Total Depravity

revised from original article printed in PCC Bulletin vol. 2, no. 17 dated 22 Oct 2000


The 5-Points of Calvinism, viz.,—Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints,—provide perhaps the most succinct, logical and biblical way of understanding God’s work of salvation of sinners. These five points were never presented by John Calvin in this way. They are derived with some re-ordering from the Canons of Dort (e.g. Total Depravity corresponds to the 3rd Head of the Canons of Dort). But all 5 propositions may be found to be more or less clearly taught in Calvin’s writings.

As we examine the 5 points, two things become clear. Firstly, these points can be individually derived from Scripture and not from human experience. And so when we study these points of doctrine we are simply studying a biblical doctrine with the help of a systematic framework. Secondly, these points are logically tied to one another so that it is really impossible to take anyone point out without or change any point without falling into irrationality. Biblical Christianity, we must remember, is not irrational because the Bible is inerrantly and infallibly inspired by God. Though we may not fully comprehend God, we know that God cannot possibly be contradictory, or there is no way for man to know Him at all. So no contradictory propositions can possibly be derived from the Scripture when it is properly exegeted. Thus, because of the logical consistency of the five points, anyone who denies any of these five points will by logical necessity deny all the other four points too. We will demonstrate this when we look at Limited Atonement.

Now; if you have never had any instruction on the five points of Calvinism, you may want to skip the rest of the introduction and begin reading at the first section in the main text. The rest of the introduction does require a little background knowledge to the doctrine to make sense. But if you have had any instruction on Calvinism and know something about what Total Depravity means, then read on.

Let us begin with a couple of important quotations on the doctrine we are considering:

1. That man has not saving grace of himself, not 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 power, in order that he may rightly understand, think, will, and effect what is truly good, according to the Word of Christ, John 15:5: “Without me ye can do nothing.”

2. In [the state of man after the Fall], the Free Will of man towards the True Good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost:  And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace: For Christ has said, “Without me ye can do nothing. St. Augustine, after having diligently meditated upon each word in this passage speaks thus: “Christ does not say, Without Me ye can do but little; neither does He say, Without Me, ye cannot do any arduous thing, nor Without Me ye can do it with difficulty: But he says, Without Me ye can do nothing! Nor does He say, Without Me ye cannot complete any thing; but Without Me ye can do nothing.”

Can you agree with the statements above? Now consider the following quote:

Total depravity does not mean that man is not able to do good towards his fellow men. It does however mean that man’s nature is wholly sinful, corrupt, and perverse to the extent that sin has affected his parts rendering him absolutely incapable of saving himself from the judgement to come… Even when man performs good works, his motives for doing so are often not pure.

Compare this quote with the earlier two quotations, and I am sure that if you have even a vague idea of what is Total Depravity, you will find the first two quotations to be much more stronger expressions of the doctrine. But, the shocking news is that the third quotation is from a professedly Calvinistic theologian, whereas the first quotation is the 3rd Article of the Remonstrance, and the second quotation is from Jacobus Arminius (The Works of James Arminius, vol. 2, trans. James Nichols [Baker, reprinted 1996], 192)! I suspect that the true Arminian would even object to the third quotation as being more pelagian than Arminius was albeit its vagaries.

Over the years, I have come to realise that many who claim to be Calvinistic or understand the 5-points of Calvinism have only a very vague idea of this doctrine, and as a result of it, they either caricature the Arminians or promote a kind of Calvinism that is neither Scriptural or Confessional.

The object of this and the following articles, is to present the 5-points as clearly and precisely as possible. But familiarity breeds contempt, and I am afraid that if you do not give some care and thought as you read that you may not benefit at all from the articles, and your idea of Calvinism may remain at best vague or at worst some form of Arminian notion.

But before I leave the introduction to explain the doctrine of Total Depravity. I must quickly remark that though Arminius and the Arminians do hold to the total fall of man (unlike Pelagians), they also believe that fallen men can co-operate with the Holy Spirit to bring about regeneration. That is, though the will of man by itself cannot achieve any real good, it can,—by prevenient grace (i.e. grace that is before salvation) or common grace (as purchased by the death of Christ for all men),—respond to the call of the Gospel. Remember that when the Arminians speak about being “born again” they do not mean as the Calvinists do: that it is a sovereign act of God which is irreversible. Arminius makes this clear when he teaches that “regeneration and illumination is not completed in one moment; but that it is advanced and promoted, from time to time, by daily increase” (Op. Cit., 195). Now, illumination in the case of a hitherto unregenerate person is part of the internal vocation (call) to embrace Christ as Saviour and Lord. For the Calvinist, this call is irresistible. But for Arminius:

“Internal vocation is granted even to those who do not comply with the call.

