John Piper on Total Depravity: A Review

The follower of this blog and podcast will know already that I have an infatuation with soteriology: the study of the nature of salvation. I’d say, apart from apologetics, it is the subject that interests me more than anything. Obviously, I care about a great deal of things, but a person finds themselves naturally tending toward some studies more than others.

In particular, the follower of this blog will know that I am not a Calvinist and find it worthwhile explaining why I am not. Nor would I subscribe unqualified to the Arminian camp. I find rest somewhere in between in what has been deemed the “Traditional Baptist” perspective or the Provisionist perspective. I find here a good synthesis between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will, and I also find no need to appeal to mystery, or logical contradictions.

All that being said, I much enjoy reading the works of Calvinists and so often benefit from their teachings. John Piper is chief among the Calvinists whom I have benefited greatly from. His devotion to teaching young people to find their utmost satisfaction in glorifying God and making Him known amongst the nations is unparalleled.

I especially like Piper because he is not what has been called a “stage cage” Calvinist. You know the type and I hardly find it necessary to explain what I mean by the phrase. Piper’s doctrines of grace have led him to be an extremely gracious man and Lord knows we need more like him.

I have been revisiting John Piper’s Five Points book in which he explains why he believes the T.U.L.I.P of Calvinism to be biblical. The first letter, “T,” stands for total depravity.  I thought it would be fun and worthwhile to interact with what Piper says about total depravity and explain how I agree with pretty much, if not everything, Piper says in this chapter and yet, I’m still not a Calvinist.

Total Depravity

Piper defines total depravity as “man’s natural condition apart from any grace exerted by God to restrain or transform man.” He goes on to explain that humanity is not incapable of outwardly obeying the commands of God, like performing acts of charity, but that man is incapable of doing these things from a heart that seeks to glorify God – apart from grace exerted by God that is.

In my own words, I would summarize this as man is capable of doing good works, but is not capable of achieving righteousness or justification with God. I hope that is a fair summarization. If it is, the non-Calvinist, at least the Traditionalist like myself, would wholeheartedly agree.

Piper backs up his former definition of total depravity by saying, “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin,” which is really not Piper speaking, but Paul speaking in Romans 14:23.

Again, the Calvinist and the Traditionalist would agree, as far as I can tell. All of our good works are useless in the sense that they will not bring us to a right standing with God.

To be sure that I have not mistaken Piper, he says, “such outward conformity to the revealed will of God is not righteousness in relation to God. It is not done out of reliance on him or for his glory.”

There really is no point of contention at this point between the Calvinist and the non-Calvinist.

On Our Own

The next point is where the contention lies, I suspect. Piper defines “man in the flesh” as “man apart from the grace of God.” He then quotes Paul as saying, “The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Romans 8:7-8) He ends the section by saying “We were totally unable to reform ourselves.”

Everything afterward in this chapter seems to be no contention, as far as I am concerned. And really, everything Piper actually says in this chapter, I agree with. However, I suspect he means something different by what he says, then the way I would understand it.

At this point, I’m choosing to contend with what Piper does not say, though I suspect he means, and so I am not going to put the following words in his mouth.

I agree wholeheartedly that man is incapable of obtaining righteousness with God in and of himself. In fact, this would be a primary doctrine of Christianity. Grace alone, through faith alone.

The Difference

The difference between me and some Calvinists, to the best of my knowledge, is that the Calvinist sees humanity as on their own apart from an effectual inward work of the Spirit that changes their will and, at least enables, but some say causes belief.

Piper doesn’t say this much at this point, but does say something similar at a later point which I will discuss in another post. So, again, I’m not contending with Piper at this point. I’m contending with what I hear from many Calvinists.

The issue I take with the sentiment of some Calvinists is that I do not view us as on our own or apart from God’s grace in the same way they do.

When God sent His Son to atone for and make propitiation for our sins, when He rose Jesus form the dead, when He sent us the Gospel, we were no longer on our own. All of these things are a work of grace from God. My very hearing of the Gospel from my parents when I was a child was a work of God’s grace. At this point, I was no longer on my own. I had the very own grace of God given to me in the Gospel itself. The Gospel itself is a special revelation of God.

I don’t want to paint my Calvinistic brothers in a poor light, but to say that men who hear the Gospel could still possibly be on their own or apart from God’s grace sounds like a diminishment of the Gospel to me.

I am content to say all that is needed to turn to God from our total depravity is the power of the Gospel. The Gospel itself is a work of God’s grace and powerful enough to overcome our depraved will. It is the light that enables us to see God’s abundant grace for it just is God’s grace and power. I find no need of some further work of grace, God has done plenty.


In summary, I agree with everything Piper says about total depravity. I add that because of Jesus’ atoning death on the cross and the message of the Gospel, men are not on their own and have what they need from God in order to turn from their sins and believe.

[1] Piper, John. “Total Depravity.” Five Points: Toward A Deeper Experience of God’s Grace. Christian Focus Publications. Scotland, UK: 2013. Kindle.





Published by Haden Clark

Haden lives in North Texas with his wife, daughter, and three dogs.

3 thoughts on “John Piper on Total Depravity: A Review

  1. “I believe I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called my by the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” Martin Luther, Small Catechism, Apostles’ Creed, Third Article


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