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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
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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
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@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

7 Answers 7

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
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@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

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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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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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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Total depravity defined

The Canons of Dort define total depravity pretty well in section 3:

All people are conceived in sin and are born children of wrath, unfit for any saving good, inclined to evil, dead in their sins, and slaves to sin. Without the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit they are neither willing nor able to return to God, to reform their distorted nature, or even to dispose themselves to such reform. ... To hunger and thirst for deliverance from misery and for life, and to offer God the sacrifice of a broken spirit is characteristic only of the regenerate and of those called blessed.

Some think total depravity means that man is as evil as he possibly could be or that there is no sense in which man could ever do anything considered good. The Heidelberg Catechism may seem, at first glance, to support this notion in question 8:

Q. But are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined toward all evil?

A. Yes, unless we are born again by the Spirit of God.

But that's not the whole picture. Consider what Louis Berkhof says in hissystematic theology:

The heathen religions testify to a universal consciousness of sin and of the need of reconciliation with a Supreme Being. There is a general feeling that the gods are offended and must be propitiated in some way. There is a universal voice of conscience, testifying to the fact that man falls short of the ideal and stands condemned in the sight of some higher Power.

...

[Total depravity] does not imply: (1) that every man is as thoroughly depraved as he can possibly become; (2) that the sinner has no innate knowledge of the will of God, nor a conscience that discriminates between good and evil; (3) that sinful man does not often admire virtuous character and actions in others, or is incapable of disinterested affections and actions in his relations with his fellow-men; nor (4) that every unregenerate man will, in virtue of his inherent sinfulness, indulge in every form of sin.

This is confirmed in Dort, but note well the final sentence:

There is, to be sure, a certain light of nature remaining in all people after the fall, by virtue of which they retain some notions about God, natural things, and the difference between what is moral and immoral, and demonstrate a certain eagerness for virtue and for good outward behavior. But this light of nature is far from enabling humans to come to a saving knowledge of God and conversion to him.

The Westminster Confession (16.7) has a balanced discussion of the "goodness" of unregenerate man's works in light of the doctrine of total depravity:

Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands; and of good use both to themselves and others: yet, because they proceed not from an heart purified by faith; nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word; nor to a right end, the glory of God, they are therefore sinful and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God: and yet, their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing unto God.

From these statements in the reformed confessions, we can see three aspects of what total depravity entails. They are intertwined and closely related, but I think keeping them separate in one's mind is helpful for understanding what the doctrine is about:

  • Man has rebelled completely against God. In this state of rebellion, he is enslaved to sin and Satan from the moment of his first breath, and he deserves condemnation.

  • Man is totally unable to turn away from this state of rebellion by an act of the will. He needs God's enabling grace in order to exercise faith.

  • It is only when man has faith that he is able to do "good works."

The Biblical witness

All quotes are NET.

Total rebellion against God

But the Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind had become great on the earth. Every inclination of the thoughts of their minds was only evil all the time.

Genesis 6:5 (cf. Genesis 8:21)

If you then, although you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

Matthew 7:11

Look, I was guilty of sin from birth, a sinner the moment my mother conceived me.

Psalm 51:5

All of us had wandered off like sheep; each of us had strayed off on his own path.

Isaiah 53:6

“There is no one righteous, not even one, there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, not even one.” “Their throats are open graves, they deceive with their tongues, the poison of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood, ruin and misery are in their paths, and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Romans 3:10-18 (a slew of Old Testament quotations)

Sin entered the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all people because all sinned.

Romans 5:12

And although you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you formerly lived according to this world’s present path, according to the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the ruler of the spirit that is now energizing the sons of disobedience, among whom all of us also formerly lived out our lives in the cravings of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath even as the rest…

But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even though we were dead in transgressions, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you are saved!

Ephesians 2:1-5 (cf. Colossians 2:13)

All is pure to those who are pure. But to those who are corrupt and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their minds and consciences are corrupted.

Titus 1:15

Total inability apart from God's grace

But there is little hope for you ever doing good, you who are so accustomed to doing evil. Can an Ethiopian change the color of his skin? Can a leopard remove its spots?

Jeremiah 13:23 (cf. Jeremiah 17:9)

I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh.

Ezekiel 36:26

Jesus replied, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter his mother’s womb and be born a second time, can he?” Jesus answered, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

John 3:3-5

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.

John 6:44

Why don’t you understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot accept my teaching. 44 You people are from your father the devil, and you want to do what your father desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not uphold the truth, because there is no truth in him. Whenever he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, because he is a liar and the father of lies. ... The one who belongs to God listens and responds to God’s words. You don’t listen and respond, because you don’t belong to God.

John 8:43-44,47

The unbeliever does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him. And he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.

1 Corinthians 2:14

The inadequacy of the light of nature

For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened.

Romans 1:20-21

The inadequacy of the law

For God achieved what the law could not do because it was weakened through the flesh. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and concerning sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the righteous requirement of the law may be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Romans 8:3-4

He saved us not by works of righteousness that we have done but on the basis of his mercy, through the washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit

Titus 3:5

The necessity of faith in God to do good works

I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me—and I in him—bears much fruit, because apart from me you can accomplish nothing.

John 15:5

Whatever is not from faith is sin.

Romans 14:23

Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

Romans 8:8

Now without faith it is impossible to please him, for the one who approaches God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

Hebrews 11:6

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There are three points I would like to bring to your attention.

  1. Only God is good:

Matthew 19:17: And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.

  1. There are only two sides:

Matthew 12:30: He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad.

Matthew 6:24: No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

  1. Every good impulse, thought, action is because of God.

James 1:16 - 17: Do not err, my beloved brethren. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.

I think the rest can just be derived from these facts and are self explanatory.


The Self-Explanatory part:

  1. Adam chose to serve the enemy - As the Devil has no good in him (separated from God), Adam lost the ability to do good. In Adam, the whole human race lost this ability resulting in total depravity.

  2. However God interfered and granted the ability to resist sin to man (Genesis 3:15: I will put enmity...). This ability is not intrinsic and comes from God as explained by James.

This is the reason we find some good in man - because God (the Holy Spirit) strives with men helping them to resist the evil impulses and thoughts.

Genesis 6:3: And the Lord said, My Spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.

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What is the Biblical basis for Total Depravity?

The phrase "total depravity" in itself defines the capacity for the natural man to do good and defines it as completely zero. Most take this to be a bit of hyperbole. It might be more accurate to say that we are totally unable to be righteous.

The Bible does say that no one (continually) seeks after good.

Romans 3:11-12 There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.

The Bible describes a prison for the natural man.

Romans 6:19 I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh: for as ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness.

While unsaved people can do an occasional good work or show an act of kindness, "total depravity" speaks more to the inability to free ourselves from the power of the flesh.

Romans 7:15 For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.

Discounting what the Pharisees thought of themselves, we really cannot make ourselves righteous. We may do an occasional good deed, but at our core we are powerless to break free of the nature which has us in its grip. The term "total depravity" carries with it some of the feelings of frustration, sorrow, and failure that we can have from attempting to be righteous by the power of our flesh. Paul in reflecting on the difficulties he experienced trying to keep the law in his own strength cries out in a way that we can identify with.

Romans 7:24 O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?

Most attribute the condition of the unregenerate (natural) man to what is called "original sin".

Another way to look at total depravity is to consider that if there were any way we could make ourselves righteous, it would constitute a "work" in which we could boast.

Ephesians 2:8-9 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.

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