Steve Lemke on Total Depravity

Tim Brister —  October 7, 2008 — 18 Comments

Dr. Steve Lemke briefly gives his understanding of the doctrines of grace, otherwise known as the five points of Calvinism, and follows it up with what he calls “a helpful alternative” and “a softer version” in Dr. Timothy George’s acronym of ROSES.  In the following posts, I will interact with Lemke’s understanding of the five points and follow up with his take on George’s ROSES.

Of the five points, Lemke places the greatest emphasis on total depravity.  I do find this helpful because it is an appropriate starting point (only after having addressed the monergistic and theocentric marrow of Calvinism).  One of the first critiques I made of Dr. James Leo Garrett in his six-article presentation of “Dortian Calvinism” is that he devoted little to no attention to the doctrine of total depravity.  So I am glad to see that Lemke has taken up this important doctrine, although I disagree with his understanding of it.

In his description of TULIP, Lemke writes the following on total depravity:

“Understood in the fully Calvinist sense, ‘total depravity’ means that infants are born with original sin, and are thus ‘dead’ spiritually (Eph. 2:1-3), and utterly incapable of responding to God without God’s election.”

In fairness, Lemke is not giving a detailed description of totally depravity, but even in this one sentence summary, there are several errors in his presentation of the Calvinistic understanding of total depravity.  The fact that infants are born with [original] sin is not held only by Calvinists.  Indeed, human inability as a result of sin has been believed by both Arminians and Calvinists.  Responding to God was not directly related to “God’s election” as much as how they understood the nature of God’s grace (saving and efficacious for Calvinists and enabling and prevenient [or persuasive] for Arminians).  In Article III of the Remonstrance (the Arminian declaration), it states:

That man has not saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free-will, inasmuch as he, in the state of apostasy and sin, can of and by himself neither think, will, nor do anything that is truly good (such as having faith eminently is); but that it is needful that he be born again of God in Christ, through his Holy Spirit, and renewed in understanding, inclination, or will, and all his powers, in order that he may rightly understand, think, will, and effect what is truly good, according to the word of Christ, John xv. 5: “Without me ye can do nothing.” (emphasis mine)

Those who do not believe in human inability have been known as semi-Pelagian (which eventually was condemned as heresy in the 2nd Council of Orange in 529 AD).  It is hard to see how this is not what Lemke is arguing not only for himself but also for “most Baptists.”  He argues that the language for deadness should be balanced by the metaphor of “aliens and strangers” which shows that they are alive and merely “do not have the proper relationship as citizens in the Kingdom.”  In other words, the problem is not that humans are born dead in sin and morally incapable of responding to God on their own; the problem is simply that they are not properly related to the Kingdom.  Now whether “most Baptists” feel comfortable with Lemke representing their theology that is so close to historically-deemed heresy is something they ought to, in my opinion, be concerned about.  Nevertheless, it is clear that he wants to distance himself from a belief in original sin.  Again, Lemke writes:

“We usually affirm total depravity, though often not in the same sense as Dortian Calvinism.  Virtually all Baptists would affirm universal human sinfulness (apart from Christ) and the moral and spiritual depravity of all persons over the age of accountability.  But while affirming the sinfulness of all mankind, most Baptists usually see some role for human response or ‘point of addressability,’ as suggested in Romans 1 and 2.” (emphasis mine)

Lemke is arguing that the difference between “Dortian Calvinism” and “virtually all Baptists” is that while Calvinists argue that sinful corruption is from birth, Baptists affirm “moral and spiritual depravity of all persons over the age of accountability.”  The assumption is taken, then, that Baptists do not affirm moral and spiritual depravity of humans from birth; only those who have reached the age of accountability become morally and spiritually depraved.  Until then, it must be assumed that an infant or child is a sort-of tabula rasa, or blank slate, living before God as morally neutral or innocent.  John L. Dagg, the first Southern Baptist writing theologian, disagrees.  Dagg writes,

“Depravity is natural to man; it is born with him, and not acquired in the progress of life.  It is not to be ascribed to evil habit, or evil exercise” (Manual of Theology, 153).

