Depravity According to Calvin: John MacArthur explains Calvin’s view of human depravity:
The phrase “total depravity” (not an expression of Calvin’s but a phrase descriptive of his view) has an unfortunate ambiguity about it. Many who are exposed to that terminology for the first time suppose it means Calvin taught that all sinners are as thoroughly bad as they possibly can be.
But Calvin expressly disclaimed that view. He acknowledged that “in every age there have been persons who, guided by nature, have striven toward virtue throughout life” [Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.3.3.]. Calvin suggested that such people (even though there are “lapses . . . in their moral conduct” [Ibid.]) are of commendable character, from a human point of view. “They have by the very zeal of their honesty given proof that there was some purity in their nature” [Ibid.]. He went even further: “These examples, accordingly, seem to warn us against adjudging man’s nature wholly corrupted, because some men have by its prompting not only excelled in remarkable deeds, but conducted themselves most honorably throughout life” [Ibid., emphasis added.].
Nevertheless, Calvin went on to say, such thinking actually points the wrong direction. Instead, “it ought to occur to us that amid this corruption of nature there is some place for God’s grace; not such grace as to cleanse it, but to restrain it inwardly” [Ibid.].
Calvin was describing here what later theologians called “common grace”—the divine restraining influence that mitigates the effects of our sin and enables even fallen creatures to display—never perfectly, but always in a weak and severely blemished way—the image of God that is still part of our human nature, marred though it was by the fall.
In other words, depravity is “total” in the sense that it infects every part of our being—not the body only; not the feelings alone; but flesh, spirit, mind, emotions, desires, motives, and will together. We’re not always as bad as we can be, but that is solely because of God’s restraining grace. We ourselves are thoroughly depraved, because in one way or another sin taints everything we think, do, and desire. Thus, we never fear God the way we should, we never love Him as much as we ought, and we never obey Him with a totally pure heart. That, for Calvin, is what depravity means.
Calvin’s thorough treatment of human depravity is one of his most important legacies. Next to his work on the doctrine of justification by faith, it may be the most vital aspect of his doctrinal system. He brought clarity to a crucial principle that had practically fallen into obscurity over the centuries since Augustine’s conflict with Pelagius: to magnify human free will or minimize the extent of human depravity is to downplay the need for divine grace, and that undermines every aspect of gospel truth.
Once a person truly grasps the truth of human depravity, the more difficult and controversial principles of Calvinist soteriology fall into place. Unconditional election, the primacy and efficacy of saving grace, the need for substitutionary atonement, and the perseverance of those whom God graciously redeems are all necessary consequences of this principle.
—John MacArthur, John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology, ed. Burk Parsons (Reformation Trust, 2008), 137–138
by David at Thirsty Theologian