A Brief Look at Total Inability

Calvinism is often represented by the acronym T. U. L. I. P. Those five letters stand for five points which are the five doctrines that opponents of Calvin’s teachings could not tolerate, but which students taught by Calvin proclaimed to be biblical and thus true. They are by no means the only things Calvin taught. They are, instead, the points of controversy related to the doctrines of grace, of salvation.

The T in TULIP  stands for total depravity, or sometimes total inability. The point of the doctrine is that mankind, without God enacting a change in the sinfully dead heart will never desire God. The doctrine states that, apart from a supernatural work done by God on the heart of a person, that person will never desire to come to God, they will not want God.

One passage that speaks to this doctrine is one I read this morning in my daily reading. In Romans 8, Paul says a few things that show us that lost man does not come to God on his own.

Romans 8:7–9 –  7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.

Notice three things in this little section. First, what does the word of God say about how a person will desire to come to or know God? The heart set on the flesh is hostile to God. An unconverted heart is by its very nature hostile to God. This is not God pushing the unconverted person away. It is the person rejecting God and running from him because their desire is the flesh, an all-encompassing term for the sinful life. The lost heart desires not God but what opposes God.

Second, notice that the mind set on the flesh will not submit to the law of God. Why not? Paul says that it cannot. Cannot here is a word that clearly indicates a lack of ability. This is not because God is commanding the impossible. It is not as if the Lord is telling a man to leap over the Grand Canyon. Instead, it is a total lack of ability to submit to God because the unconverted person quite clearly does not desire to do so.

Thirdly, and this is the part that I think is often skipped in this discussion, note what is required for a person to have this inability, this hostility to God that leads to them not even being able to want him, changed. It is the Spirit of God that is required to make this change. Paul points out that those who are not described by the inability of verse 7 and 8 are changed, not because they changed themselves, but because of the work of the Spirit of God. It is the supernatural work of God’s Spirit that moves a person from hostility against God, from inability to submit to God, to a desire for God, for salvation, and for the things of God. The cause of this change is God, not the man who cannot desire such a change because of his enslavement to sin and hostility to the Lord.

Do not be confused by the term total depravity. That phrase does not mean that men who do not know God are as totally evil as they could be. What the phrase means is what the Bible teaches us here. When we are unconverted, we are in the flesh. Our hearts are hostile to the things of God so that we cannot submit to him. Why can we not submit? We cannot submit to him because, as we already saw, our fleshly hearts are hostile to him and his ways. We cannot submit because of our own choice of sin. For that to change, a work of the Spirit of God must bring to life a dead heart, turning our desires from being hostile to God to desiring God. And then, when the Spirit does that work, when he moves our hearts to wanting God, we will come to the Lord because of the new desire he has given us just as surely as we could not submit to him earlier because of our old desires against him.