Total Depravity

The doctrine of Total Depravity briefly states that because of the fall, man is unable of himself to savingly believe the Gospel. The sinner is dead, blind and deaf to the things of God; his heart is deceitful and desperately corrupt. His will is not free; it is in bondage to his evil nature; therefore, he will not -- indeed he cannot -- choose good over evil in the spiritual realm. Consequently it takes much more than the Spirit's assistance to bring a sinner to Christ -- it takes regeneration, by which the Spirit makes the sinner alive and gives him a new nature. Faith is not something man contributes to salvation but is itself a part of God's gift of salvation; it is God's gift to the sinner, not the sinner's gift to God.

Scriptural Support:
Genesis 6:5, 8:21; Numbers 15:37-39; 1 Kings 8:46; Job 15:14-16; Psalm 14:1-3, 51:5, 94:11, 130:3; Proverbs 4:23, 20:9; Ecclesiastes 7:20, 8:11; Isaiah 6:5, 53:6, 64:6; Jeremiah 10:14, 13:23, 17:9; Matthew 7:11, 15:19; Mark 10:18; Luke 17:10; John 2:24, 3:36, 6:44, 15:5, 16; Acts 3:16, 16:14; Romans 1:18-2:16, 3:9-20, 23, 5:12, 7:18-20, 8:7; 1 Corinthians 2:14, 12:3; 2 Corinthians 3:5, 4:3, 11:3; Ephesians 2:1-6, 4:17-19; Colossians 2:13; 1 Timothy 2:25, 6:5; 2 Timothy 3:8; Titus 1:5; James 2:10, 3:2, 8; Revelation 9:20, 16:9.

Even though free and uncoerced, the fallen will has no desire for anything except to indulge the evil tendencies of the heart. As long as a person is inclined only to evil, he chooses only evil. Fallen humanity loves darkness and hates light. So whenever a person is confronted with a choice between darkness and light, he chooses darkness. He chooses what is attractive to him, what his free will desires.

John 3:19-20 says: "This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed."

A person always chooses according to his inclination. Every member of the human race is bonded to choose what he loves. Where is the bondage in choosing what we want? The bondage comes in the result of the sin he loves, the consequences of which he does not like. In sin, we may get what we want, but we do not want what we get. The sinner wants to live forever. He wants joy, love, peace, but only on his terms rather than God's. The sinner seeks these things, yet hates righteousness.

Zechariah 1:3 says: "Therefore say to them, Thus says the LORD of hosts, "Return to Me," declares the LORD of hosts, "that I may return to you," says the LORD of hosts.'"

Commenting on this verse, the great reformer Martin Luther said, "It is not in your power to turn to God. If you think that it is in your power to turn to God you have missed the whole Reformation and don't understand total depravity. It is not in your power to turn to God. You are a sinner, you're dead, you're eaten up with corruption. Every free choice of yours is evil and not good. So how can we turn to Him who is light, righteousness, holy and good?"

Since all of us are sinners, we have a duty to return to God, but we are unable to do so. We simply do not have the ability. Because we are responsible for our sins before God and are commanded by Him to return to Him in repentance does not mean that we have the natural ability to do so.

Jesus said in John 12:36, "'While you have the Light, believe in the Light, so that you may become sons of Light.' These things Jesus spoke, and He went away and hid Himself from them." Jesus said "believe in the Light." Most believers today would say that because Christ commands us to believe, we must have an innate ability to believe. But Scripture does not support this view. Consider the following verses:

"But though He had performed so many signs before them, yet they were not believing in Him. This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet which he spoke: 'LORD, WHO HAS BELIEVED OUR REPORT? AND TO WHOM HAS THE ARM OF THE LORD BEEN REVEALED?' For this reason they could not believe, for Isaiah said again, HE HAS BLINDED THEIR EYES AND HE HARDENED THEIR HEART, SO THAT THEY WOULD NOT SEE WITH THEIR EYES AND PERCEIVE WITH THEIR HEART, AND BE CONVERTED AND I HEAL THEM.' These things Isaiah said because he saw His glory, and he spoke of Him." (John 12:37-41)

The people described in this passage did not believe because they could not. Scripture clearly teaches that there are some things a lost person cannot do:

Cannot see - until he first be born again. (John 3:3)
Cannot understand - until he first be given a new nature. (1 Corinthians 2:14)
Cannot come - until he first be effectually called by the Father. (John 6:44-45)

Jesus said in John 6:44-45, "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, 'AND THEY SHALL ALL BE TAUGHT OF GOD.' Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me."

