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The Moral Psychology of Depravity and the Difficulty of Living in the Kingdom

Unconditional election is one of the infamous doctrines of Calvinism. How broadly unconditional election is understood varies among Calvinist writers. Lorraine Boettner defines the doctrine by citing the Westminster Confession, III.iii-vii (The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, 84), and that includes a passage on the purpose of election as well as a passage about God passing over those who were not extended divine mercy. The latter passage is suggestive of infralapsarianism, which Boettner goes on to discuss. It is less important to get into the details of Boettner’s account than it is to see that he provides a broad characterization which encompasses other robust doctrines.

Other Calvinist writers are more narrow in their characterization. Louis Berkhof characterizes election as unconditional. “Election does not in any way depend the on foreseen faith or good works of man, as Arminians teach, but exclusively on the sovereign good pleasure of God, who is the originator of faith and good works, Rom. 9:11; Acts 13:48; 2 TIm. 1:9; 1 Pet. 1:2. Since all men are sinners and have forfeited the blessings of God, there is no basis for such a distinction in them; and since even the faith and good works of the believers are the fruit of the grace of God, Esp. 2:8, 10; 2 Tim. 2:21, even these, as foreseen by God, could not furnish such a basis.” (Systematic Theology, 115).

Finally, some Calvinists find the doctrinal expression problematic. R.C. Sproul, for example, is concerned that it is suggestive of a violation of justice. I have also heard it objected, although I do not now bother to find a source, that the expression may mislead one into thinking that God elects without reason, which I regard as a bizarre concern. If election is intentional and intentions depend upon the presence of reasons for acting, it is not possible for God to elect on the basis of no reason. This interpretation is not remotely plausible.

How thick of a concept unconditional election is, how many theological connections one makes to this doctrine, is partly a pragmatic choice on behalf of a writer. For the present, I will follow Berkhof’s characterization. This post will look at an objection to Calvinist soteriology from Leighton Flowers, which is shaped primarily around the concept of election as understood by Calvinists. That is why I just defined how the doctrine is to be understood for the discussion here. But in fact, he also raises other doctrines, such as total depravity and irresistible grace, I think, because he wants to reject the whole picture of salvation as understood by Calvinists.

This post is much less about unconditional election. It is about it insofar as Flowers casts his argument on that topic. But the real action is elsewhere. So why focus on his objection to Calvinism? The reason for looking at Flowers’ objection is that he makes a false assumption about the nature of total depravity, but its falsity is interesting. In fact, I suspect the assumption is shared by some Calvinists as well. First we will turn to his argument and then look at three problems, the third being related to the false assumption. Discussing Flowers’ argument and raising the first two objections will be a useful bridge to something more interesting about total depravity.

Flowers’ argument from Mark 10

Mark 10:23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Flowers argues in the form of questions and his case is enthymematic, but his argument is mostly straightforward and can be reconstructed in a few sentences. He identifies that Jesus emphasizes the rich man’s difficulty with entering the kingdom of God. If election is unconditional – that is, not on the basis of any foreseen meritorious thing in man – then election is wholly the work of God. (It would be irresistible.) But then there should no distinction in difficulty for a rich or poor man to enter the kingdom. And yet Jesus says there is such a distinction. So the Calvinist view of election must be incorrect.

Given this reconstruction, one might wonder why Flowers focuses upon there being a distinction between the rich and the non-rich. He might have instead focused on the fact that Jesus says that it is hard it for some persons to enter the kingdom; if God is doing all of the work, it must be not hard at all. This line of thought seems to be present here:

Could it be that wealth causes one to depend upon his own resources? Could it be that wealth can lead to materialistic distractions? Could it be that wealthy feel they must give up ‘too much’ in order to be a disciple?  Could it be that wealth affects man’s will?

Why would any of these factors even matter if God chose the elect or passed over the reprobate without anything about them being a condition, including their wealth?

The lesson, I take it, is that these factors would not matter. So it would not be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom given the assumption of Calvinism.

