Total Depravity

Roger Smalling, D.Min

'Total Depravity' means sin controls all the faculties of a sinner to the point he is unable to will or do anything to convert himself to Christ or prepare himself for conversion. Only a miracle of God through the gospel can enable the sinner to chose Christ.

This doctrine is wonderfully interesting because it touches on elements of human nature such as free will, the mind and perceptions. Moreover, Total Depravity intertwines with other biblical teachings like the fall of Adam, regeneration and election. This chapter is too brief to cover all of these, so the student should try to Four through Six as a unit.

We study free will and man's responsibility in the next lesson. In this chapter will support from Scripture our definition of Total Depravity.

Total Depravity, does NOT mean sinners are as wicked as possible nor even want to be. Man has not fallen to the level of demons. This would be UTTER depravity. We believe God's benevolence prevented man from falling to those depths. By 'total,' we mean all human faculties, including free will, are infected by sin and under its domination. By 'depravity' we mean nothing in a sinner is acceptable to God, including good works or virtues because these procede from a corrupted's sinful heart.

In recent years, some theologians have proposed the term 'TOTAL INABILITY.' This avoids giving the impression we think people are as bad a demons. However, this terminology could also be misunderstood. Some may assume God the source of the inability rather than the corruption of man. Either term is acceptable, though both require explanations.

We recommend the student use 'Total Depravity' to counterbalance the influence of modern humanism which asserts the goodness of man. It strikes deliberately at human pride and self-righteousness. In view of biblical teaching about man's sinfulness, this term seems appropriate.
(See Unlocking, P. 32-33 for complete definitions.)

The issue: Did Adam fall beyond his ability to believe and repent on his own initiative? The two main branches of theology, Reformed and Arminian, differ sharply on this point. The Arminian view claims God stopped the fall short of the point where man would lose the ability to generate faith, love and repentance out of his free will. The Reformed view sees man as fallen below that point. We will examine the biblical evidence.

First Evidence: The Fall Of Mankind, Romans Chapter Five

Paul describes the fall of Adam in Romans Chapter Five. (The word "Adam" means "mankind" in Hebrew.) He mentions four things we inherited from Adam: Sin, death, judgment and condemnation.

No human faculty escaped these effects. Did this include man's free will? It is unnecessary to single out the will of man to show it also became bound by sin. It is sufficient to show the entire human organism as fallen.

Adam's Fall

Second Evidence: Spiritual Death, Ephesians Chapter Two


Eph. 2:1-3 And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, 2 in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, 3 among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.

Paul apparently alludes to the divine threat in Genesis 2:17 to Adam, "...for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die." Though Adam did not die physically that day, he died spiritually in his relationship with God and in his own ability to obey Him. Paul describes this bondage as:
Following the conduct of the world.

Controlled by Satan.

Fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind. (Greek literally: "doing the will of the flesh." This means the flesh determines the condition of the will. The term 'mind' here, NOOS includes perceptions. Paul alludes to the perceptions of the mind as controlled by sin so the mind perceives the lusts of the flesh as preferable. The will follows suit.)
A nature deserving of wrath.

The intent of the passage is to show why a sinner is no more able to escape from his condition than a dead man can resurrect himself.

Third Evidence: Effect Of Sin On The Mind

Scripture depicts the mind as enslaved and controlled by sin and Satan. We can assume this includes the will since the will is a function of the mind.

The natural man cannot receive the things of God nor know them. 1Cor. 2:14 But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.
Satan has blinded the minds of unbelievers. 2Cor. 4:4 whose minds the god of this age has blinded,
The understanding is 'darkened.' Eph. 4:18 having their understanding darkened...because of the blindness of their heart;
The carnal mind is unable to submit to the law of God. Rom. 8:7 Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be.
The sinner's will is bound by the devil so they cannot come to their senses without God granting the gift of repentance. 2Tim. 2:25 -26 In humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, 26 and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will.

According to these verses, the mind of the sinner has a perception problem which the Bible expresses as 'darkness' or 'blinded.' The devil controls the sinner's will by controlling his perceptions. The sinner perceives the things of God as foolishness because he is blind to his moral condition.

Fourth Evidence: The Carnal Nature, Romans 3:9-20

Paul addresses the condition of all unsaved people as being 'under sin.' This means 'under the power of sin.'

Without Christ, there is no:

A. Righteous person. (Even the good works of the unsaved are as "filthy rags," unacceptable to God.)
B. Sinner who understands his moral condition. (The greek term 'understand' here refers to 'insight.' None have 
    spiritual insight into their condition without Christ, although they may understand the fundamentals of the
C. Seeker after God. (Religious sinners seek to establish their own righteousness. See Romans 10:3.)
D. Sinner who does good. (The New Testament defines 'good' as obedience to God. Sinners do good works as
    substitutes for submission rather than signs of submission. All the works of sinners, however good in
    themselves, proceed from a corrupted source, his sinful nature. If a sinner really wanted to be good, he would
    do the first thing God commands him to do...repent and believe in Jesus. See Unlocking, P.38-41)
E. Sinner who fears God. (If they really feared Him, they would seek to please Him.)
F. Sinner at peace. (Drowning themselves in pleasures is a false peace.)

Paul is talking about sinners before God begins to draw them through the gospel. When God draws a sinner by the gospel, his perceptions begin to change. Occasionally we encounter a sinner who says he is seeking God. This could be sincere. God may be drawing them by opening their perception through the Gospel. In Chapter Six, we'll see how this works.


From the abundant biblical evidence, we conclude the unsaved are unable to will or do anything which contributes to their salvation or prepares them for conversion. Their will chooses wrongly because their perceptions are blinded by sin and controlled by Satan. Therefore they perceive themselves as good, spiritual things as foolishness and God as not worth seeking. They see no reason to fear God and think their lack of peace is due to a lack of pleasures.

In the following chapter we will consider whether the term 'free will' is an apt description of this state.

From This Lesson We Learned:

  1. Without God working through the gospel, sinners are unable to will or do anything to contribute to their salvation.
  2. Through Adam's fall mankind inherited sin, death, judgment and condemnation.
  3. The mind of man, which includes his perceptions and his will, are blinded by sin and Satan so he cannot choose submission to God.
  4. The carnal nature of man contains no quality that could lead him to obey God.
  5. None of the good works of a sinner are ultimately good because they are generated from a corrupted source, his carnal nature.
  6. Sinners will do good works of all sorts. Without grace, the one thing they will not do is repent and believe the gospel.