Is Total Depravity TRUE? - A Debate
Recently, Warren McGrew of Idol Killer debated this topic with Matt Slick on The Gospel Truth with host and moderator Marlon Wilson.
As requested, we are providing a transcript of Warren's Opening, Rebuttal and Closing Statements. We invite everyone to consider the points which were raised and consider their validity and impact on how this doctrine affects your understanding of Truth.
Leading up to this debate Matt asked me to define Total Depravity and agreed to the following definition.
QUOTE “Total Depravity asserts that as a result of Adam's transgression in Eden all his progeny are born spiritually dead, condemned and possessing his sinful nature. As Calvin and the various Reformed confessions state... our soul, flesh, will and intellect are thoroughly corrupt and naturally incapable of rightly understanding God or seeking after Him. We are incapable of even disposing ourselves to such reform.” END QUOTE
In various articles on CARM and teaching videos, Matt has described the effects of Total Depravity, saying: QUOTE “man cannot understand spiritual things” END QUOTE
This echoes such Reformed Confessions as the 1655 Midland Confession, which tells us to “consent not with those who hold that God has given power to all men to believe.”
Total Depravity is often called Total Inability because it teaches we’re created incapable of knowing God, crying out to Him for help, understanding and believing spiritual truth and must first be regenerated, undergoing a fundamental change in our nature or given a special type of enabling grace so that we can - or will, understand and respond to spiritual truth.
Now, the question being debated tonight focuses as much on epistemology as it does on Scripture… So we might very well ask “Is Total Depravity in accordance with fact and reality, or the laws of logic?”
Given this, before we consider what Scripture has to say on the nature of man, it’s critical I point out two glaring undercutting defeaters… inherent in Mr. Slick’s position.
1. He must rely on the very faculties he claims are naturally incapable.
If he was created incapable of rightly understanding spiritual truth as he asserts… then to what can he appeal to that he rightly understands such things now?
2. He must use my worldview and operate as though we are able to understand and respond to spiritual truth.
If Total Depravity were true, then Matt saying the pledge of allegiance in Mandarin would have as much impact on us as his presentation tonight. So by seeking to employ reason, wisdom and logic to convince us, he assumes my view… that such a thing is possible because Total Depravity is false.
Does he point to Scripture? Certainly… demonstrating that he trusts his God given intellect and ability to reason, processing Scripture through his natural faculties… all the while claiming these faculties were created incapable of understanding spiritual things… thus undermining his own position. Essentially claiming “I know it’s a spiritual truth that I was created unable to know spiritual truth.”
Mr. Slick can appeal to the opinions of men with whom he agrees, but he is still assuming he can rightly understand spiritual truth as they present it and hoping such men are not deceived as a result of their own supposed natural inability.
He is also relying upon a lifetime of experiences and trusting his ability to know whether or not they were genuine encounters with God and spiritual truth… while claiming he was created incapable of doing precisely this.
In an attempt to counter these inconsistencies, he will inevitably assert he’s been regenerated, given a new heart and new mind… and that’s wonderful, but he needs to demonstrate how he can have any confidence in this claim given he has to process even his own regeneration by way of utilizing the faculties he claims were created incapable.
You see Total Depravity is a view that attacks its own premise.
…By engaging in such a debate, seeking to appeal to Scripture, using reason, wisdom, discernment and logic to convince others that he is correct, Mr. Slick is defaulting to the reality that we are able to understand spiritual truth and can be reasoned with, demonstrating both undercutting defeaters… that to argue against me, he must assume my view of reality... that men are created possessing God given senses and faculties, able to consider Scripture, the testimony of others and various other facts and bits of evidence and understand spiritual truth.
What can we look to if this doctrine is true? Scripture, theologians and even our experiences have to be processed through our naturally incapable faculties… you can never escape your own mind and you can never process the world apart from your own intellect.
This is not some minor point to be glossed over or dismissed… This is absolutely critical and something I expect Mr. Slick to clearly address during tonight’s debate.
When did his corrupt and incapable faculties become capable and how does he know this without relying on these very faculties?
This question MUST be answered before we can even begin to consider what he believes Scripture says on the matter… so I look forward to hearing him explain this.
Now with regard to Scripture, it says we are fearfully and wonderfully created by God in our mother's womb (Psalm 139:14), that we are a marvelous work of God, entirely dependent upon Him (Psalm 22:8-10, 71:5-6), that we are His imagebearers (Genesis 1:26, 3:22)… and AFTER Adam sinned, God declared man became MORE like Himself knowing both Good and Evil (Genesis 3:22).
We’re told sin is contrary to who we are and seeks to rule over us, but we must master it (Genesis 4:6-7); that we depart our initial state of innocence and go astray into sin and trespasses (Psalm 58:3, Proverbs 14:22, Hebrews 5:2), developing a nature in bondage to sin and rightly deserving judgment (Ephesians 2:1-3).
