Total Depravity: True or False?

Total Depravity

Calvinist View:

Total Depravity is the basis for Calvinism, and their false idea of election, which is depraved.

Even before creation, God foreordained the fall of the human race in order that He might show forth His mercy by saving a select number of individuals there from.

The corruption of man by sin was so complete that it left him without the ability even to call on God for mercy. This is termed “Total Depravity” / “Total Depravity means that the Fall (which Adam could not prevent) cast man into a state of corruption and helplessness so complete that man is wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body. Neither God’s revelation in His world, in His Word, or in His Son can so enlighten and assist one to receive forgiveness unless the individual is effectually called and converted by sovereign grace.”

“Total Depravity means the Fall (which Adam could not prevent) Where do we find  in Scripture that Adam couldn’t prevent it?”

Consider the following from:

Kingdom Ready

Total depravity is the first of the five points of Calvinism. Paul Washer defines total depravity as the doctrine that “fallen man is unable is to love, obey or please God.” Total depravity teaches that an unsaved man is completely incapable of loving or obeying God. It is also known as total inability.

Paul writes that without Christ we are “slaves to sin” (Romans 6:20) and “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). The Bible certainly teaches that human beings are depraved – we inherit a sinful nature that tempts us to do evil. We have all committed sin and therefore stand guilty before God, deserving of death (Romans 6:23). “There are none righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10). Without Christ, we are depraved sinners in need of a savior. But Calvinism takes this to such an extreme as to say that human beings utterly incapable of believing in, obeying, or pleasing God. By doing so, Calvinists remove free will from the equation. If we are not capable of making a free will decision to follow Christ, salvation cannot be on the basis of free will, and must instead be on the basis of God choosing who is and is not save

Total depravity is the foundation upon which the five points of Calvinism (TULIP) stand. In Calvinism, unconditional election (the doctrine that God predetermined who will and will not be saved) and irresistible grace (the doctrine that God chooses who will be saved and man is not able to resist or exercise any choice in the matter) are only necessary because of total depravity – man is completely incapable of choosing God, therefore God must do everything for man. These views inevitably lead to the doctrine of limited atonement, the view that Christ did not die for the sins of the world (despite 1 John 2:2), but only the sins of the “elect,” those predetermined by God to be saved.

Remove total depravity from the picture and the whole structure of Calvinism collapses. If man is capable of choosing God, salvation does not need to be predetermined by God, and can be on the basis of our free will decision to believe in Jesus Christ (Romans 10:9-10).

Unfortunately many Protestants take the doctrine for granted and fail to examine it critically.

Here are three arguments against the doctrine of total depravity.

Argument #1: Total Depravity is a New Doctrine Based on Old Gnosticism

The doctrine of total depravity developed about 500 years ago. None of the church fathers believed in it – they all strongly affirmed that man has the power to choose good or evil. Here are a few quotations from second century church fathers:

“Let some suppose, from what has been said by us, that we say that whatever occurs happens by a fatal necessity, because it is foretold as known beforehand, this too we explain. We have learned from the prophets, and we hold it to be true, that punishments, chastisements, and good rewards, are rendered according to the merit of each man’s actions. Now, if this is not so, but all things happen by fate, then neither is anything at all in our own power. For if it is predetermined that this man will be good, and this other man will be evil, neither is the first one meritorious nor the latter man to be blamed.

And again, unless the human race has the power of avoiding evil and choosing good by free choice, they are not accountable for their actions.” -Justin Martyr (100-165 A.D.)

We were not created to die. Rather, we die by our own fault. Our free will has destroyed us. We who were free have become slaves. We have been sold through sin. Nothing evil has been created by God.

What the early Church Believe?

We ourselves have manifested wickedness. But we, who have manifested it, are able again to reject it.” -Tatian (120-180 A.D.)

“There is, therefore, nothing to hinder you from changing your evil manner to life, because you are a free man” -Melito (2nd century)

“But man, being endowed with reason, and in this respect similar to God, having been made free in his will, and with power over himself, is himself his own cause that sometimes he becomes wheat, and sometimes chaff.” -Ireneus (130-202 A.D.)

“I find, then, that man was constituted free by God. He was master of his own will and power…For a law would not be imposed upon one who did not have it in his power to render that obedience which is due to law. Nor again, would the penalty of death be threatened against sin, if a contempt of the law were impossible to man in the liberty of his will…Man is free, with a will either for obedience or resistance.” -Tertullian (160-225 A.D.)

Calvinists rely solely on their interpretation of Paul’s writings to provide biblical support for total depravity. If Paul actually taught total depravity, why did Paul’s own disciples and those who came shortly after him strongly deny the doctrine?

There is no question that Paul teaches the depravity of fallen man. We are “dead” (guilty, deserving of death, as good as dead) in our sins. We are “slaves to sin” (it is the natural inclination of our flesh). There is no question that we have a sinful nature – the issue is whether or not it makes us completely incapable of loving God or obeying His will. All of the early church fathers agree that man has the ability within himself to obey and love God.

Consider this: If it were impossible for us to love God, and each other, why then would God Command it? John 15:12; John 13:34

“The Christian church in the 2nd century AD had nothing resembling the doctrine of original sin as many post-Reformation Christians know it today.