According to the words of Jesus, a sinner absolutely cannot come to Christ until God first does something in that sinner's nature. That "something" is what the Bible calls the new birth (regeneration), and it is the exclusive work of God the Holy Spirit. A person has as much to do with being regenerated as he had with being born! In other words, no human being has any part whatsoever in regeneration. A good illustration of this important point can be found in John 11:

"When He [Jesus] had said these things, He cried out with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth.'" (John 11:43)

Did Lazarus have the ability in himself to obey that command? Of course not, since Lazarus was dead! He had no ability at all. Unsaved, unregenerate people have a duty to believe the gospel, but lack the ability. Why does God command us to do what He knows we cannot do? To show us how depraved we are, to show us the depth of our utter sinfulness and rebellion against Him. When God commands us to return and promises that if we do He will return to us, we will not do it, for we cannot. Before regeneration we are in bondage to what our sinful nature innately loves, that which is darkness and evil. In this state we reject what we hate, that which is light and goodness and of God. We should be able to turn to God, but cannot because of our inherited sinful nature that came as a result of Adam's sin in the Garden of Eden.

In Romans 5:12, Paul goes into this idea more completely. He says, "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". Paul had now finished his description of how God has revealed and applied to humans His provided righteousness on the basis of the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ received by faith. One thing remains to be done to present the contrastive parallelism between the work of Jesus Christ (and its results in justification and reconciliation) and the work of another man, Adam (and its results of sin and death). Paul began by saying, "Therefore" (lit., "because of this"; cf. 4:16), and started his comparison. But he became concerned by other matters and did not return to the comparison until 5:15. Paul explained that "sin" (in Greek, "the sin") "entered into" (in Greek, "eisethen") the world through one man; and, in accord with God's warning (cf. Gen. 2:16-17), death (in Greek, "the death") through sin. God's penalty for sin was both spiritual and physical death (Romans 6:23, 7:13), and Adam and Eve and their descendants experienced both. But physical death, being an outward, visible experience, is in view in 5:12-21. Paul concluded, "And in this way death ("the death") came to all men. "Literally "passed or went through" or "spread through." Eisethen, "entered into" (the first clause in the verse) means that sin went in the world's front door (by means of Adam's sin); and "diel", "went through," means that death penetrated the entire human race, like a vapor permeating all the rooms of a house. The reason death spread to all, Paul explained, is that all sinned.

The Greek past (aorist) tense occurs in all three verbs in this verse. So the entire human race is viewed as having sinned in the one act of Adam's sin (i.e., "all have sinned," also the Greek past tense, in 3:23). Two ways of explaining this participation of the human race in the sin of Adam have been presented by theologians -- the "federal headship" of Adam over the race and the "natural or seminal headship" of Adam. (Some say that people merely imitated Adam, that he gave the human race a bad example. But that does not do justice to 5:12.)

The federal headship view considers Adam, the first man, as the representative of the human race that generated from him. As the representative of all humanity, Adam's act of sin was considered by God to be the act of all people and his penalty of death was judicially made the penalty of everybody.

The natural headship view, on the other hand, recognizes that the entire human race was seminally and physical in Adam, the first man. As a result, God considered all people as participating in the act of sin which Adam committed and as receiving the penalty he received.

Even adherents of the federal headship view must admit that Adam is the natural head of the human race physically; the issue is the relationship spiritually. Biblical evidence supports the natural headship of Adam. When presenting the superiority of Melchizedek's priesthood to Aaron's, the author of Hebrews argued that Levi, the head of the priestly tribe, "who collects the 10th, paid the 10th through Abraham, because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor". (Hebrews 7:9-10)

Whether one accepts the "federal headship" view, or the "natural headship" view, it still remains that all of mankind is in need of a Savior by virtue of Adam's sin.

The very fact that God commands sinners to do that which they are utterly unable to do shows how totally depraved they are apart from the regeneration of the Holy Spirit. And if salvation is going to come at all, it must be applied sovereignly. This overthrows self-confidence and convinces sinners that their salvation is altogether out of their hands, leaving them the only remaining alternative, that is, total dependence on the glorious grace of a sovereign Savior.


