Total Depravity: The Total in Total Depravity

            The word depravity implies the absence of something that used to be abundant. In considering the doctrine of man’s total depravity it’s good to see first that man, Adam, was totally good, righteous, and upright. This is what Solomon taught when he declared that “God made man upright” (Ecclesiastes 7:29).

            18th century Scottish pastor Thomas Boston faithfully remarks that “man was made originally righteous, being created in God’s own image, which consists in the positive qualities of knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness. All that God made was very good... and so was man morally good, being made after the image of Him who is good and upright. Without this, he could not have answered the end of his creation, which was, to know, love, and serve his God, according to His will...”[1]

            Thus, to be depraved is to lack that original righteousness and holiness in which mankind was first created. Adam who was humanity’s first federal representative gave up his righteous standing in his sin and thus became a sinful man. Now, in him all mankind has inherited Adam’s fallen and sinful nature. Since Adam, all mankind has original sin. Hence, David’s striking words in Psalm 51 verse 5 that even in the womb he had a sinful nature; that he was “brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” Or again Paul’s declaration that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

            This last element, that since Adam all people everywhere and at every time come into this world with original sin and guilt, is only one part of the word Total in the doctrine of Total Depravity. But there is another element contained in the word Total and it is this: each individual in his entire being is totally effected by sin. In other words, the total man - every part and faculty of his being - has been marred, stained, and effected by sin.

            Consider Paul’s words in Romans 3:9-18.  He begins this passage with the first aspect of Total Depravity when he says that he has “already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.” Paul backs up his claim by quoting from Psalm 14 which says that “No one is righteous, no, not even one!” It’s an all inclusive coverage of all mankind.

            But then Paul delves into the depths of Total Depravity’s second aspect, and as I quote the passage at length, take special notice of the body parts and faculties being used. Notice how sin has ravished and effected the whole person. (I’ll highlight the key parts).

            “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:10-18).

            This is a startling passage if we take time to consider a bit of what it is saying. First, Paul tells us that sin has affected our thinking. Our understanding of God, ourselves and our relationship to God is marred. In fact, you see this immediately after Adam and Eve sinned. The first thing they do after eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is to hide from God. Friends, that’s ridiculous, and if I can use an abrasive word, quite stupid. How do you hide from a sovereign, omniscient, and omnipresent God?

            The truth is that sin has marred mankind’s understanding so much that what ought to be known about God and how we ought to relate to him now seems foolish. God and godliness no longer make sense; we now act as fools doing foolish things, things like hiding from God. Hence Paul can later say, “[the] natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). It is out of this truth that Calvin will later begin his Institutes claiming that true wisdom “consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”

            Second, understanding is corrupted by sin, but so too is our will. Paul tells us that “no one seeks for God.” To a person who is totally depraved even his desire for God is gone and therefore his will is bound by sin. This is why Paul elsewhere wrote that sinful men are “dead in the trespasses and sins” in which they walk, “following the course of this world... carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath...” (Ephesians 2:1-3). Jesus says much of the same thing when speaking to the unbelieving Pharisees that “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). Outside of the saving, irresistible grace of God fallen man never seeks after God. Indeed, they cannot. Thus, our passage tells us that “all have turned aside... and in their paths are ruin and misery.”

            Third, Paul understands that this affects the rest of the person; sin evidences itself in everything we do and everything we are. Our, throat, tongue, lips and mouth spew forth deceit, venom, curses and bitterness. Our feet pursue death. Our eyes take delight in watching all that displeases God. Our entire lives, our paths as the passage puts it, know only ruin and misery. As one earlier writer described our now fallen condition, “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). This is mankind’s total depravity.

            The doctrine, and likewise the Bible, never states that individuals are as sinful as they possibly could be, and the truth is that God in his common grace keeps men and women from declining as far as they could into sin. Nonetheless, sin has infected and affected the totality of mankind as well as the totality of each individual person.

            Thomas Boston, in considering the weight of this biblical doctrine, writes to unbelievers exhorting them to believe this sad truth. “Alas! It is evident that it is very little believed in the world. Few are concerned... to get their corrupt nature changed.Until you know every one the plague of his own heart, there is no hope for your recovery. Why will you not believe it? You have plain Scripture testimony for it; but you are loath to entertain such an ill opinion of yourselves. Alas! This is the nature of your disease (Rev. 3.17), ‘Thou knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.’ Lord, open their eyes to see it, before they die of it, and in hell lift up their eyes, and see what they will not see now.”[2]

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

[1] Thomas Boston, Human Nature In Its Fourfold State, pg. 45 (Banner of Truth Trust, 2002).

[2] ibid. 139.


Stephen Unthank