by George Zeller






The doctrine of man's total depravity has been abused by the extreme Calvinist resulting in a wrong understanding of man's inability.  The Philippian jailer once asked, "WHAT MUST I DO TO BE SAVED?" (Acts 16:30-31 and compare Acts 2:37-38).  Some extreme Calvinists, if they had been in Paul's place, would have answered as follows: What must you do to be saved? Nothing!  Absolutely nothing!  You are spiritually DEAD and totally unable to respond to God until you are regenerated!


Thus the extreme Calvinist teaches that regeneration must precede faith.  A person must be born again before he can believe.  A person must have eternal life before he can believe because a person dead in sins is unable to believe. They teach that faith is impossible apart from regeneration. Such teaching seems logical and reasonable to them based on the theological system which they have adopted.  But WHAT SAITH THE SCRIPTURES?


The Bible clearly teaches this: BELIEVE AND THOU SHALT LIVE! "Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life" (John 6:47).  "That whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life" (John 3:15).  The extreme Calvinist says, "LIVE AND THOU SHALT BELIEVE!"  Please notice that John 1:12 does not say this: "But as many as have been regenerated, to them gave He the power to believe on His Name, even to those who have become the children of God."  Notice also that John 20:31 says, "believing ye might have life."  It does not say, "having life ye might believe."  In his helpless and hopeless condition the sinner is told to LOOK to the Lord Jesus Christ AND LIVE (John 3:14-16)! [We sing the hymn "LOOK AND LIVE."  The extreme Calvinist should change the words to "LIVE AND LOOK"].


For a moment, let's assume that what the extreme Calvinists are saying is true.  If regeneration precedes faith, then what must a sinner do to be regenerated?  The extreme Calvinists have never satisfactorily answered this.  Shedd's answer is typical.  Because the sinner cannot believe, he is instructed to perform the following duties:


(1)   Read and hear the divine Word.


(2)   Give serious application of the mind to the truth.


(3)   Pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit for conviction and regeneration.  [See w. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, Vol. II, p. 472, 512, 513.]


Roy Aldrich’s response to this is penetrating: "A doctrine of total depravity that excludes the possibility of faith must also exclude the possibilities of 'hearing the word,’ 'giving serious application to divine truth,’ and 'praying for the Holy Spirit for conviction and regeneration.'  The extreme Calvinist deals with a rather lively spiritual corpse after all."5  


The tragedy of this position is that it perverts the gospel.  The sinner is told that the condition of salvation is prayer instead of faith.  How contrary this is to Acts 16:31.  The sinner is not told to pray for conviction and for regeneration. The sinner is told to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.




This teaching is based on a wrong interpretation of Ephesians 2:8-9 which says, "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast."  Many Reformed men wrongly conclude that the pronoun "it" refers to "faith." 

What Paul is really teaching is that SALVATION is the gift of God.  The IFCA Doctrinal Statement says it clearly: We believe that salvation is the gift of God brought to man and received by personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Salvation is the gift; faith is the "hand of the heart" that reaches out and receives the gift which God offers.


The fact that SALVATION (ETERNAL LIFE, RIGHTEOUSNESS) is the gift of God is taught repeatedly throughout the New Testament (see John 4:10; Rom. 5:15,16,17; 6:23).  In the New Testament the word "GIFT" never refers to saving faith, though we certainly recognize that apart from God's mercy and gracious enabling and enlightenment, saving faith could not be exercised (John 6:44, 65; Matt. 11:27; 16:16-17; Acts 16:14; etc.).


The teaching that faith is the gift of God has some very practical implications and it will affect the way a person presents the Gospel.  If faith is the gift of God, then how do I get this gift?  If it only comes from God, then how can I get saving faith?  WHAT MUST I DO TO BELIEVE?  How can I get this gift from God?  Do I do nothing and hope that God will sovereignly bestow it upon me?  (Do I hope that I am one of God's elect?)   Or, do I cry out to God and pray that He will give me the gift of saving faith?


