Walking Among the TULIPs: Reformed Theology in the Gospel of John (Part Two)

By Colton Corter

Total Depravity (3)

Are men sinners because they sin or do they sin because they are at their hearts, actual sinners? This question is answered in John 8:34-38. Jesus tells us that whoever practices sin is a slave to sin (v.34). This “practicing” is a consistent pattern of habitual sin, that which characterizes the life of the nonbeliever. Human nature is not truly free. Free, surely, in that the will is able to do that which it pleases. But John 8:34 shows that what the sinner’s heart loves is sin. The will is bound by sin. It is the will set free by the sovereign working of the Son that is freed indeed (v.36).

Man’s volition is determined by what he holds to be supremely valuable. Natural man values the self and sin, incurring the wrath of God for the attempt to “de-God” Him, as Don Carson puts it. The Jews took great pride in being the descendants of Abraham, and they were, but they were merely his physical descendants. Those who are truly the children of the promise are those in whom the words of Christ find their place (v.37). The theme of human inability continues in verses 43-45 of the same chapter. Jesus asks them why they do no understand what He says. Jesus, knowing the answer before He asked, gives them the simple answer: they are unwilling to hear because they are children of Satan. How desperate is the plight of ruined sinners! They “cannot bear to hear” his words. The gospel of grace is unbearable to rebellious hearts. Indeed, the gospel is foolishness because these were not born of God but of the flesh, of Satan. Ephesians 2:1-3 picks up on this same theme. Those dead in sin are following Satan and are doing so very willingly! Their “will” is to do their father’s (Satan’s) desires (v.44). This is the natural will of men and women. There is no faculty present within unregenerate men and women to repent and believe whenever they want. See here that the mind is made up, resolute. The course of the heart is plotted by what Satan values. It is the truth that Satan vehemently opposes and it is what children of Satan likewise oppose (v.45).

How one interprets parables and miracles is crucial in developing a sound theology. Jesus heals a blind man in John 9. Many are content to be awed by the sheer power of God’s Son to heal. Healing is all well and good, they suppose. But this section is about much more. It is not reductionism to interpret the meanings of miracles beyond what they appear to be. Jesus heals the man who was born blind. Jesus declares that his blindness was so that God might be displayed in him. Jesus heals this blind man and it is a pattern for how God gives sight to the spiritually blind. This interpretation is evidenced because Jesus gives it in the text. Verse 39 reads: “Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” There is more going on in the passage than just healing. Jesus is pointing to himself, namely his authority to shine light into darkness and give sight to those lost in blindness.

Total Depravity (4)

In John 10:24 the Jewish leaders ask Jesus how long it will be until He tells them plainly that he is the Christ. Verse 25 contains Christ’s answer. He says that he has told them plainly already. He has borne witness to them and yet they do not believe. Jesus explains that the works He has done in the Father’s name bear witness to His person and work. So if the identity of Jesus is plainly given, why is it that they do not believe? Verse 26 reads: “but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep.” Notice the logic here. Jesus does not say, “you do not believe and so you are not my sheep.” That would be different, i.e. the only thing stopping them from being in the fold is their willing decision to join. Jesus, however, says their unbelief is due to their not being his sheep. The sheep have already been determined. Now, we must affirm that these outside of the fold are there by the sovereign will of God and by their own sin and rebellion. There is not the possibility of someone who wants to be a sheep but cannot be. All those passed over in God’s inscrutable decree will be responsible for their rebellion against the glory of God. It is impossible for anyone who is not a sheep to come to Christ, even with the truth plainly stated. We all like sheep have gone astray. And yet God has saved some when He should have slaughtered us all.

John 12:37-41 is a difficult text. It is important to ask God that He would allow our hearts to worship Him for who He is and not who we would like Him to be. John cites Isaiah 6 and 53. Isaiah 53 is first. Again the rulers and authorities are not spiritually discerning the works of Christ. John writes, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” Verse 39 begins with the word “therefore.” Verse 38 then is the reason that they do not believe in verse 39. I take this to mean that they do not believe because the arm of the Lord has not been revealed to Him. If God has chosen to reveal Himself, they would have understood. Verse 40 quotes Isaiah 6 in saying, “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.” God’s thoughts are higher than ours. He has chosen to display His glory in both salvation and judgment. The agent of hardening is obviously God Himself. God never creates sin in someone but does harden hearts so that they may not believe. If not for God’s decision to make them see they would not see. Isaiah saw the glory of Christ and spoke of Him (v.41). The exaltation of Christ is the aim in the hardening and regenerating of sinners. Some of the authorities believed in Him while many Pharisees would not come. John says in verse 43 that they would not believe because “they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.” Their unwillingness to come stems from a heart at enmity with the glory of God. Sinful humans are wired to desire respect and the glory that comes from man.

Total Depravity (5)

John 14 largely concerns the coming of the Holy Spirit. Jesus has just promised another Helper in verse 16. This Helper is identified as “the Spirit of truth.” This is an interesting label for the Spirit but it is telling. Truth is the heart of the matter. The truth about the glory of God and the gospel of grace is folly to the world. It is for this reason that John says that the world cannot receive this Spirit (v.17). What John cannot be saying is that no one can receive the Holy Spirit. The books of Acts confirms this. What does it mean then that the world cannot receive it? “World” is often used to describe the mass of fallen humanity in John’s writings. John is using the term “world,” then, not to show the breadth of the world, but to show the falleness of an evil human race. The world is what we must not love (1 John 2:15). It is this “world” that cannot receive the Spirit. All those in Adam are also making up the “world.” The reason they cannot receive Him is because they do not see him or know him (v.17). How can the blind come to see? Only by the sovereign new birth of God.

These passages in John’s gospel have painted a dark picture of depravity. One cannot think too little of humans. We are all dead in sin. We are all unwilling and unable to come to Christ. Our hearts are darkened, our wills are bound. There is no such thing as libertarian free will, a will of indifference. Only when God liberates our wills do we come to Christ. It is foundational to have a  biblical doctrine of sin. This is really all the doctrine of total depravity. A misunderstanding of our plight will lead us to a misunderstanding of salvation. We must allow the gospel to be at its full offensiveness. We were dead in sin. But God has made us alive in Christ Jesus when we were in full rebellion against His name. It is the realization of our depravity that paves the way for the rest of the “Five Points.”


Colton Corter is a graduate student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. You can follow him on Twitter at @coltonMcorter.


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