Total Depravity


The innocent looking baby in the above picture is my granddaughter Maryn, taken about 4 years ago when she was 11 months old. Because she looks so innocent with her big blue eyes, some might think that she was not totally depraved at birth. In contrast to this type of understanding, the Bible provides abundant evidence that every person in the fallen line of Adam is totally depraved. On December 9th, I posted a brief note entitled “Total Depravity Includes Inability.” Though my post mentions that human inability is only one aspect of our sinfulness, I gave an incomplete presentation of total depravity. In order to clarify my understanding of total depravity, I plan to post two more concise articles that outline the biblical material about fallen humanity’s corrupt state (for more biblical support, see "Total Depravity (Inability) Verse List)".

According to this doctrine, every person since the Fall who is conceived through the normal procreation process is so pervasively polluted with his internal corruption “that every aspect of his being and personality is affected by it” (Storms, Chosen for Life, p. 4). Man’s incurable condition began with Adam and Eve in the pristine glory of the Garden of Eden. When Adam ate from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve were eternally condemned and were internally changed into a state of total depravity, including the loss of their original state of unconfirmed creature holiness. In keeping with the Pauline analogy in Romans 5:12–21, comparing the representative roles of Adam and Christ (1 Cor 15:21–22), God imputed to those whom Adam represented, the human race, both Adam’s guilt and his corruption (for a definitive defense of the immediate imputation view, see Murray’s The Imputation of Adam’s Sin and Reymond’s Systematic Theology, pp. 434–39). According to v. 12, sin entered the world through Adam: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.” The “all” who “sinned” were connected with Adam as their representative when he initiated sin into the world through his act of disobedience and this connection resulted in death for all men (S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., “Romans 5:12—an Exercise in Exegesis and Theology,” in New Dimensions in New Testament Study, pp. 312–14). The comparative conjunction, “just as,” that introduces verse 12 indicates that this verse is a protasis; however, its apodosis is not found until vv. 18–19, with vv. 13–17 functioning as a theological parenthesis (for a discussion of the grammatical construction found in these verses, see Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, pp. 318–29 and Schreiner, Romans, pp. 271–72). The apodosis in vv. 18–19 summarizes Paul’s argument in this section and stresses that the imputation of Adam’s guilt resulted in eternal condemnation, in an analogous way to Christ’s triumphant act of righteousness being imputed to us: “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.” The expression “made sinners,” like “made righteous,” reflects a forensic aspect of Adam’s transgression. This act of disobedience also had the result of making his posterity totally depraved.

The word depravity refers to moral and spiritual corruption, the disposition towards evil and against good. All the descendants of Adam through normal procreation inherit a totally depraved nature at conception and are alienated from God. David stated it like this in Psalm 51:5: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me." Romans 5:12–21 provides a theological basis for Paul’s discussion of hamartiology in Romans 1:18–3:23. Because of humanity’s connection with Adam, sin has been transmitted to all people. And the sin transmitted from Adam is so pervasive in man’s being that he has no desire to seek after God. Paul makes this very point in Romans 3:10–12: “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one.’” He further describes, in vv. 13–18, how sin permeates a person’s being: body and spirit. Man’s problem is systemic: “by nature children of wrath” (Eph 2:3). Man’s nature is so hopelessly corrupt that Paul describes it as being “dead” in “trespasses and sin” (2:1). As such, man’s inner being by nature is enslaved to his pervasive corruption and this corruption goes back to his conception and birth.

The adjective total is used to qualify depravity in order to communicate that this corruption pervades the whole of a person’s being, extending to the core of his being. Depravity pervades man’s mind, emotions and desires, heart, will, and conscience. In Scripture, the evil intentions of man’s heart are pictured in Genesis 6:5 as continuously evil: “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” The perversity of man’s heart extends back to his youth, according to Genesis 8:21: “The LORD smelled the soothing aroma; and the LORD said to Himself, ‘I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth.’” The author of Ecclesiastes affirmed in 9:3 that the hearts of men are “full of evil and insanity…throughout their lives.” According to Jeremiah 17:9, man’s heart is “more deceitful than all else, and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” The answer to Jeremiah’s question is that no man can understand the depth of man’s depravity. In Mark 7:21–23 Jesus described man’s radical corruption as the source that produces all types of evil activities: “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.” This post provides some basic information about depravity. However, Scripture has more to say about this subject. But this is for a subsequent post.


  1. Athenaeum says

    Dr McCabe,

    Interesting that you brought up Gen 6:5. I thought John Wesley’s comments on this text were surprisingly good. He said, “Hence we may, Secondly, learn, that all who deny this, call it original sin, or by any other title, are but Heathens still, in the fundamental point which differences Heathenism from Christianity” (Works, 6:63). It’s important to note that Arminians believe (at least hypothetically) in original sin (i.e. inherited depravity) but reject the idea that men are culpable for Adam’s sin. Furthermore Arminians do not have a problem with total depravity but what may be termed “permanent” total depravity. Wesley’s rather clearly makes this point, “For allowing that souls are dead in sin by nature, this excuses none, seeing there is no man that is in a state of mere nature; there is no man, unless he has quenched the Spirit, that is wholly void of the grace of God” (Works, 6:512). Returning to the baby illustration you started with, the Arminian would agree that the child was totally depraved, but they would contend that the baby now is not totally depraved. I believe it is important to remember these points when dealing with the Arminian concept of depravity. Helpful post. Look forward to those forthcoming.

    Tim Scott

  2. says

    You make an interesting point, Tim, when you say Arminians “would contend that the baby now is not totally depraved.” If anyone has misunderstood me, I am not implying that the baby is not now totally depraved. As you have undoubtedly noticed, I also stated “God imputed to those whom Adam represented, the human race, both Adam’s guilt and his corruption.” To me, it is important to note that fallen humanity is not only held culpable for “inherited depravity,” but also held accountable for Adam’s actual sin. Whatever else I understand from Romans 5:12–21, humanity is condemned for Adam’s sin (vv. 16, 18). Hopefully no one misunderstands my point. Thanks for clarifying this and I believe my subsequent post on total depravity will clarify any potential misunderstandings on this point.

  3. says

    There is only one person I know who would use his baby grand-daughter as an illustration of total depravity! 🙂 Dad always said that babies were just cute, unrestrained balls of sin! I suppose he was right! But still… look at her… isnt’ she cute? 🙂

    Just teasing of course!

  4. says

    Though I am certain you know, Allen, that I would not want to abuse my family privileges, I contacted my son Bob before I used Maryn’s picture. If he or his wife would have objected, I would not have used her. However, Bob agrees with my post. You are correct she is a beautiful little girl, both at the time of the picture and now. IMNSHO, she is a pretty bundle of depravity 🙂

  5. says

    An additional thought on the comment,” “would contend that the baby NOW is not totally depraved.” It is God’s efficacious grace that draws men to Himself, not a prevenient universal kind of enabling grace to ever person of all time as some embacing Arminian theology might hold to. I find nowhere in Scripture that says that God enables all sinners to come to Jesus. All men are incapable and unwilling to come to Christ unless the efficaious drawing power of God moves. It is through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit who renews the lifeless spirit of sinners, who were chosen by God before the foundation of the world that learn to say “yes” to Christ.
    2 Cor 1:21-22
    “Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, 22 set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” (and I might add WHO is to come)
    We’re praying for the impartation of life to that “pretty bundle of depravity” and her sisters!

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