John MacArthur holds to this second option.  He teaches that faith is the gift of God and he recommends that the sinner pray to God in order to obtain it:


Faith is a gift from God… it is permanent… the faith that God gives begets obedience... God gave it to you and He sustains it… May God grant you a true saving faith, a permanent gift that begins in humility and brokenness over sin and ends up in obedience unto righteousness. That's true faith and it's a gift that only God can give, and if you desire it, pray and ask that He would grant it to you.”6


Notice carefully what MacArthur is doing.  He is telling the sinner not to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 16:31) but to pray and ask God to grant the gift of faith.  This perverts the Gospel of Christ by making the condition of salvation prayer instead of faith.  Sinners are commanded to believe on Christ. They are not commanded to pray for the gift of faith.7




In recent years many Reformed men have been strongly promoting what has been called "Lordship Salvation."  Essentially Lordship salvation teaches that simple faith in Jesus Christ is not enough. Something else is needed.  A solid commitment to Christ is needed.  A person needs to surrender to the Lordship of Christ.  A willingness to obey Christ's commands is a necessary condition.  Also the sinner must fulfill the demands of discipleship or at least be willing to fulfill them.


We must never forget that a person is saved because he throws himself upon the mercy of a loving Savior who died for him.  It is not our COMMITMENT that saves us, it is our CHRIST who saves us!  It is not our SURRENDER that saves us, it is our SAVIOR who does!  It is not what I do for God; it is what God has done for me.


We need to avoid the dangerous error of taking what should be the RESULT of salvation and making it the REQUIREMENT of salvation:


·   It is because I am saved that I surrender to His Lordship.


·   It is because I am saved that I follow Him in willing obedience.


·   It is because I am saved that I agree to the terms of discipleship.


·   It is because I am saved that I submit to His authority over every area of my life.


Behavior and fruit are the evidences of saving faith but they are not the essence of saving faith. Don't confuse the fruit with the root. Because we are justified freely by His grace we measure up to the full demands of God's righteousness in Christ (2 Cor. 5:21); because we are frail we often fail to measure up to the full demands of discipleship (Luke 14:25-33, etc.). The requirements of discipleship are many; the requirement for salvation is simple faith or trust in the Savior.


My commitment to Jesus Christ does not save me.  CHRIST SAVES ME BY HIS GRACE.  My surrender to His Lordship does not save me. CHRIST SAVES ME BY HIS GRACE.  My obedience to His Word does not save me. CHRIST SAVES ME BY HIS GRACE.  My love for the Savior does not save me.  CHRIST SAVES ME BY HIS GRACE.  My ability or lack of ability to fulfill all the demands of discipleship does not save me.  CHRIST SAVES ME BY HIS GRACE.  My behavior (conduct) does not save me.  CHRIST SAVES ME BY HIS GRACE.


God's saving grace is to be found in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ WHO ALONE CAN SATISFY GOD'S HOLINESS AND RIGHTEOUSNESS and be to the believing heart God's "so great salvation"!  "He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life" (1 John 5: 12; all verbs are in the present tense).


Have you been justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus?  Is your hope built upon what you have done or is your hope based upon Jesus' blood and righteousness?  "I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but WHOLLY LEAN ON JESUS' NAME!"  May we be standing fully on Christ the solid Rock, not upon the sinking sand of our own fragile commitment.




Not all Reformed men hold to this position, but many do, including John MacArthur,8 M. Lloyd-Jones, and David Needham. It was Needham who brought this "one nature" position to the forefront by publishing his book Birthright – Christian, Do You Know Who You Are?


