Death by degrees?

Last Thursday, Reformed Baptist apologist James White began a debate with Steve Gregg, radio host and author of Revelation: Four Views (a very useful resource), on the subject of “Calvinism,” which will last a total of five one-hour time periods, concluding this coming Wednesday. [The debate can be heard HERE.] Gregg rightly identified the core distinctives of “Calvinism” to lie in a particular view of God and of Man (as Calvin noted at the beginning of his Institutes, “Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves”); “Calvinism” teaches that God is totally sovereign and that Man, after his fall into sin recorded in Genesis 3, is totally depraved. [These teachings are, in fact, see, common to the Reformers; see, for example, John Calvin, The Bondage and Liberation of the Will (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996), 26, in which Calvin demonstrates that he is in agreement with Martin Luther’s teaching on these matters.]

In explaining total depravity, Gregg said:

Total depravity, as is taught in Calvinism, teaches that Man in his natural state at birth is totally so in bondage to sin, so dead in sin, so incapable of making any response to God, that in our natural state there is nothing we can do to approach God or even to really want to approach God– that our hearts are strictly hostile to God from birth, that we hate God and we hate His laws, all people do, says Calvinism.

This definition of the T in TULIP is not bad, as far as it goes. But it does contain at least one notable curiosity, seen in the [repeated] use of the word “so.”

So,” we could ask Gregg, “what is the difference between being dead and being so dead?” In the movie The Princess Bride, Miracle Max pronounces the hero Westley to be “mostly dead,” and then continues to explain the difference between “mostly dead” and “all dead”:

Miracle Max: See, there’s a big difference between mostly dead, and all dead. Now, mostly dead: he’s slightly alive. All dead, well, with all dead, there’s usually only one thing that you can do.
Inigo: What’s that?
Miracle Max: Go through his clothes and look for loose change.
Note that the initial humor of Miracle Max’s declaration that Westley is only “mostly dead” is effective due to the fact that the viewer knows it to be ludicrous. “Mostly dead” is only funny because we know death to be a total state. Note also that for the narrative of The Princess Bride to continue with Westley as the hero, Max must assert that, “he’s slightly alive.” When we use the word “dead” in normal conversation (and when the Bible uses this word) we do not mean “slightly alive.” We may speak of someone having been beaten until they were “half dead,” but when we use this term, we only mean to indicate that the person was in serious danger of death. If we speak of a person being beaten to death, no-one hearing our words would expect the victim to recover. Once a person is pronounced dead by the doctor, it would be ridiculous to ask, “Well, Doc, how dead is he?”
I have heard non-Calvinists like Gregg use terms like “so dead” in the past. When phrases like this are employed, the implication is that the “Calvinist” is taking an extreme position. But, as White points out, “dead in sin” is a biblical term (Ephesians 2:1); “bondage to sin” is a biblical concept (John 8:34), as is the incapability of a sinner responding to God (John 6:44), the unwillingness of a sinner to seek God (Romans 3:11), and the hostility of a sinner toward God (Colossians 1:21). One will object, “You’re citing proof-texts!” We reply, “Read these verses in their context, and see if the condition of the sinner is any less severe than the verses themselves indicate.” Gregg can repeat the word “so,” introducing a redundancy into the argument and painting “Calvinists” as extreme if he wishes, but the fact is that the Bible presents an extreme position concerning the sinfulness of Man, which forces us to cry out for an extreme Savior and to be extremely dependent upon God’s grace.
Explore posts in the same categories: Doctrinal Issues

12 Comments on “Death by degrees?”

  1. Brad Says:

    Does this really matter?

    Can’t we all agree that so much of the world needs help, and the only way to help anyone is with the love of Jesus?

    Does it really matter how depraved we think the world is, as long as we agree that without Jesus they need our love?

    This debate — what a fantastic way to waste 5 hours of some probably intelligent people’s time, as well as the time of however many people might listen.

    Think of the value of that time. Think of the things that God could do through us during that time to bring his reality to others rather than deciding who’s more right about this or that.

    I guess I don’t understand how this is vital to anything, or even important — meaningless talk and debate.


