Rejecting Calvinism Does Not Require a Weak View of Depravity

February 11, 2015

Ronnie Rogers | Pastor
Trinity Baptist Church, Norman, OK

Some Calvinists are prone to chide those who do not don the Calvinist perspective for having a weak view of man’s depravity, but that is not necessarily true.[1] As an Extensivist,[2] I categorically reject such a claim. As I have written many times, I believe in total depravity.[3] That is to say, man’s depravity is extensive (affecting every aspect of man).[4] Accordingly, since the fall, man is utterly and hopelessly incapable of exercising saving faith on his own. This ability (to be or continue in faith and fellowship with God) did reside in Adam prior to the fall, but it does not exist in mankind subsequent to the fall (Romans 3:10-18). Subsequent to the fall, God must provide everything necessary to enable sinful man to be restored to right relationship with Him.

As a result, God is not only the initiator in salvation, but also the energizing power that empowers every aspect of the process and then the eternally sustaining power that protects the redeemed.[5] Man’s part, which is exercising faith in Christ as Savior, is possible only because of God’s sovereign grace in providing as well as affording man a real choice to either reject the gospel and remain in darkness or accept the light by grace-enabled faith.[6] Thus, fallen man is thoroughly incapable of exercising saving faith on his own, an incapacity that is overcome only by God’s grace enabling, which is caused solely by God’s love—omnibenevolence (John 3:16).

Therefore, the difference between the two positions cannot be winnowed out by simply dismissing people who reject Calvinism as being weak on depravity. This is simply because a lack of belief in the utter depravity and inability of man is not the real issue, but rather the actual issue is our disagreement regarding what constitutes the nature of man. This difference is where the conflict actually lies. These widely divergent views determine what is required to afford fallen man a genuine occasion to exercise saving faith (being savable).

Calvinists[7] believe that man was created with a compatibilist free will, which means that man is considered to be exercising free choice so long as he is not coerced by external forces.[8] To wit, as long as man chooses what he desires, he is exercising free choice. The essence of compatibilism is that determinism and moral responsibility are compatible. Compatibilism argues that every choosing is free as long as one did what he desired to do, but it equally excludes the possibility of man choosing to do something other than what he chooses or to have chosen to do other than what he did in fact choose to do (man chooses but he does not actually have a choice).

That is to say, a person’s every decision is free as long as he chooses without external coercion, but such choosing is determined not by choosing between two accessible options (compatibilism includes voluntariness but it does not include origination—efficient agent causation), but rather by determinative antecedents. Atheists, Darwinists, Theists, and Calvinists often disagree on what the determinative antecedents are (Darwinists argue they arise from nature only, etc., whereas Calvinists would say they originate from God, man’s nature, etc.). In compatibilism, otherwise choice (man choosing other than he did in fact choose) is non-existent.

In view of that, from a Calvinist/compatibilist perspective, Adam freely chose to sin (according to his nature with no external coercion), but he could not have chosen otherwise without having a different nature than what he did in fact have (or some other variation of determinative antecedents);[9] accordingly, sinful man cannot believe without a new nature (regeneration) and with such he will believe; hence, Calvinism’s view that the new nature precedes and provisions faith.[10] This is at the heart of Calvinism’s understanding of freedom and depravity (involving also their understanding of sovereignty, but that is another article).

As an Extensivist, I unconditionally reject Calvinism’s compatibilism, and I maintain that the clear teaching of Scripture is that God endowed man with libertarian free will. To wit, man acts freely when he is not coerced by external force or limited by internal inability, and he is therefore responsible for his decisions because he could have chosen differently than he did in fact choose. Using Adam again, what makes Adam’s sin so damning is that he actually chose to sin and walk away from the light when God had done everything to enable him to reject the temptation of the serpent, which he could have actually done.

In both the compatible and libertarian views, God knew what Adam would do but for very different reasons. In compatibilism, God knew because He gave man a nature that would ultimately result in man freely choosing to sin (compatibilism raises the whole issue of ultimate responsibility for sin),[11] whereas in libertarianism He knew, not because man was predetermined to do so, but because God knows all; therefore by His nature, He knew what man would freely choose to do when he could have chosen otherwise. Adam’s sin, mankind’s ensuing plight, and God’s knowledge of all and love for His creation are expressed in His coextensive creation/redemption plan.

Therefore, my view regarding the severity of the fall is no less biblical since both views require a comprehensive supernatural work in order to both provide and secure salvation. The true difference lies in our divergent understanding of man’s nature and freedom, which occasions the difference between our answers to the question, what supernatural work is required for God to place man in a savable position.

In Calvinism, a savable positon leads inexorably to being saved (based upon unconditional election and selective regeneration). This means that, in the end, being in a savable position is merely sequentially distinguishable but not qualitatively distinguishable from salvation. Whereas according to Extensivism, savable means to be enabled to have a real choice to either remain in love with darkness, one’s sin, or to choose to receive the light of Christ and the gospel; consequently, being in a savable position is both sequentially and qualitatively distinguishable from salvation. Unlike Calvinism, the latter does not involve a selective deterministic trajectory that unalterably leads to faith for some and not for others.

Additionally, the Scripture ubiquitously speaks as though man has a choice between various accessible options and man concomitantly senses that he can choose between believing and rejecting righteousness (once grace-enabled). Daily, humans quotidianly sense as a reality that we can choose among various options[12] placed before us. Even after such a decision is made, we often reflect on how we wish we would have chosen other than what we did; again, with every sense of reality that we could have.

