A General Introduction to the Doctrine of Total Depravity
All of humanity has one problem. Mankind’s history plainly testifies to tremendous defect. There has never been a generation that did not groan heavily under the weight of countless ills. Man’s problem is not simply social or political, however, but moral.
The Scriptures teach that the foundational problem that faces humanity is sin. The immensity of sin is seen in the fact that it is rebellion against the Maker of all things upon whom everything else is dependent. His wrathful disposition towards humanity is of untold significance. Therefore, Our solidarity in mutiny against Him is nauseating. But how did this revolt start? How deep is the problem? And how can it be remedied?
These are the questions that we will seek to answer as we tackle the doctrine of total depravity. As we shall see, sin is so deeply ingrained in our very nature. No single natural son of Adam is exempt. God Himself must intervene if anyone will be saved. Total depravity so affects humanity that, apart from regeneration, no individual is
either willing or able to submit to God. Thankfully, God has intervened by regeneration, and some will be saved.
We are all naturally inclined to love flattery more than an honest assessment of either our achievements or failures. Nevertheless, the Scriptures teach some very unpalatable truths which we must face squarely lest we come under God’s just condemnation (cf. 2 Pet. 3:16). One such truth is the teaching concerning man’s sinfulness. There is hardly a doctrine in all of Christendom that is as unflattering as the doctrine named “total depravity.” Total depravity is the condition of thorough and continual sinfulness in every faculty of a person’s nature. It renders man totally enslaved to sin and with no hope for deliverance. Even though such vulnerability naturally sends shudders down the spine of any man, the Scriptures would have us know that we are all indeed hopelessly lost without God. We dare not ignore or distort this essential doctrine since much else in our theology rises and falls with it.
Misconceptions of the doctrine of total depravity are plentiful. Most theologians who embrace this doctrine labor to clarify this point: Saying that humanity is totally depraved does not mean that each man is as wicked as he could ever be, but rather that every man is wicked in every single part of his being (e.g., Berg 38; Berkhof 226; Grudem 496; Pink 123; Shedd 602).
This doctrine means that all individual members of the human race will not and cannot bring themselves to subjection under God’s rule. Instead, we rebel against our Maker and continually turn only to evil just like in the days of Noah (Gen. 6:5). Every part of our beings (e.g. our intellects, our emotions, and our souls) is in rebellion. Total depravity so affects humanity that, apart from regeneration, no individual is either willing or able to submit to God.
Although God created man fundamentally good, humanity lost this God-given
righteousness in the Fall. In Genesis 3, Adam so corrupts our original nature that we could almost say that he bestowed a new nature on humanity – one enslaved to sin.
Sadly, when Adam lost his original righteousness, he could only pass on this fallen nature by procreation. Since all of humanity descended ultimately from Adam after the Fall, it follows that all of us received his fallen nature at birth. This inborn sin was known to the church fathers as “original sin” (Calvin 246) and is clearly taught in Scripture (e.g. Ps 51:5 which is especially straight-forward in the NIV). Passages that unequivocally affirm original sin abound: Romans 5:12, 18; 6:17-20 Ephesians 2:3; 4:17-24; Colossians 2:13 etc. Romans 5 highlights why Adam’s sin affects all of his posterity: Adam represented all of humanity before God, and so his failure was mankind’s failure. The church fathers’ term “original sin” needs clarification, however. It simply refers to “1) the loss of original righteousness” and thereafter, “2) the presence of a positively unrighteous
habit” (Hodge 325 cf. Grudem 495). It does not refer to the act of eating the forbidden fruit.
Historically, this understanding did not go without its challengers. Charles Hodge points out that all of Protestantism in its infancy held onto Augustine’s understanding of this doctrine – that all men possess an inherently corrupt nature that renders us unwilling and unable to please God (339). Nonetheless, opposition to this traditional understanding soon arose.
One of the earliest views against the idea of original sin was Pelagianism. Pelagius, the originator of this teaching, opposed the idea that man is hopelessly depraved. He taught instead that man’s problem was simply a lack of willingness to obey God’s directive (Hodge 338). This obviously meant that there was nothing radically wrong with man. Man could correct the mistake of his sinfulness by simply choosing to conform to the right teachings. This clearly strips the gospel of its necessity since man is considered able to undo his mess. Pelagianism was officially ruled as heresy in the councils of Carthage in AD 412 and 418 respectively (Grudem 499 n. 17; Calvin 247 n. 8). Semi-Pelagianism, on the other hand, taught that original sin alone is not liable for God’s retribution (Hodge 338), and thus that no one is guilty until he/she has individually sinned.
