On the Depravity of Man (Part 4): The Implications of Each Position

by Jeremy Peters

What are the Implications of Each Position?

In keeping with the goal of this paper, considering the implications of each position will demonstrate the relevance of this issue for every church member. In this section, the four views previously explained will be examined for their logical and theological implications. Which will demonstrate how this specific doctrinal concept really effects the entire doctrine of salvation. How one views the extent of man’s fall into sin, directly effects how one thinks sinners become righteous in the sight of God. Which is why this issue really matters.

Pelagian

In Pelagius’ view, every human being is born morally neutral, just like Adam and Eve came into the world, with the ability to choose and do good or evil on the basis of their own free will.[1] One of his primary concerns was to protect the autonomy of man’s will. Therefore, those who do live righteous lives, are credited with making the right choices; choices better than those who choose to sin. Which begins to uncover a problem with such a position.

If a man has the ability to choose good on his own, since he is not corrupted by a sinful nature, then he must have the ability to live a perfect life.[2] Even though Pelagius credited God’s grace with providing compelling reasons to live godly lives, such as His revelation of His law and gospel.[3] He actually denied the necessity of God’s grace in a person’s salvation. Salvation is not a matter of being forgiven of sin, or saved from the enslavement to sin. Rather it is a matter of choosing the way of righteousness.[4] In this view, a person’s own righteousness is what makes him or her worthy of eternal life, and acceptance with God. This takes away the need for a Savior, the death of Jesus Christ, and the need for faith. Surely this is against the biblical teaching, that states: “There is none righteous, not even one…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:10, 23–24). Pelagius’ view totally removed the necessity of the gospel of grace.  

Semi-Pelagian

In the semi-Pelagian view of man’s fall into sin, man’s nature was left partially corrupted after the Fall. John Cassian did believe God’s grace is necessary for man’s salvation. Since, every person has an inclination to sin, they need something to get them on the right path.[5] Still, he held that man’s remaining good could work alongside God’s grace.[6] In this view, God’s grace, a Savior, and the death of Jesus Christ are all seen as necessary for salvation. But, the cooperation of man’s free will also contributes to salvation, which is where the problems begin. Man offers faith to God in his “self-initiated” free will, and God’s grace is variegated.[7]

The Council of Orange in 529 AD, in France, saw many dangerous implications in this position, and condemned semi-Pelagianism for minimalizing God’s grace. The cooperation of man’s free will in bringing about his salvation, was denounced as a works-righteous system.[8] In John 15:5, Jesus said, “For apart from me you can do nothing.” Which would include the ability to turn to God in repentance and faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Ephesians 2:8–9, explains that salvation is completely a gift of God, even the faith that is the means through which grace is obtained. To start with the idea that man can turn himself towards righteousness, is to believe that man can play a part in his own salvation. And whatever is not completely grace, is not grace at all (Rom 11:6). This view allows for a way of salvation that involves grace plus something man contributes––which is not grace at all.

Arminian and Wesleyan

The Arminian and Wesleyan view of man’s depravity is complex and more difficult to find its logical implications. First of all, the conviction that apart from the grace of God man is totally depraved and lost, necessitates God’s grace in salvation.[9] And supports the need of a Savior and the death of Christ. This removes the explicit contradictions of the Pelagian and semi-Pelagian views with the doctrine of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.[10] On top of this, because the natural man is totally depraved God must initiate the process of salvation by bestowing His grace.[11] Grace has the position of priority, and God receives credit.

But then, the doctrine of prevenient grace, applied to everyone, removes the crisis created by total depravity. Nobody actually experiences it, because God’s desire to see everyone saved has led him to pour an enabling grace upon all the world.[12] Therefore, grace is no longer the sole basis for salvation, otherwise everyone would be saved.[13] There must be something else that separates those who believe from those who don’t. And that, according to this position, is the free-choice of some to do so and others not to. Therefore, Both the semi-Pelagian and Arminian position present a synergistic view of salvation.[14] Whoever initiates the process, man or God, it still depends on a cooperative effort between them both. Wesley even suggested that man’s free will, as enabled by prevenient grace, can invoke “convincing grace,” effectually leading to conversion.[15] Which, actually sounds a lot more like man’s initiation of salvation.

John Wesley saw salvation as a cooperation between God’s working in and the believer’s working out (based on Phil 2:12–13).[16] The problem here, is a confusion between justification and sanctification. That is, the initiation into salvation with the progress of walking in that salvation. It is true, as Philippians 2:12–13 reveals, that Christians do work out their salvation in fear and trembling, but it is only because God has already worked in their salvation completely by His divine grace, as Ephesians 2:8–9 states. To put it another way, “Salvation is by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.”[17]

Of course, an Arminian would argue that man’s only part is to exercise faith, which is not a work. But, if it is what distinguishes between a person who believes and one who doesn’t, what is it? If two people are in the same state, and one believes in order to be saved but the other doesn’t, how does the salvation of the first depend on God, but the rejection of the other depend on himself? In this view, salvation depends on man.

