The doctrine of man’s total depravity has been distorted by extreme Calvinists 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!
Extreme Calvinists teach that regeneration must precede faith, and that a person must be born again before he can believe. They would say that 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, pp. 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.”9
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.
Some Reformed men, including R.C. Sproul, even teach that a person can be regenerated as an infant, and then not come to faith in Christ until years later. For documentation of this, as well as a much fuller discussion of this entire issue, see our paper Does Regeneration Precede Faith? (10 cents).