Mapping the Doctrine of Total Depravity

A Shared Corrupt Nature

The doctrine of total depravity states that, with the exception of the Lord Jesus Christ, all of humanity, from the very moment of conception, share a corrupt human nature which renders us liable to God’s wrath, incapable of any saving good, inclined toward evil, and which leaves us both dead in sin and enslaved to sin. Left to ourselves, we neither want to nor can return to the God who made us, and, without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, we cannot know him as our heavenly Father. Our mind has lost the pure knowledge of God so that we are blind, self-centered, and self-impressed. Our will has squandered its holiness and surrendered its freedom; we are wicked in our rebellion against a good God and his ways, and, more than this, we are enslaved to our rebellion. Our affections are impure and find delight in what is evil. We do not rejoice constantly in God. It is not that we are as bad as we possibly could be; rather, total depravity simply describes the fact that there is not one single aspect of our constitution that is unaffected by sin’s derangements.1

Total depravity says something essential about the corruption of humanity, but it does not say everything there is to say. Strictly speaking, this doctrine refers to the utter pervasiveness of sin’s spread just as it has also become linked in particular historical contexts to the understanding of human inability to respond to God’s grace apart from his personal intervention. All these ideas have been contested and are complex in themselves, but undergirding these ideas is the fall of humanity and the doctrine of original sin, which together form the bleak backdrop to all that Christian theology has fought for, argued about, and humbly confessed in its doctrine of creation and of humankind. Total depravity does not exhaust the Christian doctrine of sin; indeed, it is tightly related to several other facets of sin.

Ruined Sinners to Reclaim

David Gibson, Jonathan Gibson

With contributions from more than two dozen well-respected Reformed theologians and church leaders, this volume offers a comprehensive defense of the doctrine of total depravity from historical, biblical, theological, and pastoral perspectives.

The complexities of our subject have generated objections in every age. The moral philosopher Alfred Edward Taylor called the doctrine of original sin “the most vulnerable part of the whole Christian account.”2 The tradition itself recognizes the challenge of a coherent account. Herman Bavinck wrote in his Reformed Dogmatics that the event of the fall of the first humans “is of such great weight that the whole of Christian doctrine stands or falls with it.”3 Similarly, for Bavinck, the doctrine of original sin is not only “one of the weightiest but also one of the most difficult subjects in the field of dogmatics.”4 It is one of the weightiest subjects, because, along with the doctrine of God, it is one of the great presuppositions of the Christian gospel: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15).5 It is one of the most difficult subjects, because it is so multifaceted. Blaise Pascal said, “It is astonishing however that the mystery furthest from our understanding is the transmission of sin, the one thing without which we can have no understanding of ourselves!”6

The doctrine of original sin presupposes and entails other doctrines, such as the nature of man as body and soul and his state of original righteousness before the fall. A right handling of the doctrine of original sin situates it within the framework of a covenant of works with Adam and in relation to God’s law in Eden, before delineating various aspects of the doctrine: the origin of sin (God, man, or the devil?) and the kingdom of evil; the spread of sin (preexistent, realistic, mediate imputation, or immediate imputation?); the nature of sin (a substance, privation of good, negation or nothingness, moral evil or lawlessness?); the scope of sin (body, soul, emotions, mind, and will?); and the effect of sin on the freedom of the will (necessary, contingent, certain?). From this foundation and foreground, we arrive at one specific, significant, and historically influential rendering of sin’s nature and effects, namely, the total depravity of human creatures. But it is the full picture of sin and its derelictions that we are concerned with.

A Long Look at Sin

Our posture is neither defensive nor embarrassed about the need to stare long and hard at the problem of sin and depravity in the human race. Indeed, some methodological throat-clearing at the start is an opportunity for us to reflect a little more on what we have already alluded to: the doctrine of sin requires us to grapple with the tightly interwoven fabric of the whole of Christian theology and to recognize that we will not travel far or well along the road of abundant delight in the gospel without a profound understanding of the plight from which we have been saved. Classic texts such as Dynamics of Spiritual Life have shown us that, in fact, a depth perception of sin goes hand in hand in Scripture and throughout church history with the lifegiving, restorative, reviving work of the Holy Spirit, both individually and corporately.7 There is significant precedent for our longing and prayer that God [would] awaken us afresh to the nefarious nadirs of who we are in our rebellion, precisely so that the stunning splendor of who God is in stooping to save us can be confessed anew. As D. A. Carson puts it,

There can be no agreement as to what salvation is unless there is agreement as to that from which salvation rescues us. The problem and the solution hang together: the one explicates the other. It is impossible to gain a deep grasp of what the cross achieves without plunging into a deep grasp of what sin is; conversely, to augment one’s understanding of the cross is to augment one’s understanding of sin.8

The weightiness and difficulty of the doctrine of sin, and its interconnectedness to a whole range of other topics in Christian theology, make the case, we believe, for the argument that church history, the Bible, theology, and pastoral practice need to coalesce to provide a framework within which the doctrine of total depravity is best articulated today.9 [We] attempt to listen to the past and the faithful cloud of witnesses who have thought long and hard about sin; it seeks to submit itself and the tradition to Scripture as our supreme authority; and. . . to pursue the systematic and dogmatic integration of church history, exegesis, and theological reflection into a coherent whole that is turned toward God in doxology and toward the church in loving, gracious, truthful, and Christ-exalting pastoral practice.


  1. The definition in this paragraph is our own, but it is a composite drawn almost entirely from Articles One and Three of the Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine in the Canons of Dort, and also from John Calvin’s treatment of original sin. See the new translation of the Canons of Dort in W. Robert Godfrey, Saving the Reformation: The Pastoral Theology of the Canons of Dort (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust, 2019), 127–30; John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960); 2.1.8 (1:250–52).
  2. A. E. Taylor, The Faith of a Moralist (London: Macmillan, 1930), 165. Quoted from Hans Madueme, “The Most Vulnerable Part of the Whole Christian Account: Original Sin and Modern Science,” in Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin: Theological, Biblical, and Scientific Perspectives, ed. Hans Madueme and Michael Reeves (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2014), 225.
  3. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003–8), 3:38.
  4. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 3:100.
  5. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 47: “The two great presuppositions of the gospel are a doctrine of God and a doctrine of man”; John Murray, “Inability,” in Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 2, Systematic Theology (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1977), 83, 88: “Original sin deals with our depravity. Inability deals with the fact that our depravity is humanly irremediable. . . . The only gospel there is is the gospel which rests upon the assumption of total inability.”
  6. Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. Honor Levi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), section 164 (p. 42).
  7. Richard F. Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1979).
  8. D. A. Carson, “Sin’s Contemporary Significance,” in Fallen: A Theology of Sin, ed. Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, Theology in Community (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 22 (emphasis added).
  9. Gibson and Gibson, “Sacred Theology and the Reading of the Divine Word,” 37–41.

This article is adapted from Ruined Sinners to Reclaim: Sin and Depravity in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective edited by David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson.

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