It might not be correct that he would accept this argument, although I do not see why not. It may be that Flowers regards something particularly problematic about the distinction Jesus is making. Addressing an objection, he writes:

[objection:] 2. “All you need to do is read on a couple of verses further: ‘With men it is impossible, but not for God; for with God all things are possible’ (Mark 10:27). If it were up to man, no rich person would ever be saved.”

[answer:] Neither would a poor man. We all agree that without God salvation would be impossible, but this does not address why this distinction was drawn.

Let us reason this out. Suppose there is a poor elect man and a rich elect man. Both hear the gospel and reject for a period of time until they are effectually called at God’s appointed time. So, what is the distinction between the rich man and the poor man? Both are just as totally depraved from birth, right? Both MUST be regenerated in order to come to faith, right? So, why the distinction regarding how much money one individual has over the other?

I will assume that his argument emphasizes the distinction per se rather than than about the fact of difficulty. Now what’s wrong with the argument?

The eisegesis objection 

The eisegesis objection is that in oversimplifying the Calvinist view, Flowers has mounted an objection based on a careless reading of Mark. Flowers casts his aim at the Calvinist conception of election. His article is called, after all, “Does God Elect the Wealthy?” His article is filled with references to election. But nothing in the passage (Mark 10:17-31 and surrounding) suggests that election is in view. The ease by which Flowers slides from discussing topics like regeneration, depravity, the effectual calling of the Spirit (“And would any of these be a real hindrance to an irresistible working of the Holy Spirit?”), and of course election, leads him to building an argument from the text that revolves, allegedly, around the concept of election. It may be that he believes that it is the Calvinist who is committed to thinking this about the text.

The Calvinist has a ready reply. Sproul, whose article is linked above, writes:

This [our salvation does not rest on us; it rests solely on the gracious, sovereign decision of God] doesn’t mean that God will save people whether they come to faith or not. There are conditions that God decrees for salvation, not the least of which is putting one’s personal trust in Christ. However, that is a condition for justification, and the doctrine of election is something else. When we’re talking about unconditional election, we’re talking in a very narrow confine of the doctrine of election itself.

Since conditions are in view in the Marcan text, the Calvinist can reject that the passage is about election. Given that Flowers is attacking election, he inferring something about a doctrine from a text that is not remotely about that doctrine. That is an exegetically weak case to make against a theological view.

The answer objection

The answer objection is the answer to Flower’s opening question: “If election is unconditional and men are chosen not based on anything they do or become within this life, and all the elect are irresistibly drawn to faith and salvation, then why does Jesus draw the distinction regarding the difficulty of those with wealth to be saved?” Once we see the answer, we can move on to the goal of this post.

In Mark 10:17-22, Jesus engages in a conversation with the rich young man who leaves sad because he would not give up all of his possessions. This leads to the present verses, 17-27, and following to 31. The reason Jesus is drawing a distinction is that he is teaching to overturn the disciples’ deeply held erroneous view about their relation to God. Verse 24 describes the disciples as “startled” at Jesus’ teaching.  Why? Carson, Wessel, and Leifeld comment, “The amazement of the disciples (v.24) at Jesus’ words reflects their Jewish background, which placed great emphasis on the privileged position of the rich. To be wealthy was sure evidence of having the blessing of God. But with his penetrating spiritual insight, Jesus saw how wealth could hinder one from putting his trust and dependence in God.” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke, 716) Just like Jesus corrects the first-century view on divorce earlier in Mark, here again Jesus is turning upside down their view of who is valuable in the kingdom.

Jesus then comments about how difficult it is for the rich person to enter the kingdom (v.25), which makes the disciples exceedingly astonished (v.26). It appears that the astonishment the disciples experienced did not result in them believing the lesson Jesus intended. Peter remarks in verse 28, after Jesus just said how difficult it was for a rich person to enter heaven, that he and others gave up everything; Peter is probably thinking of material goods here. Then immediately after Jesus foretells his death, James and John request that Jesus make them seats on his right and left. (10:35-37) They have not yet come to grips with the message that what Jesus values is servitude rather being on top of the social ladder.

