The third of the five points of Arminianism concerns the question of original sin or human depravity. In several of the formal statements of the Arminian position as it bears upon human depravity, the real import of that position is not readily detected. As William Cunningham points out, the controversy when it arose, especially as it was conducted on the Arminian side, did not give the prominence to this aspect of the debate. Yet, as he proceeds to show, ‘it really lies at the root of the whole difference, as was made more palpably manifest in the progress of the discussion, when the followers of Arminius developed their views upon this subject more fully, and deviated further and further from the doctrine of the Bible and the Reformation on the subject of the natural state and character of men.’ (Historical Theology, 2:392.)
Arminians do in general terms assert the depravity of fallen human nature. But a merely general statement of the fact does not touch the heart of the question. The real question is the seriousness with which the general statement of the fact is taken and the willingness there is to appreciate all the implications of it. In a word, it is the question of the totality or entirety of this corruption.
Our Confession of Faith says with respect to our first parents and their sin in eating the forbidden fruit:
By this sin they fell from their original righteousness, and communion with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed, and the same death in sin and corrupted nature conveyed, to all their posterity, descending from them by ordinary generation. From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions.’ (VI.2-4.)
Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.’ (IX.3.)
These are highly compressed and succinct statements of total depravity, and their meaning and consequences ought to be carefully weighed. They are peculiarly offensive to every view that hangs on to any vestige of optimism with respect to the qualities or potencies inherent in human nature as fallen. Indeed they must arouse the opposition and emphatic protest of every view that suspends any hope on the autonomy of the human will. It is just because the Arminian does in the last analysis place the determining factor in the individual’s salvation in the free choice of the human will, that he has taken such unrelenting issue with the doctrine of the Reformed Churches.
The Confession does not, of course, deny to men what we may call natural virtue or civil righteousness. It affirms that works done by unregenerate men may, as regards the matter of them, be things which God commands, and of good use both to themselves and others. Neither does it say that all men are equally depraved, or to put it more accurately it does not say that this corruption ‘whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil’ receives the same degree of development and expression in all. What the Confession does is to set forth the teaching of Scripture with respect to the moral and spiritual condition of men as they stand in the pure light of the divine standard and judgment. Judged by that norm they are dead in sin and wholly defiled.
As is apparent from the foregoing discussion it is in connection with the operations of God in His saving grace that the implications of the affirmation or denial of the doctrine of total depravity come to light. The question here is: What is the mode of the divine operation of the Spirit of God in bringing men to faith and repentance? All are agreed that men are saved through faith. But the difference arises when we come to explain the fact that, of those who indiscriminately receive the overtures of grace in the gospel, some believe and some do not. The question is not in general terms that of grace. Arminians concede that men cannot be saved apart from the gracious operations of the Spirit of God in the heart. The question is: What is the nature of that grace? What is the cause of faith? Why is it that some believe to the saving of their souls and some do not? Is that grace of God given to all indiscriminately, or is it a grace given only to those who believe? Is it a grace that may be resisted, or is it always efficacious to the end in view, and therefore incapable of being frustrated?
Arminians though exhibiting certain differences among themselves are agreed that sufficient grace, whether it be regarded as a natural possession or a gracious bestowal, resides in all, and therefore that all men have the ability to believe. The explanation of the fact that some believe and some do not rests wholly in a difference of response on the part of men. This difference of response may be stated in terms of co-operation with, or improvement of, the grace of God. But in any case the explanation of the difference lies exclusively in the free will of man. For the difference of response on the part of the believer as over against the unbeliever he is not only wholly responsible but he, in the exercise of the autonomy that belongs to his will, is the sole determining factor. God does not make men to differ. He operates no more savingly and efficaciously in the man who believes than He does in the man who does not believe. For this indiscriminateness in the saving operations of God, the Arminian is exceedingly jealous; he demands that what God does for and in one He does for and in all equally. In the ultimate, then, the issue of salvation rests with the sovereign determination of the human will. Men make themselves to differ.
Now it is easy to see that , if man is thus able to co-operate with or improve the grace that is common to all, there must remain in man some vestige of good. Indeed, so decisive an element of ability to good survives that it determines the exercise of the most important event or series of events in the history of the individual. And this is exactly where the Arminian position impinges not only upon the sovereignty and efficacy of God’s saving grace but upon the total depravity of sinful man.
