20 March 2012

"Total depravity," a Biblical doctrine

by Dan Phillips

One old canard is the notion that "total depravity" is (at worst) a uniquely Calvinistic doctrine, or (at best) a uniquely Pauline doctrine, unknown to OT writers, all of whom are supposed to have had an optimistic view of human nature.

One doesn't get very far in Genesis before running into contrary evidence. Of course, there is simply chapter three, which details the death of the first parents, a narrative continued in Adam's fathering of a son in his own (now fallen and depraved) image and likeness in 5:3, with its subsequent, somber refrain of "and he died...and he died... and he died."

But a very clear statement comes in Gen. 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." Neither Paul, Calvin nor Owen said anything more comprehensive, extensive or damning.

However, one might attempt the plea, "This is an especially bad generation, not a universal statement. It was why the flood was brought. You can't extend that to everyone."

So what happens next? Noah finds grace in God's eyes (Gen. 6:8), and he and his family alone are preserved alive, while the rest of mankind is destroyed. They, then, are the exceptions. Right?

Wrong. Look at Gen. 8:21 —
And the LORD smelled the soothing aroma; and the LORD said to Himself, "I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man's heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done."
This is just as universal and unconditional a condemnation as 6:5. But note that it comes (A) after the eradication of the entire evil generation of 6:5, (B) after an act of worship on Noah's part, (C) while the chosen remnant is just beginning its new life in the new world, and (D) before any of them had committed any sin, as far as the narrative is concerned.

Surely it is simpler to let the whole Bible say what it says, and understand that this is why Solomon could, without further qualification, assert that "there is no man who does not sin" (1 Ki. 8:46), and why Paul could say what he said. Even if it forces a revision (one could almost say reformation) of our theological system.

(This is developed Biblically at greater length in chaps. 2 and 3 of TWTG.)

Dan Phillips's signature


Chris Tolbert said...


Excellent post and I'm currently reading TWTG and find it extremely helpful. I did notice that the verse from Genesis you cited in your post is actually 8:21.

God bless.

Nash Equilibrium said...

What a great exposition. Very clarifying!

DJP said...

Chris, thanks for reading; glad it's being profitable! Error fixed.

Randy Talley said...

Concise and complete all at the same time. What's not to understand, believe, and accept as truth here?

I attended a secular college and could only tolerate the OT and NT intro classes. The professor took the "clean slate" approach to humanity and insisted that man is (a) good and (b) capable of good. I guess his Bible didn't include Isaiah 64... or he saw something holy and good in filthy rags.

General Soren said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
donsands said...

Good word. Mankind, and womankind, are children of wrath. John Newton wrote that amazing grace saved such a wretch as he:-And he was quite a wretch. But we are all wretches. Even the best and nicest wretch is still a wretch; and needs the same "amazing grace" that Noah found in the eyes of the Lord.


General Soren said...

Hey, brother, even we Arminians agree with Total Depravity. We may not jive with the all of Calvin's doctrines, but nobody can read the Bible and say that Mankind is "good" on his own, or capable of Salvation apart from Grace. (Articles 3 and 4 of the Five Articles of Remonstrance, 1610.)

I've never figured out where folks get off-track with this. There's a lot of doctrines that can be debated, this ain't of them. From cover to cover, humans are depraved, and God is Graceful in not nuking us all and starting over.

Good post.

(Delete and repost to correct a mistake.)

The Blainemonster said...

Bada bing bada boom. Very well put.

Alex Philip said...

Dan, this is most profitable. Thank you for detailing these truths. Question: how does this doctrine inform our understanding of those who die in infancy? Your thoughts on the intersection of this doctrine and this particular issue are appreciated.

trogdor said...

If I had a nickel for every time I've heard that 'Calvinist' doctrines are only found in Paul's letters, I'd have, like, a whole bunch of nickels. Aside from being demonstrably wrong, the objection makes absolutely no sense.

What if it actually was true? Suppose only one Biblical author writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit clearly, plainly, undeniably taught a doctrine. Can we safely ignore it? Because you know, it may be God's infallible word, but it's only inarguably taught in that one part.

Unknown said...

My wife and I are reading through the bible together. Just finished Judges. What struck us is how we (the human race) are pretty much the same now as then. In those days Israel had no king. Each man did what he considered to be right. (Dans Fav Bible Translation)

James Scott Bell said...

The debate is ongoing, of course, but I am much more interested in finding common ground. While I would take issue with the Calvinist (really, the Augustinian) understanding of Total Depravity, I am perfectly at ease if the Calvinist would place equal emphasis on the responsibility of man.