The key phrase is that depravity is “not acquired in the progress of life”–in other words to say that depravity is not a sinful nature you attain by actual transgressions.  Instead, it is a manifestation of a corrupt and sinful nature “born with him.”  James P. Boyce agrees with Dagg as he adds:

“The facts as to the descendants of Adam show that they have universally partaken of his corrupted nature, and that, not even in their earliest years, have any had the innocent nature, with its strong proclivities to holiness, which constituted his original condition.  They are born with the corrupted nature which he acquired, together with all the other evils set forth as the penalties of his sin. . . . The Scriptures plainly assume and declare that God righteously punishes all men, not only for what they do, but for what they are” (Abstract of Theology, 249).

Boyce explains that “not even in their earliest years” did anyone have an innocent nature.  Rather, they have a corrupted nature–one that is punishable not only because of actual transgressions (what they do) but for living in a condemnable state (what they are).  It is evident that our Baptist forefathers believed in original sin, a corrupt nature, and moral inability.  They knew that Scripture identifies sinners as “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3), that the wicked “are estranged from the womb and go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies” (Psalm 58:3).  Indeed, they knew that sinners were “shaped in iniquity” and “conceived in sin” (Psalm 51:5).  The Second London Baptist Confession (1689), on the fall of man and punishment of sin, states the following:

They being the root, and by God’s appointment, standing in the room and stead of all mankind, the guilt of the sin was imputed, and corrupted nature conveyed, to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation, being now conceived in sin, and by nature children of wrath, the servants of sin, the subjects of death, and all other miseries, spiritual, temporal, and eternal, unless the Lord Jesus set them free.  (Romans 5:12-19; 1 Corinthians 15:21, 22, 45, 49; Psalms 51:5; Job 14:4; Ephesians 2:3; Romans 6:20 Romans 5:12; Hebrews 2:14, 15; 1 Thessalonians 1:10) – emphasis mine (source)

The first Southern Baptist confession, the Abstract of Principles (1858), is a concise (abstract) of the 1689 LBC, and on the Fall of man, it states:

“God originally created man in His own image, and free from sin; but, through the temptation of Satan, he transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original holiness and righteousness; whereby his posterity inherit a nature corrupt and wholly opposed to God and His law, are under condemnation, and as soon as they are capable of moral action, become actual transgressors.” – emphasis mine (source)

There is consensus both by individual theologians and confessions in our Baptist history that stand in stark disagreement with Lemke on the nature of sinful man.  The problem that Lemke seems to be having is twofold: (1) the idea that totally depravity eliminates human responsibility and (2) that Calvinists believe in the total loss of the image of God.  On the former, Lemke writes,

“[I]f one takes being ‘dead in trespasses and sins’ literally, i.e., if ‘dead means dead,’ then one can neither accept or reject Christ.  Dead people cannot accept, but on the other hand, neither can they reject, either!”

Going back to his original description of total depravity, Lemke explains that spiritual deadness disallows human response.  Calvinists do believe that human beings are beneficiaries of God’s common grace and recipients of general revelation.  However neither this grace nor revelation is regarded as salvific.  The “point of addressability” refers to man being without excuse both as a result of general revelation (knowledge of God to all people everywhere ongoingly) as seen in creation (outwardly, Rom. 1) and conscience (inwardly, Rom. 2).  There is no indication in Romans 1 and 2 that people respond positively to God’s revelation.  They certainly respond freely, but only according to their nature which is inherently sinful.  A sinner with a corrupt nature will continually choose according to his affections and inclinations–all of which apart from the gracious operation of God’s Spirit, will be outward acts of an inward rebellion against God.

I call on Dagg and Boyce again to testify.  Dagg writes:

“Moral depravity shows itself in outward acts of transgression; but, atrocious as these often are, it is chiefly in the heart that God beholds and hates it” (Manual of Theology, 152, emphasis mine).

