Total Depravity


Total Depravity

The question “Who is man?” must be clearly answered in order to formulate a biblical understanding of the doctrine of salvation. In a real sense, one’s anthropology shapes one’s soteriology. If we err on the identity of man then we will likely fall into erroneous thinking regarding the salvation of man. Whether we realize it or not, our view of man profoundly influences things such as how we do evangelism, the conduct of compassion ministries, how we construct societal rules, the philosophy of our judicial system, the methodology of educating people, and ultimately, our view of God. We must get this right.

A warning: the Bible does not paint a very flattering picture of man.   The Westminster Confession captures the biblical picture by stating that “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.”1 Such is the doctrine called “total depravity” or “total inability.” Therein lies the problem. Because men don’t like what they see, they freely touch up the picture in order to produce a more attractive image.

Some Descriptions of Man

The Bible describes man with vivid word pictures. Certainly, not all of these descriptions apply to all men. There is clearly a remarkable difference between a regenerate and an unregenerate man. The sovereign grace of God in a man’s heart changes him dramatically. This is stated plainly in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come”.2 So the focus of this discussion is on the unregenerate man.

Man is spiritually blind. 2 Corinthians 4:3-4: “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” We should never be shocked when our unbelieving friend is totally unable to see the need of a savior. In fact, we should expect it. In light of the lack of spiritual sight, Christian evidences can never fully penetrate the mind and heart of the unregenerate person.

Man is a creature. Genesis 1:27: “And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He him; male and female He created them.” This basic truth has weighty implications. As a creature, man is subject to his Creator, whether he admits it or not. He is always accountable to the God of the Bible. And, his creature status means he is not the final criterion for truth. The average unregenerate person will strongly deny this critical concept and mock those who advocate it. Further, any freedom enjoyed by man is a derived and limited freedom rather than an absolute one. Of course, most Americans, accustomed to life in a democracy, laugh at such an idea.

Man is a worshipper. The problem is that man naturally worships the wrong things. Broadly speaking, he normally worships the creation rather than the creator. Sometimes the creation he worships is man himself. Romans 1:18-27 describes the sordid details and ghastly consequences of man’s suppression of God’s design for him. Man understands truth, but tramples all over it. He further damns himself by foolishly glorifying the creation, thereby incurring God’s judgmental wrath as evidenced by a perverted lifestyle.

Man is spiritually dead. Ephesians 2:1: “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins…” Somehow we must transfer the staggering concept of death in the physical realm to the spiritual realm. There are several Biblical extensions to this concept of spiritual death.

  1. Spiritual death means that man is totally unresponsive to spiritual truth. As the corpse in a casket does not flinch when pinched, so the unregenerate man is unable to embrace spiritual truth when it hits him square in the face. 1 Corinthians 2:14 leaves no doubt about this: “But the natural man does accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.”
  2. Spiritual death means that man has no appreciation of spiritual things. Oh yes, in kindness or sympathy to a pitiful Christian, he may acknowledge one’s right to hold strange Christian beliefs and practices, but in reality he hates God and God’s things. Romans 8:7-8 says it this way: “…because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of god, for it is not even able to do so; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
  3. Spiritual death means that man has no ability to come to God, to please God, or to respond to reason about God. This is really the core concept of total depravity: man has no innate capacity to solve his spiritual dilemma. Jesus makes this clear in John 6:44: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws; and I will raise him up on the last day.” Just so we get the point, he repeats it in vs 65: “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me, unless it has been granted him from the Father.” It is therefore absurd to speak of cooperating with God in the matter of salvation! It can’t be done. 
  4. Spiritual death means that man is not good, is incapable of doing good, and does not search for God. Romans 3:10-12 alludes to Psalm 14:1-3: “…as it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one; There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one.’ ” This categorical statement from both testaments flies in the face of so much popular “Christian” thinking. This does not negate the fact that men do perform relative goodness (Romans 2:14: “…Gentiles…do instinctively the things of the Law…”). However, unregenerate men are unable to perform acts of true goodness that are couched in faith in Christ and motivated by the desire to glorify God.
  5. Spiritual death means that even though man is a free moral agent, he does not possess a “free will.” He can act only as a dead man. So, for instance, he cannot “decide” to be born again. John 1:13 describes believers as those “…who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” John 5:40 describes unbelievers as men who do not seek God: “…and you are unwilling to come to Me, that you may have life.”  Perhaps we could say it this way: man is free to do whatever he wants as limited by who he is, namely, a spiritually dead man. 
  6. Only men made “willing” (regenerated) by God will come to Him.  Acts 13:48 reminds us of the only successful order of salvation: “And when the Gentles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.” Today’s average evangelical will conceptually amend the last phrase to something like “as many as believed were then appointed to eternal life.”
  7. On the one hand, free agency is the concept that God doesn’t guide us like robots; we are free in the sense that there is no exertion of an outside compulsion. We make choices every day. 
  8. On the other hand, God governs the inward feelings, external environment, habits, desires, and motives so that men freely do what He purposes. The inspiration of Scripture is an example of this.  2 Peter 1:21says that “…men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”
  9. Man is governed by his own nature and character just as God is. He is undeniably free to do anything within the limits of who he is. Perhaps it would be helpful to remember that God cannot change, or succumb to temptation, or solicit men to sin (James 1:13-17).  
  10. The crucifixion of Jesus is a prime example of free agency. The historical report of Luke states plainly that wicked men killed Jesus of their own volition and were responsible for their actions; yet they were unwittingly carrying out the predetermined plan of God! (See Acts 2:23; 4:27-28;13:27-29.)
  11. Spiritual death means that the unregenerate man must be made alive by the sovereign operation of God before he can believe. Ephesians 2:4-5: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He love us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved).”  And, man has no vote in these life giving decisions. John 5:21: “For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes.”
The Universal Scope of Human Depravity

