The Doctrine of Total Depravity—is it Biblical?


Total depravity is a central doctrine in Reformed theology that affirms the pervasive effects of sin on every aspect of human nature. This doctrine teaches that as a result of the fall of Adam, all human beings are born with a sinful nature and are incapable of coming to Christ or doing anything truly good apart from the grace of God (Rom. 5:12; Ps. 51:5; Eph. 2:1-3).

Several Scriptures support the doctrine of Total Depravity. In Romans 3:10-12, the Apostle Paul writes, “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one.” Similarly, in Ephesians 2:1-3, Paul describes us as being “dead in our trespasses and sins” and were by nature “children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” Other passages that support Total Depravity include Psalm 14:1-3, Psalm 51:5, and Jeremiah 17:9.

Numerous Protestant theologians throughout history have defended Total Depravity. John Calvin, one of the most influential Reformed theologians, argued that “The whole man is overwhelmed, as it were, with a deluge of vices” and that “the mind, because of its corruption, cannot think, will, or do anything but what is sinful” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.2.19). Similarly, Jonathan Edwards, an 18th-century Puritan theologian, wrote that “every man is a sinner by nature, and so is in a state of total moral corruption” (Original Sin, p. 29).

Total Depravity has been compared to a dead tree. Namely, a tree cannot produce good fruit unless it has a good root system. Similarly, humans cannot produce spiritual actions when they are spiritually dead. That is, Total Depravity argues that humanity’s nature has been corrupted by sin to the extent that it is incapable of producing spiritual actions (e.g., seeing the Kingdom, repenting, and trusting in Christ) apart from the grace of God (John 3:3; John 6:44). In other words, without God’s intervention, humans are like dead trees, unable to produce spiritual fruit.

Martin Luther also speaks on the matter by saying, “Free will, after the fall, has the power to do nothing but sin and resist grace” (The Bondage of the Will, 1525). Charles Spurgeon said, “I do not come into this pulpit hoping that perhaps somebody will of his own free will turn to Christ… my hope lies in another quarter. I hope that my Master will lay hold of some of them and say, ‘You are mine, and you shall be mine. I claim you for myself.’”

Total Depravity highlights the fact that salvation is entirely an act of God. It reveals our complete incapacity without the grace of God and fosters gratitude in the believer for their salvation, as they come to understand that their rescue was not of their own doing, but solely the result of God’s sovereign choice to save them.

There are several resources available for those interested in learning more about Total Depravity. John Piper has written extensively on the topic, including his book, The Five Points of Calvinism, and his website Desiring God, has numerous articles and videos related to Total Depravity. R.C. Sproul’s book, Chosen by God, is likely the most comprehensive defense of the doctrine and has been helpful to many who are exploring reformed theology.

More from this Series

The Ultimate App of Theological Audiobooks and eBooks for the Family

This article was published by and was reviewed by our theological editorial team. For more information about, our mission, or our staff, please view our about section.

More by

After reading this article, what is your opinion? Do you have any questions or comments? Maybe you have something to add to the discussion? If so, let us know in the comments below.

View Comments

Prepare Your Family for the Culture War with Biblical Truth.