In this second article, I will address the first of the five points of Reformed theology. As this is a blog article, and not an exhaustive multi-volume work, I’ll have to keep it a bit brief, of course.
And so, briefly, the doctrine of total depravity is this: Due to the fact that sin has corrupted and enslaved the entire nature of man, no one is able to do anything pleasing to God, including obedience and belief.
This is, just like the rest of the Doctrines of Grace, something that is believed because it is revealed in Scripture. As such, I believe it can only be rejected by rejecting or reinterpreting the Scriptures which so plainly teach it. As I said in the last post, Calvinists are Calvinists because of Scripture, not other philosophical argument. While there are indeed questions to address, they must be addressed in light of Scripture.
What Total Depravity Is Not
Right away, before we explore the Scriptures on this issue, it should be pointed out, as we will do each time, what this doctrine is not.
1. It is not that man’s nature is corrupted such that he is as bad as he could be. The term “total” in this expression is properly understood to refer to the extent or scope of the corruption, not the severity. In other words, it is not that man is evil to the greatest possible degree, but that all of him is evil. An analogy (and I usually shy away from these) would be adding sugar to water. Add a spoonful to a glass of water, and all of the water is sweet. It is not as sweet as it could be, though, if you were to add more sugar. In a similar way, sin has corrupted and enslaved man’s total nature, but the degree to which a person’s actions exemplify evil varies from person to person.
2. Similarly, it is not that everything man does is evil in the sense that it falls under a category of sinful acts, such as murder or theft. Rather, it is that everything man does in his natural state is evil because his heart is evil in the act. Even altruism is sinful when done by natural man because of his own sinful motives for it, such as, possibly, elevation of himself as opposed to God in the action. Of course, different situations of different people have diverse ways in which the sinful heart of man is expressed. Keep in mind that because of this, the action itself may be good, such as helping someone in need, but there is always corruption of the heart on some level in it.
3. It is not that the image of God has been displaced. Scripture is clear that man’s dignity as an image-bearer of God remains for all men, regardless of how sinful that man is.
4. Also, and perhaps because of the previous point, it is not that man does not have within him the desire to be good or even to seek the truth and find God. That is in his created nature. The doctrine here simply says that, in his natural state, the corrupted sinful nature has enslaved man’s mind and heart and will, so that nothing he does is without a sinful element, and thus everything he does displeases God. When it is pointed out that many unbelievers do many good things, perhaps even better things than a lot of Christians, the definition of “good” must be correctly understood. The concepts of good and evil being employed in Scripture on this issue are those that apply to man from a perfect, holy God. As we will see in the Scriptures, what we think of as a “good person” often falls pitifully short of the goodness of God and of what He is willing to call good in us.
5. God did not create man with this sinful nature. In the Garden of Eden, everything God created was good, and man especially so. Total depravity is a teaching about our nature now, not as God created us. Ours is a nature that was perfectly morally good in God’s sight, but has been corrupted by sin.
Having said these things, let’s look at what Total Depravity is, and then answer some of the objections to it, perhaps better explaining why it isn’t those things listed above.
So what does the Scripture say about man’s state today?
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 sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. Romans 5:12-14
The wicked are estranged from the womb;
they go astray from birth, speaking lies. Psalm 58:3
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
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. Isaiah 64:6-7
So far, we can see that, because of Adam’s sin, we are all sinful, and that from the womb. This much is agreed to by most Christians. I do know of some that take a later verse in Romans 5, about “all men” receiving condemnation and “all men” receiving the “justification of life” (Romans 5:18) to mean that the sinful nature has been removed from the same group as received the condemnation. While the language of the verse, taken by itself, does seem to allow this interpretation of the phrase “all men”, the traditional interpretation, not just by Calvinists, but by many non-Calvinists, is that each occurrence of “all men” refers to either all men “in Adam” or “in Christ”.
I think that this is correct for two reasons. First, it follows the entire passage’s contrast between Adam and Christ better. In this sense, it goes with the next sentence better as well: “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.” (Romans 5:19) I’ve never heard that “the many” here must refer to the same group. If it did, then everyone “will be made righteous”. Now, unless you’re a universalist, believing everyone will be saved and no one will be condemned, this can’t be true.
This leads to my second reason, which is that “justification of life” is not a phrase or term that the Apostle Paul uses loosely. When he refers to someone as having been justified, he’s talking, as the following verse illustrates, about being made righteous. It’s about being saved, not just having the sin of Adam temporarily removed in infancy.
In looking at the Isaiah passage, we see that God considers even our “righteous deeds” to be like a “polluted garment”. That last phrase is actually a bit sanitized in our reading of it. What Isaiah is referring to there is what we would call used toilet paper. Another translation renders it “filthy rags”. Rags were used the way we use toilet paper today, and what Isaiah is pointing out is that even the “good” things we do are like used toilet paper.
Now, it’s one thing to say that if I offer my good deeds to God it is useless. Isaiah is saying that my good deeds are worse than that. They are offensive. Sin has polluted everything, so that nothing we do is anything less than an offense to God.
Worse than this, sin has also corrupted our abilities in other ways.
And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” John 6:65
“…but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” John 10:26-27
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. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. Romans 8:7-8
So, from Jesus and Paul we know that, because of our sin, we cannot come to Jesus in faith, which is something that anyone would agree is pleasing to God. One particular reason Scripture gives for this inability is that we cannot, in our fallen state, even understand the truth.
