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Home: Articles / Bible Studies: Doctrines of Grace

"Total Depravity"
By Fred Butler

What exactly is total depravity?  When we hear the expression, it conjures up ideas of wickedness of the most debase manner.  That is not necessarily so.  It has to do with man’s sin nature.  The view one takes concerning salvation will be determined, largely, by how they understand the biblical teaching of man’s sin. 


Various definitions of total depravity:


·         Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or prepare himself thereunto.   Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 9, Section 3.

·         Man’s nature is corrupt, perverse, and sinful throughout.  “Total” does not mean that each sinner is as totally corrupt in his actions and thoughts.  Instead, the word is used to indicate that whole of man’s being has been affected by sin.  Steele and Thomas: The 5 Points of Calvinism. 


·         Total depravity means that natural man is never able to do any good that is fundamentally pleasing to God, and in fact, does evil all the time.  Edwin H. Palmer: The 5 points of Calvinism.


From our three definitions above we can conclude the following about the total depravity of man:


1). Man fell into this state.

2). Man’s fall into this sinful condition affects his whole being, both physically and spiritually.

3). Man does nothing good to please God.

4). Man’s sinful condition is such that he cannot save himself.


Now, it is one thing to say these things about mankind, but does scripture support it?


Man’s fall into sin:


The first three chapters of Genesis describe these events.


The final creation week was originally declared “good.”


In Genesis one and two, we have the record of God creating the world.  Beginning in Gen. 1:10, as God would create, He would end His creative act with the phrase, “it was good.” It is repeated in 1:18, 21, 25, and in 1:31 God describes the finishing of creation as “very good.”


The Hebrew word tob is translated into good.  Its simple definition means to be favorable, pleasant, or right.   God qualified His original creation as being favorable and right.

It is reasonable to believe at that time all that God had created was, as He wanted it.  Man’s depravity had yet to come into the world.


The creation of man: Gen. 1-2


God’s crowning work of the creation week was the creation of Adam and Eve, the first man and the first woman. 

Genesis 1:26-28 describes this event.


First, it is important to point out that it was God alone who chose to create.  It was a plan made by the holy council of the Godhead.


God made man in our image and in our likeness.  Thus, God patterned man after Himself.

Image has the idea of to carve out.  It is akin to a statue being carved.

Likeness has the idea of similarity to some thing. 

Does that mean that man looks like God? Or, does it mean man is like God in essence, or can become like Him?

No, the scriptures do not support such thinking.



How then is man like God?


·         He has a nature that is not shared by the animals – He walks upright and can think abstractly with reason.  Man can even think upon his own thoughts.

·         Man can verbally communicate.  He can speak, debate and discuss with other men.

·         He has moral consciousness.  He can distinguish between good things and bad things

·         He can express wide-ranging emotion.

·         He has volition to make choices

·         Most importantly, man has the capacity to love and worship God.



Adam and Eve were also unique, in that they were given dominion over the rest of creation God made (Gen. 1:26).  Dominion means they were invested with authority by God to subdue the earth.

The most unique attribute of Adam and Eve was their holiness.  They were with out the corruption of sin. 


The Fall: Genesis 3


In Genesis 2:16-17, God commands the man not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 


That leads to a question: What kind of tree was this?  The Bible is silent.  It should be noted that it wasn’t the physical fruit that brought this condition upon man, but the selfish act of disobedience against a gracious God that brought the fall.

Henry Morris writes:  Man already had knowledge of good.  All he had seen and experienced was good.  Rejection of God’s word and His prohibition would necessarily convey knowledge of evil to him. (Morris, The Genesis Record).


With out going into explicit detail, Man was tempted to eat the fruit by the serpent (Satan) and he and the woman partook of the forbidden tree, and the consequences were dire.


The Consequences of Man’s fall:


Man’s sin placed him in a realm of death.  He died both spiritually and physically.


   NOTE: The biblical concept of death is separation, not extinction, or extinguishing.



Spiritual consequences:


Adam and Eve

For Adam and Eve, they immediately felt shame and exposure that had previously not been experienced, (2:7).

They were both cursed by God, (2:16-19).  Eve was to have multiplied sorrow in bringing forth children and an unfulfilled desire to rule her husband, (3:16).  Adam on the other hand, was cursed to toil under laborious conditions, (3:17-19).  And both of them were separated from the presence of God, (3:23).



Adam and Eve’s sin did not end with them.  They, as the progenitors of the human race, passed their sin nature onto the whole of humanity. 


From this fact, we can conclude the following with regards to man’s sin:


·         Man is born with sin.  This sin nature is brought forth at conception.

David wrote in Psalm 51:5 that he was “brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did his mother conceive,” him.

He wrote further in Psalm 58:3 that the wicked, “go astray from the womb” and that they “err from their birth.”

This is a spiritual principle:  the offspring of two people with a sin nature will only produce another person with a sin nature.