Again, Flowers’ question: why make the distinction? The distinction between the rich and the poor particularly as it regards their places in the kingdom of God was an already deeply held attitude among the disciples. What Jesus is doing in this passage is correcting their view. The rich are not in a privileged position of being more blessed before God. The disciples’ value system is massively off: “many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (verse 31)

It is important to keep in mind that what is supposedly wrong with the Calvinist view in light of this passage is that it cannot make distinction among peoples for whom election (allegedly) or salvation is more or less difficult. Suppose that is right for a moment. Then the reason there can be a distinction on the non-Calvinist view concerning how difficult it is for some humans to be saved is that humans have to contribute something else (faith?) or stop resisting being given faith (quite possibly St. Anselm of Canterbury’s view). Moreover, it is not just that what they contribute was God doing it through them (which Calvinists accept), but rather that the explanatory difference between which humans enter the kingdom and which do not is attributable to humans and not to God. For on the non-Calvinist view, or at least Arminian view, God is working in the hearts (nondeterminately) of everyone to bring and keep them into the fold.

There is irony that this passage is raised as an objection to Calvinism through reading a concept (i.e. election) into the passage, when understanding the passage in context is problematic for Arminians. We saw how the disciples held a view about how the rich are the most blessed in the kingdom. And then Jesus remarks how much easier it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom. To this the disciples wonder, then who can be saved? (verse 27) If it is practically impossible for the highest in the kingdom to be saved, then how difficult must it be for anyone else to be saved? They understood the implication is that no one can be saved. But Jesus corrects them: men can be saved, not because one man is regarded as part of the blessed group (i.e. the rich), but because salvation is in God’s control. “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” (verse 28)

Compare this to the view identified a moment ago, that the explanatory difference for who is in the kingdom is due to human agency. This second view suggests that one’s position in the kingdom, whether both feet are in the kingdom or not, is because salvation is partly ours to control aside of the sovereign will of God; He may move one foot, but we must freely move the other. Yet that’s what the passage denies. Again, assuming the disciple’s reasoning:  if the most capable persons to enter the kingdom could not do so, then salvation is not possible. But, Jesus indicates, salvation is possible – people are blessed(v.30) – because God is the one who blesses them. So whereas Flowers must believe of these verses that the persons involved have different roles in the kingdom because something about them, the passage in fact attributes that difference to God.

Someone might object to this as follows: “Jesus says that salvation is possible. So an intuitive reading of the text is not that Jesus is endorsing monergism.” What this objector is getting at is that man cannot do it alone; he needs God, and with God even salvation is merely possible.

This objection should not be persuasive. The disciples already held that God helps the rich, and that salvation was possible for them. It would be odd for Jesus to be conveying the lesson that salvation is merely possible, since no one denied it. But if Jesus was correcting that even the most blessed group could not do anything to be saved, then what Jesus is rejecting is that man makes the difference. Notice that Jesus only provides two options in verse 27: man makes the difference to one’s role in the kingdom or God makes the difference. And man can’t do it. So God does it. The reason Jesus says with God it is possible is that the inferences of the disciples led them to the proposition that salvation is not possible given what else Jesus said. And that, I said, they did not even believe. But neither does Jesus believe that. The disciples are making a mistake about what Jesus is committed to saying about the rich and their salvation. There is not a third synergistic option because the argument of the text undercuts the ability of what was thought to be even the most capable group of persons to cooperate with God.

This is sufficient to refute Flowers’ argument. But we will consider one more objection.

Degrees of depravity objection

Someone who was convinced by the argument against Calvinism may concede that I have undermined the thought that something is problematic about a distinction being cut by Jesus. One may still be puzzled why, given the soteriology of the text, that it may be more or less difficult for one to enter the kingdom given that God is the explanatory difference maker for one’s salvation. This puzzlement, I’d guess, is a result of having a mistaken view about the nature of total depravity. The mistaken view is that total deprativity implies a flat characterization of the abilities of persons to live in accordance with the norms of the kingdom. Put another way, the false assumption is that for any two persons who are not regenerated, they are equally worse off with respect to living in accordance with God’s ethical demands on us. And they are equally worse off for what it takes to enter the kingdom. And yet another way: the false assumption is that the degree and depth of depravity among all unregenerate persons is an equal distribution; this is why I called it a flat characterization.

