Total depravity (also called total inability or total corruption) is a biblical doctrine closely linked with the doctrine of original sin as formalized by Augustine and advocated in many Protestant confessions of faith and catechisms, especially in Calvinism. The doctrine understands the Bible to teach that, as a consequence of the the Fall of man, every person born into the world is morally corrupt, enslaved to sin and is, apart from the grace of God, utterly unable to choose to follow God or choose to turn to Christ in faith for salvation.
"And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind." (Ephesians 2:1-3, ESV)
- "Irresistible Grace - Total Depravity" TULIP Part 3 (MP4 Video), by John Piper
- "Total Depravity - Unconditional Election" TULIP Part 4 (MP4 Video), by John Piper
- The Sinner Neither Able Nor Willing: The Doctrine of Absolute Inability (MP3), by John MacArthur
Summary of the doctrine
The doctrine of total inability teaches that people are not by nature inclined to love God with their whole heart, mind, or strength, as he requires, but rather all are inclined to serve their own interests and to reject the rule of God. Even religion and philanthropy are destructive to the extent that these originate from a human imagination, passions, and will.
Total depravity does not mean, however, that people are as bad as possible. Rather, it means that even the good which a person may intend is faulty in its premise, false in its motive, and weak in its implementation; and there is no mere refinement of natural capacities that can correct this condition. Although total depravity is easily confused with philosophical cynicism, the doctrine teaches optimism concerning God's love for what he has made and God's ability to accomplish the ultimate good that he intends for his creation. In particular, in the process of salvation, it is argued that God overcomes man's inability with his divine grace and enables men and women to choose to follow him, though the precise means of this overcoming varies between the theological systems.
Biblical evidence for the doctrine
A number of passages are put forth to support the doctrine, including (quotations are from the ESV except where noted):
- Genesis 6:5: "The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually."
- Jeremiah 13:23 (NIV): "Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil."
- John 6:44a: "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him."
- Romans 3:10-11: "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God."
- Romans 8:7-9: "For 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. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him."
- Ephesians 2:3b: "[We] were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind."
- 1 Corinthians 2:14: "The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned."
In John 6 Jesus said that, "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him... This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father." Apart from Christ, man is foolish, dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1-3), enslaved to sin (Romans 6:17), and following the spirit of the power of the air (Ephesians 2:2). "A natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised" (1 Corinthians 2:14). His wisdom is demonic and earthly (James 3:15). He cannot hear the word of Christ and God (John 8:43, 47). He is not able to subject his flesh to the law of God (Romans 8:7-8). Just as people cannot change the color of their skin, those who are accustomed to doing evil cannot do good (Jeremiah 13:23). Every intention of the thoughts of man's heart are only evil continually (Genesis 6:5). The intention of man's heart is evil from his youth (Genesis 8:21). Surely we were brought forth in iniquity, and in sin were we conceived (Psalms 51:5)!
Contrary to the doctrine of universal prevenient grace, all of these passages show that, apart from being in Christ, our total depravity is actual and not hypothetical.
Extent and degree
Tim Challies writes, "We can put one drop of deadly poison in that glass and it renders that entire glass poisonous so that if you were to drink it, you would quickly drop dead. That one drop extended to every part of the glass even though the entire vessel is not filled with poison. This represents humans after the Fall. While they are not wholly corrupt, the corruption they do have extends to every part. And finally consider a third glass which is filled entirely with poison. From top to bottom there is nothing but deadly poison. This represents Satan, who the Bible portrays as being absolutely corrupt so there is no good left whatsoever, but this does not represent humans here on earth. Humans are not as depraved as they could possibly be."^^
Deserving of eternal punishment
See Matthew 25:46, Jude 1:7, and 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9.
"The reality of hell is God's clear indictment of the infiniteness of our guilt. If our corruption were not deserving of an eternal punishment God would be unjust to threaten us with a punishment so severe as eternal torment." – John Piper
Faith precedes regeneration
Some object to the Calvinist understanding (that regeneration precedes faith) and contend that faith comes before conversion. Their position maintains that the Holy Spirit "regenerates" those who have believed; in other words, "I must put my faith in Christ, and then conversion will take place." However, the Bible says that one must first be called/drawn, and then he is able to trust in Jesus. In 1 Cor. 2:14, Paul says that the natural (unregenerate) man cannot understand the things of the Spirit. Saving faith is actually the first act of the (regenerate) new creature in Christ. We choose Christ because he first chose us.
Libertarian freedom and universal prevenient grace
Some affirm that man would be bound by a sinful nature, a kind of depravity in which he is in bondage to and cannot escape. However, they say, to keep with libertarian freedom, God gives man universal prevenient grace in which he is able to escape just enough from his sinful nature and have the ability to choose.
Command implies moral ability
"Why would we be commanded to follow Jesus if we were not able to do so?" some have asked. The Bible is clear, however, that the law brings wrath and was added "that sin might increase" (Romans 5:20; Romans 7:13-14). Precisely because man cannot obey the law, it was commanded. This was to show our utter dependence on God's grace.
The Scriptures do teach that man is responsible, but they also teach that he is unable to turn from sin and trust in Christ if left to himself. The idea that responsibility implies ability is not a scriptural idea. The biblical commands to repent and believe (just like the commands to obey) do not imply ability. The command is based on man’s responsibility (i.e. his duty or obligation) and what he ought to do; and ought does not imply can. Human ability is not prerequisite to responsibility nor implied by the commands of Scripture.
Necessarily implies utter depravity
Others have objected that if we agree with Total Depravity then we are saying that any unregenerate person is incapable of making good choices. (See Common grace)
- Original sin
- Imputation of Adam's sin
- The Fall
- Universal prevenient grace
- Common grace
- Flesh and the Spirit
- Total Depravity, by John Piper
- Human Depravity, by R.C. Sproul
- Total Depravity, by Loraine Boettner
- Total Depravity: Extent vs Degree, by Tim Challies
- Total Depravity (Monergism)
- The Natural Man, scripture compiled by eschatology.com
- What do the Protestant Reformers Mean by "Total Depravity"?
- The Problem of Total Depravity, by James Patrick Holding
- Total Depravity (Tulipedia)
- Need of Salvation: Total Depravity and Man's Inability, by Brian Schwertley - One of the more comprehensive treatments of the subject
- The Fall of Man, by J. Gresham Machen
- Is Mankind Lost in Sin?, by J. Gresham Machen
- How Much Depravity and How Much It Applies, by David Wayne