Stephen Unthank – 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).

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Michael Boling – Total Depravity: The Problem Defined and Solution Provided


(This was my contribution to the latest issue of Theology for Life. To read the rest of the latest issue, click here).

Humanity has a problem. Turn on the news, listen to the radio, or take a quick glance at your favorite social media outlet and you will likely find a plethora of stories concerning the desperate plight of someone around the world. Why does the inhumanity of man towards one another take place? Why are we so unable to right the societal ship, to mend the wrongs of our world by our sheer effort or perhaps through a focused avalanche of governmental spending? Surely the combined will of the world can fix what is wrong…or can it?

This is a question that has vexed mankind for centuries. Philosophers and religious sages throughout time have attempted to discover the secret to man’s nature. Some have suggested that it is possible for man to do enough “good” to fix the problems of the world around them, as well as earning enough “brownie points” with their respective deity to deal with matters of an eternal nature. Others have come to the conclusion that man is nothing more than the sum of his evolutionary parts, and thus are only acting out on their primal instincts. Is either approach correct? Is man capable of doing any good and, if so, can it amount to anything in total so that humanity can be understood as “good”? Are we only left to deal with the aforementioned primal animal instincts with the evil around us? Scripture deals with both issues quite thoroughly, providing us with the answer to whether man can achieve a necessary state of goodness, as well as providing for us the solution to this pervasive problem God calls sin.

If we look at the first chapters of Genesis, we find a world that is described as being good, and man as being very good (or tov). That phrase — “very good” — depicts a universe devoid of death and decay with Adam and Eve living together in perfect harmony with the world around them. There was no murder, famine, hatred, jealousy, slander, or any of the trappings we fall prey to on a daily basis. All was perfect. The Creator dwelt with His creation and man had the perfect relationship with his Creator and the universe.

Then something changed. Man disobeyed God’s command, an action known as sin. The entrance of sin into the world was devastating as it introduced into death, both physical and spiritual. The perfect nature Adam and Eve had prior to sin was replaced with a fallen nature. Instead of a perfect desire to obey and glorify God, man now dealt with the urge to pursue all manner of depravity.

Total Depravity Defined

Let’s start with a helpful definition. The “Synod of Dort” explained this idea as such:

“All men are conceived in sin and are by nature children of wrath, incapable of any saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin and in bondage thereto; and without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, they are neither able nor willing to turn to God, to reform the depravity of their nature, nor to dispose themselves for reformation.”[1]

When a term such a “total depravity” is used, there is the tendency to reject such a concept, due to the belief that man can do good. After all, is not helping that little old lady to cross the street with no desire for repayment known as a “good deed”? Does such an action then mean that man is not totally depraved in all their actions? Man can act with kindness towards one another. Random acts of kindness, however many, cannot outweigh even one sinful act as noted in the above definition of total depravity.

There are a number of Scripture references that speak to this reality:

– Jeremiah 17:9 – The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?
– Ecclesiastes 9:3 – 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.
– John 8:34 – Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.”
– Romans 7:18 – For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.
– Romans 3:10 – As it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one”
– James 2:10 – For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.

From this small sampling of passages, it is evident that the heart of man, apart from God, is wicked — unable to correct its sinful nature, focused on the deeds of the flesh. There is no element or amount of good deeds that can be done to save man from the penalty of sin, which is death. Since all men are sinners and have broken God’s law, the solution to man’s inhumanity (or sin nature) cannot reside in societal efforts, government spending, or the “Star Trekkian” dream that, one day in the future, man will somehow “figure it all out” and will treat one another with the utmost love and respect. Scripture declares otherwise; left alone to our own devices, man has no hope.

The Solution to the Problem

The situation seems rather grim, as it should. If man is incapable of being good enough to rectify the broken relationship with his Creator, let alone demonstrate any lasting love towards his fellow man, should we then throw up our hands in despair, giving in to our sinful desires? Thankfully, the answer is a resounding no.

God has provided the solution to the issue of total depravity – grace extended to undeserving man through the shed blood of Jesus. The Apostle John notes in 1st John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Confession of sins is a recognition of our state of total depravity and our dependence on God’s grace to be poured out into our lives. Furthermore, concomitant with confessing sin is the act of repentance.