All unregenerate persons have freedom of will, and a capability of resisting the Holy Spirit, of rejecting the profferred grace of God, of despising the counsel of God against themselves, of refusing to accept the Gospel of grace, and of not opening to Him who knocks at the door of the heart; and these things they can actually do, without any difference of the Elect and of the Reprobate” (Op. Cit., 721).

The two carefully crafted Arminian statements quoted earlier sounds very orthodox because it neglects to mention all these additional facts. But if you think about carefully, you should be able to see how the same statements provide room for what we are making explicit with Arminius’ own words here (see also Canons, Head 3 & 4, Rej. 5).

1. Total Depravity Defined

Total Depravity refers to the fact that man’s moral nature since the fall is corrupt, perverse and sinful throughout, so that nothing he does, think, or speak can be in any way good or pleasing in God’s sight at all.

Note that Total Depravity does not mean that since the fall, man has become in practice as utterly deprave as he can be, else the world would be filled with psychopaths or Hitlers. Make no mistake, every man, being dead in trespasses and sin (Eph 2:1) has in principle the potential to be worst than Hitler given the right environment. However, fallen man remains an image bearer of God with a conscience (Rom 2:14-15), as well as an ability to rationalise as to what is best for self-gratification and self-benefits. These restrains ensure that man does not walk in utter depravity, though being totally depraved, he is unable to do, say or think anything truly good.

And neither is the doctrine concerned at all on whether a deed may appear to be benevolent and good in the eyes of man. But Total Depravity does mean that all that the natural man does, including what appears to be good in the sight of man, is sinful in God’s sight (see Canons, Head 3 & 4, Art. 4). Even his righteousness are as filthy rags in the eyes of God (Isa 64:6).The natural man is enslaved to sin and Satan, blind to truth and rebellious towards God. He is dead in sin, not just morally sick.

Another way of thinking about Total Depravity is to think of it as Total Inability, i.e. that the natural man is unable to do any that may be regarded by God as good and therefore contributory to his own salvation. The Westminster Confession of faith (WCF  9.3) views Total Depravity from this angle:

Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: [Rom 5:6; 8:7; Jn 15:5] so as, a natural man, being altogether averse from that good [Rom 3:10, 12], and dead in sin [Eph 2:1, 5. Col 2:13], is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto [Jn 6:44, 65; Eph 2:2–5; 1 Cor 2:14; Tit. 3:13, 4–5].

Essentially, this would also rule out the Arminian notion that the natural man can exercise faith and so co-operate with the Holy Spirit to respond to the call of the Gospel. The only way man can be saved is if God sovereignly, monergistically (i.e. God working alone) frees him from his natural bondage to sin, and translates him into the state of grace so that he is enable freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good, including evangelical repentance and faith (see WCF 9.4).

Yet another way of looking at Total Depravity is to think of it as Radical Corruption. This refers to the fact that the natural man is corrupt in his heart or the core of his being. The heart is the well-spring from which all that a person does, thinks or say, flows from. Thus Solomon tells us: “Out of [thy heart] are the issues of life” (Prov 4:22). Thus the Lord Himself says: “A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things (Mt 12:35; cf. 7:18, 15:19). Now, if the heart is corrupt than nothing that the will does can be good.


We must remember that the liberty of man’s will was not affected by the fall. But the will is not free to act independently. It is always bounded to the heart of man, and always does what the heart regards as most desirable. Since the heart of the natural man is corrupt and hates God, it can never desire God, and so the will can never choose God. And since the love and glory of God is never in the heart of the natural man, he does not fail to sin in every exercise of his will. When we think of Total Depravity as Radical Corruption, we see immediately that the door of salvation is not shut to anyone. Rather, the natural man hates the owner of the house and will flee from the door unless his heart is changed.

This fact alone would destroy the Arminian argument that ability to obey the Gospel must be universal viz.: (1) God cannot command us to do anything beyond our ability, for otherwise he cannot hold us responsible for failing to obey. (2) The Word of God does command all men without exception to obey the Gospel on the pain of damnation. (3) Therefore the ability to obey the Gospel must be universal.

Notwithstanding the sovereign predestination of God, the inability of the reprobate to obey the Gospel rests in their hearts. But there is more, for the Scripture proves beyond doubt that the natural man is totally depraved. 

2. Total Depravity Proven

The doctrine of Total Depravity is seen throughout the Scriptures. Particularly, there are verses and passages which tell us how depravity originated in Adam and is propagated by natural generation; and there are verse which speak about the universality of Total Depravity; and there are verses which clearly indicate the depth of our depravity; and then there are verses which teaches us the consequence of our depravity.

a. The Source & Propagation of Total Depravity

When Adam and Eve fell into sin, they did not fall as private individuals. Adam was God’s appointed representative for all mankind who would descend from him by natural generation.

