Total Depravity: Definition, Scriptural Support, and Defense

What does the Bible teach about the doctrine of total depravity? Total depravity is one of the five points of Calvinism, and it deals with the sin of mankind.
Calvinism
Original Sin
Total Depravity
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## Table of ContentsTotal Depravity - Definition

The doctrine of total depravity teaches at least three things:

  1. Every Human Being Is Born with Original Sin
    1. Romans 5:12, 19
    2. Is Original Sin Fair?
    3. More Scriptural Support for Original Sin
  2. Even the "Good" Works of Non-Christians Are Sinful
    1. Non-Christians are Not as Bad as They Could Be (Common Grace)
    2. Bible Passages About Even the "Good Works" of Unbelievers Being Sinful
    3. Bible Passages About Being Slaves to Sin
    4. Bible Passages About Not Trusting Ourselves
    5. Bible Passages About Our Desire to Sin
    6. Bible Passages About Being Completely Corrupt
  3. Humans Cannot and Will Not Turn to Jesus for Salvation
    1. Bible Passages About Being Unable or Unwilling to Turn from Our Sin Towards God
  4. Answers to Objections
    1. Joshua 24:15 says "choose this day whom you will serve"
  5. References

Total depravity does not teach that humans are as bad as they could be.

^ 1. Every human being is born with original sin

The doctrine of original sin states that since Adam represented all mankind as its Federal Head, his sin in the Garden of Eden resulted in every human being after him to have a sinful nature and be guilty of his sin.

This means that even from conception, every human being is guilty of sin before God because of Adam's sin.

^ A. Romans 5:12, 19

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned... For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.

Here, Paul teaches that because of Adam's sin in the Garden of Eden, "sin came into the world" and "the many were made sinners." So, even apart from any personal sin, every person is guilty of Adam's sin.

^ B. Is Original Sin Fair?

Some argue that it was not fair for God to make Adam our Federal Head and representative, and that He should only judge humans according to their personal sin. However, the doctrine of original sin is fair because for least two reasons:

  1. That God made Adam the Federal Head, or representative, of the entire human race is fair simply because God chose to do it. There is no higher moral standard than God.
  2. Even if we were not guilty of Adam's sin, we are all still guilty of our own sins, so there's not really a difference if we were not guilty of Adam's sin. We might wonder where this would leave infants, but a person who is able to argue against original sin is undoubtedly also guilty of personal sin.

^ C. More Scriptural Support for Original Sin

Below are several more Bible verses that show humans are guilty from the very beginning.

Psalm 51:5

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.

Psalm 58:3

The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies.

John 3:6

That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.

Genesis 8:21

And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done.

Proverbs 22:15

Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.

^ 2. Even the "Good" Works of Non-Christians Are Sinful

Because of original sin, every human is born with a sinful nature, which means that every human:

  1. is enslaved to sin,
  2. loves sin and hates righteousness,
  3. cannot do good or please God in any way.

^ A. Non-Christians are Not as Bad as They Could Be (Common Grace)

The doctrine of total depravity does not teach that humans are as bad as they could be. In fact, most humans live their lives in a manner that appears generally good and moral. This is because God has given a common grace to mankind.

The doctrine of common grace teaches that God restrains mankind's sin and blesses the entire human race in a general manner.

Reformed scholar Louis Berkhof defines common grace in this way:

[Common grace] curbs the destructive power of sin, maintains in a measure the moral order of the universe, thus making an orderly life possible, distributes in varying degrees gifts and talents among men, promotes the development of science and art, and showers untold blessings upon the children of men.[1]

Matthew 5:45 says this:

For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.

This means that God has a general kindness towards all humans in that He restrains their sin so that they are not nearly as bad as they could be.

However, even the "good" and "moral" works of unbelievers are sinful because they are not done out of faith in God or for God's glory. Even "good" works are sinful if they are not done with the right motivations.

^ B. Bible Passages About Even the "Good Works" of Unbelievers Being Sinful

Below is a list of Bible verses that teach that even our "good works" as unbelievers are sinful and not pleasing to God.

Romans 14:23

But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.

Hebrews 11:6

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

Isaiah 64:6

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.

Proverbs 28:9

If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination.

Proverbs 15:8, Proverbs 21:27

15:8 The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord

21:27 The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination; how much more when he brings it with evil intent.

