I'm quite sure I understand the concept of Total Depravity, but I'm not sure it's viewed exactly the same in different doctrinal frameworks that support it. I've spent a lot of time among Lutherans, and while I'm sure they support Total Depravity, they usually rather talk about Original Sin. Is this because Total Depravity as a term originates in Calvinism?

I came upon a table comparing the Lutheran, Calvinist and Arminian ideas of Total Depravity, but I don't quite understand it. Can you explain the main differences in the three views to me?

  • 3
    +1. This came up a while back in chat and I think I said I suggested we needed a total depravity vs original sin question. This is a good example of a focused comparison of two doctrines!
    – Caleb
    Oct 11, 2011 at 23:13

5 Answers 5


I can't speak much to the Lutheran or Calvinist view, but I can give my own perspective (Wesleyan Arminian):

In the Arminian understanding, human beings were created by God as part of God's good creation, but we were given free will which enabled us to turn away from God's will. In order to bring us back, God provided the means of grace that enables us to be saved. This grace is known as prevenient grace because God has given it to us before we were capable of making a decision.

Arminians believe in total depravity in the sense that our own sinful human nature does not allow us to respond to God's offer of salvation. However, the prevenient grace that God has given us does enable us to accept that offer. So although we do have free will and are capable of making choices, it is only God's grace that allows us to choose to follow him.


That linked Wikipedia article is incorrect in it's description of free will. Both of the main views (Calvinism and Arminianism) assert a free will of sorts - man is not as bad as he could possibly be and we recognise that non-Christians can make good and bad decisions. Furthermore, both sides agree that an unregenerate sinner cannot do anything to please God in terms of his works toward obtaining salvation.

The big point of division comes in when trying to decide if choosing to submit to God constitutes a work or not. The Arminian says that a person can choose to make a good decision and if this decision (under prevenient grace) is accepting Jesus' death for his sins, he can respond accordingly, NOT earning his salavation but accepting Jesus' offer of salvation. The Calvinist says that a person cannot come to this conclusion unless God has already done ALL the persuasive work in his mind.

So it's only two options, not three.


Arminian and Calvinist compared

The Arminian and Calvinist views on Total Depravity start out with similar points. The theory of Total Depravity forms the 'T' in the Calvinist five summary points TULIP, and the T in the Arminian five summary points of FACTS. It is one area where there is some crossover within the two theories.

Both Calvinists and Arminians believe that due to the fall of man, all people are born in sin and under the sentence of divine condemnation. Sin impacts and corrupts every aspect of being, flesh, mind, inclination, heart, motives, etc. Man, of his own nature and volition, is not willing to seek God, return to God, or reform himself, rather he is inclined to turn away from God. Man cannot even think or do good in and of himself. Man cannot of his own merit, work, or thoughts achieve salvation for himself. Man cannot even, of himself, believe the gospel. God must take the initiative in salvation.

Summary of Arminian Theology

Outline of Arminian FACTS

Summary of Calvinist TULIP

Both Calvinists and Arminians hold that God must initiate salvation by overcoming man's nature in some fashion by His grace, such as conviction by the Holy Spirit or opening man's eyes, etc. (Arminians hold that this grace is given to all men, Calvinists only to specially chosen elect, in their differing views of election and atonement.)

The Calvinist theory of Total Depravity does differ in one crucial way, by adding that the particular grace needed to overcome man's sin must be regeneration by the Holy Spirit, the man must be 'born-again' and 'quickened' prior to the man being able to be saved. The Canons of Dort summarized this in this way:

Therefore all men are conceived in sin, and are 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, or to dispose themselves to reformation.

Calvinist view of necessary regeneration

Calvinist view of necessary quickening

Lutheran view

The Lutheran view does not use the term 'Total Depravity' but rather 'bondage of the will.' The sinner's will is viewed as fallen, and hence in bondage to sin. The sinner is unable to come to God without the grace of God. Man no longer has any remnant of the divine image he was created in. Man is taught as having a complete lack of freedom in spiritual matters and unable to spiritually grasp so as to believe or trust what is heard or learned. In this teaching, faith itself must be bestowed by the Holy Spirit.

Lutheran view of conversion


Seeing as I used to go to a Lutheran seminary but now find myself at a Presbyterian church, I hope I can help!

Calvinists do in fact prefer the term total depravity, however it really only dIfferentiates from Lutheran concepts of original sin in name. Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk, and so is very influenced by his understanding of original sin that human beings are "in curvatus in se" or "turned in upon oneself". That is, both Calvinist and Lutheran understandings hold that we were intended to point towards GOD yet are now directing all of our beings back into ourselves and that only GOD can set our gaze back upon Him.

In the Arminian sense, human beings are not fully turned in upon themselves and still have an amount of goodness that was not tainted by original sin or depravity and therefore are capable of turning themselves back to GOD if they so choose. Thus meaning that there is depravity but perhaps not total depravity.

I would be happy to put some references in if someone wishes but for now I am writing from a mobile device.

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    This is not quite accurate regarding Arminians. We do not believe humans have goodness within us; rather we believe we have a measure of God's grace that enables us to respond to God's call. Oct 12, 2011 at 16:46

I speak from a Lutheran perspective. In our confession we say this - AC II.1. 1] Also they teach that since the fall of Adam all men begotten in the natural way are born with sin, that is, without the fear of God, without trust in God, and with 2] concupiscence; and that this disease, or vice of origin, is truly sin, even now condemning and bringing eternal death upon those not born again through Baptism and the Holy Ghost.

In general I think we would object to the terminology of TD as it is problematic. The reason is that it can mean that man is not able to do what is ethically good or from a human point of view. We know there are atheists who,from the outside, appear to be ethical, even Jesus says that we as parents though evil do good to our children, so one looking at TD will find TD puzzling. This is not what Original Sin means. What we mean is that when it comes to moving towards God, having faith in Him, trusting Him or fearing Him and doing what he commands we are not able to do this on our own since we are impure and are not able to do what his Laws demand.

In Luther's Small Catechism - we have this...I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life. This is most certainly true.

Also yes that is correct we would rather talk about Original Sin rather than get to the paradigm and terminology of TD.


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