This assumption is evident in Flowers’ criticism of Calvinism. Consider the response that Jesus points to how difficult it is for the rich because the rich build a dependence upon their material goods for their well-being at the diminishment of depending on God. Would not that explain why it is more difficult for a rich person? Not so, thinks Flowers. He asks, “What purpose does the means of wealth serve that is not already accomplished by their natural born condition of ‘total inability’?” And a little later: “What is the distinction between the rich man and the poor man? Both are just as totally depraved from birth, right? Both MUST be regenerated in order to come to faith, right? So, why the distinction regarding how much money one individual has over the other?”

My proposal is that Calvinists should resist this flat conception of inability. It is true that given the abilities of unregenerate persons, no such person is able to do anything that would contribute in any way to their salvation that was not given by God. Calvinists, that is, should not reject total depravity. But it doesn’t follow that any two totally depraved persons are, necessarily, equally depraved in the relevant sense. In one sense, they are both unable to move themselves closer to God by even an inch. They are both equally depraved in the sense that if we were to count meritorious works of both persons, neither would be one up on the other so far as earning God’s favor. Both are equally bad off there. Yet in another sense, the dysfunctional attitudes among our webs of cognitive, conative, and affective states are not equally dysfunctional. It is obvious that different persons have different levels of, say, emotional maturity. Some are like children, even as adults, in having temper tantrums. Others play it cool, but may find satisfaction in social acceptance or perhaps extramarital affairs. And yet others, like Nebuchadnezzar, are out of their minds. All of these are hindrances to living well in the kingdom of God; but some can make the patterns of our lives more difficult to living well, and that is partly because which choices we make have greater or lesser ramifications for our own characters and our relationships with others.

If that is right, then how God works in the hearts of men is not one and the same. The Spirit may have more work to do in one man than in another, and this may be more or less painful. The rich man valued his possessions; he went away sad. Saul persecuted the church and his encounter with Jesus blinded him, unlike in Jesus’ other recorded appearances to others. None of this suggests that there is more effort expended by the Spirit. But it does mean that for the person undergoing the conversion, or the process of growing in sanctification, the process may be more difficult.

Note that I have not said a word about regeneration even though I have been discussing unregenerate persons for the most part in this last section. Regeneration, like election, may be easy. But regenerate persons are still sinners (de facto). And to discuss salvation is not to single out any one of these: election, regeneration, or going to heaven. Along with Carson et. al, one may regard Jesus as using “eternal life,” “salvation,” and “entrance into the kingdom” synonymously. (Carson, 717) Jesus is speaking at a high-level. This is relevant so that I am not misunderstood. The action God takes in regeneration may be instantaneous and yet the process by which a person comes to faith and buries one’s idols may be arduous. The difference in how screwed up someone is may not make the slightest difference to some parts of the ordo salutis, but they can be relevant to speaking about the difficulty of salvation when speaking about it as a whole.

Given that Flowers’ objection depends on the assumption of a flat conception of inability, and that conception is not appropriate to apply in a world full of diverse and complicated people, his objection misses the appropriate target.

Calvinists and the Moral Psychology of Depravity

Calvinists have been especially clear that total depravity (or total inability) does not mean that man is as bad as possible. But sometimes this point is muted by immediately following up with the doctrine of common grace. For example, Matthew Barrett provides the clarification and continues:

Total depravity does not mean that the sinner will commit or indulge himself in every form of sin or in the worst sins conceivable. Through common grace, God restrains evil so that man does not always commit the worst possible sin. (Salvation by Grace: The Case for Effectual Calling and Regeneration, 40. See also the citation to A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image, 152.)

