What Is Total Depravity?

The doctrine of total depravity is a statement of Biblical revelation on the corrupt nature of all fallen men and women. We are born into a realm of enslavement to self, sin and Satan, wholly unable or unwilling to respond positively to our Maker.

Topic : Sin

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. Ephesians 2:1-4

“Man, in his state of innocency, had freedom, and power to will and to do that which was good and well pleasing to God; but yet, mutably, so that he might fall from it. Man, by his fall into a state of sin, has wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.”1

“God made man – male and female – in His own image, as the crown of creation, that man might have fellowship with Him. Tempted by Satan, man rebelled against God. Being estranged from his Maker, yet responsible to Him, he became subject to divine wrath, inwardly depraved and apart from a special work of grace, utterly incapable of returning to God. This depravity is radical and pervasive. It extends to his mind, will and affections. Unregenerate man lives under the dominion of sin and Satan. He is at enmity with God, hostile toward God, and hateful of God. Fallen, sinful people, whatever their character or attainments, are lost and without hope apart from salvation in Christ.”2

In the beginning, man was created good (Genesis 1:31). Having taken of the forbidden fruit and eaten of it, he was subjected to the curse of death, pain, and futility. By one man’s transgression, sin and death spread to all men (Romans 5) and man has been henceforth born into a fragmented existence. No longer does he enjoy fellowship with his Maker or the rest of creation. Man experienced division from his Creator, his spouse, himself, his fellow man, and the creation over which he was to work.3 This curse spread through men by nature and not merely through an environmental influence, as all were and are born into sin.4 We are all stillborns, utterly devoid of spiritual good.5

The doctrine of total depravity is a statement of Biblical revelation on the corrupt nature of all fallen men and women. We are born into a realm of enslavement to self, sin and Satan, wholly unable or unwilling to respond positively to our Maker. In the end, no one seeks for God, all are perverse.

In What Ways are we Corrupted and Depraved?

1. We have darkened minds

  • Romans 8:7
  • 1 Corinthians 2:14
  • Ephesians 2:3
  • Ephesians 4:17-18b
  • Colossians 1:21

2. We have darkened hearts

  • Romans 1:21
  • Ephesians 4:18c-19

3. We are enslaved to sin

  • John 8:34
  • Titus 3:3

4. We abide under futility

  • Ecclesiastes 1:00
  • 1 Peter 1:18

5. We are already dead

  • Ephesians 2:1,5a
  • Colossians 2:13

As can be seen from the above overview of the effects of sin upon man, he is surely in a most deplorable condition. His heart and mind are darkened, he is a slave to sin and Satan, his existence is futile and even his life is death. He is able to merit nothing whatsoever but wrath of God.

What About God’s Commands?

  • Joshua 24:15
  • Matthew 6:33

Some would read the description of depravity above and in some manner disagree with the contention that none seek God. After all, doesn’t Joshua tell us to choose and Matthew tell us to seek? Surely there are a number of other similar Scriptures that say the same. What do we do with those passages?

First, we must understand that a command does not guarantee the ability to meet the conditions of that command. The Lord spoke to Pharaoh and told him to let His people go, but then the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he could not obey God’s command.6 In addition, Jesus commanded Lazarus to come forth from the grave, but surely this did not indicate that he had the natural ability to do so. He was dead, with no ability whatsoever but to lie in his tomb. In like manner, we are dead in our transgressions and sins (Ephesians 2:1, 5) until He speaks life and gives us the ability and desire to obey.

Second, we must understand the difference between prescriptive and descriptive language. God’s commands are said to be prescriptive as He is presenting laws and duties which we are expected to fulfill. On the other hand, narrative is said to be descriptive as it merely describes what did, does or will happen. Passages which tell man to repent and seek God are prescriptive, they prescribe the way of obedience. Passages which speak of man’s inability to carry out God’s commands are descriptive, they describe the reality of the outcome.

Therefore, both descriptive and prescriptive texts are maintained. We are commanded to seek the Lord, but none of us will follow that command unless God so works that obedience into us.

Pertinent Scriptures:

  • Jeremiah 17:9
  • John 3:20-21
  • Romans 3.23
  • Romans 3:9-12
  • Romans 8:5-8

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1 Westminster Confession of Faith

2 From The Village Church Statement of Faith

3 All of these elements can be seen in the curse pronounced in Genesis 3.

4 This is most clearly referenced in Romans 5 in which Paul argues that in Adam all participated in his sin and were justly subjected to his curse.

5 This does not mean that man can do no social good, but rather it is a recognition that even our righteous works are as rags in God’s sight. As Romans 14:23 tells us, whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.

6 I know that some would argue that Pharaoh hardened his own heart and that the Lord merely responded to Pharaoh’s continued self-hardening, but such a contention is really not preferable. Twice before Moses even goes to Pharaoh, the Lord says that He will harden his heart (Exodus 4:21, 7:3) and Romans 9:17 makes it clear that God’s eternal purpose was always to display His power through Pharaoh’s resistance.