Total Depravity

This is the "kick off" for Reformed theology's "TULIP"

Short rundown -

  • T - Total depravity of man
  • U - Unconditional election
  • L - Limited atonement
  • I - Irresistable grace
  • P - Perserverance of the saints

What is the history of this doctrine? Let's go back...way back.

In the early part of the Fifth Century a man named Pelagius showed up in Rome. He was from Briton, possibly Ireland. He may have been a monk, but we don't know for sure. What we do have evidence of is his teachings.

The heresy known as "Pelagianism" is essentially free-will taken to the extreme.

The basics are:

  1. Even if Adam had not sinned, he would have died.
  2. Adam's sin harmed only himself, not the human race.
  3. Children just born are in the same state as Adam before his fall.
  4. The whole human race neither dies through Adam's sin or death, nor rises again through the resurrection of Christ.
  5. The (Mosaic Law) is as good a guide to heaven as the Gospel.
  6. Even before the advent of Christ there were men who were without sin. (from Catholic Encyclopedia)

Pelagianism denies original sin and because we are not tainted with sin, we each have a choice of whether to sin or not. If we keep the "Law", we have not need of Christ's sacrifice.

Enter Augustine:

Augustine's (...) said that mankind is a massa peccati, a "mess of sin," incapable of raising itself from spiritual death. For Augustine man can no more move or incline himself to God than an empty glass can fill itself. For Augustine the initial work of divine grace by which the soul is liberated from the bondage of sin is sovereign and operative. To be sure we cooperate with this grace, but only after the initial divine work of liberation.

Augustine did not deny that fallen man still has a will and that the will is capable of making choices (...) The state of original sin leaves us in the wretched condition of being unable to refrain from sinning. We still are able to choose what we desire, but our desires remain chained by our evil impulses. He argued that the freedom that remains in the will always leads to sin. Thus in the flesh we are free only to sin, a hollow freedom indeed (...) Therefore we are not only partly dependent upon grace for our conversion but totally dependent upon grace. (from Leadership U)

We have a will, but is it truly "free", if the only thing that we can must choose to sin?

The "T"

As with many doctrines that are not fully understood, I like to start with what "total depravity" is NOT.

Total depravity is not absolute depravity. This distinction is vital to understand.

Absolute depravity would mean every single part of every single person is wholly bad. This distinction is intended precisely to leave room for the good that the "natural man" is able to perform outside of God - charity, faithfulness, etc. Absolute depravity is NOT what we mean by "total depravity".

Total depravity means that man is depraved (totally inclined toward sin) in every part of his being; at the same time there remains remants of being "good" in every part of his being. Sin permeates everything that we are.

Reformed theologists have several ways of stating the same doctrine.

John Piper: When we speak of man's depravity we mean man's natural condition apart from any grace exerted by God to restrain or transform man.

R.C.Sproul uses four points
1. Humanism sees sin at the edge or periphery of human life. It considers human beings to be basically good.
2. Biblical Christianity teaches that sin permeates the core of our life.
3. Total depravity is not utter depravity. We are not as wicked as we possibly could be.
4. Radical corruption points to the core sinfulness of our hearts.

John G. Reisinger: "Man is bad, but he is not that bad, but he really is bad." That means, (1) man is a sinner; but (2) he is not nearly as sinful in actual practice as he could be. However, (3) he is really is a totally depraved sinner in the sight of God.

The Westminster Confession says: “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 good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.”

Where is the Biblical basis for the doctrine of "total depravity"?

Romans 3:9-10 and 18 "I have already charged that all men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written: None is righteous, no not one; no one seeks for God....There is no fear of God before their eyes."

Romans 7:18 "I know that no good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh."

Romans 3:10 "as it is written: "None is righteous, no, not one;

Rom. 8:7 Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be.

A (very) short summary of "total depravity":

(writing in first person) If God expects help from me in earning my salvation, He's not going to get it - I'm simply not capable. This is because "sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin." This is not "inherited sin" - this is - Adam brought sin into the world and I am a sinner. I am so dead in my sin that without the Holy Spirit working in me, I cannot choose to turn to Christ. My "natural man" has nothing - NOTHING - that would lead me to obey Christ. Even the "good" that I do is sin, because without the regenerating work of the Spirit, I do not have faith and "everything that does not come from faith is sin" (Romans 14:23) I am a sinner and without Christ, I can do "good works" of all sorts. But without grace, the one thing I cannot do is repent and believe the Gospel.

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2 thoughts on “Total Depravity

  1. Augustine did not deny that fallen man still has a will and that the will is capable of making choices (…) The state of original sin leaves us in the wretched condition of being unable to refrain from sinning. We still are able to choose what we desire, but our desires remain chained by our evil impulses.

    This idea was picked up by Calvin and his followers, but there is no Biblical support for it. A careful study of Romans 9 sheds much light on Romans 7:13-25, which, I suspect, is what Augustine had in mind.

    One is neither free to sin nor free to be righteous. Compare Paul, a regenerate (Romans 7:19) with Pharaoh, an unregenerate (Exodus 9:17-17 and Romans 9:17). The Scriptures are clear: God is sovereign…He causes “all things to work together for good to those who love God…” (Romans 8:28). However, He also works through (i.e., soveriegnly manipulates) those who do not love Him. It is God’s will that if free, not ours.

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