In magnificent contrast with this denial of the sovereignty and efficacy of the saving grace of God is the teaching of our Confession. It reads: ‘All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by his word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God; taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them an heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by his almighty power determining them to that which is good; and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ; yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace.
This effectual call is of God’s free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man; who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it. (X.1-2.)
In these sections the faith that embraces Jesus Christ to the saving of the soul is referred to the sovereign predestination of God as its source, and to the regenerative operation of God in the heart as its cause. God is sovereignly pleased to impart His efficacious grace, and it is the enablement that comes from this sovereign bestowal of the grace of the Holy Spirit that leads to faith. The person effectually called is altogether passive therein until renewed by the Holy Spirit. A new heart has been given him and a right spirit created within him by the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit; and because he has a new heart and a right spirit his response to the call of the gospel cannot but be one of loving reception and trust. Just as the reaction of the carnal mind cannot but be one of enmity against God, so the reaction of the mind of the Spirit cannot but be one of faith and trust. It is the very nature of the new heart to trust God as He is revealed in the face of Jesus Christ.
We have here in our Confession a rather neat statement of the relation of faith to regeneration. In this realm of theological debate our position can very readily be tested by our answer to the questions: Does God regenerate us because we believe, or do we believe because God has regenerated us? In other words what has the causal priority, regeneration or faith? There are many evangelicals who will say that faith is the means of regeneration, that God regenerates those who believe and because they believe. They thereby, whether wittingly or unwittingly, place themselves in the Arminian camp and in the most decided opposition to Reformed doctrine. Logically they place themselves ? perhaps with good intentions ? in a position that leads to the wreck and ruin of true evangelicalism.
We are, of course, using the term ‘regeneration’ in the restricted sense of the new birth, and in this sense the very hallmark of Calvinism as of Augustinianism is that faith is the gift of God, because it proceeds from the regenerative operation of the Holy Spirit as its only cause and explanation. God has elected His people to salvation. He has ordained that this salvation become theirs through faith. But because of the total depravity of their hearts and minds they cannot exercise faith; they are dead in trespasses and sins. In order to bring them to faith God implants by the agency of the Holy Spirit a new heart and a right spirit within them, and thus effectually and irresistibly draws them to Christ. They are made willing in the day of God’s power. By grace they have been saved through faith, and that not of themselves, it is the gift of God.
The Perseverance of the Saints
In the closest relation to the foregoing doctrine of efficacious or irresistible grace is the doctrine of the eternal security of the believer. This doctrine the Arminian bluntly rejects. A true believer, he says, may be in grace and then fall from grace and finally perish. Such a position is in logical coherence with his doctrine of the nature of saving grace. If the determining factor in the matter of an individual’s salvation is the autonomy of his own free will, then consistency would seem to be all in favor of regarding salvation as a very insecure and mutable possession. Salvation in this case cannot be any more stable than that which in the final analysis determines it.
But it is just here that the harmony of efficacious grace with the perseverance of the saints comes to light. The Reformed Faith recognizes that God it is who determines a sinner’s salvation, and that what He begins He brings to perfection. Salvation rests upon the unchangeable grace of God. He will not forsake the work of His hands, nor make void His covenant. Thus reads the Confession: ‘They whom God hath accepted in his Beloved, effectually called and sanctified by His Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace; but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved.
This perseverance of the saints depends not upon their own free will, but upon the immutability of the decree of election, flowing from the free and unchangeable love of God the Father; upon the efficacy of the merit and intercession of Jesus Christ; the abiding of the Spirit, and of the seed of God within them; and the nature of the covenant of grace: from all which ariseth also the certainty and infallibility thereof. (XVII.1-2.)
Professor John Murray was born in Scotland and was at the time of this writing a British subject. He was a graduate of the University of Glasgow (1923) and of Princeton Theological Seminary (1927), and he studied at the University of Edinburgh during 1928 and 1929.
In 1929-1930 he served on the faculty of the Princeton Theological Seminary. After that he taught at the Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia where he served as Professor of Systematic Theology.
He was a frequent contributor to theological journals and is the author of Christian Baptism (1952), Divorce (1953), Redemption Accomplished and Applied (1955), Principles of Conduct (1957, The Imputation of Adam’s Sin (1960), Calvin on the Scriptures and Divine Sovereignty (1960), The Epistle to the Romans, Vol I, Chapters I-VIII (1960) and The Atonement (1976).