The first tenet of Reformed soteriology (Calvinism) is historically known as total depravity. It has elsewhere been called radical depravity or even simply total inability by some. For the sake of length I have divided this discussion of total depravity into three parts. In part one I will discuss the doctrine of total depravity theologically. In part two I will give all of the Scriptural support for this doctrine, and in part three I will discuss some objections, misconceptions, questions, and implications of this doctrine.
[NOTE: In this post I will be using the terminology total depravity for the sake of historical familiarity, however, the more accurate terminology is probably radical depravity]
The Black Velvet Backdrop
Total depravity is a doctrine of sin. Before we examine the means by which the Savior redeems us, we must see what exactly we are being redeemed from. Before we examine how God called us to himself, we must examine and understand where exactly he called us from. The doctrine of total depravity explains that condition we are in that sets the stage for God’s work to save us from this condition. The gospel is so much more beautiful when this doctrine is properly understood. Good news is never good news until we know what the bad news is. Total depravity explains the bad news. And the good news of the gospel of Christ will shine with blinding glory once we understand just how dark our condition outside of grace really is.
Total depravity is the black velvet backdrop upon which the diamond of God’s sovereign grace will be placed in a jewelry shop. The darker the backdrop, the more glorious the diamond will appear. The diamond itself is just as bright and gloriously beautiful with or without the black velvet backdrop, but for us to see its beauty clearly, that black backdrop is the perfect contrast. My goal here is to place a very dark black velvet backdrop of man’s condition apart from grace upon the jeweler’s counter so that later when we place the diamond of God’s sovereign grace upon it, we will be floored with its brilliance.
What is Total Depravity?
Essentially the question we are answering in order to define the Calvinistic tenet of total depravity is “What is the state of unconverted man?” Let’s answer that question as we examine the Scriptures.
But first, let’s go back to a time strikingly different from today. Let’s go to a time when the state of man was radically different from our current state. Let’s go to Eden.
When God created man in his Trinitarian likeness, man was perfect. God took a step back after each day of creation and saw that his work was good. However, after the sixth day, after his creation of man, the one who bore his image, he saw that his work was very good (Gen. 1:31). Man was created in goodness and glory to glorify God (Isaiah 43:7). Man was to fill the earth with God-worshipers. Man was to cover the earth with the glory of the Lord. In a real sense, man was created to “Edenize” the whole world. The bliss of Eden was primarily due to the perfect glory of God that was perfectly reflected by all of creation, most notably through the obedience, worship, and fellowship of man. The first chapter of Genesis highlights the uniqueness of man, for as each animal was created “according to its kinds” (Gen. 1:24-25), man was created in the image of a Trinitarian God (Gen. 1:26-27). Theologian Herman Bavinck says it like this,
The entire world is a revelation of God, a mirror of his virtues and perfections; every creature is in his own way and according to his own measure an embodiment of a divine thought. But among all creatures only man is the image of God, the highest and richest revelation of God, and therefore head and crown of the entire creation (Reformed Dogmatics, 2:566).
However, despite the goodness and Godness of Eden, sin entered the world through that great deceiver and ancient serpent (Rev. 12:9). In Genesis 3, Adam, though created without sin, freely sins against God. Because of this first sin, Adam and all of his descendants–all who are in Adam–suffer the guilt, corruption, and pollution of his sin. In fact, in some mysterious way, when Adam sinned, we sinned (Rom. 5:12). Paul expounds this doctrine and its implications in Romans 5:12-21. Because of Adam’s sin, all people without distinction are born in sin (Ps. 51:7). J.I. Packer puts it this way,
The assertion of original sin makes the point that we are not sinners because we sin, but rather we sin because we are sinners, born with a nature enslaved to sin (Concise Theology, 83).
There are two main aspects of total depravity. We are (1) born in sin (pervasive fallenness) and (2) dead in sin (spiritual inability).
It is true to say that we are fallen; all of us (Rom. 3:23). But how fallen are we? The term total can cause much confusion over this doctrine. What exactly does it mean? Are we as bad as we can possibly be? Is there no good in us at all? Let’s take a look at an infamous man from history as a case study. Adolf Hitler is arguably one of the most wicked men to ever live. At will he sanctioned the murder of millions of defenseless people. He started one of the largest and most destructive wars in history. If anyone could be called depraved it would be him. However, did he not have feelings for his mother? Perhaps he loved his wife. At bare minimum there are things that we could imagine him having done in World War II that would be even worse than what he did. Common grace from God keeps all of us from a certain level of wickedness that would make society and life impossible. So what do we mean by total depravity? Firstly, total depravity does not teach:
- that every person is as depraved as he or she could possibly be
- that unregenerate people do not have a conscious
- that unregenerate people do not have a moral compass by which to determine right from wrong
- that unregenerate people will engage in every form of sin
- that unregenerate people cannot perform good deeds or help others (adapted from Anthony Hoekema, Created in God’s Image, 150)
J.I. Packer is especially helpful at this point when he writes,
“This depravity, or perversion of God’s image, is commonly, and rightly, said to be total: not in the sense that everything in man is as bad as it could be, but that nothing in man is as good as it should be (emphasis his, 18 Words, 73).