  2. […] Strange BaptistFire wrote an interesting post today on Death by degrees?Here’s a quick excerpt Last Thursday, Reformed Baptist apologist James White began a debate with Steve Gregg, radio host and author of Revelation: Four Views (a very useful resource), on the subject of “Calvinism,” which will last a total of five one-hour time periods, concluding this coming Wednesday. [The debate can be heard HERE.] Gregg rightly identified the core distinctives of “Calvinism” to lie in a particular view of God and of Man (as Calvin noted at the beginning of his Institutes, “Our wisdom, in so far as […]

  3. Pat McGee Says:

    Good response to Gregg. Dead means dead. For a dead person to be made alive, something external has to happen. That is God’s work. We are merely the recipient of what God has done. I do not understand why this is so difficult for some people to grasp.

  4. Dan Church Says:

    It is really sad to hear the Depravity of Man be ‘softened’ by Gregg and the like.

    One thing I hope White gets to is what the non-calvinists call ‘prevenient grace’ because this is essentially what they will fall back on using passages in John 12 and in Titus 3:4.

    It helps the non-calvinist who sincerely wants to understand the calvinist point (I know it helped me when I came from the ‘dark side’ – ha) of view to see how yet again what they were taught concerning the doctrines of grace was wrong. Its one more lynch-pin that helps show the truth behind God’s regeneration enabling the man to believe.

  5. Barry Says:

    Actually Dan, when you consider that the views of a 5th century Catholic priest and a 16th century lawyer are given as much, if not more, weight than precise scripture then it may be allowed that a “softened” view toward the posit of “Total Depravity” is completely valid.

  6. Pat McGee Says:

    The only reason the 5th century priest and the 16th century lawyer are considered important by me is because what they say is heavily supported by scripture.

  7. Dan Church Says:

    Yes, there have been many priests, pastors, teachers etc. that have come out and given their take of Total Depravity (Erasmus) as they see it in the Scriptures.

    I’ve heard quite a bit from Catholic apologists and such, but I really haven’t heard/read a good exegesis concerning passages like Rom 3 and 8, John 8, Col 1:21 and/or Eph 2:1 just to name a few.

    What did this priest and lawyer (forgive my poor Historical knowledge but who exactly are you talking about?) actually say…specifically on the Scriptures mentioned above.

    For the record, I’m quite understanding of the ‘logical’ reasons why many believe that Man can’t be “really dead”…it almost always leads one to believe in monergism…unless of course one believes in prevenient grace…as did I not too long ago.

    Thanks for the help in understanding the other views!!

    God Bless

  8. Barry Says:

    Dan, your candor is endearing.

    The priest is Augustine of Hippo (354-430). His “Confessions”, a series of 13 books, is leaned on heavily by many Christians.

    The lawyer is none other than Mr. Jean (John) Calvin (1509-1564). His “Institues of Christian Religion”, a scholarly work, is also used by many Christians.

    Both of these men’s views of scripture constitute the backbone of belief for many people and that is the argument, and the fun, of debating certain points (like original sin, total depravity, etc) for, as some might say, it is fair to suggest that many of the ideas (dogmas, doctrine, cannon, etc) that we cling to today comes as much from these two blokes as from scripture itself.

  9. Dan Church Says:

    hahahahaha……..ook then. I should have assumed you all were referring to Augstine and Calvin, but I was reading your posts as if you were saying they supported the “softened” view of Total Depravity which is why I figured it couldn’t be someone like Augustine or Calvin….hilarious either way. Now I understand what both of you were saying.

    Obviously though we’re all in agreement on Sola Scriptura and thus while certaintly not neglecting the views before or in the present, I don’t think the Scriptural support for the “semi-pelagian” view of Depravity has much weight.

    Still laughing.

  10. Pat McGee Says:

    Staunch Reformed Baptist Calvinist here. Admire Augustine too, at least so far as he agrees with the Bible. I am not a semi-Pelagian.

  11. Dan Church Says:

    Oh I already assumed that you were a “Calvinist” – I was just curious if there were any that come by that would have cared to give the other side.

  12. […] In response to the post “Death by Degrees?” a commenter named Brad posed the following objections: Does this really matter? […]

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