Proverbs 15:9

The way of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord

From these verses, we learn that it is only through faith that we can do true good and please God. As unbelievers, even though we may do things that appear "good" and "moral" on the outside, these things are, ultimately, done with selfish intentions and are sinful before God.

^ C. Bible Passages About Being Slaves to Sin

Paul speaks often about humans being slaves to sin. This is significant because slaves are unable to free themselves, and slaves to sin cannot free themselves from their sin.

John 8:34

Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.”

2 Peter 2:19

They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.

Titus 3:3

For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.

Galatians 4:8-9

8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. 9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?

Romans 6:16, 17, 19, 20

6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.

16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?

17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed,

19 I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.

20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.

Romans 7:14

For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.

2 Timothy 2:25-26

God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.

Isaiah 42:6-7

6 “I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness;
I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
a light for the nations,
7 to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.

^ D. Bible Passages About Not Trusting Ourselves

Scripture teaches that we should not trust our hearts or our minds because they have been tainted with sin.

Jeremiah 17:9

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?

Titus 1:15-16

to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled.

Ecclesiastes 9:3

Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead.

Romans 1:28-31

28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.

Ephesians 4:17-18

17 Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.

Jeremiah 10:7-8

7 Who would not fear you, O King of the nations?
For this is your due;
for among all the wise ones of the nations
and in all their kingdoms
there is none like you.
8 They are both stupid and foolish;
the instruction of idols is but wood!

14 Every man is stupid and without knowledge; every goldsmith is put to shame by his idols, for his images are false, and there is no breath in them.

Matthew 15:19

For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.

Mark 7:21-23

21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

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.

Genesis 8:21

And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done.

Proverbs 10:20

the heart of the wicked is of little worth.

Proverbs 28:26

Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool,
but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered.

^ E. Bible Passages About Our Desire to Sin

Scripture teaches that we not only cannot do good or please God, we also have no desire to do good or please God, and instead desire sin.

Romans 1:24-27

24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Ephesians 2:3

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.

Proverbs 21:10

The soul of the wicked desires evil

John 3:19

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.

John 8:44

“You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.”

Genesis 6:5 (quoted above)

Genesis 8:21 (quoted above)

And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done.

^ F. Bible Passages About Being Completely Corrupt

Titus 1:15-16

to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled.

Romans 7:18

For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.

Isaiah 1:5-6

The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but bruises and sores and raw wounds; they are not pressed out or bound up or softened with oil.

^ 3. Humans cannot and will not turn to Jesus for salvation

Scripture teaches that humans in their natural, sinful state both cannot, and do not want to, turn to God in any way, whether to obey God or to be saved.

^ A. Bible Passages About Being Unable or Unwilling to Turn from Our Sin Towards God

Romans 8:7

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.

Romans 9:16

So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.

Ephesians 2:1, 5

1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins

5 even when we were dead in our trespasses...

Colossians 2:13

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses

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.

Matthew 7:18

A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.

Luke 6:43

For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit,

2 Corinthians 4:3-4

3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

John 3:20

For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.

Matthew 11:27

no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

John 3:27

John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.”

John 14:16-17

16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.

John 1:12-13

12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

John 4:44, 65

44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.

And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”

Deuteronomy 29:4

But to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.

Matthew 12:34-35

34 You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.

Jeremiah 13:23

Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil.

1 Samuel 24:13

As the proverb of the ancients says, "Out of the wicked comes wickedness."

Colossians 1:21

And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds

Psalm 10:4

In the pride of his face the wicked does not seek him; all his thoughts are, “There is no God.”

Isaiah 65:1

I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me.

Isaiah 64:7

There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.

Romans 3:11

no one understands; no one seeks for God.

1 Corinthians 1:18, 22-24

18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God... 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

^ 4. Answers to Objections against Total Depravity

^ A. Joshua 24:15 says "choose this day whom you will serve"

Joshua 24:15 says this:

And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.

One argument against total depravity is that Joshua would not have said "choose this day whom you will serve" unless humans have a real ability to choose between good and evil.

The Answer

The phrase, "choose this day whom you will serve," does not necessarily mean that we are, apart from God's grace, able to choose to serve God. It is clear from the passages quoted above that without God's grace, nobody would ever choose to serve God.

That we are commanded to do something does not necessarily mean that we need to have the ability to freely do that thing. It may not seem fair, but only God is God, and we are not.

^ 5. References

  1. ^ Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 434, summarizing Calvin’s position on common grace.

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