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Total Inherited Depravity


The absolute extension of the sovereignty of God is the foundation of Calvinism, but the total inherited depravity of man is the first cornerstone laid upon that foundation. In the Calvinistic system of belief, this tenet logically requires our need for unconditional election and the direct operation of the Holy Spirit. Because of its fundamental nature, the entire system of Calvinism, falls if total inherited depravity cannot be established by the Bible.

The Appeal of Total Hereditary Depravity

Almost all doctrines that deviate from the Bible ultimately have at least one of two purposes and motivations for their heresy: one, to promote the recognition and fame of its chief supporters; or two, to provide justification for sin. Few if any false doctrines, fail to provide loopholes, through which the believer gains license to sin. It is the most sophisticated and dangerous form of rationalization (II Thessalonians 2:10-12).

The doctrine of total hereditary depravity states that all men, with the possible exception of the first people, Adam and Eve, were and are born completely void of moral judgment. Each infant begins life utterly depraved - desiring, understanding, and doing only what is selfish and wicked. Even if they try to do good, it is still evil.

"By this sin (eating the forbidden fruit) they (our first parents) fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed and the same death in sin and corrupted nature conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation. From the original corruption, whereby we are utterly disposed, disabled and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions." (From a prominent denomination's Confession of Faith)

Every person, who has ever struggled to be righteous or good, has felt the pull and temptation of selfishness and evil. None of us go through life without eventually succumbing to these temptations (Romans 3:23). Often we want desperately to be pleasing to God, but we fall - and frequently (Matthew 26:41; Romans 7:14-25). Although maybe not its original intention, in the eyes of many of its modern believers, the doctrine of total hereditary depravity effectively removes the guilt of the sinner, because they could not help but do otherwise, and excuses them to continue to sin, because they cannot help but do otherwise. This eases the guilt of their own sins and relaxes their diligence to try to do better - appealing to the sensual part of all human beings.

The Bible Doctrine of Depravity

One thing that can make this discussion confusing is the fact that the Bible does warn about moral depravity. However, the possibility and danger of depravity is not under question; rather, it is the question of how one becomes depraved that is under consideration. Does one choose to become depraved, even if by default and his lack of determination? Or, is he born depraved by no choice of his own?

In some versions (NAS), II Timothy 3:8 actually uses the word "depraved" to describe some false teachers. In other passages, the word is referenced, not directly but by its characteristics.

"This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart; who, being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness." (Ephesians 4:17-19 )

These statements reflect the attributes and symptoms of depravity: a state in which one's conscience becomes seared over, like with a hot iron (I Timothy 4:1-2), and he or she no longer cares about goodness or the consequences of their sin.

The Road to Depravity

So, the Bible certainly teaches the possibility and danger of being depraved. But, how does one become depraved? It would be good to examine how these Gentiles, as mentioned in Ephesians, became depraved. If we could find verses that explained how they became "past feeling" and "having their understanding darkened", then we would have part of our answer.

In Paul's letter to the Romans, we find just such a passage describing how the pagan Gentile world became depraved.

"For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened." (Romans 1:20-21)

These verses ascribe to these Gentiles the same attribute of depravity, using the same words as in Ephesians, but how did they become this way? The passage says they knew God, but did not give Him the glory He deserved, neither were they thankful for their lives, given to them by the Creator. How did they show this ingratitude?

"Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man -- and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.

"Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen." Romans 1:22-25

When these Gentiles became idolaters, God "gave them up to uncleanness" and to their "lusts". The word "therefore" implies that not only did it follow after their choice, but it was because of their idolatry that God let them go wild (Romans 1:26). They quickly descended into the depths of moral depravity because of their desire to distance themselves from God and His will for them, so they became what they desired. God gave them what they wished and the consequences thereof.

