If Calvinism’s doctrine of Total Depravity is true, then why aren’t we all murderers?
I’m sure you’ve heard this objection before, and I’m sure you’ve heard Calvinist apologists respond to it by saying something like “TD doesn’t mean we’re all as evil as we possibly can be.”
Unfortunately yeah it does. As Question #8 of the Heidelberg Catechism puts it:
“Q. But are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined toward all evil?
“A. Yes, unless we are born again by the Spirit of God.”
and (more importantly) as Isaiah 64:6 says “All our righteous deeds are as filthy rags”.
So what are we to make of this? Are these theologians (Men like RC Sproul, John Piper, and J Gresham Machen) intending to deny Total Depravity when they say this?
No. They are merely attempting to explain how an observed phenomenon (which is real) that seems to refute Total Depravity does not in fact refute Total Depravity.
Unfortunately for them they have fallen into a trap and accidentally compromised on the doctrine to try to make it easier to defend.
There are some out there who will say this is a grave theological error. However since we can understand what went into these statements, I believe that take to be wholly uncharitable and potentially slanderous.
Let’s take a closer look at what’s going on here to understand why the objection is a trap and how to avoid it and give a better defense.
The question posed by the objection is disingenuous. The men who respond in the unfortunate way have simply attempted to answer the objection on the terms of the question, thus falling into the trap.
The logic of the objection goes like this:
> If Calvinism is true then we must all be as evil as we could possibly be.
> If we are all as evil as we can possibly be, we would all be <insert evil behavior here – terrorists, rapists, murderers, child molesters, etc. I’ll stick with murderers for now>.
> We are not all murderers
> Therefore we must not all be as evil as we could possibly be
Having arrived at this conclusion, the objector then asks the Calvinist to explain why we’re not all as evil as we can possibly be.
Well on the face it seems like a valid question. Because yeah, *IF* the objector’s logic is correct, then it’s true. We’re not all as evil as we could possibly be. We are not all murderers.
So how can we hold to total depravity?
Most calvinists say “Well total depravity doesn’t teach that we are as evil as we possibly could be”
This is unfortunate as I’ve already demonstrated. What’s the better answer?
We must recognize the flaw in the objector’s logic. His second premise is wrong. Being as evil as we could possibly be does not mean we would all be <insert most evil thing we can think of here> because that is not the most evil thing.
The problem with the objection is that it is based on a standard of righteousness that considers the greatest evil to be the worst external act that man can imagine.
But this is a flawed, and frankly too low standard of righteousness. The standard of righteousness is not what man thinks it’s evil. It is God’s own holiness. It is Jesus Christ himself. Further, righteousness is not primarily a matter of outward behavior but of the heart.
Whenever we look at two sinners and say that one is more evil than the other because one has committed a certain external act that man considers more evil than what the other man has done, we have lowered the standard of righteousness.
For “man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart,” and “whoever keeps the whole law is guilty of breaking all of it.”
Now I’m sure these men know better than this. The men I named above have all clearly affirmed the gospel and TD. So why did they answer in this way? Because they’ve been tricked by the question into accidentally adopting the works-based righteousness that the question presupposes.
It’s true that some sins are worse than others. Murder is evil. But according to God’s standard, what’s worse than murder are such things as self-righteousness, unbelief, denial and rejection of the Son, living a life of what appears to be external righteousness while inside being spiritually dead, having no love for God, having no faith in God, living to please self, not living by faith in God and robbing his glory.
Anyone who says “We’re not as evil as we could possibly be because we’re not all murderers,” is the Pharisee who prays “Thank you God that I’m not like that tax collector (or perhaps murderer in this case).”
In fact, anyone who says, “We’re not all murderers,” denies that Jesus’ expansion of the 6th commandment to include all those who have anger toward their brother applies to them. Indeed, we have all had murderous intent at least once in our lives, and whether we carry it out or not makes no difference before the face of God.
The very act of looking at the murderer and saying “I may be evil, but at least I’m not a murderer” is worse than murder in God’s eyes. Why? Because it profanes God’s holiness by promoting the imperfect righteousness produced by a sinner as acceptable.
All these people who say, “Calvinism can’t be true because I’ve never murdered anyone” fail to realize that saying this proves they are worse sinners than murderers. They think they’re not, but only because in their depravity, they are using a depraved standard.
Their objection needs to be flipped on its head and countered to point out that everyone who lacks the perfect righteousness of Christ by faith is in fact as evil as he could possibly be, regardless of how that is manifested outwardly – even and especially if it manifests as good works. The works of them law make no man righteous.
Yes it is true that despite not everyone being murderers or child molesters or terrorists, every single one of us (apart from Christ) lives for our own pleasure, denies God, attempts to be righteous by his own works, and denies the Savior.
Or as God put it through the apostle Paul
“as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.” – Romans 3:10-18
This accurately describes every person who does not posses the righteousness of Christ by faith. The thoughts and intentions of our hearts are only evil continually if we do not by faith fear God and seek him through Christ. Even if we do not commit external acts such as murder, we are still as evil as we could possibly be.
So do these theologians who answer in the way they do intend to lower the standard of righteousness? Do they mean to substitute the gospel for a works based righteousness? Are they trying to deny Total Depravity and with it the whole gospel?
No. They are answering a critic in a way that seems right to them in the moment but they haven’t thought through the implications of what they’re saying. They’ve erred, to be sure. Their answers are not correct, but let’s be charitable and give them the benefit of the doubt that they do not mean to imply the things they accidentally imply by this answer. Let’s be gracious and realize that we ourselves are more than capable of erring in this way. Since they have demonstrated their affirmation of Total Depravity elsewhere, it does not stand to reason that they are here denying it.