The Apostolic Fathers had little to say on the subject… Only Barnabas of the Apostolic Fathers references the Fall, and he believed that children were born sinless. The authors of this early period believed universally that children were born innocent of the sin of Adam, that people incur guilt only for their own sins, and that every person has the God-given power of free will to do good or evil….

These early Christians actually understood the original Christian message well, but many modern scholars misunderstand it due to the widespread influence of post-Reformation theology.

The Apostolic Fathers believed they followed the teachings of St. Paul and the Apostles closely, as many of their writings explain. Furthermore, they had a much better prospect of correctly understanding the original Christian teaching, as they had been taught by the Apostles or by those that followed them, wrote in the same language and had a very similar culture. There is no reason to believe that the Apostolic Fathers failed to understand Christianity, and many reasons to think they preserved faithfully the doctrines of the earliest Christians.” -Andrew J. Wallace and R.D. Rusk, Moral Transformation: The Original Christian Paradigm of Salvation, p. 255

The  “Judas”  of the church fathers

The only “church father” who believed anything close to total depravity is Augustine, though he did not develop the doctrine as far as Calvin did. Augustine is responsible for introducing the idea of original sin into the church, a doctrine that did not exist in orthodox Christianity before him, though it did exist in Gnoticism.

Augustine’s “original sin” theology is heavily influenced by Gnosticism. It is a sad irony that “original sin” theology became accepted in the western church (though not the eastern church) because it is the same doctrine taught by the Gnostics who earlier church fathers went to great lengths to counter. The Gnostics believed that our flesh is inherently evil, that we inherit total depravity from birth, and that we are sinners from birth simply because we possess depraved human flesh. They saw the spirit as good, but trapped inside a prison of evil flesh until freed by death.

Because Gnostics believed the material world to be inherently evil, they denied that Jesus Christ was truly human, possessing a real flesh and blood body, because this would mean that Christ possessed an inherently evil nature.

During the first and second centuries, Christians writers were constantly battling Gnosticism, which was condemned as a heresy. The Apostle John counters Gnosticism in his first epistle by emphasizing that Jesus Christ came “in the flesh” and that anyone who denies this is “antichrist.” We would do well to heed his warning!

“Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.” -1 John 4:3-4

Argument #2: Christ’s Humanity Disproves Total Depravity

This is the biggest problem with total depravity, and one that has been pointed out by many scholars. It is sometimes called the problem of the incarnation. All orthodox Christians must affirm that Jesus Christ was fully human, otherwise he could not die for the sins of humanity (1 John 2:2) and could not be our mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5).

If all humans are totally depraved, and if Jesus was fully human (He was) then Jesus would have been totally depraved…. is this really a logical position?

But if human beings are totally depraved by nature and sinful from birth, this means Jesus Christ was necessarily totally depraved and sinful. This is obviously not the case because scripture says Jesus Christ was sinless, or he could not be our sacrifice (2 Corinthians 5:21).

2 Corinthians 5:21 (NKJV) For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

Calvinists will counter this by arguing that Jesus Christ is God, and therefore, although he became human at the incarnation, he did not share in our depravity.

There are two problems with this. First, scripture says that Jesus was “made like his brothers in every respect” (Hebrews 2:17 ESV). If Jesus was made like us in every way this would include sharing in our depravity.

The second problem with this view is that Jesus was tempted. This by itself proves that Jesus had the same human nature we do, because scripture says that temptation comes from “our own desires” which originate from our human nature (James 1:14).

James 1:14 (NKJV) But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed.

Scripture is clear that the temptation of Jesus was not a meaningless charade, but was real, serious temptation. Scripture says he “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin”

Hebrews 4:15 (NKJV) For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.

If Jesus was tempted in the exact same way we are, this by itself disproves total depravity. If we are totally depraved, the only way for Jesus to be tempted in the same way that we are tempted is if he was also totally depraved. But this is clearly not the case because Jesus never sinned. Therefore, we cannot be totally depraved.

There are only two possible alternatives to this:

  1. Jesus did sin.
  2. Jesus was not fully human and/or was not tempted in the same way we are.

Both of these alternatives contradict scripture!

The humanity of Christ proves depravity, but disproves total depravity. The temptation of Christ proves depravity (he shared in our fallen human nature, otherwise he could not have been tempted). But the sinless life of Christ disproves total depravity (he never sinned, therefore depravity cannot be total).

No matter how one looks at it, total depravity is fundamentally at odds with the humanity of Jesus Christ. This should be reason enough for us to reject it as an acceptable doctrine!

Argument #3:
Total Depravity Elevates Man by Excusing His Sin

Calvinists often describe total depravity as a “low view of man, high view of God.” However, when taken to its logical conclusion, total depravity actually elevates man by excusing his sin.

As we have seen, early church fathers like Justin Martyr and Tertullian argued against total depravity because they saw it as excusing man’s sin.