“Every agent is responsible for himself. . . . Human courts do not excuse culprits, because of the corrupting influences which have led them to violate the law.  The law takes direct cognizance of the agent and his deed.  This accords with common sense of mankind.  So divine justice condemns him, however he may have become wicked, and whoever else may be to blame for his being so” (ibid., 159).

Boyce shares a little more about human responsibility and the freedom of the will.

“This corruption (of nature) does not destroy accountability or responsibility for present sins.  The Scriptures universally recognize man’s liability to punishment for all the thoughts of his mind, and the desires of his heart, or the emotions of his physical nature, as well as for his acts. . . . This corruption does not destroy the freedom of the will.  This is the ground upon which men are held responsible by God and by human law and conscience.  The condition of man is indeed such ‘that he cannot not sin’ but this is due to his nature, which loves sin and hates holiness, and which prefers self to God.  When man sins, he does so of his own choice, freely, without compulsion” (Abstract of Principles, 244-45, emphasis mine).

Spiritual people, indeed, reject God and will be held accountable for their willful rejection.  This rejection is a reflection of a sinful nature in need of regeneration.  Apart from this divine work of the Holy Spirit, the thoughts, affections, and choices will be positively inclined towards sin, having become slaves to it; but at no point is anyone not choosing according to their own free will.  It is just that their will is in bondage to sin as Scripture speaks of the “fleshly nature” [Rom. 8] or “natural man” [1 Cor. 2].

Shortly, I will address Lemke’s re-wording of George’s presentation of ROSES, but for the time being, one more quote needs to be highlighted to reveal his second problem with total depravity.  In his description of George on the “R” which stands for radical depravity, Lemke writes:

“Compared with total depravity, radical depravity agrees that every aspect of our being was damaged through the Fall and we can do nothing to save ourselves, but affirms that humans are not totally evil because we retain the image of God despite our fallenness.”

No Calvinist believes that the image of God is totally lost, as Lemke implies.  Where is Lemke getting these ideas?  A total loss of the image of God would cease to be human.  Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology explains how the image of God is distorted but not lost by the Fall:

“[S]ince man has sinned, he is certainly not as fully like God as he was before.  His moral purity has been lost and his sinful character certainly does not reflect God’s holiness.  His intellect is corrupted by falsehood and misunderstanding; his speech no longer continually glorifies God; his relationships are often governed by selfishness rather than love, and so forth.  Though man is still in the image of God, in every aspect of life some parts of this image has been distorted or lost” (444, emphasis original).

A firm belief in total depravity cannot be equated with any idea of total loss of the imago dei. The Fall was devastating, no doubt, bringing natural and spiritual death.  But had the Fall resulted in the total loss of being made in God’s image, we would all be annihilated, not corrupted.  Anthony Hoekema, in his excellent treatment on the subject, Created in God’s Image, argues,

“After man’s fall into sin, the image of God was not annihilated but perverted.  The image in its structural sense was still there–man’s gifts, endowments, and capacities were not destroyed by the Fall–but man now began to use these gifts in ways that were contrary to God’s will” (83).

Overall, let me conclude this part of my response to Dr. Lemke by saying this.  The burden of proof regarding the total depravity of man lies not at the feet of Calvinists, but in the biblically untenable and historically dangerous position Lemke has advocated.  If Dagg is right (and I believe he is) that moral depravity is chiefly expressed in the heart–a heart that is deceitfully wicked above all things (Jer. 17:9)–then how can one say that condemnation only arises when one graduates to the age of accountability?  If God knows our thoughts and intentions from afar, if he knows what is in the heart of a man, then by way means will we be able to satisfy the wrath of a holy God?  Boyce argued that “condemnation can only be removed by proof of innocence” (246), and the burden of proof is to show the innocence and inculpability of man in light of what God has revealed in His Word.  I will let Dagg have the last word:

“Whatever our reasonings may be on the subject, it is fully ascertained to be the will of God, before an individual is born into the world, that, when born, he shall be in the condition in which the curse left the father of the race.  The Bible, and the voice of Nature, speak alike on this point; and if our reasonings say that the Author of Nature and the Bible has done wrong, we should suspect that we have erred in our inferences, or in the premises from which they are drawn” (162-63).

