What is total depravity or hereditary depravity?
“Total” means “constituting or comprising the whole; entire; whole”
“Hereditary” means “passing, or capable of passing, naturally from parent to offspring”
“Depravity” means “the state of being depraved (which is, morally bad or evil)”
Total hereditary depravity does not mean every person is as wicked and sinful as he could be.[i] There are problems of opportunity, means, and time, as well as outward restraints that prevent achieving all the wickedness that is in the heart – law, fear of punishment, the desire for the approval of others, for example.
Total hereditary depravity refers specifically to the nature of the person, rather than to their deeds. Every aspect of a person – the total person – is affected by the depravity that has been inherited. Every part of man is wicked, depraved, or corrupted by sin – his body, mind, will, and spirit – therefore, all that he is.
As a consequence of Adam’s disobedience to God’s command (Genesis 2:16-17) and his subsequent separation from God (Genesis 3), the whole number of his descendants have the characteristic from birth of being one that sins. Depravity is inherited, universal, and comprehensive, for 1) it derives from our first father, Adam; 2) all are depraved, and 3) the depravity of all is total. This doctrine is related to but not the same as “total inability.” Total inability emphasizes man’s innate incapacity to do good, specifically unable to “come to God.”
Depraved man has both the inability to do good and the propensity to do evil.
There are many verses in the Bible that present the concept of total depravity. On the other hand, many advocates of innate goodness will rise to contradict them.[ii] Malcolm Muggeridge wrote, “The depravity of the human heart is at once the most empirically verifiable fact and at the same time the most intellectually resisted.” Rather than discuss today the multitude of verses that support total depravity,[iii] I rather consider four clear and indisputable biblical principles that support inherited depravity.
The universality of sin and death. It is clear throughout scripture, as well as empirically observable, that sin and death are universal and connected. “But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe” (Galatians 3:22). “For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). When Jesus, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” he had no worries that some innately sinless person might be present to throw a stone! (See John 8:7.) All have sinned. The wages of sin is death. (Cf. Romans 3:23, Romans 6:23.)[iv]
The helplessness of man. “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man,” but the end of man’s way concludes in death (Proverbs 14:12). He is helpless, “without strength” (Romans 5:6). “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:44). Whatever one thinks about the statement in John 6:44, it remains at the least that man is helpless, without ability, unless God does something for him – “draw him.”
The uniqueness of Jesus Christ. The sinlessness of Jesus stands in contradistinction to the whole of mankind. He “was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). “In him is no sin” (1 John 3:5) Jesus alone is without sin. See also 1 Peter 1:18-19. His life is unique. His death is distinct. His resurrection is unparalleled.
The way of salvation by God alone. Whosoever commits sin is in bondage to sin. Jesus came to set free those enslaved in sin (John 8:34-36). “Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6). In Jesus Christ is salvation, and “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). The necessity and universality of salvation is sourced in God! This salvation with glory in the grace God, not in the goodness of man: “that no flesh should glory in his presence” (1 Corinthians 1:29-31).[v]
Depravity is displayed in the universality of sin and death. There is no discharge in this war! Depravity is displayed in man’s hopelessness. Depravity is displayed in man’s helplessness. His condition is hopeless; he is without strength. Depravity is displayed in man’s inability to seek God to do good, seek God. Depravity is displayed in Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection all definitely determined for the salvation.
This hymn stanza captures the wonder of the gulf between God and man:
And from my smitten heart with tears
Two wonders I confess –
The wonder of redeeming love
And my unworthiness.[vi]
On this subject hangs the very nature of man, the nature of his need, and the nature of his remedy. If we cannot determine the sickness, how can we determine the cure? The proper biblical understanding of the total depravity of the human heart is a potent corrective. God’s straight arrow of total hereditary depravity shot into the heart drives man away from self and to a despair whose only relief is found in a merciful God.
A Debate on Depravity (four links)
- Debate On Inherited Sin, First Affirmative
- Debate On Inherited Sin, First Negative
- Debate On Inherited Sin, Second Affirmative
- Debate On Inherited Sin, Second Negative
[i] I like the terms “relative good” or “comparative good.” Although an individual may be unregenerate and all of his or her righteousnesses are filthy rags in God's sight, humanly speaking there are degrees up and down the scale – “relative good,” so that we wouldn’t say our sister should as soon marry a mass murderer as a generally kindly man who sometimes loses his temper.
[ii] The inherited depravity/innate goodness debate is often framed in favor of innate goodness – as either/or, as if free agency necessarily negates depravity: “Does the Bible teach that babies are born guilty of original sin and total hereditary (inherited) depravity? Or does the Bible teach free moral agency and individual responsibility and accountability?”
[iii] Genesis 6:5, Genesis 8:21, Job 14:4, Job 15:14-16, Psalm 14:1-3, Psalm 51:5, Psalm 58:3, Isaiah 64:6, Jeremiah 4:22, Jeremiah 13:23, Jeremiah 17:9-10, Ezekiel 36:25-27, Matthew 15:19, Matthew 19:17 , Mark 7:20-23, John 3:3-5, Romans 1:28-32, Romans 3:9-19, Romans 3:23, Romans 5:12, Romans 6:18-20, Romans 6:23, Romans 8:7-8, 1 Corinthians 2:14, 1 Corinthians 15:22, 1 Corinthians 15:49, Galatians 5:17, Ephesians 2:3, Ephesians 2:5, Colossians 1:21-22, Colossians 2:13, Titus 3:3, Hebrews 2:14-15, James 1:14-15, 1 John 1:8