That by our young adult years the imagination of our hearts has become set on wickedness (Genesis 8:21) and yet even in such a state as this we can come to our senses and return to the Father who draws all men to Himself (Luke 15, John 12:32, 2 Peter 3:8-10), promising to freely pardon us, lavishing His restorative love on us and declaring us innocent once more (Ezekiel 18, Isaiah 55:7, 1 John 1:9).
Acts 14:1 tells us Paul and Barnabas spoke so effectively that a great number of unbelieving Jews and Greeks were convinced and believed. Colossians 4:5-6 tells us to take advantage of every opportunity to speak with unbelievers in effort to persuade them.
We read in Romans 1 that when some men and women did not see fit to acknowledge God, He gave them up to a depraved mind… yet Total Depravity asserts the opposite… that we’re all born with depraved minds and thus unable to acknowledge God.
Romans 8:5-7 says… “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit…”
We see that man is capable of setting his mind on either the flesh or the things of the Spirit… that the spiritual person understands spiritual truth, but the carnal man cannot. Why? Because the carnal man has committed himself to gratifying his appetites and spiritual disciplines such as self control and selflessness are seen as foolish to him.
Paul affirms this in 1 Corinthians 2 saying “we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.”… and those unbelieving Gentiles in Corinth heard, understood and believed Spiritual truth by way of their God given faculties… unlike the carnal men in their city.
All of this stands contrary to the claims of Total Depravity.
However, the greatest error of all is that this doctrine results in either denying the incarnation of Christ or corrupting it.
In Hebrews 2:14-18 we’re told that Jesus took up our flesh to redeem us… flesh which Total Depravity asserts is sinful and corrupt… yet Jesus had to be made like us in every respect to fully redeem us… this would include every aspect of our nature… which Total Depravity asserts is stained by sin to its very root.
Gregory of Nyssa, a contemporary of Augustine of Hippo, wrote “That which Christ did not assume, He did not redeem.”
However, in his work Institutes of the Christian Religion John Calvin wrote “…our nature is not only utterly devoid of goodness, but so prolific in all kinds of evil, that it can never be idle… that everything which is in man, from the intellect to the will, from the soul even to the flesh, is defiled and pervaded with this concupiscence… that the whole man is in himself nothing else than this.” (Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 2, Chapter 1, Section 8)
Is this the nature Jesus took on to Redeem? Does this describe our Spotless Messiah?
If we’re born stained by sin, spiritually dead, guilty, possessing Adam’s sinful nature… if we’re created incapable of rightly knowing God, understanding spiritual truths or even disposing ourselves to reform… and Jesus came like us in every respect, taking on our nature to redeem us… then Jesus had a sinful and corrupt nature and wasn’t the Spotless Redeemer.
Now, some will point to Mary’s Immaculate Conception and supposed sinless life, but this results in a form of Docetism which we can explore later - I'm running out of time.
There are a great many other problems arising from this doctrine, but as you can see my time is limited.
Suffice it to say… the only Biblically consistent, logical, rational and truthful understanding in keeping with reality and the teaching of Christ is that Total Depravity is false.
In his opening statement, Mr. Slick pointed to passages which speak of sin and men sinning, but asserted this means we’re born with sinful natures and a total inability to understand spiritual truth… he pointed to verses where God calls men wicked and carnal because they did wicked and carnal things, but he claimed this means we’re created wicked and carnal… Now, I’ve read these exact same passages and I affirm them 100%... but they don’t teach the philosophy he has imposed upon them.
To be clear we both have studied the Scriptures, seeking to understand what they teach us… I study the Bible believing God created me capable of understanding and being taught by it, while Mr. Slick studies the Bible believing God created him incapable of understanding any of it…
Setting aside this humorous self-defeater, I want to be fair in my representation of Total Depravity, while conveying those facts which reveal it to be false.
To assist me in this, I have some props from my desk…
This is a Red Sharpie, for the purpose of this demonstration it’s just a placeholder for any spiritual truth or possible spiritual truth… Like all of you, I was created naturally incapable of understanding this… receiving, believing and confessing it… I had to be regenerated, given a new heart, new mind and the gift of faith… but that has happened to me, so now I know that this is a Red Sharpie…
This is a pretty fair depiction of the way the doctrine is taught…
But here I see a couple serious problems… Total Depravity doesn’t claim we’re subject to error, or deception… or even that we are prone to such things… rather it asserts we’re naturally incapable of knowing spiritual truth…
If Total Depravity is true, I could just as easily say THIS is a Red Sharpie… I like all of you was created incapable of understanding, receiving, believing and confessing this…. But I’ve been regenerated, given a new heart, new mind and all that… and so now I know that THIS is the real Red Sharpie!
Right now you’re using your ability to employ reason, wisdom, logic and discernment – those God given faculties, to survey the world around you and understand the very nature of reality… and you clearly see this has a red cap and says “Sharpie” on the side… and this is clearly a calculator.
Well not so fast!… You MAY be correct, the evidence certainly appears convincing… but if Total Depravity is true, the reason you all believe this is the real Red Sharpie could be because you’re under a deception arising from your natural inability… and THIS is the real red sharpie, you’re just one of the unregenerate… God has passed over you and not enabled you to understand and receive this.