Total depravity is not a mere aberration found in isolated geographical pockets of human civilization during infrequent eras under atypical circumstances. Rather, since the fall of Adam, it has pervaded the entire human race everywhere at all times and without any possible mitigating circumstances. There has been and will be only one exception to this sorry reality: the man Christ Jesus.

All human beings participated in Adam’s sin. Because Adam acted as the representative of the entire human race when he sinned in the garden, God can treat each human as if he personally sinned on that infamous occasion, even though only Adam and Eve were actually present. That is Paul’s contention in Romans 5:12: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.”

All human beings have a basic heart problem. At the core, here is who all human beings are: sin-sick people. We are not in any sense basically good. This changes everything. Jeremiah 17:9 doesn’t mince words: “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it? The sooner we are able to acknowledge this, the better. We are sinfully sick from the inside out. This verse is not saying that we are as bad as we can be in our external acts. It is, however, saying that we are bad to the bone. And that is far worse!

All human beings are born spiritually dead. David knew this truth from life experience. He confessed in Psalm 51:5, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me.” It is not the act of procreation that David is decrying; rather it is that the product of human procreation is always another human sinner. Theologians call this “original sin.” Yes, every “innocent” precious little infant is a wretched sinner from the moment of conception. I, my children, and my grandchildren are included! This reality is reinforced in Psalm 58:3: “The wicked are estranged from the womb; These who speak lies go astray from birth.”

All human beings are born into Satan’s family. Ephesians 2:3 states that we are “…by nature children of wrath…” Jesus had some biting words for his religious opponents as recorded in John 8:44: “You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father.”  With these family connections, who needs enemies! But of course, the good news is that by His sovereign grace, God adopts us into his family as “children of God” (John 1:12).


Again I would ask, “Why the big deal about depravity?” J.C. Ryle says it as well as any: “There are very few errors and false doctrines of which the beginning may not be traced up to unsound views about the corruption of human nature. Wrong views of the disease will always bring with them wrong views of a remedy. Wrong views of the corruption of human nature will always carry with them wrong views of the grand antidote and cure of that corruption.”3 If we misdiagnose the malady, we surely will foul up the cure!

There is only one conclusion for those who understand the pervasive concept of total human depravity: “salvation is from the Lord” (Jonah 2:9). Of course; it can’t be any other way.


1  The Westminster Confession of Faith (Pennsylvania: The Committee on Christian Education, nd) p.

2 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from the New American Standard Bible (Tennessee: Holman Bible Publishers, 1998)

3 W J Seaton, The Five Points of Calvinism (Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1984) p. 9.

© Copyright. Joseph Flatt. 2014. All rights reserved. May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source.