Augustinian and Calvinist

Finally, the Augustinian and Calvinist view of man’s depravity, which is “total depravity,” renders the natural man completely incapable of contributing anything to his own salvation. In man’s sinful state, having his intellect, emotion, and will, effected and enslaved by sin, there’s nothing he can do to contribute to his salvation. In fact, if man is so depraved, he must be completely incapable of thinking, willing, or doing anything good at all. This is what Calvin called total inability, saying that, “Because of the bondage of sin by which the will is held bound, it cannot move toward good, much less apply itself to it; for a movement of this sort is the beginning of conversion to God, which in Scripture is ascribed entirely to God’s grace.”[18] Even man’s choice to repent and believe the gospel, which is good, must be a result of divine grace. Which is why Calvin went on to say the “Conversion of the will is the effect of divine grace inwardly bestowed.”[19]

One of the greatest implications of this position, is that God must not only incline man towards good, but actually transform the man to have the ability to choose good. This is known as the doctrine of regeneration––God causing a person to be born again (John 3:3, 7; 1 Pet 1:3). In this, God sovereignly removes the sinful heart of stone, and replaces it with a living heart that desires the will of God (Ezek 36:26). This is the effect grace must have, if a sinful person will be able to repent and believe the gospel.[20] And, when this effect is had on the heart, the person will inherently repent and believe, because the new heart desires what is good. This is a transforming grace, in comparison to the neutralizing prevenient grace of Arminian theology.

The next implication is that God must not grant such grace to everyone, otherwise everyone would be saved. God must choose to bestow His grace upon some, but not others. This implies the doctrine of election, or predestination. As God alone can initiate salvation, He must be the One who chooses who will receive His gift. Calvin concluded: “Surely there is ready and sufficient reason to believe that good takes its origin from God alone. And only in the elect does one find a will inclined to good.”[21] This completely removes man from the equation of salvation. He is passive in being chosen by God, and he is passive in being given a new heart. All that he is active in is his response to this sovereign grace already bestowed upon him. The view that fallen man is “totally depraved,” necessitates God to work alone in bringing about salvation.

Conclusion

This discussion has been going on for millennia, and it is quite unlikely that this short paper could solve every issue. But, hopefully it will contribute to the thinking of some. The goal was to familiarize church members with the historical positions, in order to demonstrate the significance of this doctrine. As well as, to help point out the dangers of the first three views. By now it is obvious that the Augustinian and Calvinist position is the one supported here, but hopefully readers can see how each view was treated fairly. Attempts have been made to show how the Pelagian and semi-Pelagian views are in direct contradiction to the true biblical gospel. They both promote a salvation that is accomplished, at least in part, by the efforts of man. Which must be condemned as essential doctrinal error. Also, the Arminian and Wesleyan view seems to overlap with the semi-Pelagian view, and has implications that lead to similar doctrinal errors. It should be noted that not everyone who holds the Arminian position has thought about such implications, and most would certainly deny that they contribute to their own salvation. Still, the gospel of grace is most demonstrated by the view that says man is “totally depraved.”


[1] “Everything good and everything evil, on account of which we are either praise worthy or blameworthy, is not born with us, but done by us. For we are born not fully developed but with a capacity for either conduct. Before we act according to our own will, the only thing in man is that which God has formed.” This statement denies that a sinful nature of any sort was inherited from “the Fall.” Which stems from Pelagius’ “Creationism” view of the origin of man’s soul. Augustine, On the Grace of Christ and Original Sin, 2.14, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Roberts, 1st ser., vol. 5, 241; see also On the Proceedings of Pelagius, 22.10, on p. 193.

[2] Pelagius believed that some were so righteous that they lived perfect lives. “For there would be no virtue for those who always remain good it they had not been able to choose evil. God wished to present to the rational creature the gift of voluntary goodness and the power of free will. So he planted in human beings the possibility of turning itself toward either side.” In this statement: “those who always remain good,” Pelagius suggests that some live perfect lives. They are recognized as virtuous, implied comparison to those who do not remain good, who would not be recognized with such virtue. Pelagius, Letter to Demetrias, in A Cloud of Witnesses, 100.

[3] Augustine, On the Grace of Christ, 1.45, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Roberts, 1st ser., vol. 5, 232–33.

[4] Augustine, On the Proceedings of Pelagius, 194; Allison, Historical Theology, 346

[5] “So great is the Creator’s kindness toward his creatures that his providence not only accompanies it but actually constantly precedes it.” Cassian, Third Conference of Abbot Chaeremon, 8, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Roberts, 2nd ser., vol. 11, 426.

[6] Again, the freedom of man’s ability to choose good or evil, held great influence on how man’s corruption was to be understood. Ibid., 12, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Roberts, 2nd ser., vol. 11, 428.