A little later Barrett raises the Reformers’ concept of civil virtue, that God’s common grace moves us to perform socially beneficial good acts. He goes on to say, and this is some standard stuff, that the extent of sin is total. No part of unregenerate man is not untouched by sin (41).

I think this way of presenting the matter can be misleading, which obviously is not Barrett’s intention. Let’s distinguish two views about the psychology of unregenerate persons.

View 1

The first view says that unregenerate persons are through and through full of evil desires. Every desire is tainted by its connection to some evil end. This view is not empirically disproven because God provides common grace, which keeps ones true intentions below consciousness and one is restrained or prohibited from acting out upon all of one’s true desires. As a suggestion for how this might go, parents sometimes shift the attention of screaming infants to calm them and keep peace. Perhaps common grace works like that.

This view fits nicely with the flat conception of depravity. If everyone totally depraved is equally depraved, then the apparent differences in the moral quality human actions are likely to be explained by something other than the deliberations of depraved persons.

Why might someone accept this view? Well, there are passages that are suggestive of it. Here are some passages that Robert Reymond puts forth in his A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 450-51, on the topic of total depravity (I do not claim that Reymond holds this view under consideration):

  • Genesis 6:5-6: “The Lord saw that … every inclination of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil all the time.
  • Genesis 8:21: “The Lord… said in his heart: ‘… the inclination of [man’s] heart is evil from childhood.
  • Ecclesiastes 9:3: “The hearts of men… are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live.”
  • Romans 3:9-23: “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written… for all sinned and are continually falling short of the glory of God.”

I’ve chosen what I think are the best cases for this view from his selection.

The problem is that none of these verses are compelling evidence for the view. Genesis 6 is worded strongly enough to perhaps provide support for this view. However, Genesis 6 is a representation of the hearts of people at a time, which resulted in a flood over the world (however “world” is understood). It probably is not safe to extrapolate that to the hearts and minds of, say seven or so billion people today. Genesis 8 at most commits one to thinking that the inclination to evil is an early part of us. Ecclesiastes commits one to holding that sin is extensive and disorderly, not that every desire has illicit motivation. And finally Romans 3 gives some plausibility based on the idea that we are continually falling short. But it does not say we are falling short because we have some positive ill will. It is consistent with Romans 3 that one is failing to do something one ought, and for that reason (among others) unregenerate persons continually fall short.

Another problem is that this view requires a massive amount of delusion about our own motivations. If Sally decides to purchase her nephew a gift, she may think it is because she loves the child and wants to express that love in the form of gift giving. But according to this view, even if she has those motivations, they are instrumental to some further evil end, thereby damaging the moral quality of the gift giving act. For as many actions as we would then be delusional about, it seems to me to be a cost to accept this because it implies we have so many more false beliefs than we otherwise had evidence for. If there were an alternative view that did not have that implication and all else is equal between views, then this view is not preferable.

Before moving on, one may quote Jeremiah 17:9 as evidence that this degree of delusion is real in every unbeliever: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” But of course, Jeremiah 17 is not saying that we cannot understand any of the final ends of our motivations. Granted, there is a degree to which our motives are not transparent to us. And some of our motives may be completely opaque to us. But is this verse evidence that every apparently virtuous motive of every unbeliever is actually deviant? I do not see why Jeremiah should be thought to be saying this much.

I have been unable to identify any relatively sophisticated defender of Calvinism who explicitly endorses this view. I suppose some Calvinists do though because they have not been able to go further than “Dead in trespasses. Dead is dead is dead.” But it has seemed to me that objectors to Calvinism associate view 1 with Calvinism, as does Flowers. And so they reject Calvinism in part due to misunderstanding it.

View 2

The second view is that unregenerate persons are not through and through full of evil desires. Rather, of their desires, none is meritorious in God’s sight. Their desires fail to satisfy the moral demands God holds us to. On this view, a person need not have desires that are positively the bad sort, e.g., a desire to rape and pillage. A person may have other desires, like caring for one’s young as final ends (here I reject Aristotle’s view that every desire is structured under a motivational structure for a single final end). This desire need not be based upon some further illicit motive. This desire can be recognized as, in a sense, intrinsically valuable by God. The desire may nevertheless fail to satisfy a norm. And in that sense, in the sense that the desire is evil due to an omission to keep a norm, the desire is regarded as evil.