I like the way John MacArthur puts it: "But it points up again that this matter of salvation in all of its elements is all of God and all of me. You say, 'I don't understand that.'  No, I don't understand it either.  I don't have to understand it, it's just true." (Sermon, "God at Work in You")

Deb said...

Great post Dan! Definitely agree, the doctrine of total depravity is scriptural, throughout.

I also think that it is worth noting a distinction that a lot of neo-Calvinists miss. R.C. Sproul states it very well:
"For total depravity means that I and everyone else are
depraved or corrupt in the totality of our being. There is no part of us that is left untouched by sin. Our minds, our wills, and our bodies are affected by evil."

But... "We must be careful to note the difference between total depravity and 'utter' depravity. To be utterly depraved is to be as wicked as one could possibly be. Hitler was extremely depraved, but he could have been worse than he was."

Terry Rayburn said...

As to the extent of what "the fall" has done to us, here's one of my favorite quotes, though not ancient:

"...we are like dead people who keep stabbing themselves in the heart, shooting themselves in the head, hanging themselves, and drinking poison.

"How so? Because we are dead BECAUSE of sin, and in our death we sin and sin and sin. So it is a dreadful sort of death-life, an animation, an active existence that parodies life. It is un-life: hopeless, helpless, shut off and cut off."

Care to guess where that quote came from?

Thank God for the new birth.

As the song says, "People need the Lord".

Terry Rayburn said...

Here's another favorite re being "dead in sins and trespasses", from the same author:

"Someone might be 'a bit lively,' or he might be 'very lively.' But nobody is 'a bit dead' or 'very dead.' There are not degrees of death. Death is an absolute. It is a toggle switch, not a dimmer."

Love that last line.

Terry Rayburn said...

In Total Depravity, even the apparent INTENTION of doing perceived good results in the NATURE over-riding the will, as Luther waxed eloquently about in The Bondage of the Will, or as in this humorous example: http://goo.gl/J8QM3.

Terry Rayburn said...

OK curious readers.

Google will not help you on this one.

I have to get back to work, so won't leave you hanging with bated breath.

The Author is a fella named Dan Phillips.

Those of you who have read TWTG know how every line is written with deliciousness for those who enjoy the English language, and the content is...studiously biblical without being pretentious.

If you haven't read it, you will be glad if you do.

Then you can share your own favorite delicious quotes :)

Solameanie said...

Johnny, to my knowledge, we Calvinists do include man's responsibility in their theology. Maybe I'm not getting your precise nuance?

We would insist that man is morally responsible and culpable for his sin, but his good works play no part in his salvation. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, by Christ alone and in His righteousness alone.

Solameanie said...

I mean "our" theology. Sorry.

Bill Honsberger said...

Interesting isn't it that all three of the major Jewish groups (denominations/sects/movements or whatever), ignore or willfully deny the Tanakh/OT description of what people are. This is why service replaced sacrifice after the destruction of the 2nd Temple. And only "good" people could do such services as would make one acceptable to the Lord God. Makes one wonder why Yom Kippur even is practiced any more.
All three groups cannot agree on whether there is a God or not, but somehow all agree that man is fine and dandy and Jesus was not the Messiah. Somehow there is a correlation with all that mess...
Forget theology for one second - Jews have been, are being, and will be killed all over the world for thousands of years now by all us goyim - Yet mankind is basically good? Talk about a blind leap of faith.

Ryan said...

We would insist that man is morally responsible and culpable for his sin, but his good works play no part in his salvation. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, by Christ alone and in His righteousness alone.

I hasten to add that Arminians fully agree with this statement!

Peace in Christ,

donsands said...

I suppose the T in TULIP is different for the Reformed and the non-Reformed in that this total depravity means we can't even believe the good news of God's love, unless His grace actually grants us to believe.

Don't mean to stir it up, but just to lay out where the difference would be.

Ryan said...


I agree there's a difference between Calvinist and Arminian understanding of Total Depravity, but I don't think you've quite drilled down to it (i.e. Arminians also agree with your last statement).

The difference is in the nature of God's grace that grants us to believe. In traditional Calvinism, total depravity is such that no grace short of full-on regeneration can grant a person to believe (although I've read some describe that grace as an "effectual call" that does not equal regeneration to try to retain biblical accuracy on the order of salvation). In Arminianism, the grace to believe is an enabling grace that can be resisted.


James Scott Bell said...

We would insist that man is morally responsible and culpable for his sin, but his good works play no part in his salvation. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, by Christ alone and in His righteousness alone.

Right. And so would an Arminian. Good works and merits play no part in salvation.

But what MacArthur (and Spurgeon, and Packer, and Piper, et al.) acknowledge is man's responsibility in salvation itself (which is why the MacArthur quote is, specifically, concerning the "matter of salvation.") This is a matter of response to grace, not merit.