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. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 1 Corinthians 2:14-15
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools… Romans 1:21-22
So, without the Spirit of God, we cannot understand the truth of God in order to turn to Him and be saved. We are futile in our thinking. Other ways that Scripture expresses this inability are in calling us “slaves to sin” (John 8:34) and “dead in sin” (Ephesians 2:1, Colossians 2:13)
Because of all of this, at the climax of Paul’s treatment of the sinful state of man in Romans 3, he says the following:
as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.” Romans 3:10-12
No one seeks for God, and no one does good. No one can come to Jesus unless drawn by His Father. No one understands unless he has the Spirit. John Wesley was not a Calvinist, but he understood what these passages meant. He knew that without the work of God in our hearts, they would remain “deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17:9). In fact, as I pointed out in part 1, even the first Arminians believed in Total Depravity. Because Wesley did not believe in the rest of the Doctrines of Grace, however, he argued for a concept he called “prevenient grace”. This was something that God gives to every man to counteract the moral crippling effects of sin, so that everyone would have free will and be able to accept or reject the Gospel from a morally neutral heart. It is a kind of grace that does not save, but that makes man able to believe and be saved.
The problem with this concept is that it is nowhere found in Scripture. Reformed folks often refer to “common grace”, which is universal, but only refers to the common blessings in this life that are given to all men, regardless of their standing before God. Jesus referred to it when he said that the rain falls on the righteous as well as the wicked. (Matthew 5:45) This is not the same belief, however, since these blessings do not undo the damage done by sin.
Aside from the absence of supporting Scripture for Wesley’s view, there are other good reasons to reject prevenient grace. First, all of the “sinful man” passages above would not really refer to anyone, since everyone would be rescued from sin’s effects on the heart and mind. Jesus statements about inability in John 6 were meant to explain why the people didn’t believe in him. If they had prevenient grace, His statements don’t make much sense.
Also, every time, so far as I can see, that the rescue from sin’s effects does occur, it happens alongside the actual salvation of a person. The contrast above in 1 Corinthians between the natural and spiritual person alludes to it when it says that the spiritual person is “judged by no one”. A spiritual person is one who has the Holy Spirit within him. He is given mercy, not judgment. No third “in-between” category is ever mentioned.
From all of this, it can be seen that the will of man is not actually “free”, with regard to being morally pleasing to God. That which is enslaved is not free. Some Calvinists, however, would still refer to a kind of freedom that everyone has. We are all free to act within our own nature. I am no bird, so I cannot fly. It’s not in my nature. God is morally perfect, so He cannot sin. It’s not in His nature. The unsaved person is corrupted by sin, so he cannot believe. It’s not in his nature.
So, let’s look at some objections to this doctrine. First, it has been said that children are held up in Scripture as morally pure. We are commanded to become like a child and have “childlike faith”. Even Romans 9, a very clear chapter on other areas of Reformed doctrine, speaks of Jacob and Esau in the womb, “before they had done anything good or bad”.
So, are we sinful from the womb or not? Psalm 58:3 says we are. Romans 5 points out that people still died when there was no law, proving that they were guilty of something. I think these passages do teach that we are sinful from the beginning of life. So what does Jesus mean when he talks so highly of children?
I think that Jesus is not talking about sin or sin nature in those passages. He’s drawing a comparison between the faith of most adults and the faith of children. This isn’t faith in God per se, just the way in which children believe things. There is possibly a connection between that concept and the corruption of sin, but faith is a different subject.
I would submit that Jesus’ command to have faith like a child’s comes from the fact that children are the closest example we have to a morally pure person. They are not aware of all the laws that God has given, and so are not nearly as sinful (see Romans 5:13, Romans 7:7-12). As they grow, their sin nature is given the opportunity to break more and more of God’s law.
So, doesn’t this mean that infants go to hell? It is a common statement by non-Calvinists that we believe that because infants are sinful and cannot believe, they are sent to hell when they die. Scripture is silent on this question. The fact that they die at all should prove that they are not morally perfect, since “death came through sin”, but the question of their eternal destiny is still unanswered.
The Westminster Confession of Faith gives what I think is the best we can do with regard to what the Scripture actually says. It states that “all elect infants” will go to heaven. It implies nothing at all about how many there are. It does not say that all infants who die are either saved or unsaved. Perhaps God has elected to save each and every one. Perhaps not. I prefer to believe that He does save them, but unfortunately, Scripture just doesn’t say one way or the other. So, if any or all of the infants and children who die are elect, then just that many will be saved.
Another objection is that, if we really are unable to come to Jesus, and able only to sin, how can God judge us, since we are only doing what we can do? This question raises some issues that we will look at more deeply as we look at other areas of the Doctrines of Grace. For now, however, I will say two things.
First, remember what I said earlier about philosophical concerns being subservient to Scripture. Unless some other interpretation can be offered that’s better than the rather simple one I’ve offered above, the doctrine stands on the plain meaning of the Scriptures. If a person rejects the doctrine of Total Depravity because of this philosophical concern, then that person must also reject those Scriptures.
Secondly, this is still a real concern, so here’s a bit of how I believe it to be resolved. As Romans 5 teaches, Adam’s sin brought death to all. Adam really was in a neutral state with regard to his nature. He didn’t have the corruption and death of sin until after he sinned. I believe, that, just as Jesus stands, with His righteousness, as our representative, taking our sin and giving us His righteousness, so Adam was our representative, taking our neutrality and giving all of his descendants his sin. If Jesus work is allowable by God, then so is Adam’s.
If the objector still thinks God’s judgment of us for our sin is unjust, then I have little more to say. The Scripture teaches that God is a just Judge and that we are rightfully found guilty. It also teaches Total Depravity. So, either I’m wrong in my interpretation of Scripture, or the Scriptures are wrong. A non-Christian could argue against the Scriptures, and our debate would shift to a different topic. A Christian, however, or anyone at all who thinks the doctrine unbiblical, must address the passages above and many more in order to reject this Doctrine.
So, I hope this has been educational and not too difficult to understand. Let me know if you have any questions.