing a single authority or reference. Why not simply give a exposition that reveals Matthew’s use of the parables within the framework of his Gospel? Matthew 13 is a pivotal turning point in Jesus’ ministry where He shifts His teaching methodology due to increased opposition from Jewish authorities. Matthew includes the explanation for the parables for his readers so they are not “outsiders” but have “insider” understanding. Jesus’ explanation of the parable itself serves as an interpretative model for the rest of the parables in the Gospel. In my opinion, do the exposition first without a person’s agenda. Then, if it speaks to contemporary theological questions fine, but stop putting questions and theological points that the authors didn’t intend to address on a passage and call it exegesis or exposition. This passage is too great to minimize its significance by turning it into a Calvinist/non-Calvinist stump speech. The power of “him who has ears to listen” is a call to all believers to live according to the mysteries of the kingdom of God. It doesn’t change depending on your take on unconditional election or total depravity.

    Johnathan Pritchett

    This is bush league.

    Your response reveals two things:

    1. You are not inquisitive.

    2. You are lazy, or at least, too lazy to actually engage what Dr. Hadley has written and therefore come up with baseless assertions and poor argumentation to NOT deal with what he has written.

    What Dr. Hadley has written is no different than Jonathan Leeman investigating Matthew 16 and 18 to see if they affirm congregationalism, without citing any “authority or reference” (other than other 9Marks (which is self-authority).

    Scholars ask all kinds of questions to all kinds of texts. That’s what they do.

    One could easily dismiss Leeman’s article by saying “The above post sets up a weak straw man of a Baptist’s position on certain aspects of Matthew 16 and 18 without citing a single authority or reference.”

    That is one flippant way of not bothering to engage the actual content inquisitive scholar Bob Hadley is investigating. He, like all good scholars, asks a research question. In this case, something like “Does this parable inform us anything with regards to total depravity as Calvinists define it?”

    Another example is Michael Horton, who wrote an article for JETS called “Does Regeneration Precede Faith? The Use of 1 John 5:1 as a Proof Text.”

    Were I bush-league, I could simply say, “Why not simply give a exposition that reveals John’s use of the tests within the framework of his Epistle?” and thus reject out of hand Dr. Horton’s article and contents, because, after all, “all John says is that those presently believing in Jesus have been born of God prior to the time of his writing, and this passage has nothing to do with Calvinist presuppositions like regeneration preceding faith at the time of an individual’s conversion, which is simply not in view of this text.”

    But that would be bush-league. Dr. Horton makes his case, and we should engage thoughtfully rather than flippantly dismiss.

    Or take John Piper, who wrote “The Justification of God” on Romans 9 to answer the question “Does Romans 9:1-23 concern nations or individuals?” (Piper, JoG, 17)

    Bah, were I a lazy and non-inquisitive bloke like “Tom,” I could simply say, “Why not simply give a exposition that reveals Paul’s use of the topic of Israel and election within the framework of his Epistle? After all, Romans 9 is not about answering individual versus corporate election. What a strawman! Everyone knows that Romans 9 is about Israel (Rom. 9:3), God’s PURPOSE according to election (Rom. 9:11) to bring about the Messiah according to the flesh (Rom. 9:5), and defending the thesis that God’s Word has not failed (Rom. 9:6) Besides, God thinks it is about nations anyway, even when He is considering unborn babies inside a womb (Rom. 9:12 cf Gen. 25:23) so no need to bother with that entire book!!!”

    Yeah, not buying it, and you sir, wouldn’t either.

    Scholarship and theology is built by doing more than simply stating of a passage something like: “Coming to this passage and narrowing my focus on the innate responsiveness of the soil butchers the whole point of it being in Matthew’s gospel.”

    Not even close to doing anything like that at all. Or, we should rebuke all dissertations ever written for their research questions and narrow focus, and then go tell people like John Piper, Michael Horton, and Jonathan Leeman to pack it up and go home.

    “This parable is meant to challenge Matthew’s readers to keep going in their faith no matter where they stand today.”

    It may say this, it may speak to more than this, and may also have other implications for more than just this, or not even say or mean what you are asserting here it is meant to do without your own standard of citing authority or reference.

    “Matthew includes the explanation for the parables for his readers so they are not “outsiders” but have “insider” understanding. Jesus’ explanation of the parable itself serves as an interpretative model for the rest of the parables in the Gospel.”

    Sure, but exactly how does this exclude ANYTHING Dr. Hadley wrote?

    Oh yeah, it doesn’t. You have to engage his points, not flippantly dismiss them and falsely accuse him of setting up a “strawman” for ACCURATELY representing the Calvinist’s position with respect to total depravity and regeneration preceding faith, and then asking a question of a biblical passage to see what can be answered from the text itself with respect to this issue. (It may or may not say anything to it, the latter being your assertion without argumentation, but that does nothing to overturn the idea that we can ask these sorts of questions.