It doesn’t matter how much evidence you have, or how convincing it seems, how many people affirm it as true… it doesn’t even matter what you or others believe Scripture says about it… If Total Depravity is true, then you can’t have any confidence you’re presently understanding truth.
If you can be convinced that your God given faculties are incapable of knowing truth… well then you can be convinced of pretty much anything… Total Depravity creates permanent uncertainty over everything… you can’t even know which is the real Red Sharpie… its nothing more than religious gaslighting.
You see, it’s not our nature which makes truth unknowable… but rather this totally depraved doctrine… which attacks our God given faculties and the means by which we’re able to consider and know truth.
Are we subject to error and being deceived? Certainly… but this doesn’t mean we’re incapable of knowing spiritual truth… The fact that some men are deceived, mistaken or even reject truth is not proof that we’re created unable to understand and receive it…
Jesus said in John 8… If you remain in His word, you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. Matthew 28 tells us to teach and make disciples of the unbelieving … 2 Timothy 3 tells us Scripture is breathed out by God, profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, training in righteousness… Hosea tells us people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge… In Proverbs, Wisdom cries out to the unbelieving promising to make her words known to those who choose to listen.
Yet Total Depravity asserts we cannot be taught, we can’t understand, we can’t respond to the Gospel and must first be regenerated, given new hearts and new minds… and in doing so, it rejects the saving power of the Gospel and makes truth unknowable… setting us up for further deception.
Tonight’s debate asks the question, “Is Total Depravity True?”
Well, if it is true then we can’t have any confidence that we know spiritual truth… which means to embrace it you’re going to have to pay a steep intellectual and theological price… you have to give up things like consistency, intellectual integrity, moral responsibility and assurance of your own salvation... you must divest yourself of any hope of actually knowing truth, as whatever you believe could be a deception arising from still being unregenerate… you can only hope that come judgment you find yourself winning the luck of the draw.
Yet, a greater price still is a rejection of the Biblical Incarnation and Redemptive Work of Christ, who is The Truth… as Scripture tells us He came in our flesh and blood, taking up our nature to redeem us, becoming like us in every respect.
Additionally you must be comfortable with the fact that many who believe Total Depravity are still unregenerate, while many of those who reject it are saved…
But is there an upside? Well, perhaps in the short term… Total Depravity teaches sin is not only inevitable, but that you were cursed by God to be sinful… so your conscience becomes numb… sin becomes routine, expected… if you’re one of the regenerated elect then you’re forgiven and if you’re not then there’s nothing you can really do about it… the nice thing about making truth unknowable is that you can play the role of a victim of fate… Que sera, sera… whatever will be, will be… appeal to mystery and hope for the best.
Now I find this terribly tragic… as it does great harm to both those in and outside of the Christian faith…
We see young converts quickly indoctrinated into this extra-Biblical philosophy… they’re told this IS the Gospel, this IS Christian truth, this IS what Scripture teaches… and after years of being indoctrinated into this philosophy there will come a day when they pick up their Bible and read it. Some will continue to read Total Depravity into the text unaware… but some will see the significant contradictions between Scripture and this doctrine… between Total Depravity and reality… some may like I did, reject Calvinism in favor of something approaching pre-Augustinian orthodoxy…
…but many will believe Christianity and Scripture are contradictory and thus abandon the faith… casting aside the truth along with the deception… as they’ve become incapable of distinguishing between the two… While others will appeal to mystery and press on, ignoring these contradictions… giving those critics outside the faith ammunition to accuse Christians of adhering to a blind faith, being in opposition to reason and intellectual honesty…
We’ve heard that I’m promoting heresy, Pelagianism, elevating myself, that I don’t understand… yet tonight, when pressed… Mr. Slick has been unable to explain how he can have any real confidence he presently understands truth, given his affirmation of Total Depravity. Instead He embraced circular reasoning.
Matt has made repeated appeals to Scripture, seeking to reason with us… as though he actually believes we are capable of hearing, receiving, believing and confessing Biblical truth… so much so that if one didn’t know better, they might conclude he shares my Biblical view of reality.
The simple fact of the matter is that central to Christianity is a commitment to the Truth.
We needn’t be forced to choose between faith and intellectual honesty, or between worshipping our Creator and attacking His creation… and we needn’t relegate our understanding of God and Scripture to men who God never affirmed and their philosophy He never endorsed.
Spend time in the Bible and you will come to know the truth and the truth will set you free… Why? For one… that’s what Jesus said and He is the Truth… and also because Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, correction, reproof and training… Why? Because God gifted us with faculties capable of hearing, receiving, understanding, believing and confessing truth. Go into the world and teach the unbelieving the things of God… why? Because they too have been gifted by God with faculties capable of understanding… but they lack the truth… how can they believe if they have not heard… how can they hear if no one preaches… and why on earth would anyone preach if we are created incapable of knowing spiritual Truth?
Total Depravity is false… it’s false based on Scripture, its false based on reason and logic, its false because it is contrary to reality, its false because it is self refuting, its false because we can and do know the Truth.