It is consistent with this view that some persons have more dysfunction than others, and not just in the sense that God is withholding some sin from going public. This view, then, appears to be incompatible with the flat conception of depravity.

This sort of view, I think, has room in the Reformed tradition. Berkhof writes:

It is admitted that even the unrenewed possess some virtue, revealing itself in the relations of social life, in many acts and sentiments that deserve their sincere approval and gratitude of their fellow-men, and that even meet with the approval of God to a certain extent. (Systematic Theology, 246-47; quoted in Barrett, 40.)

The acts and sentiments expressing virtue is not deserved just because it satisfies a social need. That explanation is consequentialist and desert fits poorly in that framework. No, a person may actually have altruistic motives for the benefit of another, even without some further illicit motive. Kantians are not necessarily deluded about their motivations. Notice also that Berkhof includes sentiments as virtuous rather than just actions. This undercuts the motivation to think that one’s internal states are only positively bad, but because of God’s restraint only some of bad ones come into the world.

Boettner is good on this issue as well because he identifies that the reason a person may be considered thoroughly evil is because of failing to satisfy a norm:

The unregenerate man can, through common grace, love his family and he may be a good citizen. He may give a million dollars to build a hospital, but he cannot given even a cup of cold water to a disciple in the name of Jesus. If a drunkard, he may abstain from drink for utilitarian purposes, but he cannot do it out of a love for God. All of his common virtues or good works  have a fatal defect in that his motives which prompt them are not to glorify God – a defect so vital that it throws any element of goodness as to man wholly into the shade. It matters no how good the works may be in themselves, for so long as the doer of them is out of harmony with God, none of his works are spiritually acceptable…  A moral act is to be judged by the standard of love to God, which love is, as it were, the soul of all other virtue and which is bestowed upon us only through grace. (68-69)

According to this second view, then, a person can be fully evil in one sense because one fails to keep one’s duty at every moment and in every intention and desire. How this can be plausible is that one has a duty to hold every thought, word, and deed captive to the love of God. To the extent that one fails to satisfy that duty, one’s moral quality is impugned. But it does not follow from that that the motives one has are of only negative moral quality. Rather, the virtuous quality of the act or thought is not meritorious as it pertains to salvation because the motives are of the wrong sort. Total depravity, and hence whether one could possibly perform a meritorious action before God, depends on the reasons behind our actions.

This second view, I think, is more harmonious with our understanding of the intentions and motives of others. When 1 Thessalonians 2:7 says, “But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.”, I find it hard to believe that Paul would be restricting the caring of children to only believing mothers. It is also doubtful that their care is a description only of their action; care is also a sentiment, an internal virtuous state when applied to an appropriate object. Caring for one’s children is, of course, an appropriate object for care. So I see the Bible as also putting pressure against the plausibility of view 1.

Concluding Remark

In this post, I looked at an argument against Calvinism, the aim of which is that Calvinism cannot account for salvation being more difficult for some persons than others. But this, we saw, is not true. Not only is the fact that Jesus is talking about a distinction between rich and poor explained by the first-century value system held by the disciples, but the proper understanding of total depravity allows for variation in difficulty as pertaining to salvation.

There are interesting questions of how common grace relates to sinners, to both regenerate and unregenerate sinners, given the view of depravity espoused here. For example, to what extend does common grace address situational factors that can surprisingly cause backsliding? Or how stable are the natural virtues across situational contexts? In my opinion, these are the interesting and unexplored areas for Calvinism, and doing so can illuminate our understanding of the role of God’s grace in our lives even further.

2018-06-07T21:24:01+00:00 March 30th, 2018|Comments Off on The Moral Psychology of Depravity and the Difficulty of Living in the Kingdom