Sometime ago I was invited to speak at a college-age Christian retreat. My discussion had nothing to do with Calvinism, but during one the breaks several college students invited me to participate in a ‘round-table’ discussion. They had several theological/biblical questions they wanted to discuss. As I sat down, a young lady jumped right to the point, “I hear you’re a Calvinist. How can you believe that sinners can’t choose God?” I smiled and gently said, “Where did you hear that? Calvinists do believe people choose God.” Quite intelligently, she replied, “But you don’t believe people choose God by their own ability”. “That’s right”, I said, “because without God’s intervention how can something that is evil ever choose a good God?” I continued to ask her questions: “Do you believe all people are born sinners?” Yes. “Do you believe sin makes us an enemy of God?” Yes. “Do you believe sin affects our hearts, souls, bodies, and minds? Yes. “Do you believe sin makes us unable to save ourselves? Yes. “Do you believe it makes us unwilling to be saved?” Well, not always. I think many people recognize their sinfulness and turn to God. I replied, “Therein lies your problem, you rightly recognize the reality of depravity, but not its totality.”
The spectre of Pelagius still haunts the majority of Christendom. Radical Pelagianism denies the inherent evil of mankind. It claims whatever effects sin may have had, many exist for who salvation is not necessary. Even if someone has fallen into sin, they are both able and (many times) willing to save themselves.
While orthodoxy has rightly claimed such a teaching heretical, Roman Catholicism and much of contemporary Evangelicalism has never fully moved away from this idea. All Christian groups today teach the reality of depravity—that doctrine which states that mankind is born into sin and separation from God. Our hearts are inclined to evil and at enmity with the Lord. They strongly disagree with Pelagius’ assertion that human beings are able to save themselves, but they agree with him that many are willing to be saved.
If sin has truly distorted every dimension of the human person, it must have also affected our wills (what we want) and our minds (what & how we think). In other words, we do not desire God, we do not want God, and we will not allow our minds to turn us toward God. There is no such thing as the ‘noble pagan’ who, of his own power, recognizes his sinfulness and cries out to God for assistance. Certainly pagans do cry out to God, but it is by God’s power alone that this is possible.
Both Arminians and Calvinists recognize the reality of depravity, but only Calvinists recognize its totality.
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