Total depravity  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Total depravity (also called total inability and total corruption) is a theological doctrine that derives from the Augustinian doctrine of original sin.

Summary of the doctrine

Total depravity is the fallen state of man as a result of original sin. The doctrine of total depravity asserts that people are by nature not inclined to love God wholly with heart, mind, and strength, but rather all are inclined to serve their own interests over those of their neighbor and to reject the rule of God. Even religion and philanthropy are destructive to the extent that these originate from a human imagination, passions, and will. Therefore, in Reformed Theology, God must predestine individuals into salvation since man is incapable of choosing God.

Total depravity does not mean, however, that people are as evil as possible. Rather, it means that even the good which a person may intend is faulty in its premise, false in its motive, and weak in its implementation; and there is no mere refinement of natural capacities that can correct this condition. Thus, even acts of generosity and altruism are in fact egoist acts in disguise.

Nonetheless, the doctrine teaches optimism concerning God's love for what he has made and God's ability to accomplish the ultimate good that he intends for his creation. In particular, in the process of salvation, God overcomes man's inability with his divine grace and enables men and women to choose to follow him, though the precise means of this overcoming varies between the theological systems. The differences between the solutions to the problem of total depravity revolve around the relation between divine grace and human free will – namely, whether it is efficacious grace that human free will cannot resist, as in Augustinism, or sufficient or prevenient grace enabling the human will to choose to follow God, as in Molinism and Arminianism.

Biblical support for the doctrine

A number of passages in the Bible may be perceived as suggesting the doctrine, including (quotations are from the English Standard Version except where noted):

  • Genesis 6:5: "The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually."
  • Psalms 51:5: "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me."
  • Psalms 58:3: "The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies."
  • Ecclesiastes 7:20: "Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins."
  • Ecclesiastes 9:3: "This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead."
  • Jeremiah 17:9: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?"
  • Jeremiah 13:23: (NIV): "Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil."
  • Mark 7:21-23: "For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."
  • John 3:19: "And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil."
  • John 6:44: "[Jesus said,] 'No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.'"
  • John 6:64-65: "[Jesus said,] 'But there are some of you who do not believe.' (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, 'This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.'"
  • John 8:34: "Jesus answered them, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.'"
  • Romans 3:10-11: "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God."
  • Romans 8:7-8: "For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God."
  • 1 Corinthians 2:14: "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."
  • Ephesians 2:1-3: "And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience - among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind."
  • Titus 3:3: "For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another."

See also




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