On the face of it, the Calvinistic doctrine of total depravity sounds quite convincing: it seems to say that man could not be any worse. This has Scriptural support, as David said: “I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psa 51:5), and Paul later added “as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Rom 5:12). Man is spiritually dead; in darkness and at a distance from God. Can we ask, “Are all men and women, without distinction, able to respond to the gospel message?”
Based on this doctrine of total depravity, Calvinistic orthodoxy’s answer to the question is “No! Adam’s offspring are born with sinful natures; they do not have the ability to choose spiritual good over evil” [Thomas Steele, Five Points of Calvinism, Presbyterian and Reformed, Phillipsburg, 1963, p. 25]. This includes choosing Christ for salvation. This teaching goes on to say that only the elect are enabled by God to carry out the gospel commands to repent; believe; receive Christ; obey the gospel, etc., when they hear the gospel preached. But we might ask, “Does human responsibility have no part at all to play in the gospel?”
Human responsibility and the gospel
This subject is best understood when we examine the following opposite choices in the context of the gospel: obedience and disobedience; reception (or acceptance) and rejection. All of these are, one way or another, the obvious expressions of the human will.
Let us look first at the words allied with obedience. We first find the thought in the Acts of the Apostles, where God’s gift of the Holy Spirit is promised “to them that obey Him” (Acts 5:32). Such obedience was shown when “a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). However, the use of this idea comes out most clearly in Paul’s great masterpiece of evangelical explanation, the epistle to the Romans. He starts by saying that his apostleship was for “obedience to the faith among all nations” (Rom 1:5; cp 15:18). Then he spoke about those who “do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation, and wrath” (Rom 2:8). Then he points out that it was originally “by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners” (Rom 5:19), but having received the gospel, the Roman believers “have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you” (Rom 6:17). However, with regard to those Jews who had heard the gospel, “they have not all obeyed the gospel” (Rom 10:16). Indeed, it was the (largely Gentile) Roman believers’ obedience that all had heard about (Rom 16:19). Paul ends his use of this word with a statement of God’s presently revealed purposes in the gospel: “made known to all nations for the obedience of faith” (Rom 16:26).
Equally, disobedience is an act of volition, and this is the root of the problem, as Paul wrote of Adam, “As by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners” (Rom 5:19), and also of Israel, who were “a disobedient … people” (Rom 10:21). Not so, of course, for Paul who said to Agrippa, “I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision” (Acts 26:19). He looked back with the Ephesian believers and said they were then, as unbelievers are now, “the children of disobedience” (Eph 2:2). In fact, this would bring “the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience” (Eph 5:6; see also Col 3:6).
Again, acceptance is an act of choice, as we read in the first chapter of John’s gospel; “As many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God” (v12; cp Col 2:6). On the other hand, it is also clear that sinners can reject the gospel, with equal responsibility. In His lifetime there were those who rejected the Lord Jesus Christ, particularly the national Jewish leaders, since He was “the stone which the builders rejected,” (Matt 21:42; Mark 12:10). This was to the extent of wanting to kill Him, “Who was rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes” (Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22). In fact He was “rejected of this generation” (Luke 17:25). This would lead to Him being their Judge since “he that rejecteth Me, and receiveth not My words, hath One that judgeth him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day” (John 12:48).
Paul reminds Titus that before being saved, “we ourselves also were … disobedient” (Titus 3:3). Then Peter spoke of those who rejected Christ as “them which be disobedient” (1Peter 2:7, 8), just like those who rejected God’s witness before the flood, “which … were disobedient” (1Peter 3:20). Human responsibility in the Old Testament often came down to the exercise of individual choice (Deut 30:19; Josh 24:15).
(We could also have examined more examples of human responsibility, such as believing and not believing, in John chapter 3.)
From the plain statements of Scripture (read without overlaying it with any Calvinistic presuppositions) we see that man is certainly responsible in the context of the gospel. So when God commands all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30), He really means it, because He is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2Peter 3:9)! Thus God’s Word ends by saying, “He who is willing — let him take the water of life freely” (Rev 22:17 YLT).
Of course, we are not saying that people are able to respond to the gospel independently of God working in their lives – but more of this later when we examine the work of the Holy Spirit in salvation.