Total depravity: Wikis


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Total depravity (also called total inability and total corruption) is a theological doctrine that derives from the Augustinian concept of original sin. It is the teaching that, as a consequence of the Fall of Man, every person born into the world is enslaved to the service of sin and, apart from the efficacious or prevenient grace of God, is utterly unable to choose to follow God or choose to accept salvation as it is freely offered.

It is also advocated to various degrees by many Protestant confessions of faith and catechisms, including those of Lutheranism,[1] Arminianism,[2] and Calvinism.[3]


Summary of the doctrine

Total depravity is the fallen state of man as a result of original sin. The doctrine of total depravity asserts that people are by nature not inclined or even able to love God wholly with heart, mind, and strength, but rather all are inclined by nature to serve their own will and desires and to reject the rule of God. Even religion and philanthropy are wicked to God to the extent that these originate from a human imagination, passion, and will and are not done to the glory of God. Therefore, in Reformed theology, if God is to save anyone He must predestine, call, elect individuals to salvation since fallen man does not want to, indeed is incapable of choosing God.[4]

Total depravity does not mean, however, that people are as evil as possible. Rather, it means that even the good which a person may intend is faulty in its premise, false in its motive, and weak in its implementation; and there is no mere refinement of natural capacities that can correct this condition. Thus, even acts of generosity and altruism are in fact egoist acts in disguise. All good, consequently, is derived from God alone, and in no way through man. [5]

This idea can be illustrated by a glass of wine with a few drops of deadly poison in it: Although not all the liquid is poison, all the liquid is poisoned. In the same way, while not all of human nature is depraved, all human nature is totally affected by depravity.

Nonetheless, the doctrine teaches optimism concerning God's love for what he has made and God's ability to accomplish the ultimate good that he intends for his creation. In particular, in the process of salvation, God overcomes man's inability with his divine grace and enables men and women to choose to follow him, though the precise means of this overcoming varies between the theological systems. The differences between the solutions to the problem of total depravity revolve around the relation between divine grace and human free will – namely, whether it is efficacious grace that human free will cannot resist, as in Calvinism, or sufficient or prevenient grace enabling the human will to choose to follow God, as in Molinism and Arminianism.


Biblical support for the doctrine

A number of passages in the Bible are used to support the doctrine, including (quotations are from the English Standard Version except where noted):

  • Genesis 6:5: "The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually."
  • Genesis 8:1: "And when the LORD smelled the pleasing aroma, the LORD said in his heart, "I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done.
  • Job 15:14: What is man, that he can be pure? Or he who is born of a woman, that he can be righteous?

15 Behold, God puts no trust in his holy ones, and the heavens are not pure in his sight; how much less one who is abominable and corrupt, a man who drinks injustice like water!

  • Job 25:4-6: How then can man be in the right before God? How can he who is born of woman be pure? 5Behold, even the moon is not bright, and the stars are not pure in his eyes; 6 how much less man, who is a maggot, and the son of man, who is a worm!"
  • Psalms 51:5: "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me."
  • Psalms 58:3: "The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies."
  • Ecclesiastes 7:20: "Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins."
  • Ecclesiastes 9:3: "This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead."
  • Jeremiah 17:9: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?"
  • Jeremiah 13:23: (NIV): "Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil."
  • Isaiah 64:6 "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"
  • Isaiah 64:7 "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 64:8 "But now, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand."
  • Mark 7:21-23: "For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."
  • John 3:19: "And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil."
  • John 6:44: "[Jesus said,] 'No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.'"
  • John 6:64-65: "[Jesus said,] 'But there are some of you who do not believe.' (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) 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 8:34: "Jesus answered them, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.'"
  • Romans 3:10-11: "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God."
  • Romans 8:7-8: "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."
  • 1 Corinthians 2:14: "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."
  • Ephesians 2:1-3: "And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience - among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind." (our depravity being emphasised in the concept of being "dead"; only something external -i.e. God- can give a dead man life)
  • Titus 3:3: "For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another."

Origins of the doctrine in the Late Antique Church

Many of the early Church Fathers affirmed the freedom of the will in man, laying the responsibility for whether any particular person followed virtue or vice on them, while also maintaining the need for grace from God in salvation,[6]. Writing against the monk Pelagius, who argued that man's nature was unaffected by the Fall, or at least was only weakened in the Fall, and that he was free to follow after God apart from divine intervention, Augustine developed the doctrine of original sin and, Calvinists contend, the doctrine of total inability. Augustine's views prevailed in the controversy, and Pelagius' teaching was condemned as heretical at the Council of Ephesus (431) and again condemned in the moderated form known as semi-Pelagianism at the second Council of Orange (529). Augustine's idea of "original" (or inherited) guilt was not shared by all of his contemporaries in the Greek-speaking part of the church and is still not shared in Eastern Orthodoxy.