As noted by Bryan Chapell:

“Repentance is not so much a doing as a depending. It is not so much a striving for pardon as a posture of humility. In true repentance we confess our total reliance on God’s mercy. We acknowledge the inadequacy of anything we would offer God to gain his pardon. In true repentance we rest upon God’s grace rather than trying to do anything to deserve it.”[2]

Crying out to God in a state of repentance from sin results in the Holy Spirit’s taking up residence in our heart, cleaning out the sinful nature, replacing those deleterious passions of the flesh with a love for God, and giving a desire for obedience to His commands. We will still have to deal with the temptation to sin. The Apostle Paul reminds us of this reality in Galatians 5:17, which states, “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.”

When we come to know Christ as our Savior, does this mean we are still totally depraved? Given that we will continue to battle against the flesh and the reality that we always must depend on the grace of God through Christ as the solution to this problem, the answer is in part “yes”. John Frame helpfully explains, “The final word about the believer, then, is not corruption, but overcoming. As Paul says, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under the law but under grace” (Romans 6:14). The corruption of sin remains until death, but it grows weaker and weaker, through the continual strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ. Scripture promises victory in Jesus.”[3] The penalty for breaking God’s law is death, but through God’s grace, sin no longer reigns supreme over us, and that penalty of death as a result of our transgressions is covered by the blood of the Lamb.

Final Thoughts

The world we live in has a sin problem. This issue has existed since Adam and Eve disobeyed God back in the Garden of Eden. That sin resulted in expulsion from the Garden and the presence of God, as well as the imputation of a sinful nature to each succeeding generation. Man is totally depraved, and without help from God, we would be doomed. God, in His great love and mercy, has provided an answer. He sent His Son to pay the penalty for sin, to redeem us to Himself, to restore the broken relationship between man and Creator, and to one day fully and finally fix all that has been broken and marred by sin.


[1] Canon 3/4:3. See Gerald Bray, ed., Documents of the English Reformation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 466.
[2] Bryan Chapell, “Repentance That Sings” in Fallen: A Theology of Sin. Edited by Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 280.
[3] John Frame, Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2013), 870.

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Ligon Duncan – Total Depravity and the Believer’s Sanctification

Tullian Tchividjian of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, Ft Lauderdale, FL and Rick Phillips of Second Presbyterian Church, Greenville, SC have recently engaged with the doctrine of total depravity in its relation to Christians. That is, they are discussing not whether or not people in their natural state are totally depraved, but whether and in what sense believers may be spoken of as “totally depraved.” This is a very important issue, so I am glad to have it put on the front burner.

Years ago, Tabletalk magazine asked me to write an article on this subject. I was interacting primarily with forms of Christian perfectionist teaching on the one hand and carnal Christian teaching on the other. But I think the article still speaks to issues that the Reformed and evangelical community is debating today. So, here it is.

Total depravity is a reality, both taught in Holy Scripture and experienced in life, with important implications not only for pagans but also for Christians. Very often we think of this Biblical doctrine in connection with those who are unregenerate, or with regard to Christians before their conversion, but we reflect less frequently on the depravity which still infects those who have been saved by grace and reborn of the Spirit. This is a serious omission, for misunderstanding or underestimating the continuing corruption in the believer leaves the Christian unprepared for the warfare of sanctification and leads to a variety of spiritual problems.

There are many errors propagated in evangelical circles on this subject, the two main tendencies of which are: perfectionism and antinomianism. The former asserts that the Christian life is (or ought to be) characterized by complete victory over sin. Hence, Christian life as intended by God is “higher life” or the “victorious life.” Perfectionistic teachers not only distort the biblical teaching on holiness, but also dangerously underestimate the believer’s struggle with indwelling sin (setting up the tender-hearted Christian for a real struggle with depression and assurance).

On the other end of the spectrum, purveyors of antinomian dogma insist that true Christians may be no different in terms of vital godliness than pagans. They teach that the believer may be judicially free from sin, while “carnal” in the overall tendency of life. Oftentimes without realizing it, they teach that sin may still have dominion in the believer’s life (setting up many for tragic self-deception and encouraging spiritual lethargy in others).

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