Although many Calvinists do not like the term "antinomy," that's what it is (Packer is fine with the term, and I'm fine with Packer on that matter!)

Word verification: nonsa solotia (which seems, somehow, proper.)

donsands said...

"..the grace to believe is an enabling grace that can be resisted."

I would disagree.

Jesus told us a parable of a sower. And the one soil, or heart, that you may be thinking of, if you'll allow me to say so, is the one that receives the word with "joy". But, this one doesn't last, but for a while.

Then there is the good soil which is a good heart, and this heart will produce fruit in various degrees.

I see this heart as the heart in Ezekiel 11:19

"And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God."

donsands said...

I guess I stirred it up. Sorry dan.

Aaron said...


Arminians come to TULIP like it is a buffet. They say they believe in total depravity just not the way you and I would define it. They pick and choose which parts they like. You see they believe in a concept called prevenient grace. So basically you're born depraved but at some unknown time you (and everyone else who ever lived or ever will live) are given the grace to choose. So you're born depraved but not really because God gives you grace so that you can then be free to resist him. They say they believe in total depravity (also known as total inability) but they don't and they certainly don't believe in the other four elements of TULIP (as if you could believe one without the others).

Matt said...

Great stuff.

Concerning salvation we live in the tension of God's sovereignty and our human responsibility.

And I'M the chief among sinners.

L said...

It seems to me that the charge that Calvin invented the doctrine of total depravity is often based on a misunderstanding on what exactly Calvin meant by that doctrine. It is also worth noting that there were some significant disagreements among Reformed theologians about the precise nature of depravity. For example, Bucer and Calvin differed on their views of the noetic damage we suffered through the Fall. (Bucer's view was much closer to Melanchthon's.) At any rate, it is alarming that so many Christians are threatened by the idea that they are fallen and utterly given to sin.

General Soren said...

Sir Aaron:

"They say they believe in total depravity (also known as total inability)"

"but they don't "
FALSE (see below)

"and they certainly don't believe in the other four elements of TULIP"
TRUE (because we're not Calvinists)

Would you kindly not misrepresent what we say? From the aforementioned Five Articles of Remonstrance; Article 3 (In its entirety):

(begin quote)
That man has not saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free will, inasmuch as he, in the state of apostasy and sin, can of and by himself neither think, will, nor do any thing that is truly good (such as saving Faith eminently is); but that it is needful that he be born again of God in Christ, through his Holy Spirit, and renewed in understanding, inclination, or will, and all his powers, in order that he may rightly understand, think, will, and effect what is truly good, according to the Word of Christ, John xv. 5: 'Without me ye can do nothing.'
(end quote)

We believe that each and every human is totally depraved, and can do nothing without God's intervention in our lives. I'm rather curious how your (I assume you're Reformed?) definition of depravity differs from ours. Or how our differences on the rest of the points somehow negate our position on Total Depravity?


Ryan said...

donsands, I think we actually agree on the level of disagreement on the meaning of total depravity! "I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh." This is pointing to regeneration, right? Because of total depravity, this regeneration must happen before anyone can (really) believe the Good News.

I suspect this is why Sir Aaron says Arminians believe we're depraved but not "really"... if we were "really" depraved then God could only save us by regenerating us prior to any (true) faith response. (Sir Aaron, I apologize if I'm missing your point.)

Arminians believe we are really, truly depraved, but not in a way that limits God's ability to enable the faith response without making it inevitable.

donsands said...

"This is pointing to regeneration, right?"-Ryan

Yes. Unless one is born again, quicken from the dead, and has his heart of stone removed, he cannot even see the truth.

God does the quickening, and He gives us His Spirit. Amazing grace!

He makes the soil good. The three bad soils are us, and show our resistance.
The good soil is from our Lord. No one is good soil to begin with. And so the good heart, which God gave me, if I can be personal here, is a heart of 100% grace, and a heart that will produce fruit: love, peace, joy, righteousness, giving thanks to our Savior, and other fruit besides:-All for the glory of His name and grace!

"Alas! and did my Savior bleed,
and did my Sovereign die!
Would he devote that sacred head
for sinners such as I?

Was it for crimes that I have done,
he groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! Grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!" -Isaac Watts

Good to discuss these things with you my brother in Christ.

Ryan said...

Likewise, brother.

Peace in Christ,

"Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live."
Isaiah 55:1-3

Praise God for His amazing grace!

Raine said...

In the wider context of Moses's writings, "and he died... and he died... and he died" (Gen 5), isn't solved by the Mosaic covenant. We're so bad we need a savior to come to us from the outside to bring us up to God. Praise Jesus for doing just that!

