Calvinism 101: “Total Depravity”
There are five central doctrines in the Calvinist system of salvation. These doctrines are unsurprisingly called “the five points of Calvinism”. They are also known as the “doctrines of grace”. A common device for memorizing these doctrines is the “TULIP” acrostic, which summarizes these five points as follows:
T = Total Depravity
U = Unconditional Election
L = Limited Atonement
I – Irresistible Grace
P = Perseverance of the Saints
As I hope to show, these five biblical doctrines logically involve each other, and thus they stand and fall together. If even one of these five doctrines is compromised or denied, the logic of the whole system falls apart. The “TULIP” stands or falls together! Together these doctrines highlight the one, ultimately foundational truth of Calvinism, namely, the truth that the salvation of sinners is by God’s sovereign grace, and by God’s sovereign grace alone!
In this brief article I want to consider the first point of the Calvinist system, the doctrine that goes by the name of “total depravity”. Actually, this particular doctrine is not itself a doctrine of grace. Instead, it is a doctrine which demonstrates why our salvation can only be – indeed, must be – by God’s sovereign grace in Christ alone, apart from human works or merits or human free will. It is a doctrine which highlights mankind’s total ruin and corruption in sin, and hence man’s total inability to pull himself out of a state of sin or to contribute anything whatsoever toward his own salvation.
What, then, is this doctrine of “total depravity”? Like the other five points of Calvinism, this doctrine has often been misunderstood and misrepresented. So let me first of all explain what this doctrine does not mean.
First of all, total depravity does not mean that we sinners are, by our fall in Adam, as utterly and entirely wicked as we possibly can be. The total in total depravity does not mean absolute depravity. The devil and his demons are absolutely depraved. They are absolutely as evil as they possibly could be, with no residual remnants of good remaining within them. But that is not the case with fallen man. The Scriptures indicate that even fallen, unregenerate sinners still bear the remnants of the image of God (see, for example, Genesis 9:6; James 3:9).
In addition, and closely related to the above, total depravity does not mean that unbelievers are incapable of performing outwardly good deeds, deeds which are beneficial both to themselves and to others. (Theologians describe the good deeds of unbelievers as “civil righteousness”, meaning deeds that are outwardly in conformity to God’s Law, even though they lack the inward motivation of love for God produced by the Holy Spirit’s regeneration.)
So what, then, is “total depravity”? It is the biblical teaching that, because of humanity’s fall into a state of sin in Adam, all people are born with a sin nature (which theologians call “original sin”). This sin nature impacts the totality of our being. Our minds, emotions, hearts and wills are radically twisted and corrupted by sin, so much so that we are totally corrupted, spiritually-speaking, and thus totally incapable of converting ourselves or making ourselves pleasing to God.
Speaking of Adam’s and Eve’s sin in eating the forbidden fruit, the Westminster Confession of Faith describes humanity’s total depravity as follows: “By this sin they fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body.” (Chapter 6, Section 2; emphasis added)
Because of original sin and total depravity, all human beings are turned away from their Creator and turned in upon themselves. As a result the human heart has become a factory of idols (as John Calvin once said). Our natural, fallen inner disposition is to hate the God of the Bible – the true and living God who created us – and to replace Him with gods (or “concepts of god”) more to our liking. Only a supernatural, spiritual rebirth from above can renew the hearts of totally depraved sinners and convert them to faith in Christ and repentance unto life.
This doctrine of man’s total depravity is clearly revealed in the Bible. For example, Genesis 6:5 contains God’s assessment of the people who lived in the days of Noah before the great Flood: “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.” (ESV) Notice that not just “some”, not just “many”, not just “most”, but “every” intention of man’s heart was “only” (not “somewhat” or “mostly”, but “only”) evil “continually”! Or consider Paul’s description of the spiritual condition prior to their conversion of the Christians he writes to in Ephesians, as recorded in Ephesians 2:1-2a – “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked…” (ESV; emphasis added) Not just “sick” in sin; not just “wounded” by sin; not just “damaged” by sin; but dead in sin – and thus dead to God and to the things of God!
This biblical truth of total depravity is foundational to the whole Calvinist system, because it shows how incapable we are of saving ourselves or contributing in even the slightest way to our salvation. And therefore it shows how desperately we sinners need for God to intervene in sovereign grace to rescue us from our desperate condition of sin and misery, and from the condemnation we deserve because of our sins. In brief, total depravity underscores the truth that we are sinners who desperately need to be rescued from our condition, and who thus desperately need a Divine Savior suitable to the task.