NOTE: The idea of an “age of accountability” is not taught in scripture.  Though children may not manifest ungodly behavior for some time, their sin nature is present and already has the child in bondage to only make sinful decisions. 


·         Man’s sin effects his whole being, or person.  This is what is meant by the word total.  Man’s sin has corrupted all of his faculties:



Gen. 6:5, “…every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”

Eccles. 9:3, “yea, also the heart of men is full of evil, and madness is in their hearts…”

Jer. 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked…”



Rom. 8:7, “Because the carnal mind is enmity against God…”

Eph. 2:3, “…fulfilling the desires of the flesh and the mind…”

Eph. 4:17,18, “…in the vanity of the mind, having the understanding darkened…”

Titus 1:15, “…but even their mind and conscience is defiled.”



John 3:19, “…and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.”

Rom. 1:32, “Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same but take pleasure in them that do them.”

1Tim. 4:1, “…some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits…”

      2 Tim. 3:2,4 “For men shall be lovers of their own selves … lovers of pleasure more than

      lovers of God.”


  • Man’s sin has rendered him unable to understand spiritual truth.

The sin of man has plunged him into spiritual darkness.  Though he is “spiritual,” inventing and practicing all sorts of religions, his spirituality is worldly, ungodly, and thus unpleasing to God.


Eph. 2:1, “You who are dead in trespasses and sins…”

Col. 2:13, “And you, being dead in your sins…”


Mark the word “dead” in these two passages.  It is taken from the Greek word nekros.  The word means as it is translated in English, dead.  Spiritually, natural man is a corpse.  He can no more respond to spiritual truth contained in the gospel, as a cadaver could respond to the heat of an approaching fire.


1 Cor. 2:14, “The natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are discerned spiritually.”


Paul’s point in the first two chapters of Corinthians is to show that natural men do not understand spiritual truth.  In order to understand the things of God, those things must be revealed to the natural men by God.


John 3:3, “except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Eph. 2:5, “Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ…”

It takes a divine act of God to make a spiritually dead person alive.

  • Man’s sin has made him unable to come to God.

      Because of Man’s bondage to sin, he can never come to God for salvation. This is termed         

      Total Inability. It is the flip side to Total Depravity.  Sin has so corrupted men that they              

      are prevented from responding to spiritual truth.  Man is in essence, a slave to sin.


      John 6:44, “No one can come to me unless the father who sent me draws him…”    


      John 8:34, “Jesus answered them, Verily, I say to you, whosoever commits sin is the

      servant of sin.”


Romans 6:20, “when you were servants of sin…”


Romans 8:7,8, “Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.”


Titus 3:3, “For we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures…”


Prov. 20:9, “who can say, I have made my heart clean; I am pure from my sin?”

Jer. 13:23, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopards his spots? May you also do good who are accustomed to do evil?”


What about free-will?


One subject usually raised during the discussion of total depravity is the role of man’s will, or choice, in choosing Christ.  Normally the question is asked, “Is not man’s will free to choose Christ or reject Him?”


The common understanding of man’s will is freedom to equally choose between spiritual good (turning from sin and following Christ) and spiritual bad.


The Biblical evidence, however, is contrary to this common thought in respect to man’s will.  The Bible clearly teaches that the mind and heart of men are subject to/enslaved to/servant to their sin nature.  This sin nature causes men to think and act in a manner that displeases God.  All of their thoughts and actions will have a fountainhead from their sinful nature.


A. This is not to say men lack understanding of biblical facts, the person of Christ or His atoning work.  What is does mean is that men do not respond to these facts in the proper, spiritual way, repenting of sin and embracing Christ as Lord.


B. Nor is it saying there is an absent of relative good in men.  Man can do good acts of service, kindness, and generosity to his fellow men. 


“What it does mean is that men are actuated by wrong principles, and that he is wholly unable to love God or to do anything meriting salvation.” Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination.


It is better to say that men have free volition or choice, but it is freedom to only choose between degrees of sinfulness.  Man can only choose according to his nature and the Bible describes it as sinful.  A natural man can be a fine moralist, raising money for orphanages, or a pornographer, dealing in the vilest of lusts.  Neither person is pleasing to God, for they are under the curse of their sin nature.


True freedom is the ability to do what is righteous and no natural man has that ability.


*Just a thought. Christians are bound to their regenerated state, and are not free to reject Christ.  They are just as unable to deny Christ, as the natural man is unable to accept Him.


·         Man’s sin places him under God’s wrath.


Rom. 1:18, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness…”


Eph. 2:3, “…and were by nature the children of wrath…”


1 Thess., “…for the wrath of God is come upon them to the uttermost.”


Ps. 21:9, “…the LORD shall swallow them up in his wrath…”


2 Pet. 3:7, “…reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.”


Physical Consequences:

All of mankind struggles with disease, pain, suffering, decay and eventually death. Physical death is the visible manifestation of man’s sin nature.


For the wages of sin, is death” Romans 6:23.

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