When Adam fell, his Fall affected all mankind in two principle ways,—comprehended in the theological term Original Sin,—namely: (1) all men are imputed (credited) with his guilt and so are regarded as guilty before God; (2) all men inherits Adam’s fallen nature. Our catechism expresses the doctrine elegantly:

The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consists in (1) the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature,—which is commonly called Original Sin; together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it (WSC 18).

How do we prove this doctrine from Scripture?

  • Firstly, the fact that we are imputed with Adam’s guilt is clearly taught particularly by the apostle Paul such as when he insists:

    “Wherefore, as by one man [i.e. Adam] sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Rom 5:12); and “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (
    1 Cor 15:22)

    Just a s the righteousness of Christ is imputed on His elect whom He represents, the guilt of Adam was imputed on the world. Now, if you think of Total Depravity from the angle of Total Inability or Radical Corruption, it will probably occur to you that the guilt of Adam’s sin does not directly affect our motions in life. But think for a moment of infants dying in infancy or in the mother’s womb. Such may not have occasions yet to engage in actual transgressions, but are they not regarded as sinners in the sight of God too? Yes, for “all have sinned” (Rom 5:12). Even elect infants dying in infancy must be “regenerated [to remove original inclination to sin], and saved by Christ [by the application of His blood], through the Spirit” (WCF  10.3).

  • Secondly, the fact that all mankind descending from Adam by ordinary generation (i.e. not supernaturally conceived) inherits Adam’s fallen nature is attested by Job: “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? not one” (Job 14:4). His friend Eliphaz correctly concurred: “What is man, that he should be clean? and he which is born of a woman, that he should be righteous?” (Job 15:14).

    David was essentially expressing the same notion in his penitential psalm: “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps 51:5). Note that David was not so much as referring to his mother’s sin, as if to blame his sin on his mother. He was rather referring to the fact that he was a sinner from birth. We sin because we are sinners, we do not become sinners because we sin. “The wicked are estranged from the womb. They go astray as they be born, speaking lies” says David (Ps 58:3).             

b. Universality of Total Depravity

The fact that Adam’s depravity passes down to all men ought to all men ought to be sufficient to convince us of its universality—that it affects all except the Lord Jesus Christ who was not born of ordinary generation. But the Scripture leaves us without doubt by clear statements which specifically focuses on the universality of depravity. The Psalmist reflects this thought in various verses, such as: “If thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?” (Ps 130:3); “And enter not into judgment with thy servant: for in thy sight shall no man living be justified” (Ps 143:2). The point is if God were to judge men without mercy, none will be innocent because all have sinned. Paul confirms this doctrine in his epistle to the Romans:

“…we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin; As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one…They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Rom 3:9-10,12).

c. The Depth of Total Depravity

We have seen that Total Depravity extends to the whole world without exception. We must prove now that the Total Depravity extends to the whole being of man. This is most emphatically taught in the Scriptures using several imageries.

  • Firstly, the apostle Paul when he declares that while we were natural men, we “were dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1; c.f. Col 2:13). This is a most important imagery, which should constantly bear in mind. An unregenerate man is spiritually dead. He can be compared to Lazarus in the grave, but not to sick man who can stretch out his hand to take a life saving pill.
  • Secondly, the heart of the natural man is blind and his understanding is dark: “Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart” (Eph 4:18). His “heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer 17:9). And he cannot savingly understand anything spiritual: “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14).
  • Thirdly, the natural man is described as being an enemy of God (Rom 5:10) whose “carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (Rom 8:7). He is a slave to sin (Rom 6:20) and a captive of Satan to do his will (2 Tim 2:26; cf. 1 Jn 3:10). By this imagery, we see than the natural man is cannot possibly do anything to please God at all. He is radically corrupt and totally unable.

3. The Consequence of Total Depravity

What is the consequence of Total Depravity? Simply stated: he has “wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation [and] is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto” (WCF  9.3). This fact is again very clearly taught in the Scripture: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil” (Jer 13:23). In fact, since the natural man does not understand spiritual things, he does not seek after God: “There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God” (Rom 3:11)

The corollary to this fact is that sovereign intervention by way of God is necessary for a man to enter into the kingdom of God. The Lord Jesus himself tells us: “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him” (Jn 6:44a) and “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:3). We shall see more of these verses and others in our article on Irresistible Grace. But for now, we should already realise that were it not for God’s intervention, none of us will ever believe the Gospel. Such a thought ought to humble us to the dust while at the same time filling our hearts with gratitude to the Triune God who loved us with an everlasting love, provided the propitiation for our sins and changed us sovereignly.

Conclusion

Arminians are wrong that men can co-operate with the Holy Spirit to effect their regeneration. How can we do so when our wills are captive to our radically depraved hearts? How can we do so when God’s Word testify that nothing we do in our natural state can please God? Arminians may require only one stitch to the garment of salvation, but according to them our destiny is in that stitch, while according to the Bible, that stitch, if added, would pollute the righteousness needed for our salvation, and would make the death of Christ insufficient to save anyone. W