Total depravity does rather refer to the truth that our whole person is drastically depraved. Total depravity means that every single part of us is affected by sin. Packer writes, “[Total depravity] declares that no part of us is untouched by sin” (Concise Theology, 84). We are wholly affected by the fall. The fall into sin affects our bodies, minds, and wills and leaves us in a state of pervasive fallenness.
- Bodies: We become are susceptible to illness, disease, cancer, aging, and death.
- Minds: We have darkened minds to spiritual truth about God.
- Wills: We are enslaved to the sinful passions of our hearts from which sin protrudes and we lack love for God.
Bruce Demarest spells this out in clear terms,
Scripture portrays the unconverted as possessing minds darkened to spiritual truth, wills arrayed in enmity against God, affections disordered by sundry lusts, consciences defiled by faithless responses, and hands devoted to every evil work. Holistically depraved sinners have neither the inclination nor the ability to seek God and spiritual life (Demarest, Bruce; Feinberg, John S. [2006-08-01]. The Cross and Salvation [p. 11]. Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition).
We are totally affected by sin. We are not people who are good at heart who just make mistakes. We are not even merely weak in our fallen state. No, our pervasive fallenness means that we are utterly wicked, positively perverse, and completely ungodly in God’s sight in every aspect of our being. It does not matter whether we do good things or not because even when we do “what the law requires” we do so from a sinful heart (Rom. 2:14; Matt. 7:11). In God’s sight, which is all that matters, we do no good thing. “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). Calvin speaks to this very thing when he wrote,
“Because of the bondage of sin by which the will is held bound, it cannot move toward good, much less apply itself thereto; for a movement of this sort is the beginning of conversion to God, which in Scripture is ascribed entirely to God’s grace” (Institutes, II.III.5).
Every action of ours includes some form of corruption. And it is God who reads our hearts and sees this corruption granted to us by the fall.
So, one part of total depravity is that we are affected by the fall wholly. Every part of us is corrupted by the fall. But there is another aspect to total depravity. Spiritual inability means two things:
- Unregenerate people are completely unable to please God or fulfill God’s law
- Unregenerate people are unable apart from the effectual grace and work of the Holy Spirit to trust in Jesus
The Westminster Confession on total depravity reads:
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 that good, and dead in sin, is not able by his own strength to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto (IX. 3).
Total depravity teaches that all people without distinction outside of grace are dead in sin totally lacking the spiritual ability to please, obey, enjoy, or glorify God (Eph. 2:1; Rom. 8:5-8). In our own strength we are totally unable to come to God. Commenting on John 1:13, John Calvin once wrote, “Flesh is not capable of such lofty wisdom as to conceive God and what is God’s, unless it be illumined by the Spirit of God” (Institutes, II.II.19). This doctrine teaches that outside of grace, from birth, every ordinary human lacks the ability to believe in Christ for salvation.
Total depravity teaches us that as unregenerate people, we are not just sick with sin, but rather we are dead in sin. The image of being dead in sin is abundantly clear. One who is dead cannot make himself come to life. He cannot choose positively for anything. Being dead in sin means that we cannot please God nor choose positively for God. We are like Lazarus in the tomb and we need Jesus to come to us and say, “Come out!” The only way for us to choose Christ for life is if we are given something outside of ourselves. In order for us to see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, we must be given spiritual eyes to see (2 Cor. 4:4-6). In order for us to love, glorify, and enjoy God forever, we must be granted a new heart–a heart that can trust Christ for salvation. We need to be regenerated. Packer writes,
“We have no natural ability to discern and choose God’s way because we have no natural inclination Godward; our hearts are in bondage to sin, and only the grace of regeneration can free us from that slavery” (Concise Theology, 86).
The doctrine of total depravity speaks to our condition outside of grace as one of pervasive fallenness as we are born in sin possessing a sinful nature and as one of spiritual inability as we are dead in sin completely unable to please God or come to God on our own. There are many questions that arise regarding this doctrine as well as many implications. And if you are concerned there was not a lot of Scripture quoted in this post, do not fret. In part two I will further present the doctrine of total depravity with all biblical support that I have found. Though I have taken this approach, it is clear that you understand that this doctrine is the result of exegetical work. It is Scripture that has formed and shaped this doctrine. Therefore, an entire post will be dedicated to the exegesis of texts pertaining to total depravity.
Also, if you have any questions or see any conundrums or dilemmas with the doctrine of total depravity, please feel free to comment below. This will serve a two-fold purpose. Firstly, I am not the end-all authority, nor a seasoned theologian. I am always striving to reform my own thinking and to sharpen my theology and presentation of doctrine. Secondly, the third post in this series will relate directly to objections, misconceptions, questions, and implications. I would love to have your input to make this series as God-honoring and saint-sanctifying as possible.