Many people will admit they are sinners, but not many will admit sin is so serious that no one can be considered righteous or essentially good. They point to unbelievers who do good deeds every day, obeying the law, providing for their families, giving to the needy, etc. Is Paul using hyperbole here? Is he exaggerating to make his point? No, he is not. This is God's judgment on fallen humanity. What is the standard for righteousness, the standard by which we shall all be judged? God's law. In biblical categories a good deed is measured in two parts, outward conformity and motivation. We look at outward appearance but God reads the heart. For a work to be considered good it must not only conform outwardly to the law of God, but it must be motivated inwardly by a sincere love for God. From this perspective it is easy to see that no one does good. Our best works are tainted by our less than pure motives. Renowned British preacher Charles H. Spurgeon once said, "Our best performances are so stained with sin, that it is hard to know whether they are good works or bad works." This is a true statement. God demands perfection, and we do not perfectly do what God commands ever.


Do you believe that? Have you ever heard someone say, "I am not a Christian but I am searching"? Well, the fact of the matter is that God is not hiding. In the Garden of Eden who hid? God? No. Adam and Eve hid from God. He was looking for them.

In Luke 19:10 Jesus says, "For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost."

This passage shows that Jesus is the one seeking and saving. Sinners do not seek God. They might seek after the benefits that God can give them, but they do not seek God Himself.


Men have no fear of the holiness and justice of God.

Ephesians 2:1-6 says: "And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of 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 when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,"

This passage teaches that we were dead in "trespasses and sins" and in "transgressions". Dead people do not and cannot make themselves come alive. It is God who makes us alive from spiritual death. Consider this non-Reformed analogy:

A mortally ill man must take the medicine of the gospel to live. The man must make the choice; he must take the medicine.

The problem with this analogy, however, is that the Bible does not speak of people as being mortally ill. It speaks of them as being dead. There is a significance difference between being mortally ill and being dead.

Genesis 2:17 says: "but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die."

Did Adam die when he ate the forbidden fruit? When did he die? He lived physically another 930 years, but he died spiritually the day that he ate it. Humanity's problem is a spiritual problem. Humanity is spiritually dead, separated from God.

Romans 6:23 says: "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."

What kind of death is referred to in this passage? Physical death or spiritual death? It refers to spiritual death. Ephesians 2:5 says we were dead in our sins. Sinners are not mortally ill, they are spiritually dead. There is not one ounce of spiritual life in them.

1 Corinthians 2:14-15 says: "But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one."

Natural man is dead and totally unreceptive to the gospel. He must first be given life before he can understand the gospel.

Romans 8:7-9 says: "The mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him."

There is nothing good in the flesh, therefore it can do nothing good. A man cannot believe the gospel until God gives him life. The teaching of Scripture is that regeneration precedes faith.

We must have life before we can believe. The Scriptures clearly show that faith is the evidence of and not the cause of regeneration. 1 John 5:1 says: "Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him."

Suppose a man who had been dead for many years greeted you on the street one day. Would you conclude that the man had gotten tired of being dead and decided to ask a great doctor to perform a miracle and give him life? I am sure you would instead, exclaim in amazement, "Man, what happened to you? Who brought you back to life?" You would see he was alive because he was walking and breathing, but you would know these were evidences of a miracle having been performed on him from without and not the results of his own power of will. In like manner, when a spiritually dead man begins to perform spiritual acts such as placing faith in Jesus Christ alone for salvation, loving Him, and seeking to live a life pleasing to Him, that shows that the miracle of the new birth has taken place.

Spiritual death brings an insensitivity to the things of God. It is a spiritual slavery, the prisoners of which are helplessly, hopelessly dead. This is what Total Depravity is. It does not mean, as many have misunderstood, that the unregenerate man is as bad as he can possibly be. It means that the man is as bad off as he can possibly be. Salvation does not lie in the exercise of a man's so-called free will. It is due to man's own corrupt will that he is separated from God. We are all destined for eternal condemnation unless God gives us spiritual life and inclines our wills toward Jesus Christ. We must have a Savior who is mighty enough to rescue us from ourselves. Clearly, God must do something. We are hopelessly lost without God's sovereign intervention.

Home | Total Depravity | Unconditional Election | Limited Atonement | Irresistible Grace |
Perseverance of the Saints
Top of Page Doctrines of Grace