Objections to Total Depravity

The Catholic Church maintains that man cannot "be justified before God by his own works,.. without the grace of God through Jesus Christ,"[7] thereby rejecting Pelagianism in accordance with the writings of Augustine and the Second Council of Orange (529).[8] However, the Catholic Church disagrees with the Protestant doctrine of total depravity, because the Catholic Church maintains man retained a free but wounded will after the Fall.[9] Referring to Scripture and the Church Fathers[10], Catholicism views man's free will as deriving from being made in God's image.[11] Accordingly, the Catholic Church condemned as heresy any doctrine asserting "since Adam's sin, the free will of man is lost and extinguished"[12].

There are some Protestant groups that disagree with the doctrine of total depravity. Some modern day Protestants (for instance, followers of Charles Finney) align themselves more with Pelagius than with Augustine regarding man's fallen nature.[citation needed]

The doctrine of total depravity was decried by the Five articles of Remonstrance and by Jacobus Arminius himself, and John Wesley, who strongly identified with Arminius through publication of his periodical The Arminian, also advocated a strong doctrine of inability.[13] The term "Arminianism" has mistakenly also come to include some who hold the Semipelagian doctrine of limited depravity, which allows for an "island of righteousness" in human hearts that is uncorrupted by sin and able to accept God's offer of salvation without a special dispensation of grace.[citation needed] Although Arminius and Wesley both vehemently rejected this view, it has sometimes inaccurately been lumped together with theirs (particularly by Calvinists) because of other similarities in their respective systems such as conditional election, unlimited atonement, and prevenient grace. In particular, prevenient grace is seen in many of these systems as giving humans back the freedom to follow God in one way or another.

Some arguments against the doctrine are that it implicitly rejects either God's love or omnipotence.[citation needed] That is, it is argued that if God is both loving and omnipotent, then God would not have allowed mankind to become totally corrupt. Thus, total depravity would imply God is either not all-loving or not omnipotent.

Advocates of total depravity offer a variety of responses to this line of argumentation. Wesleyans suggest that God endowed man with the free will that allowed humanity to become depraved and he also provided a means of escape from the depravity. Calvinists note that the argument assumes that either God's love is necessarily incompatible with corruption or that God is constrained to follow the path that some men see as best, whereas they believe God's plans are not fully known to man and God's reasons are his own and not for man to question (compare Rom. 9:18-24; Job 38:1-42:6). Some particularly dislike the Calvinist response because it leaves the matter of God's motives and means largely unresolved, but the Calvinist sees it merely as following Calvin's famous dictum that "whenever the Lord shuts his sacred mouth, [the student of the Bible] also desists from inquiry."[14]

Comparison between Protestants

This table summarizes the classical views of three different Protestant beliefs.[15]

Topic Lutheranism Calvinism Arminianism
Human will Total Depravity without free will Total Depravity without free will Depravity does not preclude free will

See also


  1. ^ The Book of Concord, "The Thorough Declaration of the Formula of Concord," chapter II, sections 11 and 12; The Augsburg Confession, Article 2
  2. ^ Arminius, James The Writings of James Arminius (three vols.), tr. James Nichols and W.R. Bagnall (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1956), I:252
  3. ^ Canons of Dordrecht, "The Third and Fourth Main Points of Doctrine"; Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 6; Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 25; Heidelberg Catechism, question 8
  4. ^ The Westminster Confession of Faith, 9.3
  5. ^ Ra McLaughlin. "Total Depravity, part 1". Reformed Perspectives. Retrieved 2008-07-14. "[Any person] can do outwardly good works, but these works come from a heart that hates God, and therefore fail to meet God’s righteous standards.". 
  6. ^ God's Strategy in Human History Roger Forster (Author), Paul Marston (Author), Wipf & Stock Publishers (July 2001)
  7. ^ Council of Trent, Session 6, canon 1.
  8. ^ Judgements of the Council of Orange
  9. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church Item 407 in section
  10. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church Item 1730
  11. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church Items 1701-1709
  12. ^ Council of Trent, Session 6, canon 5.
  13. ^ Sermon 44, "Original Sin."; compare verse 4 of Charles Wesley's hymn "And Can It Be".
  14. ^ Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.21.3
  15. ^ Table drawn from, though not copied, from Lange, Lyle W. God So Loved the Word: A Study of Christian Doctrine. Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 2006. p. 448.

External links

Simple English

Total depravity (also called total inability or total corruption) is a theological teaching that comes from Augustine's teachings on original sin. It is the teaching that, since the Fall of Man, every person who has been born into the world is a slave of sin and, without the irresistible grace of God, it is not possible for man to choose to follow God or accept salvation as He freely offers it.

Total depravity is taught by many Protestant confessions of faith, including Lutheranism,[1] and Methodism,[2] Arminianism,[3] and Calvinism.[4]


  1. The Book of Concord, "The Thorough Declaration of the Formula of Concord," chapter II, sections 11 and 12; The Augsburg Confession, Article 2
  2. See the Methodist Articles of Religion, Article 7]].
  3. Arminius, James The Writings of James Arminius (three vols.), tr. James Nichols and W.R. Bagnall (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1956), I:252
  4. Canons of Dordrecht, "The Third and Fourth Main Points of Doctrine"; Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 6; Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 25; Heidelberg Catechism, question 8


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