What Did Jesus Teach about Total Depravity?

This article is part of the What Did Jesus Teach? series.

Jesus on Sin and Depravity

There are various texts within the Gospels where our Lord highlights man’s inner and outer depravity. Perhaps the clearest example is recorded in Mark 7:15–16, 18–23, where he taught:

“There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him. . . . Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean). . . . “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

While there are other theological issues discussed here (the nature of what is clean and unclean in regard to Jewish ritual purity), it is evident that Jesus does not present an optimistic anthropology. He does not merely declare “all foods clean” (Mark 7:19), but he announces that all humans are not clean. What is found in a septic tank (“whatever . . . is expelled”; Mark 7:19) is cleaner than what is found in the human heart (cf. Jer. 17:9). Like Paul in Romans 1:29–31, where he describes sin as both interior attitudes (like greed and arrogance) and exterior acts (like murder and disobeying parents), Jesus sees internal sins (evil thoughts, coveting, envy, pride) and external sins (sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, slander, foolishness; Mark 7:21–22) as inseparable and at the very core of fallen humanity (“from within, out of the heart of man”; Mark 7:21).

Elsewhere Jesus says, “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart” (Matt. 15:18) and, “On the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:36–37). Words are windows to our hearts. Our lips are unclean because our hearts are unclean. The “evil things” we see on the outside “come from within” (Mark 7:23). From head to toe, body to soul, all aspects of ourselves are pervasively depraved.1

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.

“You without Sin, Cast the First Stone”

While Jesus’s statement, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7), is not found in our earliest and best Greek manuscripts, the assumption of universal guilt before God is evident throughout Jesus’s teaching in the Gospels. Proof of this reality is manifold. Below are four evidences to support this claim.

First, Jesus teaches that all people are “evil.” In his teaching on prayer, Jesus uses an analogy between the heavenly Father’s generosity and that of an earthly father: “Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:9–11). The point of the comparison is not to highlight the sinful nature of humankind but to show the abundant generosity of God. However, Jesus’s statement about the earthly fathers who “give good gifts” being “evil” (ὑμεῖς πονηροί), in an ontological sense, is in striking contrast with a view of man’s innate goodness. According to Jesus, that we might do “good things” and “give good gifts” does not mean we are “good.” Even “good” people are fundamentally “evil.”

Second, in the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector (Luke 18:9–14), Jesus commends the tax collector’s realistic view of himself as “a sinner.” The Pharisee, who holds a high view of himself and an optimistic opinion of his own nature, with his wordy prayer in the temple about his overt piety (Luke 18:11–12), is contrasted with the tax collector, who, away from the notice of the crowd (“standing far off ”), offers the postures (he “would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast”) and prayer of humble confession (“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”; Luke 18:13). The point of the parable, told to those “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous” (Luke 18:9), is that the self-acknowledging “sinner” (Luke 18:13) was “justified” (Luke 18:14) by God and the so-called “righteous” (Luke 18:9) Pharisee was not.2

Third, Jesus teaches that all humans are morally indebted to God. As mentioned above, Jesus compares the forgiveness of the sinful woman (“a woman of the city, who was a sinner”; Luke 7:37) to canceling a large debt (Luke 7:43). Another example can be found in the final two petitions of the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our sins [we will sin], for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us [others will sin against us]. And lead us not into temptation [everyone will be regularly tempted]” (Luke 11:4; Matt. 6:12–13).3 A final example is found in Jesus’s parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt. 18:23–35), where God’s forgiveness of our sin is compared to forgiving a debt of “ten thousand talents” (Matt. 18:24). Since “a talent was the highest unit of currency, and ten thousand was then the highest Greek numeral,” this debt “was the highest or largest imaginable amount.”4 Robert Gundry labels it “zillions.”5 Therefore, the point of this part of the parable is this: like the servant who could not pay the ten thousand talents of debt (one of the king’s “servants . . . could not pay”; Matt. 18:23–25), all humans are “in the deepest possible debt to God,”6 and, since we cannot possibly cover the astronomical costs, our only hope for forgiveness is that “out of pity” for us God will cancel the balance (“the master . . . forgave him the debt”; Matt. 18:27).7

