Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Vision (8.29.13): What is "Total Depravity?"

Note:  The article below begins an occasional five part series on the doctrines of grace (or “the five points of Calvinism”).  I abbreviated this material from a previously written discipleship booklet, and Bonnie Beach is helping me format it into a tract that we can copy and distribute when we minister this Saturday at the Fluvanna Correctional Center.

The Biblical doctrines of grace are sometimes referred to by the acronym:  TULIP.  Each letter in TULIP stands for one foundational doctrine in the doctrines of grace.  The “T” in TULIP stands for “Total Depravity” (or “radical depravity”).

Total Depravity maintains that the extent of the impact of sin since the fall (Gen 3) is so devastating as to make any human being’s salvation completely dependent on the work of God alone. 

This doctrine takes seriously the hideous nature of human sin.  Those who are not believers generally hold an optimistic view of human nature.  They believe that people are basically good and only are corrupted due to culture or environment.  The Biblical teaches, however, that men are sinners who reject God.

In Romans 3:11 Paul said, “There is none that understandeth; there is none that seeketh after God.”  He was describing the plight of unregenerate (unconverted) human beings.  The Bible holds out the scandalous truth that the only way a sinner becomes a seeker of the one true God is when God sovereignly opens his heart to believe the gospel (see the model conversion of Lydia in Acts 16:15:  “whose heart the Lord opened”).

A firm understanding of the sinful human condition is required for the gospel rightly to be understood.  We must hear the “bad news” of God’s wrath, before we can understand the “good news” of his love, mercy, and grace.

Seven reflections on Total Depravity:

1.      Total Depravity does not mean we are as bad as we possibly can be.

Total depravity is often misinterpreted as saying that mankind is somehow sub-human. Total depravity, however, is not absolute depravity.  We are not all Hitlers!   Even as sinners, we are still God’s image bearers (see Gen 9:6; Psalm 8; James 3:9).  Still, we are completely dependent upon God alone for salvation.

2.     Sin’s impact is total in that it touches the totality of our being.

This is where the term “radical depravity” is perhaps more helpful.  The English word “radical” comes from the Latin word radix meaning root or foundation.  Sin reaches to our roots.  It is basic to our present condition.  Sin is radical in that it impacts every aspect of life:  physically, emotionally, rationally, intellectually, personally, politically, and spiritually.  In Romans 7:18 Paul confessed:  “I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing.”

3.     Sin is universal (impacting all human beings).

In Romans 3:23, Paul said, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.”  In the days of Noah the Lord looked at mankind and saw that “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5).  The prophet Jeremiah lamented:  “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? (Jeremiah 17:9).  It has well been said that, “the best of men are men at best.”

4.     We are sinners from birth.

The Bible teaches that we inherit a sin nature at birth from our first parents, Adam and Eve (cf. Rom 5:17; 1 Cor 15:21-22).  This is sometimes called “original sin.”  In Psalm 51:5 David says, “I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (cf. Ps 58:3).  As one has put it, “We are not sinners because we sin; we sin because we are sinners.”

5.      In addition to our inherited sin nature we also commit actual sins.

Every human being not only has an inclination to sin, but when given time and opportunity he willfully breaks God’s commands.  In Isaiah 53:6 we read, “All we like sheep have gone astray.”    John notes, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).  Sin is not merely theoretical but actual in our lives.

6.     Apart from regeneration (a change of heart), no sinner willingly chooses God.

Jesus told Nicodemus, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).  A new birth experience (regeneration) is required before a person can willingly turn to Christ!

Paul describes the spiritual dullness of the unconverted:   “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14).  In 2 Corinthians 4:3, he describes unbelievers as “blinded” to the truth.

In light of this condition we must talk about human inability.  The unregenerate do not welcome the light of Christ (see John 3:18).  They do not seek God (Rom 3:11).

Apart from regeneration, repentance, and faith in Christ, we remain “children of wrath” who deserve a holy God’s righteous judgment (see Eph 2:1-3).

It is painful to come to grips with this reality.  The flesh will revolt against the Bible’s condemnation of what we falsely believe to be our innate spiritual goodness.  The unsaved usually have a “But I’m a good person!” mentality.  We must be honest, however, about what the Bible teaches and humble in understanding our condition.

7.      Total Depravity accentuates the gap between the holiness of God and the sinfulness of mankind.

Psalm 5:5 declares, “thou hatest all workers of iniquity.”  Psalm 7:11 adds that “God is angry with the wicked every day.”  His eyes are too pure to look upon unrighteousness (see Hab 1:13).  God not only hates sin, but he hates sinners.  The Puritan minister Ralph Venning wrote:  “God hates man for sin.”

The truth of Scripture is that Christ saves us from experiencing the wrath of God for our sin.  John 3:36 declares, “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.”  Likewise, in Romans 5:9, Paul declares that “being now justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him [Jesus].”  Until we understand the magnitude of human sin we will not perceive the magnitude of salvation.


Sin is not a minor hurdle we must overcome with merely a little bit of God's help.  It is an insurmountable obstacle that will only be overcome by God setting down to set us over it.

An honest and sober reckoning of unregenerate man's plight in sin is a necessary starting point to understand properly the solution offered by God's grace in Christ. 

Copyright 2013 Jeffrey T. Riddle.  Copies of this article may be reproduced in whole or in part for non-profit use, including personal and corporate Bible study.  For information on ordering print copies, email


Phil Brown said...

Thank you for this explanation. I will look for this tract. I have been following a blog on occasion called the Orthodox - Reformed Bridge. It is a pro Eastern Orthodox Blog. Even though I agree with their choice text for the New Testament, I have taken issue with a series of posts they have made regarding the TULIP. I am still learning their theology, and feel that I am a bit out of my league to engage in an online discussion with them. I sure would like to know your thoughts about it, if you ever get the time. The most recent link concerning this is:

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...


Thanks for the comment. We distributed over a 100 hard copies of these tracts in the prison last Saturday. We have some left over if anyone would like to order some (send an email to I hope to continue the series through TULIP in upcoming months.

Thanks for making me aware of the Reformed-Orthodox blog articles on TULIP. Interesting. I'll see if I can get around to giving it a look.