    “Does it lose its meaning whether I’m a Calvinist or a Traditionalist?”

    No, but it may or may not mean all you think it does. Which is why scholarly people ask the text questions to see if they line up with tangential presuppositions.

    Your whole line of argumentation against Dr. Hadley is invalid, and utterly useless for thoughtful engagement.

Bob Hadley

In my opinion, do the exposition first without a person’s agenda. Then, if it speaks to contemporary theological questions fine, but stop putting questions and theological points that the authors didn’t intend to address on a passage and call it exegesis or exposition.

In my opinion, if theologians followed your suggestion, total depravity would not even be an issue because as you suggest, it is not a concept the “authors intended to address.”

    Tom

    Plenty of passages deal with the utter sinfulness of humanity, whether one calls it Total depravity or not. The sinfulness of the human race is a theological point from which the Bible speaks. Something Bryan Chappell calls the Fallen Condition Focus in his book on Christ-centered preaching. The issue is not whether the human race needs a Savior. The issue goes beyond this article on Matthew 13; to whether all the passages Calvinists and non-Calvinists use to argue their theological positions actually teach those points or if they are pre-read into the passage and provide an extra-biblical grid for reading a particular passage. Stop working so hard at disproving some other guy and instead spend that time trying to get into the mind of the author and the intended audience of a biblical book. For example, exhort me not to be the hard soil who is completely shut off from the word of God. Challenge me to not let the worries of the world choke my faith or the persecutions of the world fry my faith. Demand of my faith fruitfulness. Coming to this passage and narrowing my focus on the innate responsiveness of the soil butchers the whole point of it being in Matthew’s gospel. This parable is meant to challenge Matthew’s readers to keep going in their faith no matter where they stand today. Does it lose its meaning whether I’m a Calvinist or a Traditionalist?

      Bob Hadley

      Tom,

      I appreciate your interaction. Obviously we do not agree on the theological merits of calvinism. Here is a thought I have in response to your retort. If total depravity as posited by calvinism were true THEN Matthew 13 would not stand in opposition to it. That is the basis for the article. My point is simple. The differing types of ground represent the choices and decisions men make concerning their response to revelation and reconciliation. My whole position regarding men’s response to the gospel hinges on this statement.

      Look at your final comment. “For example, exhort me not to be the hard soil who is completely shut off from the word of God. Challenge me to not let the worries of the world choke my faith or the persecutions of the world fry my faith. Demand of my faith fruitfulness.”

      I would wholeheartedly agree with your position. However, calvinism would argue God is the One who determines who does and does not respond in faith. My position is that all men have the opportunity and ability to respond to God’s initiative in revelation and reconciliation. The different types of soil Jesus mentions in this parable corresponds to the differing responses men make.

      I do believe it is possible to narrow the focus of a passage without narrowing the scope of the passage. However, a narrow focus should still be consistent with the scope of the passage, which I have presented in this article. If I am correct in asserting the focus of the differing types of soil as being related to the response of the people who hear the gospel, then the whole concept of total depravity and inability find difficult ground to stand on. That is the basis for my argument in this passage.

        Johnathan Pritchett

        “I do believe it is possible to narrow the focus of a passage without narrowing the scope of the passage. However, a narrow focus should still be consistent with the scope of the passage, which I have presented in this article.”

        THIS!

          Tom

          Wow! That’s quite a response Johnathan. Thanks for all the compliments in your above post. I haven’t felt so appreciated since I responded to a Calvinist post about making John 3:16 refer to the elect and not the world. I was likewise told how ignorant I was and unwilling to do serious work. No offense, but this kind of response explains why extremists in the SBC lose their voice. Of course, someone can ask if a passage speaks to specific theological issues; but why do the issues in the SBC posts deal so much with Calvinism? I used to know a college professor that found Five points in every passage he preached. That took an awful lot of exegetical gymnastics. It might have preached well to his audience but in my opinion it diminished the Word of God because by putting onto the passage what was not there the preacher covered up the inspired message. Now, the danger lies in someone in the audience taking a wrong interpretation and wrong method of interpretation to other passages. As to engaging in the article’s points about the parable of the soils, I believe one’s predisposed theological positions determine what they see in the parable. A Calvinist will say God’s in control of creating the circumstances that lead to the various soil types based upon His electing purpose. A non-Calvinist will argue as Bro. Hadley has seeing the soils as capable of responding after God’s initiative. I personally think neither Jesus nor Matthew pressed the parable that far to definitely answer the question posed. Why go to a parable (even if given a clear interpretation) to argue human capability? It is not a slam dunk for either side and can only disrupt Matthew’s intent of the parable in his Gospel. Being honest that not every passage in the Bible fits neatly into a man created theological system does not make a person lazy, ignorant, or less spiritual. I love this parable, wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on Jesus’ parable methodology in Matthew, so Johnathan don’t suppose a lack of “serious” engagement indicates laziness, ignorance, or a lack of anything else. I would just prefer to read an exposition of the parable of the soils instead of a counter point against one of the five points of Calvinism.

