Ask Steve: Total Depravity


Currently Reading:

Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond

Series Editor: Stanley N. Gundry

General Editor: Darrell L. Bock

Category: Christian Theology / Eschatology

Zondervan, 1999




Question: Steve, I have heard a lot of talk about the doctrine of “total depravity.” What is total depravity? I know some people, friends and even family members, who are not Christians but they actually seem pretty nice. Are they totally depraved? They are actually nicer and more gracious than a lot of Christians I know.

 Answer: Total depravity is categorized as one of the five historic points of Calvinism, and it is an accurate representation of the moral state of humanity. Therefore, it is a central tenet of Christian theology. An inaccurate understanding of total depravity can tremendously cripple evangelism, the gospel message, and one’s sanctification process. In fact, an understanding of total depravity is what makes the gospel make sense and shows the necessity of God’s grace in salvation and sanctification, and sets man in his rightful place in understanding who he is (an unrighteous person) and what he is and is not capable of without God’s aid.

Total depravity does not mean that every human being is as corrupt and evil as he could possibly be. Not every one in the world is an Adolph Hitler, a Michael Myers serial killer, or a terrorist. Total depravity does not mean that people are incapable of doing relative good at times or displaying kindness and compassion at times.

Rather, total depravity is, as well defined by John J. Davis, as “humans being polluted by original sin, which affects his entire disposition in such a way that it, in itself, is incapable of change…In extent, total depravity involves the whole individual and in scope it involves the whole human race.” In other words, total depravity teaches that every man (as a result of the Fall) has been corrupted by sin. Sin has affected and corrupted the will, mind, emotions, and flesh to the point where we cannot freely or willfully choose to obey God, seek God in salvation, live righteously, or merit salvation by works. Everything in our being is affected by sin, and because of that, even by righteous efforts are tainted by self-glory, selfish motives, and the need to appease the conscience. These deeds are not done for the love and glory of God, which makes even these righteous works “filthy rags” in God’s sight (Isaiah 64:6). Total depravity demonstrates that everyone is innately unrighteous, condemned, and workers of iniquity, hostile towards God, lovers of darkness rather than lovers of the light, people who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, and continue to live willfully in sin. For Romans 3:11 states, “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks for God…”

Because total depravity has its origins in the original sin of Adam and Eve, there is no part of the human race that is untouched by this sinful condition. All humans in the world are born with a sinful nature and live a sinful lifestyle, which means that they lie, cheat, steal, and are filled with pride, lust, envy, etc. As previously stated, sin corrupts all aspects of the human soul including the mind, desires, and will. Because of men’s depravity, they no longer have free will to do good, but are forever entrapped to the powers of sin (unless broken by divine intervention through regeneration). Not only are they inclined to a life of sin and guilt (Rom 6:19, Titus 3:3), but they blinded to their need for saving grace that comes by faith. The most dangerous aspect of how total depravity affects men is that it is the cause of pride and self-righteousness, which is the reason why men hate God and reject His offer of salvation.

Total depravity does not negate the fact that men can still perform deeds of kindness or be gifted with certain traits of hospitality to show others, but even these things are granted onto unbelievers by God’s common grace and the restraining work of the Holy Spirit in the world (2 Thess 2:7). Regardless of what gifts God has given to unregenerate people, only His special grace can save them. Thus, men’s good deeds are of no merit in earning salvation or making the performer a truly “good person.” Total depravity takes into account the varying amount of good things that unbelievers can do, as well as the varying degrees of sin (ex. murder being worse than coveting) they can accomplish as well. But the reality is, if one breaks even one of God’s Law, he is guilty of breaking them all according to James 2:10-11, which makes him a child of wrath. He is a guilty depraved sinner in need of God’s redeeming grace and transformation.

Total depravity shows why the gospel is the necessary solution. When a depraved sinner (through the effectual call of God in his heart) comes to Christ in repentant faith, he is declared to be a righteous man by justification (Heb 10:38; Gal 3:10-14). Not only has the sinner been delivered from the consequences of sin, but his faith delivers him from the power of sin. In this process, God the Holy Spirit empowers the believer and reverses the effects of total depravity so that the believer can truly seek God and do righteous things in His sight. The believer’s good deeds are no longer motivated by pride or a desire for self-worth, but are motivated by the love of God and the desire to simply glorify God through the help of the Holy Spirit. Then upon the believer’s glorification, the believer is no longer totally depraved, but is thoroughly righteous and holy (Titus 3:5; 1 Cor 6:11).

This is why the gospel is necessary for both the “nice” unbelievers and the “not so nice” religionists. Both of these kinds of people are affected by original sin, and are totally depraved. No one is justified by external merits, since God’s Law is thorough that it judges even the intentions of the heart. That is why nice neighbors are also condemned, since God knows their secret sins which run deeper than what most people can see on the surface (1 Sam 16:7) This is why they need the gospel as well, so that if they shall boast of anything in life, their boast shall only be in Christ’s death and resurrection (1 Cor 1:27-28). Their trust shall be in His righteousness, which is necessary for anyone under the curse of total depravity.

As Christians who do not seem as nice as the unbelieving neighbors, only God knows their heart. It is not completely fair to assess total depravity just based on external behavior. It is possible that these “Christians” are only professing believers who are not saved, and are thus still help captive to the full power of their depravity. This is why they need patience, prayer, and the gospel as well. If these people are true believers in Christ, then it is also possible that they have major struggles with putting on hospitality, kindness, and goodness, which is why God’s grace is necessary in this department as well to overcome the power of sin in one’s life. The sanctification process, guided by the Holy Spirit, is all about conforming a believer to Christlikeness. Sanctification is all about God’s grace as well. During this phase, God grants the good works (Eph 2:10) onto the believer so that if they boast in their works, they must give due credit to the Lord who granted it onto them. They should never boast in their own strength, for without God’s help, there is only weakness and a vulnerability to the sinful flesh.

Total depravity rightly informs us of the condition of men. It informs us of the power that sin truly has over us. It informs us of our need for Christ’s righteousness. In essence, it informs us of our total dependence and need for God.