"And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting" (Romans 1:28 )

The Inherent Innocence of Man

We have seen how man's desire to disobey God leads to a willful ignorance and eventually a mind, deprived of sound judgment and moral consciousness. However, the Bible not only teaches that man chooses to become depraved, but it also teaches that each person begins life in innocence, as did Adam and Eve. Notice what Moses said of the Israelite children, who would come to posses the promised land of Canaan:

"Moreover your little ones and your children, who you say will be victims, who today have no knowledge of good and evil, they shall go in there; to them I will give it, and they shall possess it." (Deuteronomy 1:39)

The Israelite children were in a condition of innocence, having "no knowledge of good and evil". This is the parallel to the initial condition of Adam and Eve, before they ever sinned (Genesis 3:5, 22). They were both born innocent - neither redeemed nor corrupt, but innocent, knowing neither good nor evil. Just as Adam and Eve had a clean and pure beginning, so does each child. Moreover, children have admirable qualities of trust, humility, and compassion such that Jesus encourages us to become like little children (Matthew 18:1-4).

Unfortunately, children often bear consequences for their parents sin (II Samuel 12:13-14), just as an infant can be born handicapped or a drug addict through no fault of his own but because of his parents abuse. However, the Bible clearly teaches that no man will bear the spiritual guilt and responsibility for his parents sins.

"The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself." (Ezekiel 18:20)

This entire chapter from Ezekiel explains that a child bears no accountability for his parents sins, neither can he claim salvation through their righteousness; rather, each man will bear his own burden (Galatians 6:5). Furthermore, final judgment will based upon each man's works (II Corinthians 5:10), not the works of his forefathers.

The Parable of the Sower

If total depravity be true, then there can be only two types of hearts in the world: those chosen reprobate, who are "utterly disposed, disabled and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil" ; and the elect who have been unconditionally cleansed from such corruption. There is no spectrum of degrees, but only wholly evil and regenerated. However, Jesus’ parable of the sower (farmer) speaks of four kinds of hearts, which had not even received the word of God.

"And when a great multitude had gathered, and they had come to Him from every city, He spoke by a parable:

"A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell by the wayside; and it was trampled down, and the birds of the air devoured it. Some fell on rock; and as soon as it sprang up, it withered away because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up with it and choked it. But others fell on good ground, sprang up, and yielded a crop a hundredfold." When He had said these things He cried, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear!" (Luke 8:4-8)

Fortunately, we are not left to wonder what this parable illustrates, but Jesus explains the meaning and interpretation to us.

"Those by the wayside are the ones who hear; then the devil comes and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved.

"But the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, who believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away.

"Now the ones that fell among thorns are those who, when they have heard, go out and are choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life, and bring no fruit to maturity. "

"But the ones that fell on the good ground are those who, having heard the word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience." (Luke 8:12-15)

How can there be more than two types of ground? How can God’s Word produce a "plant" which ultimately dies, if the plant was lost or saved from eternity? What was its condition before it withered, while it was flourishing?

The hardened ground, or the wayside, matches our Biblical description of the depraved, spiritually blind, and unheeding. But, the good ground was good before it even received the word. In fact, these people heard the gospel "with a noble and good heart". How could they have done this, while being "wholly inclined to all evil" ? Unless we are prejudiced and determined to hold fast to the traditions of men, the implications of these passages seem clear.


Many Calvinists relate to the overwhelming worthlessness, which is imposed upon them by this doctrine. It speaks to their own guilt, consoling and excusing their sin while allowing them to continue in it. However, the Bible, although condemning the sinner, manifests confidence in him by calling him to repentance through the gospel. We have seen that one can become depraved and hardened through repetitive rejection of God’s Word, even though he begins life in innocence. We have also seen that children are innocent of their parents sins, and begin life with a "clean slate", just as did Adam and Eve in the beginning. Knowing that there are different types of hearts that are planted by, and spring up from the Word of God, and that we will be judged according to our works; the only question that remains is, "What type of 'ground' will you be?" Will you be one who listens with a noble and good heart or one who hardens his heart until the devil comes and takes the opportunity away? Which type of ground will you choose to be?

Next: Unconditional Election

Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from the New King James Version, copyright © 1994 by Thomas Nelson Publishers.

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