Author: Ron Graham
—The T in TULIP
Total depravity is the T in TULIP, and is the first point of Calvinism. The fall of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3) seriously hurt humanity. "Through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all mankind, because all sinned" (Romans 5:12).
Human beings have "fallen short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). This lesson examines human nature, and the mechanism by which sin and death spread to all. Is it by heredity or by contagion?
1 "Total" Corruptness
Calvinists believe the natural human condition is total depravity. They say that human beings are...
"utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil..."
The doctrine does not mean to say that human beings are devoid of all good, but rather that none of the good in them is pure.
Imagine a child tips some salt into the bowl of sugar. If we take the bowl away quickly, we might be able to lift out a part of the sugar, and in doing so remove all of the salt with it. But if the little monkey has stirred the sugar, then we may find no part unspoiled by the salt. Now all the sugar is salted and worthless.
It is in that sense that defilement is said to be "total". Good there may be, as there was sugar, but it is all marred and made useless. Sin has affected the person's will, understanding, affections, and every other faculty, rendering the person totally corrupted.
What Jesus Believed About Total Depravity
Jesus did not think that all men were utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil. He could see some good in people that was still pure and some faculties untouched by sin.
Jesus spoke of a man "in whom there is no deceit" (John 1:47). He was Nathanael, a perfectly honest man, proving that human beings can have unspoiled faculties.
2 "Hereditary" Corruptness
Calvinists say that "fallen nature" is passed on from Adam and Eve to the newborn through all generations. When Adam and Eve, our first ancestors, committed the sin of eating the forbidden fruit, they...
"...fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed and the same death in sin and corrupted nature conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation."
Jesus and Paul disagree with that. They believe people are born without moral corruption or "sinful nature", but become victims of moral pollution and contagious sin.
What Paul Believed About Hereditary Depravity
Paul pictures human depravity in Romans 1:18-32. The people were not depraved by nature, but deliberately perverted what was good in their nature and knowledge. They chose to exchange good for evil, truth for lies.
Romans 5:12 tells us how sin spreads: "Through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned..." It is true that Adam and Eve fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and so became dead in sin.
However, there is no truth in the statement, nor does the verse say, that the guilt of Adam and Eve’s sin was imputed to all their posterity, or that their death in sin and corrupted nature was conveyed by ordinary generation to all those descending from them.
Look again at Romans 5:12. It says, "Death spread to all men, because all sinned". A person who has never yielded to enticements to commit sin, is not dead in sin, and death in sin is spread by contagion, not heredity. People deceive others into committing sin.
What Jesus Said About Little Children
"Unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of Heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven". (Matthew 18:4).
Jesus went on to declare woe upon anyone who "causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin", and he warns, "Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father..." (Matthew 18:6,10).
Later Jesus says, "Let the little children come to me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of Heaven" (Matthew 18:1-11, Matthew 19:13-15).
These children had a capacity, not a disability. They were able to be humble and to believe. Jesus foresees them becoming sinners, but how? "Offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!" (Matthew 18:7).
Who is "that man" to whom Jesus referred? Jesus wasn't looking back to Adam’s offense by which many were made sinners (Romans 5:15-19), but to future offenses when an uncorrupted child is caused to become a sinner.
The human nature of Christ
Christ was a real human with a lineage from Adam and Eve. Jesus called himself "The Son of Man". If he did not share our nature, how can he be called "man" or be a High Priest who is able to sympathise with our weaknesses having been tempted in all points as we are? (Hebrews 2:12-18, Hebrews 4:15)
Did Jesus suffer from hereditary total depravity? Was he "made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil"? Was he "wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body"? Was he "utterly indisposed and disabled" in his attempt to be righteous?
You say "No! No!" Of course you are right; and you've just seen one of the gaping holes in Calvinistic theory. It requires one to invent a theory to explain how Jesus can be wholly human, one of Adam's children, sharing their nature, yet not born depraved like all the rest.
3 The Idea of "Inability"
Calvinists say we are "utterly indisposed and disabled". We have "total inability" to help ourselves in becoming righteous or to contribute to our own salvation. God must do everything and take full responsibility.
Imagine a girl and boy are out sailing together. The girl falls overboard. The boy throws out a rope to the girl which she seizes. She swims as best she can towards the boat while the boy hauls for all he is worth and shouts encouragement. The girl is saved by synergy or acting together with the boy on the boat.
If the girl in the sea was for some reason unable to grasp the rope, or to swim, or do anything else to help with her rescue, then the boy on the boat would have to do all things necessary and take full responsibility for saving the girl.
What Paul Believed About Ability
Paul said, "Work out your own salvation... for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:12-13).
Calvinists cannot fit (a) working out your own salvation with (b) God working in you. They cannot attribute your will to please God as really being your will. They attribute everything to God working in you, and absolutely nothing to you working out your own salvation.
The folk who follow Calvinism think that God doesn't haul on the rope and shout encouragement while you do your bit —rather, they think God does it all while you contribute nothing. That's not what Paul says.
4 Proof Texts on Human Nature
Calvinists quote two texts which they feel prove their point about human nature being totally corrupted.
- "You were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest" (Ephesians 2:3).
- "The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God... nor can he know them because they are spiritually discerned" (1Corinthians 2:14).
The "nature" in these verses is not inherited, but acquired by experience in a sinful society. "Nature" refers to the world and environment one grows up in, the traditions and culture one acquires, and the things one absorbs.
For example Peter speaks of redemption "from your futile conduct received by tradition from your fathers" (1Peter 1:18).
One can live in a society whose ways are futile and wicked. One can learn and accept those ways and become darkened by them. Culture may influence a person's thinking and behaviour enormously.
Yet one can turn to a belief system based on the ways of the Lord, being re-educated so that a new nature supplants the old nature (Romans 6:4-6). Calvinists do not believe that this can happen.
What Paul Believed About Human Nature
Human "nature" is as much capable of upholding God's law as it is capable of perverting and rejecting it. The depraved people in Romans 1:26 had grown up in a world where the knowledge of God was clear. They had gone "against nature", having suppressed and perverted what, by nature, was theirs.
Romans 2:14 says people "do by nature the things written in the law". Their lives and thoughts were obviously influenced by God's law which was present in the milieu of their existence, and they did not suppress or pervert that truth but chose instead to live by it.
Thus one can "by nature" do right (Romans 2:14) and one can "by nature" do wrong (Ephesians 2:3). Everyone is able to abhor what is evil and cling to what is good. And everyone should.
[Creed quoted: THE WESTMINSTER CONFESSION OF FAITH - 1646]