A friend wrote to me recently:
We’ve spoken of this often, but I still struggle with the teaching of Total Depravity whereby, it is asserted, sin affects everything, including the mind on spiritual and earthly matters. Practically speaking, I am not satisfied with the answers I receive concerning some of the most rank pagans producing work far superior to Christians. How is it that self-indulging men like Wagner can produce Ride of the Valkyries and a homosexual like Tchaikovsky can produce The Nutcracker and his First Piano Concerto? If we say that common grace can lift them to such intellectual heights, then aren’t we practically saying the same thing as those who say that man’s mind is not completely corrupt?
The Arminian says that because of sin, man is a 5.
The Calvinist says that because of sin, man is a 0, but common grace can take us to a 5 and beyond.
So practically, what is the difference? Prevenient grace or common grace takes us to a 5 and beyond.
That question is so thoughtful, that I wanted to post it with a portion of my reply:
You present a tricky dilemma, but isn’t the difficulty removed by an appeal to the gospel? In the gospel though they can do many wonderful things because of common grace, sinful men can never savingly seek God without special grace. And though Tchaikovsky did some wonderful things because of common grace, he never savingly sought God.
In expanded form, special grace is that power to seek God savingly. Common grace is that power to image the beauty of God implicitly regardless of the sinner’s humility, repentance, conformity to Christ, or lack of these Christian graces. Saving grace has an effect on the mind, but it is not the only way for the mind to be improved. The epistemic damage done by sin can be reversed or at least alleviated in many ways, which is one reason why careful thought about art, beauty, and enduring forms is essential.
I think your argument could be recast with just two clarifications:
“The Arminian says that because of sin, man is a 5 in terms of his moral ability.
The Calvinist says that because of sin, man is a 0, but common grace can take us to a 5 and beyond in terms of skill and beauty that don’t explicitly require the sinner to humble himself and submit to Christ’s Lordship.”