In compatibilism, such sense is a delusion with regard to both the process of decision-making and the review of such decisions, whereas in the libertarian and biblical view, it seems like a reality because it is a reality. That is why man should and can come to the light and is judged for not doing so (John 3:16-21). Many Calvinists (some of whom do not fully understand such), obscure or elide the unflinching determinism associated with every decision according to Calvinism, compatibilism (I am not assigning intentionality to such); unfortunately, even many who reject Calvinism, particularly its determinism, still tend to miss how deterministic Calvinism actually is, and this far beyond the doctrine of salvation. It actually creates a world where man thinks, feels, and acts as if he and everyone around him are making decisions every day, which are either good or bad, and the ones that are bad should have been rejected. Such is a phantasm, delusion, in compatibilism.

Thus, it is fallacious to equate rejecting Calvinism with necessitating a biblically weakened perspective regarding depravity. I believe that God is sovereign enough to rule over truly free beings and powerful enough to restore man to a place of savableness, which enables man to have a real choice of whether to accept Christ or not, and whatever man does in fact do, he could have done otherwise; this enablement is provided by God’s loving and gracious pre-conversional work, which I often refer to as grace-enablement or grace-enabled faith (see reference note 6).

The truth is that both Calvinism and Extensivism recognize the need for a sovereign pre-conversional work of grace, but we disagree on what is included in that work, and that is due to our disagreement regarding the nature of man and not merely biblical depravity. In compatibilism, total depravity might logically require a new nature before a person could be savable, and such change in man would inevitably result in a free exercise of faith; however, that is not essential to a scriptural definition of depravity, which is that man is so affected by sin that he is incapable of coming to God without God’s sovereign enabling grace. Therefore, one can reject Calvinism without accepting a weak view of depravity.

With this in mind, it is clear that we do not necessarily disagree on the seriousness of sin, which is such that it requires that God must not only initiate the salvific process, but that He must provide every essential of such and continually be involved. What we disagree on (in this limited discussion) is the idea of compatibilism verses libertarianism, and thereby God’s sovereignty and love in a world so constituted. In Calvinism’s determinism, God did ultimately desire (though not directly cause) that Adam sin, or else He would have given him a different nature (or other determinative antecedents). Accordingly, God evidentially and undeniably desires only for some to be saved or else He would have given all a new nature that inevitably results in saving faith—the attempted palliation or denial of such by some Calvinists notwithstanding.

In Extensivism, God did ultimately desire for Adam to remain in fellowship with Him and not sin. Equally, He desired the same for all of Adam’s posterity. Therefore, as God provided Adam the opportunity to remain in the light, He now works to provide a genuine opportunity for all of Adam’s posterity to return to the light. According to Extensivism, God always desired holiness in His creation, and He still does. Therefore, Extensivism does not proffer a weak view of depravity but rather a different understanding of God and the created nature of man.

 

[1] Some who reject Calvinism may in fact have a weakened view, but that is not because they reject Calvinism.
[2] I describe my position thusly thereby highlighting the biblical heart of the issue regarding God’s love and salvation plan. Calvinism teaches an exclusive plan (limited salvific love, limited election, limited atonement, limited call, limited potential, etc.), and I believe the Bible teaches an extensive plan. Others who reject Calvinism, but are not properly Arminians (such labeling by Calvinists notwithstanding) use various terms such as Traditionalists, Savabilists, etc.
[3] For example see my article “The Image of God in Man: A Proposed Working Definition” at ronniewrogers.com.
[4] This does not mean that man has lost all sensibilities of God (Genesis 3:8-13; Romans 1:18-23).
[5] See my article “Can Man Endowed with Libertarian Free Will Live Righteously Forever in Heaven” at ronniewrogers.com.
[6] For a list of some of these grace enablements, see my article, “Anyone and Everyone Can Be Saved by Grace” at ronniewrogers.com.
[7] I am only addressing those who hold to this view, which is a characteristic of mainstream Calvinism.
[8] See my article “The Fall of Angels and Man: Two Views Calvinism and Non-Calvinism” at ronniewrogers.com. Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), 11, 15, 413. God’s predestination of all things compliments this as well. John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, translated by Henry Beveridge, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997 reprint), vol. 2, Book 3, Chapter 21, Section 5, page 206. Every attempt to free Calvinism from its unflinching determinism seems to succeed only in providing an inconsistency within one’s Calvinism or a slightly different path of terminology without substantive change in the deterministic nature of Calvinism.
[9] Calvinists seek to avoid this reality by delving into discussions of moral and intellectual abilities, etc., but these merely obfuscate the actual reality of compatibilism that Calvinism embraces. This is because the question being addressed is not whether Adam could intellectually or morally resist the fall, but rather could Adam, who possessed both moral and intellectual ability, resist the fall. The answer is no, not according to compatibilism. I call this one of the disquieting realities of Calvinism, which is quite often obscured.
[10] Held by many but not all Calvinists, but it is to my knowledge the vastly dominant view among Southern Baptists.
[11] I first ran across this concept when reading a chapter on this subject by philosopher Robert Kane, “Some Neglected Pathways in the Free Will Labyrinth,” The Oxford Handbook of FREE WILL edited by Robert Kane, (New York, Oxford University Press, 2002), 407.
[12] This does not mean man can do anything (fly, become an airplane, etc.,), but that within the range of options actually accessible, he can choose to act or refrain; accordingly, man does actually have a choice rather than just a choosing.