John MacArthur may be used as a spokesman for those who hold this position as seen in the following quotes:


Salvation is not a matter of improvement or perfection of what has previously existed.  It is total transformation….  At the new birth a person becomes "a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come" (2 Cor. 5: 17).  It is not simply that he receives something new but that he becomes someone new…   The new nature is not added to the old nature but replaces it. The transformed person is a completely new "I."  Biblical terminology, then, does not say that a Christian has two different natures. He has but one nature, the new nature in Christ. The old self dies and the new self lives; they do not coexist. It is not a remaining old nature but the remaining garment of sinful flesh that causes Christians to sin. The Christian is a single new person, a totally new creation, not a spiritual schizophrenic…. The believer as a total person is transformed but not yet wholly perfect.  He has residing sin but no longer reigning sin.  He is no longer the old man corrupted but is now the new man: created in righteousness and holiness, awaiting full salvation.9


The relation of the old self and the new self has been much disputed. Many hold that at salvation believers receive a new self but also keep the old self. Salvation thus becomes addition, not transformation Such a view, however, is not precisely consistent with biblical teaching. At salvation the old self was done away with.  [He then cites 2 Cor. 5: 17 and Rom. 6:6.] Salvation is transformation – the old self is gone, replaced by the new self. 10


Holding such a view has some very practical significance. If the believer only possesses a new nature in Christ, then we should expect the believer to be remarkably free from sin. We would expect the believer to exhibit a quality of life which is truly exceptional.  John MacArthur, for example, teaches the following:


1)   Christians will never be ashamed before the judgment seat of Christ.11

      But see 1 John 2:28.


2)      Christians always have fellowship with God and nothing, not even sin, can break this fellowship. 12

      But see John 13:8.


3)      Christians are in the light and cannot walk in darkness.13

      But see Ephesians 5:8.


4)   Christians do not need to confess their sins in order to be forgiven.14

      But see 1 John 1:9 and Psalm 51.


5)   Christians can no longer live in bondage to sin.15

      But see Galatians 5:1.




The early reformers never totally freed themselves from the allegorical method of Origen and from the church/kingdom concept of Augustine.  Most Reformed theologians are still entrapped and crippled by these approaches to the prophetic word.  In contrast, the dispensational approach insists that Biblical prophecies be interpreted in their plain, obvious and normal sense. ¢


In our day when dispensational theology is being neglected or rejected, this series should prove to be very beneficial for those who seek to “rightly divide the Word of truth.”  Next time, we will examine several more of the ten dangers of Reformed Theology.  So look for it!




5    Roy L. Aldrich’s article is highly recommended.  It is found in the July, 1965 issue of Bibliotheca Sacra and is entitled, “The Gift of God” (pages 248-253).


6    Transcribed from John MacArthur’s tape GC 90-21 dealing with Lordship Salvation.


7    Roy L. Aldrich, pages 248-253.


8    John MacArthur follows the Reformed tradition in many of his positions.  In his two books on Lordship salvation he attacks dispensationalism while at the same time claiming to be a dispensationalist.  It is probably fair to say that he is a dispensationalist when it comes to eschatology.  Reformed scholar John Gerstner once said in a lecture to students at Geneva College in 1986 that John MacArthur is as far away from dispensationalism as anyone can be who is still called a dispensationalist.


9    The MacArthur New Testament Commentary – Ephesians, p. 164.


10  The MacArthur New Testament Commentary – Colossians and Philemon, p. 148.


11  Marks of a True Believer (Moody Press), p. 34, 37.


12  Confession of Sin, Moody Press, pp. 12-13.


13  Confession of Sin, p. 28, 32, 33, 34 and Faith Works, p. 167.


14  Confession of Sin, p. 48, 52, 55.  MacArthur fails to distinguish between the two aspects of forgiveness that are taught in the Bible.  There is that forgiveness that is needed for salvation (Acts 10:43) and there is that forgiveness that is needed for fellowship (1 John 1:9).


15  Faith Works, p. 117.


George Zeller is serving the Lord as the Assistant Pastor of Middletown (CT.) Bible Church, and has written numerous articles, pamphlets, and books.