That Adam’s sin brought condemnation on all of mankind is explicit in Scripture, nevertheless (see passages listed in the previous paragraph). Arminians also generally object to the seeming injustice when God holds us accountable for requirements we are born unable to meet. Inability,however, is not always a correct excuse for failure as they assume. For instance,Shedd illustrates this fact with the truism, “bankruptcy does not invalidate contracts” (595 cf. Pink 337). If one owed some amount, they would not be freed from their debt even on account of genuine pennilessness. Inability is not always excusable.
To summarize: total depravity means that each of us is predisposed to live in rebellion to God because of an inborn sin nature transmitted all the way from Adam. None of us is either righteous or indeed can determine for himself to stop sinning and start living aright in relation to God. Moreover, because Adam sinned, all of humanity stands guilty before God. From the stillborn
infant to the sin-hardened reprobate whose depravity is unambiguous, all stand condemned under God’s perfectly righteous standard. Every single human being (whether young or old, Jew or Gentile, male or female) will be eternally condemned as a sinner by nature in Adam unless God saves him/her.
Thus understood, this doctrine often elicits cries of, “unjust,” which are apparently warranted, but are completely unbiblical. As we deal with this concern, let us keep in mind that this understanding of man’s sinful state cannot clearly be disputed on biblical grounds. In other words, before and above every argument, I hold to this teaching of an entirely depraved
humanity because it is contained in the pages of God’s self-revelation to us.
The Scriptures say clearly, “[we] all have sinned” (Rom. 3:23), and “[we are] without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). Consider the following observations to explain why God’s justice is not at stake with this doctrine. I am indebted to Grudem (495) for these ideas. Firstly, when Adam failed, he stood as a legal representative of all who would naturally descend from him, and thus when he fell, he failed us all. God was not the inventor of iniquity; Adam was. And Adam, having corrupted his very essence could not give birth to sinless saints but to sinners. Of course, God was not taken unawares. I do not endorse dualism (see Grudem 269-70) which may claim here that God was
outwitted by forces of evil. Instead I assert that God let man sin, at least, partly because man (specifically Adam) was created a moral being; able to choose either right or wrong. Linked to this point is the fact that imposed obedience is no obedience at all. God has never been interested in mere outward conformity but in real willful obedience. God could have created Adam unable to sin. He could also wring obedience out of Adam, but God decided to let him choose for himself whether to obey and live or to rebel and die. How can God bear the blame when Adam chose rebellion and therefore brought death upon himself and upon all of humanity?
Secondly, God will judge each one of us for their sinful actions on the final day (Col 3:25), and none will stand for “all have sinned” (Rom 3:23, NIV). God is not unjust. Clearly, each of us who has lived long enough has committed sinful acts against Him proving that God is just to condemn us for the sinful nature within. The fact that our sinful nature inevitably leads to actual sinful acts proves that it is, in itself, rightly condemnable.
And, thirdly, God who counts all naturally born humans sinful in Adam will also consider as righteous in Christ whoever will turn to His Son. What excuse can any of us give if we do not turn to Christ? And if we do indeed turn to this provided Savior, then all our fears are surmounted. There is no sentence hanging over the heads of those who have been redeemed in Christ (Rom. 8:1). Instead, what awaits these sinners-cum-saints is an eternal bliss for which they have not worked. God imputes perfect righteousness on them in Christ, the second Adam (Rom. 5:15-17) just as He did originally impute unrighteousness on them in the first Adam.
We will close this first section of our paper by reviewing the argument so far:
1) Adam was the legal representative of humanity before God. When Adam sinned, he bound all of humanity to condemnation before God. The uniqueness of Adam’s first sin is expressed in the fact that Adam (and Eve) alone fell out of favor with God by sinning. The rest of us were born outside of a good standing before God and, therefore at opportune times; we inevitably act dis-favorably against our Creator (Chafer 215-23). Adam’s sin is the source of this entirely depraved nature that automatically renders us objects of God’s wrath.
2) Because we are born this way,none of us is able to turn to the ways of God our Creator and His original purpose for us without His help. God’s special intervention in an individual’s life comes in the act of regeneration by
which we are then “born again” (John 3) into God’s divine family in Christ. With Christ as our new representative head, righteousness is credited to our accounts much in the same way as sin previously was in Adam (cf. Rom. 5:19). Thank God who has brought us this great salvation!
But before we look at God’s solution to this mess, we need to explain our depravity further than the general introduction we have so far.