Fourth, it is clear that even God’s covenant people are sinners. For example, in Jesus’s answer to the Canaanite woman’s plea (“Have mercy . . . my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon”; Matt. 15:22) and the disciples’ strong suggestion (“Send her away . . .”; Matt. 15:23), he speaks of being “sent . . . to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24). The “sent” language emphasizes the Father’s role. Jesus is an agent of God, commissioned by God, and sent to “save his people [the Jews] from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). The phrase “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24), which is probably epexegetical (“the lost sheep which are the house of Israel”),8 depicts the whole nation (God’s “people Israel”; Matt. 2:6; cf. Ezek. 34:23) as “lost.” They are “lost” either in the sense of needing salvation from sin (Matt. 1:21; cf. Isa. 6:5; Luke 15:24, Luke 15:32; Luke 19:10) or in the sense of needing godly leadership (like “sheep without a shepherd”; Matt. 9:36; cf. Jer. 27:6 LXX). When the twelve are “sent” by Jesus (Matt. 10:5) to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:6), the emphasis appears to be on Israel’s need to receive Jesus (Matt. 10:40) and acknowledge him publicly (Matt. 10:32), thereby accepting the proclamation of the kingdom of heaven and experiencing its power (Matt. 7–8).9 Israel is not alone in its sin. In Jesus’s instruction on prayer (Matt. 6:12, 14), relational reconciliation (Matt. 5:23–25), church discipline (Matt. 18:15–20), and the forgiveness of sins (Matt. 18:21–35), he assumes that Christians, even under the new covenant, will regularly and repeatedly sin against other Christians.10

The solution offered for the sin problem is universal. Put differently, salvation is seen as something everyone needs. Just as in the “days of Noah” (Matt. 24:37) when all humanity was either saved or judged, so when Jesus returns, his adjudication will be universal. Like Jesus, who proclaimed “light” both to the Jews (“our people”) and to “the Gentiles” (Acts 26:23), the apostles are also commanded to preach the gospel to “all nations” (Matt. 28:19; cf. Acts 1:8) so that God “may bring salvation to the ends of the earth” (Acts 13:47). Obviously, the whole world, which dwells in darkness (cf. Matt. 4:16; Luke 1:79) needs the “light” of this good news.

The Universal Call to Repentance

The effects of sin are so prevalent that John the Baptist, Jesus, and his disciples preached a universal call for repentance in light of universal judgment. There is not a sermon recorded in the Synoptics and Acts that does not assume everyone is a sinner, under the judgment of God, and thus in need of “repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). The consistent proclamation is that “all people everywhere” should “repent” (Acts 17:30) and “believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).

John the Baptist prepares the way for the coming Christ by “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4; cf. Acts 13:24). His call to repentance—“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2)—was indiscriminate. Mark’s use of the word “all”—“all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mark 1:5)—is viewed as the proper response to John’s universal summons. To John, there is no need to explain the nature of sin or to offer an apologetic for its existence. Everyone has sins to confess; everyone should confess those sins; everyone can receive baptism as a sign of God’s cleansing of sin.

Like John, Jesus indiscriminately preaches repentance (“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”; Matt. 4:17). Jesus also illustrates the nature of true repentance. In the parables of the two sons (Matt. 21:28–32) and the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32), Jesus makes it clear that repentance involves a change of mind followed by an action that involves turning toward God. In the first parable, the son who said that he would not obey his father “changed his mind and went” (Matt. 21:29); in the second parable, the prodigal “came to his senses” (Luke 15:17 NLT; the English for the Greek idiom εἰς ἑαυτὸν δὲ ἐλθὼν) and then rehearsed to himself the proper steps of repentance: walking home, confessing sin, and admitting unworthiness (“I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son’”; Luke 15:18–19a).

Jesus makes it clear that repentance involves a change of mind followed by an action that involves turning toward God.

