The Doctrines of Grace: Total Depravity, Part 1
Introduction and Definition
Welcome to the first of the five “doctrines of grace,” total depravity. Before we get into the definition of this doctrine, let’s briefly look at the word depravity. Dictionary.com defines depravity in four ways: “1) moral corruption or degradation; 2) a depraved act or condition; 3) moral perversion; impairment of virtue and moral principles; and 4) a corrupt or depraved or degenerate act or practice.”
What we are concerned with here are the second and third definitions, which I combine thus: “a depraved (corrupted or degraded) condition of moral perversion in which virtue and moral principles are impaired.” Yes, I know I just committed a redundancy but just pretend that it’s emphatic redundance.
Now, for a smidgen of historical background.
This doctrine was first expressed by Augustine in his writings against the Pelagian heresy back in the 400s AD. The monk Pelagius taught that man is created essentially good and that man’s free choice introduces sin, and as a result man only needs to stop sinning, not to be saved.
Augustine, in contrast, insisted that the Scriptures taught that while yes, Adam was created good, Adam’s free choice to sin has consequences that were passed down to each successive generation of humans. That consequence Augustine saw in Scripture is that man became totally incapable of doing any good of any kind at all. After Adam, no one is born “good” in the same way as Adam; they are born under the consequence. Man is unable to stop sinning of his own accord. The only power of doing good was to be found in God’s sovereign grace (the enabling power of God that rules the universe). In other words, God has to do it (stop sin) for you, since you can’t. Thus it is more accurate to describe this doctrine as total inability.
Unfortunately for Augustine (and by association all of Christendom and the rest of the world), the church did not fully embrace his system, and thus invented Semi-Pelagianism, which has plagued Christianity to this very day. While Semi-Pelagianism affirms with Augustine that man is not born good (that can only be true of Adam and Eve), and needs God’s grace to be saved; however (in concession to Pelagianism) man is not so depraved that he has no inclination to do good. He is merely sick (the origin of the term sin-sick) and must be healed by God’s grace. In addition, man must choose to submit to the healing ministrations of God’s grace in order to be saved (a further concession that makes this obviously Pelagian).
It was not until Martin Luther arrived that this doctrine was recovered. Isn’t it interesting how Luther recovered much of what the Bible actually teaches? Luther saw that the church must be cleansed of semi-Pelagianism before believers can ever truly understand God. He made Augustine’s teaching very accessible by stating that man’s will, man’s free choice, is so completely corrupted and perverted that it is in bondage to sin, and as such is not inclined to choose good. He wrote about this in book which sits on my shelf, The Bondage of the Will. It’s a good read, I suggest everyone read it.
John Calvin crystallized this teaching in the way which it has become known to us today. In his greatest work, Institutes of the Christian Religion, he wrote: “…everything in man, the understanding and will, the soul and body, is polluted and engrossed by this [sin or “law of sin”]; or, to express it more briefly, that man is of himself nothing else but [sin].” (In the original quotation, Calvin uses the word concupiscence, which means “strong desire” or “lust.” The way Augustine uses it defines it as “the law of sin in our sinful flesh,” and as such says we are “born in concupiscence,” that is, born in sin.)
The Synod of Dort summarized Calvin’s teaching on the matter. Please see the series Introduction for the summary as I have rendered it.
So, in conjunction with my definition of depravity above, total depravity is defined as the idea that the impairment of man’s will is total, so total that the will is not inclined to do good.
It is worth mentioning that an entire genre of thought has sprung up to flesh out why a will that is not inclined to do good does, in fact, do praiseworthy (good) acts. However, that is not within the purpose of this blog series. I will note such a quandary for some future blogpost. We can do systematic theology (ha ha, and I’m doing a series on something systematic, how ironic) later.
Now, since this history will make the treatment a bit longer than I wanted, I’m going to split up this doctrine into two parts. Today will be the introduction. Friday I will post the remainder of the treatment, following my outline in the series Prologue.
EDIT: What you see now is revised from its original posting on Wednesday. I’ve cleared up some ambiguities, made some things a little more specific, and added an explanation of using “sin” to explain the term concupiscence (thanx to: Shane Morgan). Otherwise what you see is exactly how it was presented originally. Also, I wanna thank Aaron Shafovaloff for making that list of Scriptures in the comments. Now I don’t have to list them all on my notepad before I type up the second half of this treatment. 😉
Some of you have also asked where the biblical support is. Please remember that the biblical support of the doctrine lies in the next half, so bear with me. I only sought to get a definition here. I was of the mind that defining terms would make the biblical argument a little easier to grasp for those of us who aren’t seminary students. In the meantime, peruse Aaron’s list in the comments, it’s a good primer for what I’m about to do.