Related Articles:

* Steve Lemke on “Four Streams” of Calvinism, Part 2
* Steve Lemke on “Four Streams” of Calvinism, Part 1
* Steve Lemke on Collin Hansen and Provocation
* Steve Lemke and Christian Scholarship
* The Alabama Baptist and Dortian Calvinism: Response 1

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  • Brent Hobbs

    It seems to me that either Lemke doesn’t understand Calvinism or is just not concerned with presenting it fairly. Before you argue against a position, you have to present it fairly, in a way that its advocates would agree with. In my view, Lemke hasn’t even gotten to step one in his critique.

  • http://timmybrister.wordpress.com/ Timmy Brister

    Brent,

    What you said reminded me of a very important article by Dr. Roger Nicole on “How to Deal with Those Who Differ from Us.” Highly recommended.

    http://www.founders.org/journal/fj33/article3.html

  • William Horton

    The question is not what “virtually all Baptists” believe, but rather do virtually all Baptists have a Biblical understanding of the topic. The 2000 Baptist Faith and Message is actually pretty weak on the total depravity of man.

  • james clardy

    So, if one is born a “blank slate”, then why do they need Jesus? So are they spiritually alive? Do they fall into spiritual death at the age of accountability? I would suggest that this teaching of the age of accountability teaches that one could fall from grace. I would not desire for my children to reach the age of accountability, so. that they would remain “blank” before God. Thanks Timmy, great job!

  • http://timmybrister.wordpress.com/ Timmy Brister

    William,

    I agree with you that I think the BF&M is not as strong (or clear) as it could be on the state of man. The argument can be made for the ascent of man and descent of God in Baptist confessionalism.

    James,

    The age of accountability brings up several problems, not the least of which is that no one really knows what that age is for children. Also, as you said, if children are not morally accountable to God before the age of accountability, then why do so many Baptist churches baptize children under the age of six? Could it not be argued that such “almost infant baptism” be treated as something similar to the practice of Presbyterian paedobaptism? Proverbs says that foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, so how do parents bring gospel-centered correction if such foolishness is not sinful? I would be interested to know how those who advocate the “age of accountability” reconcile the familiar Baptist practice of baptizing young children (assuming that their baptism is “believer’s baptism”) and how they instruct parents to apply gospel-centered instruction and correction to children presumably innocent and morally unaccountable.

  • http://gritsgrace.blogspot.com/ Greg Alford

    Timmy,

    It should be apparent to all that Lemke writes this article with a clear “Agenda” in mind… and it should be equally apparent to all that his loyalty to his agenda guided his arguments far more than any loyalty to theological or historical accuracy. Coming, as this does, from a professor at one of our Southern Baptist Seminaries this is most discouraging.

    What is Lemke’s agenda? That’s a good question and one I guess that only Lemke can truly answer. However, from what I have read Lemke appears to be attempting to create for his readers a definition of what a true Southern Baptist is…. And his definition excludes 5-point Calvinist as being true Southern Baptist. Sadly, Lemke is just rehearsing the same tired old song that we have heard the Anti-Calvinist in the SBC singing for years now… “True Southern Baptists are not Calvinist”. (I think it is sung to the tune of “Just as I am”, but I’m not sure as I stop listening several years ago).

    Unfortunately, NOBTS has a reputation of being less than sympathetic to the Calvinist movement in the SBC… and Lemke has now reinforced this sentiment among a new generation of young Calvinist in the convention, who when considering a seminary may very well write NOBTS off their list.