In case there is any doubt that Jesus thought all people everywhere must repent, his statement to those who shared with him about a certain sin of their northern covenant comrades (“the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices”; Luke 13:1) should put to rest all opposition to the notion of universal sin:

And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:2–4)

Jesus’s point here, as Philip Ryken summarizes, is that “we are all sinful enough to deserve the wrath of God.” Ryken continues,

Notice the precise place where Jesus disagreed with his listeners. He did not say they were wrong to hold God responsible for the fall of the tower. Jesus knew that this too was under God’s sovereign control. No, the place he disagreed with them was in their assumption that they were morally superior to the people who died at Siloam. On the contrary, the people who died in that tragic accident were no better and no worse than anyone else. The word Jesus used to describe the victims is spiritually significant. The word translated “offenders” is the Greek word for debtors (opheiletai), which is the best word to describe people who owe something to God for their sin. “The fact is,” writes Michael Wilcock, “that we are all sinners, all in need of repentance, all deserving of punishment, and all preserved from the wrath of God—at least until judgment day—purely by his mercy.”11

Jesus’s apostles followed this pattern we find in the sayings of Jesus and John. Repeatedly, in their sermons in Acts, the apostles call for repentance.12 Both Jews (e.g., every single person in Jerusalem for the Passover) and Gentiles (e.g., every single Gentile Paul encounters on his missionary journeys), are called to repent and believe in light of the coming judgment: the message “declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, [was] that they should repent and turn to God” (Acts 26:20). They are also promised forgiveness of sins if they trust this gospel about Jesus.13


  1. “The whole man is overwhelmed—as by a deluge—from head to foot, so that no part is immune from sin and all that proceeds from him is to be imputed to sin” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, LCC 20, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols. [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960], 2:253).
  2. It is clear from this parable, and especially from Jesus’s condemnation of the scribes and the Pharisees in Matt. 23, that Jesus’s statement about “the righteous” in Mark 2:17 (“I came not to call the righteous, but sinners”) means “those who considered themselves righteous.”
  3. Matthew adds “and deliver us from evil” or “the evil one” (Matt. 6:13b). Here, every Christian who prays for daily bread also prays for daily deliverance (ῥῦσαι). The Christian is asking God to help him not surrender to the persistent lure of sin and the grasp of Satan.
  4. Douglas Sean O’Donnell, Matthew, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 524.
  5. Robert H. Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982), 373.
  6. O’Donnell, Matthew, 524. Notice that Jesus’s anthropology is connected with his soteriology. “Here Jesus depicts human beings, due to their sin . . . as being zillions of dollars in debt to God,” which means that “Jesus thinks deep down (and not so deep down) people are really, really bad. Perhaps more visual than debt, think zillion-mile chasm between God’s goodness and our badness. Or think both. With Jesus’s calculation, the implications are obvious. He puts to rest any notion of works righteousness. It is a zillion-mile chasm! It’s a zillion-dollar debt! Good luck with the climb. Good luck with bank loan. You will not balance that budget or bridge that chasm by yourself. You will only balance it and bridge it by clinging to that old, rugged, and colossal cross! A cross deeper and wider and vaster than you can ever fathom. For if one person’s debt (one person!) is a zillion dollars, what is the debt for the sins of the whole world for which Christ pays?” (524).
  7. Our indebtedness can be forgiven only because Jesus came “to give his life as a ransom”—a full payment (Matt. 20:28).
  8. This is similar to Matt. 10:6, where the Jews as a whole (“the house of Israel”) are the “lost sheep,” as set in contrast to “the Gentiles and . . . the Samaritans” (Matt. 10:5).
  9. Some of the sentences in the above paragraph come from Douglas Sean O’Donnell, “The Canaanite Woman’s Great Faith: An Exploration into the Nature of Faith in Matthew” (PhD diss., University of Aberdeen, 2019), 99–100.
  10. Jesus’s teaching in Luke 17:3–4 is striking. If another believer sins, rebuke that person; then, if there is repentance, forgive. Even if that person wrongs a fellow believer seven times a day (that is a possibility to Jesus!) and each time turns again and asks forgiveness, that believer must forgive.
  11. Philip Graham Ryken, Luke, 2 vols., Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009), 2:6. Ryken quotes from Michael Wilcock, The Message of Luke, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979), 138.
  12. Acts 2:38; 3:19, 26; 5:31; 8:22; 17:30; 26:18, 20.
  13. Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 13:38; 26:28.

This article is by Douglas Sean O’Donnell and 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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