In their view, Jesus would soon return to “repay each person according to what he has done” (Matthew 16:27). By necessity, this requires that human beings have the ability to choose good or choose evil. If we do not have this ability – if we are incapable of choosing good – then it logically follows that we cannot be justly held responsible for our evil. This is the reason why people can be found “not guilty on reasons of insanity” in the court of law. Without a meaningful free will ability to choose good or evil, one cannot be justly held responsible.

This is the true motivation behind those who willingly choose Calvinism… They can keep on sinning, because they can’t be held guilty regardless of what they do…. unfortunately, their desire for this will not save them at Judgement… only the blood of Christ followed in truth and spirit will save us.

At the heart of the issue of total depravity is the question:

What is sin?

The Calvinist view of sin is the same as that of the Gnostics. According to this view, sin is an invisible disease that is transmitted by birth. Human flesh totally depraved by its very nature, so everyone born in the flesh is already a sinner, even before do any actions. According to Calvinism, if a baby dies immediately after birth he goes straight to hell, even though he actually never did anything wrong in his short life!

Those views come straight out of Gnosticism. It was the Gnostics who believed that flesh is inherently evil and totally depraved. David, on the other hand says, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).

God doesn’t make garbage. He doesn’t make depraved, demented beings who are incapable of loving Him. Why would He?

God only makes perfect things. God created us to be perfect, 100% valuable, 100% worthy of love. We are not born sinners. We choose to be sinners through our actions. We become guilty and deserving of death because we choose to be.

How sad and humbling is this truth! Every person who has ever come of age – with the exception of Jesus – has chosen sin. “There are none righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10).

The biblical view of sin is that sin is action. Sin is not a curse that spreads from one person to another against their will. Sin is not a disease we inherited against our will – if it were, we couldn’t be held responsible for it, we would be victims rather than perpetuators. The biblical view places the blame for sin on us, not on God. The Calvinist view teaches that God makes people evil with no ability to do good, and then punishes them for being that way!

There is no denying that we inherit from Adam a sinful nature that desires sinful things. But the sinful nature is not the same as sin itself. Our sinful nature tempts us to sin, but we also have the free will ability to choose to resist that nature.

Sin is defined in scripture as a violation of God’s commandments. It has everything to do with free will. Paul writes that the Law reveals to us what sin is (Romans 7:7). The Law defines sin in terms of free will actions: “Thou shalt… thou shalt not…” We are “dead in trespasses and sins” for the simple reason that we’ve committed trespasses and sins. We’ve chosen sinful actions. As a result, we stand completely guilty before God, dead in sin, in desperate need of a savior.

We have to be careful about any theology that begins in response to another theology, because there is always a tendency to swing the pendulum to the complete opposite extreme.

Luther developed a theology of salvation “by faith alone” in response to works-based theology, but took it to such an extreme that works played no role at all and he even wanted to remove the Book of James from the Bible.

Calvinism is a response to Pelagianism, a doctrine that emphasizes man’s ability to be righteous. John Calvin saw Pelagianism as infecting the Catholic church, and he considered it a man centered theology. Many of his criticisms were good, but he swung the pendulum to such an extreme as to say that salvation is entirely predetermined and carried out by God, and man does nothing because he is totally depraved and unable.

While I respect Calvinism’s desire to magnify God and humble man, when Calvinism is taken to its logical conclusion it actually backfires and ends up doing the opposite.

The biblical view of depravity is indeed a low view of man – we freely choose sin, so we have no one to blame but ourselves. But total depravity actually elevates man by taking the blame off of him. Saying, as Paul Washer does, that “fallen man is unable to love, obey or please God” takes the blame off of man and places it on the one who made man! The early church fathers recognized this, which is why they argued that man is not totally depraved and does have the ability to choose righteousness.

Instead of humbling me, the doctrine of total depravity causes me relief because it means my sins are not really my fault – God never gave me the ability to do otherwise. But the biblical view of depravity humbles me to the point of anguish. God created me to be perfect, but by my own free will I chose sin. I am to blame. How humbling is this truth!

Consider the opposite of total depravity. What if we are not totally incapable, but totally capable? Consider the implications. What if we are, in fact, 100% capable of total holiness and righteousness? This means that every man is able to live a perfectly sinless life if he simply chooses to and Christ’s sacrifice is no longer necessary… yet no one has ever done so (save Jesus)!

I think this is a much lower view of man, because it means we are literally without excuse. We have the ability to be sinless. We choose from our free will not to be.

I can’t pass the buck and say “I was totally depraved, it was my nature to sin, I was incapable of doing otherwise, God had to rescue me from my depraved state.” I can’t play the victim. That excuse doesn’t work if total depravity is false.

If total depravity is false, every person who ever lived had the ability to be perfectly sinless, yet out of literally billions of people, not even one person ever chose it, save Jesus. How humbling is that! How perfectly that fits with Romans 3!

Christ dying to save totally depraved people who are incapable of holiness demonstrates more pity than love. How much more love and grace did Christ demonstrate by dying to save people who had every ability to be perfect, but chose not to be? How much less do those people deserve God’s grace?

By being fully human and living a sinless life, Jesus puts us all to shame. He had the same human nature we have, yet he never sinned. He proves through his sinless life that we are truly without excuse.

Now that is a high view of God, and low view of man!