[7] “Human dependence on grace meant for Cassian that at every stage of the process of salvation grace must be operative; however, the freedom of the human will means that grace must function in such a way as not to deprive the will of its freedom to choose. The operation of grace as conceived by Cassian, therefore, is highly variegated. God interacts with the multitude of individual persons in the multitude of ways necessary to assist them toward salvation while at the same time preserving their freedom. The notion of grace as variegated was important to Cassian’s position, for it served to protect the self-initiating character of the human will.” Rebecca Weaver, Divine Grace and Human Agency: A Study of the Semi-Pelagian Controversy (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1996), p. 72.

[8] Canon 3 states that God’s grace must precede any good desires from man; Canon 4 denies that even man’s will is able to do anything good prior to God’s grace; Canon 5 states that even the faith through which a man is made righteous is a gift of God, and cannot be seen as something that belongs to man by nature; Canon 6 explains that it is an utter denial of God’s grace to believe that any movement towards God on man’s part assists that grace; Canon 7 states that to believe man has the ability to form any right opinion or make any right choice on his won is a denial of John 15:5, which says: “Apart from Me you can do nothing”; Canon 13 highlights that it is salvation that brings about the freedom of man’s will (John 8:36), which would nullified if one begins with the belief that man’s will is already free; Canon 16 identifies faith as the gift of God, bought for the redeemed by the death of Christ; Canon 18 restates the necessity of grace to proceed any merit on the part of a man; Canon 21 explained that believing man has the natural ability to cooperate with God’s grace, is an utter denial of the necessity of Christ’s death; and Canon 23 states that man does not do the will of God, prior to God’s grace willing man to do so.

[9] Olson argues convincingly that this has been the majority position of Arminians throughout history; Olson, Arminian Theology, 137–57. Calvinist Thomas Schreiner draws the same conclusion from his review of Wesleyan theologians in his article: “Does Scripture teach Prevenient Grace in the Wesleyan Sense?” in Still Sovereign (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 232–33.

[10] These are core tenets of the biblical gospel: Grace is the only basis, faith is the only means, and Christ is the only Agency, of salvation.

[11] Roger Olson, Arminian Theology, p. 30–31.

[12] John Wesley stated, “Every person has a greater or less measure of this, which does not wait for his call. Sooner or later everyone has good desires, though the majority of people stifle them before they can strike deep root or produce any considerable fruit.” John Wesley, “Salvation,” in A Compend of Wesley’s Theology, Burtner, 149.

[13] It’s biblically clear that not everyone is saved. Another possibility is that there must be a difference between the grace that is given to those who repent and believe (salvific) and grace that is given those who do not (common), which is the same problem: God gives grace to be saved to some, but not to others. R. C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy Over Free Will (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 324.

[14] “Grace, Sin and the Will: The Structure of the Debate,” Modern Reformation 21, no. 1 (2012): 12–17.

[15] Colin W. Williams, John Wesley’s Theology Today: A Study of the Wesleyan Tradition in the Light of Current Theological Dialogue (New York: Abingdon Press, 1960), 42.

[16] John Wesley, “Salvation,” in A Compend of Wesley’s Theology, Burtner, 149.

[17] The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, Article 4: Of Good Works, “First, there is no controversy among our theologians concerning the following points in this article, namely: that it is God’s will, order, and command that believers should walk in good works; and that truly good works are not those which every one contrives himself from a good intention, or which are done according to traditions of men, but those which God Himself has prescribed and commanded in His Word; also, that truly good works are done, not from our own natural powers, but in this way: when the person by faith is reconciled with God and renewed by the Holy Ghost, or, as Paul says, is created anew in Christ Jesus to good works, Eph. 2:10.”

[18] Calvin, Institutes, 2.3.5, vol. 1, 294–95.

[19] Ibid., 2.3.6–14, 296–309.

[20] “If we were convinced that our nature lacks everything that our Heavenly Father bestows upon his elect through the Spirit of regeneration (Titus 3:5)—a fact that should be beyond controversy—we would have here no occasion for doubt! For so speak the faithful people according to the prophet: “For with thee is the fountain of life; in thy light shall we see light” (Ps. 36:9). The apostle testifies the same when he says that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). And John the Baptist, seeing his disciples’ wonderment, exclaimed: “No one can receive anything except what is given him from above” (John 3:27). That he understands by “gift” a special illumination, not a common endowment of nature [prevenient grace], is evident from his complaint that the very words with which he commended Christ to his disciples availed him not.…Christ also confirmed this most clearly in his own words when he said: “No one can come to me unless it be granted by my Father” (John 6:44)…It therefore remains for us to understand that the way to the Kingdom of God is open only to him whose mind has been made new by the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Calvin, Institutes, vol. 1, 278–280.

[21] Calvin, Institutes, vol. 1, 300.

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