    Like it or not Southern Baptist are a diverse group of believers, and I grow weary of hearing the “BI” wing of the SBC (or should I say “BS” wing of the SBC) trying to tell all the rest of us what a Southern Baptist looks like. We have a Confession of Faith (you know the BFM2000) that does a very good job of defining what it means to be a Southern Baptist.

    Grace Always,

  • http://timmybrister.wordpress.com/ Timmy Brister

    Greg,

    Whether Lemke has an agenda or not, I am not going to speculate. I do believe he has made some serious errors in both articles (2005 and 2008) regarding Baptist Calvinists, and it is my hope that such errors will not continue to be presented in the future (including the John 3:16 Conference). Lemke is entitled to believe differently than Calvinists, but he does not have the right to misrepresent them. He owes it to those with whom he disagrees to present their position in such a manner that they could sign off on it, and *then* make his case for or against that position. If you cannot agree to do the former, it is hard to consider the merits of the latter.

    I believe Lemke when he says that Baptist Calvinists have long been a part of the Baptist tradition, but I do not understand why he believes that non-Calvinists should have an attitude of “tolerating” them. Are we not brothers in Christ? Are we not both preaching Jesus and Him crucified? Have we not been given the same Great Commission? Then why not have an attitude of cooperation rather than toleration? That, to me, seems to be a first order issue in this discussion.

  • james clardy

    “Unfortunately, NOBTS has a reputation of being less than sympathetic to the Calvinist movement in the SBC… and Lemke has now reinforced this sentiment among a new generation of young Calvinist in the convention, who when considering a seminary may very well write NOBTS off their list.”

    I am considering going to NOBTS in the fall of 2009 and it is becoming extremely difficult to continue the admission process. I do not want to constantly hear attacks on Calvinist while trying to earn my degree. I want to be taught God’s Word, not a man’s agenda within an organization.

  • http://keithwalters.org Keith Walters

    Timmy,
    Fantastic critique and sadly I have heard many who would agree with Lemke’s semi-Pelagian understanding of depravity, several of which teach at SBC seminaries.

    James,
    I know numerous individuals who have graduated from NOBTS, several who are there now, and even some Calvinist members of their faculty; however, I would recommend considering SBTS or SEBTS. Those are my thoughts on the subject, I am sure others may differ but I do not see myself recommending that school unless serious changes take place.

  • Stephen Byrd

    What’s unfortunate is that I went to NOBTS from 2000-2003 and sat under men [2 in particular] who were Calvinists and did an excellent job in teaching both sides of the debate. I left there with a better understanding and a more firm commitment to the Doctrines of Grace because of them. Unfortunately, they are now gone post-Katrina as are many of the professors under whom who I learned a great deal. Most of my friends that currently attend NOBTS are more than disappointed with what has happened since the storm in the quality of professors. It is sad, but true.

  • http://drjamesgalyon.wordpress.com Rev.

    In my opinion, Dr. Lemke’s assertions regarding the age of accountability distort the reality of what Baptists have historically taught on the subject with the exception of the Anabaptists. I’ve posted on this issue myself, today, and another post will follow tomorrow. Thanks for your thoughts, Timmy.

  • theophilogue

    Timmy,

    You’ve been tagged for a survey. Go to theophilogue.wordpress.com

    I think, at least, that you are a Southern Student (maybe I’m wrong, but I tagged you anyway).

    Bradley

  • http://ComingSoon radically saved from my depravity

    James NOBTS not only has issues with Calvinism but the attitude on campus is very exclusive not inclusive so unless you are a SBC card carrying clone you will be kept at arms length at best and an outsider at worse. I recommend another seminary as above are even a none SBC, there are many good ones out there!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03569660529270085289 Darrin

    Looks like I’ll just stick with New Orleans for coffee and beignets, and seek theological counsel elsewhere.

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  • june

    thank God He sees us in TD because none of us can boast of being better then the next sinner
    He gives us the free gift of salvation and puts us in His robe of righteousness
    Amen

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