            Bob Hadley

            Tom,

            For the record, I agree with the statement you made: “Now, the danger lies in someone in the audience taking a wrong interpretation and wrong method of interpretation to other passages. As to engaging in the article’s points about the parable of the soils, I believe one’s predisposed theological positions determine what they see in the parable. A Calvinist will say God’s in control of creating the circumstances that lead to the various soil types based upon His electing purpose. A non-Calvinist will argue as Bro. Hadley has seeing the soils as capable of responding after God’s initiative. I personally think neither Jesus nor Matthew pressed the parable that far to definitely answer the question posed.”

            I will make one slight modification; I do not see the soils as capable of responding after God’s initiative” as you suggested: I see the differing types of soil as representative of the differing choices men have already made.

            With that being said, I would also agree with you that one’s predisposed theological determine what they see not only in this parable but in most passages they read. I also agree that it is not a slam dunk for either side. I never considered as such and if you notice I commented on that very fact indicating the argument could go either way as certain texts were quoted and looked at.

            However, my position with respect to total depravity and inability did not line up with WHAT Jesus said in this passage. While I do agree that He was not addressing total depravity, my position was His parable to me seems to reject that position. While I agree He is not speaking to that issue ( because I do not believe it to be a valid theological position in the first place and therefore I do not see Jesus EVER speaking to total depravity and inability ) I do maintain the position that IF total depravity and inability as posited by calvinism were true THEN HE would have spoke from a perspective that would allow that position. My argument in this article is that is not the case in the differing types of soil coupled with His explanation especially looking at the Isaiah 6:9-10 passage and the clear statement that “THEY HAD CLOSED THEIR EYES.”

            The condition of the soil seems to me clearly the result of THEIR CLOSING their own eyes; not God being the One responsible for that happening. That is the simple point to the article. I simply cannot fathom to even the slightest degree this concept of total depravity and inability; it amazes me that anyone can accept that position. I cannot for the life of me see how ANYONE can charge God with deciding who does and does not repent. I simply do not understand that position.

            With that being said, this parable certainly does more harm to that theological position than it does to support it. That was my point.

Jerry

My response is then “depraved” does not mean “depraved”. The Bible says that an unsaved person is dead. How can a dead person respond to any thing spiritually?

      rhutchin

      Rick,

      It is fine to argue that depravity does not mean that a person is unable to be saved absent God’s direct help. If one person can be saved by faith without direct assistance from God, then why are not all people saved. The choice is simple – eternal death or eternal life. Psalms got it right – It takes a fool to say that there is no God. Outside of depravity, what else explains a person’s rejection of the gospel? If people are not dead in the sense of being unable to respond to the gospel, then what else is there to explain it?

        Rick Patrick

        Rhutchin,

        Of course, you must know that I disaffirm the notion that man can be saved absent God’s direct help. It is precisely the direct help of God’s Holy Spirit drawing man through the gospel that God uses to bring a man to repentance, so that he exercises his God-given ability to respond—an ability man has since God has made man in His image, with reason, will and emotion.

        You ask: “Outside of depravity, what else explains a person’s rejection of the gospel?” Well, it is not because they are *incapable* of saying yes or no. It is rather due to one of the two following reasons: (1) they have never heard the gospel, or (2) they have heard the gospel but are *unwilling* to exercise their free will by saying yes to Jesus. They choose to respond to God’s initiative by saying “no.” They reject His grace, and it breaks His heart, for He truly loves and desires for all to be saved.

    Dennis Lee Dabney

    Adam sure responded to the Lord God and he official poster “man” for what total depravity looks like from it’s origin. The key is the Lord God made the first move. First, He “came” to him, He “spoke” to him and “addressed” his sin.

    Preach!

      Bob Hadley

      I have NO IDEA which side of the fence you stand on with respect to total depravity and inability. I am not sure that Adam is the “official poster ‘man’ for what total depravity looks like since I do not believe that picture even exists.

      I do agree wholeheartedly with your statement: “The key is the Lord God made the first move. First, He “came” to him, He “spoke” to him and “addressed” his sin.”

      AMEN and AMEN. Understand this: nowhere does the text state or even hint that God regenerated Adam allowing him to respond to God’s initiative in coming to him first. That is my point of contention with the whole concept. Thanks for your comment.

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