Aaron said...


I've read the articles of remonstrance and came to the same conclusion they did in Dordrecht. Arminians say they believe in Total Depravity all the while having a little asterick next to the word that says "well except for that whole prevenient grace thingy." They effectively believe in partial depravity and just like to call it total depravity.

You see total depravity, that is as defined by Calvinists, means that man will choose according to his nature...always has, always will. The Arminian says...yeah, man is totally depraved but God extends prevenient grace to everybody (at some random unknown time). This means that he is given some sort of free will even though he hasn't been given a new nature, in other words man can choose regardless of who he is by nature. That is not total depravity.

James Scott Bell said...

Prevenient grace, as expounded, is what overcomes Total Depravity. Calvinists believe God's grace overcomes TD, too. It's simply that Arminians believe, once overcome, God allows man freedom to resist grace being offered.

"The prevenient grace of the Spirit is exercised on the natural man: that is, on man as the Fall has left him. As the object of that grace man is a personality free and responsible, by the evidence of consciousness and conscience. As fallen he is throughout all his faculties enslaved to sin; but knows that sin is foreign to his original nature, and that the slavery is not hopeless nor of necessity." (Pope, A Compendium of Christian Theology, 1879)

donsands said...

"God allows man freedom to resist grace being offered"

So some resist, and some don't resist. Does that make the ones who don't resist smarter, or less bad in some sense?

What's the difference in resisting God in a human's heart and mind?

Aaron said...

JD: There are deeper differences than you have expounded.

Calvinists believe that God's grace overcomes total depravity, that is true. But Calvinists don't believe God extends this grace to everyone and that when it is extended it changes man's nature, that is, he is regenerated. Arminians on the other hand believe prevenient grace is offered universally, that is, it is offered to everybody who ever lived or ever will live regardless of whether they have heard the gospel. Ironically, Arminians believe that man acts according to his nature before prevenient grace but afterwards he believes man is freed from his sinful nature (i.e, he has free will) even though he isn't given a new nature. So if two persons having both been given prevenient grace and hearing the exact same gospel message make different choices, we are forced to conclude that it wasn't God's grace but rather the person who had something that caused him to act on that grace.

Aaron said...

@donsands: Yes, it's a troubling thought. Something innate in one person (you know, the depraved nature) that caused a person to believe. That's why he believes and the other person does not.

James Scott Bell said...

So some resist, and some don't resist. Does that make the ones who don't resist smarter, or less bad in some sense?

The terms Jesus would use are "wise" and "foolish" (e.g., Matt. 25). I think it best to use biblical language when applicable.

James Scott Bell said...

So if two persons having both been given prevenient grace and hearing the exact same gospel message make different choices, we are forced to conclude that it wasn't God's grace but rather the person who had something that caused him to act on that grace.

I'm not sure I understand your meaning here, nor do I see a "forced conclusion" of any relevance. As explained, it is all God's grace to free man to the extent he may affirm or deny the gospel.

And so?

donsands said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
donsands said...

Me too JD.

"For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps."

Our Lord is making a point here for sure.

But are any of us really wise?

I know for sure I am one of the most wretched fools, who God had mercy on.

James Scott Bell said...

One final thought. Again, citing Arminian theologian Pope:

"It is utterly hopeless to penetrate this mystery: it is the secret between God’s Spirit and man’s agency...The man determines himself, through Divine grace, to salvation: never so free as when swayed by grace."

This is the precise mystery John MacArthur was referring to in the quote I provided in my first comment.

That's a good, honest, assessment of the biblical data if one is wearing even strong Calvinist lenses.

donsands said...

"That's a good, honest, assessment of the biblical data if one is wearing even strong Calvinist lenses."-JD

I suppose I have need of strong lenses; and they are Reformed lenses.

I simply see each and every human dead and a child of wrath. And we all deserve God's holy wrath, and why He would save any of us is beyond me.
Although the Scriptures proclaim God loves us and does save us.

As Paul teaches us:

"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. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—" Eph. 2:1-5

Have a great Lord's day and weekend JD! And may our Lord come soon!

Aaron said...


"And so?"

Again, according to Arminianism, prevenient grace is given equally to two men. Two men hear the same gospel message. One believes, the other doesn't. So what causes one to take advantage of prevenient grace and the other not? Well, according to Arminianism, it's not God's grace that leads one to choose Him so it therefore, must be something else.

Basically, Arminians don't believe in sola gratia. They believe in grace plus nature or grace plus merit (because the act of choosing must be something inherent in one man's nature or of his own merit).

There is no Biblical support for the concept of prevenient grace and that is what makes the whole Arminian position indefensible.