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Calvin, among his other points starts with the point that we are totally depraved and sinful from birth. What is the Biblical basis for this point?

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I can't provide the historical context for what specific passages brought Calvin to formulate this description of the principle. However, I can say that I was convinced as a new Christian when I first read Romans 1:18-3:20 that we are born sinful to the core. –  Ray Aug 23 '11 at 19:59
For what it's worth, Gen 8:21 "The LORD ... said in his heart: “... every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood.“" –  Rob Adams Aug 23 '11 at 20:08
@Ray You should both either put that in an answer or add to the answer that is here. –  wax eagle Aug 23 '11 at 20:08

4 Answers 4

This is a good place to start:

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 64:6, ESV

Btw, the Hebrew for "polluted garment" is more literally "menstrual rag".

But I think there is a lot of misunderstanding about total depravity. The Heidelberg Catechism has this to say about what it means to do something good:

Q91. What do we do that is good?

A. Only that which arises out of true faith, conforms to God's law, and is done for his glory; and not that which is based on what we think is right or on established human tradition.

And who would argue that natural man can do anything that fits that definition apart from grace? Here is the Canon of Dordt on the topic of total depravity:

Therefore all men are conceived in sin, and by nature children of wrath, incapable of saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage thereto, and without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, they are neither able nor willing to return to God, to reform the depravity of their nature, nor to dispose themselves to reformation.

If you simply delete the word "regenerating" from that article, you get something that both John Wesley and Thomas Aquinas could agree to (because of prevenient grace).

Understood this way, total depravity is not a "Calvinist" doctrine but one affirmed by the whole western church (the Eastern Orthodox have a distinctly different understanding of original sin). It only becomes Calvinist-specific when you start arguing over prevenient vs. regenerating grace, which to me seems like a pretty minor issue.

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While I agree with warren's answer, I do believe like Ray points out that this is mostly about the original sin, transmitted from Adam to all of his offspring.

Total depravity goes beyond that, as it states that we are not only sinners, but that we are not even righteous enough to accept Christ on our own.

On the fact that all have sinned, we can refer to Romans 3:23, KJV:

For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;

and on the fact that we are not able to deserve salvation by our own efforts, you can see Titus 3:5, KJV:

Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost;

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Romans 9:10

"as it is written, THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE;" (a quote from the Psalms)

and Psalm 51, especially verse 5

"Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me."

are generally the first references for the doctrine.

God's reason for destroying the world with water in Genesis via the flood was that "the imaginations of the heart of men are only evil continually".

If there are "none righteous", and we are "brought forth in iniquity", then we have already failed to keep God's holy standard, and are, therefore, depraved from birth. If we are depraved from birth, and we cannot do righteously, then it is throughout the totality of our being.

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can you explain how these passages go beyond "original sin" to "total depravity"? –  Ray Aug 23 '11 at 20:00
@Ray - see edit :) –  warren Aug 23 '11 at 20:04
I think the leap from imperfect to totally depraved is a stretch - If I travel at 60.01 in a 60 MPH zone, I have technically broken the law, and therefore fallen short of it; but would any reasonable person consider that acting in a totally depraved manner (for that matter, even mildly depraved)? –  Lawrence Dol Aug 29 '11 at 0:22
@Software Monkey: The term "Total Inability" is often a preferred one for this doctrine for this reason. It's a little confusing when total is a qualifier, because "total depravity" sounds as though it's describing natural man as being as bad as he can be at all times, when, really, it's referring more to the totality of the depravity to the point where man is so totally (read: comprehensively?) tainted by his sin nature that, when given a free choice to choose the goodness of the Gospel, natural man is unable to will himself to believe that which he considers folly (see: 1 Corinthians 1:18) –  Steven Dec 12 '11 at 21:57

One thing to consider is that the doctrine of unconditional election goes hand-in-hand (logically) with the doctrine of total depravity. To establish this relationship, there are several passage to consider. The idea being that through sin, man is naturally "dead," and so predisposed against choosing the good news of God's salvation such that, left to his own devices, man won't believe and accept the free grace of Jesus's redemptive work.

Here is one passage, where one has to kind of read between the lines a bit is (emphasis mine):

Ephesians 2:1-10

1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 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— 3among 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. 4But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved— 6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Bearing this in mind (i.e. we were once dead, but we've been made alive), it's also interesting to note that reconciliation occurs at the point where man is still in emnity with God:

Romans 5: 10

For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.

...and kind of along the same vein, this verse touches on the the heart of belief with a sort of tautology:

1 Corinthians 1:18

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

So if we think about the nature of belief, then this one should be a bit obvious, but it raises an interesting question. We only believe that which we believe to be true (the obvious part), so what would it take to suddenly believe that which one considers folly...and all the more a folly offered by one's enemy? In other words, if someone is an enemy of God (which we are before we're reconciled), and we believe the gospel to be folly (which we do before we believe it to be true), then how does one swap from a state of disbelief to a state of belief?

Ezekiel answers this question ... it takes a (quite literally!) change of heart:

Ezekiel 11:19

And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh

This is regeneration. None of this would be necessary if man we already predisposed to be in harmony and faith with God, but since he's not, it requires a spiritual intercession to to soften man's heart. He is born again, and given the capacity for faith. This is the birth by spirit described in this passage:

John 3:5-8

5 Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."

This is also described in this:

Titus 3:4-7

4But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

Titus is particularly significant here, because it actually identifies the regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirirt as the means through which salvation is extended.

So, in summary, Salvation occurs by grace through faith, and is applied by the regeneration of the Holy Spirit. This regeneration is the (nec.) second birth which gives those dead in their sin a new life with a new heart with which they are able to believe. This regeneration is nec. because the old, stoney heart of sinful man is, otherwise, unable (universally unwilling, if preferred :) ) to believe on the perceived folly of the gospel of grace presented by God (with whom man is at odds).

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