Proposition: Do the scriptures teach total hereditary depravity?
What Is the Issue?
We do not deny that all people sin (Romans 3:23), that the consequences of our sins may affect our children (Exodus 34:6-7), that Adam’s sin brought physical death on all mankind (1 Corinthians 15:22; Romans 5:12-21), or that some have such hardened hearts they are incapable of coming to Christ (Matthew 13:13-15).
We do, however, deny the scriptures teach the doctrine of total hereditary depravity. In the words of the Larger Catechism:
Q. 25. Wherein consisteth the sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell?
A. The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consisteth in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of that righteousness wherein he was created, and the corruption of his nature, whereby he is utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite unto all that is spiritually good, and wholly inclined to all evil, and that continually; which is commonly called original sin, and from which do proceed all actual transgressions.
According to this theory each person inherits from Adam a nature that is not simply opposed to some good, but to “all good;” not simply inclined to some evil, but “all evil;” not simply inclined, but “wholly inclined” to all evil; not simply inclined to evil sometimes, but “wholly inclined to all evil, and that continually.”
This Doctrine is Unscriptural Because …
A. It has infants possessing a nature that is as evil as the devil’s.
If the true disposition of the human spirit at conception is “utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite unto all that is spiritually good, and wholly inclined to all evil, and that continually,” how can the devil be any worse? Can he be more than “utterly indisposed, disabled and made opposite unto all that is spiritually good, and wholly inclined to all evil, and that continually”?
B. It does not allow men to grow any worse in the scale of moral turpitude.
The scriptures teach that men go “astray from birth” (Psalm 58:3), that they “all turned aside” (Psalms 14:3) and that “evil men and imposters will proceed from bad to worse.” (2 Timothy 3:13) But how can one who is born totally depraved – “wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body … utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil” (Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) Ch. IV Chap 6, Art. 2-3), “proceed from bad to worse” or “turn aside”? In fact, if men are born with a nature as bad as the devil which way do they go when they go astray: Toward the devil or toward God?
The Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms became doctrinal standards for Presbyterian and other Reformed churches around the world. They teach man can’t get any worse than they are at birth. If you doubt me then tell me what word can be added to wholly which would increase or intensify it’s meaning? One cannot be more than “utterly indisposed, disabled and made opposite unto all that is spiritually good, and wholly inclined to all evil, and that continually.” One cannot be more than “wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body.” Such a person cannot proceed “from bad to worse” as the Scriptures teach. Thus, the Confession is wrong and ought to be repudiated by those who love the truth!
When the promoters of total depravity are confronted with this, they attempt to wiggle out of the problem by making a play on the word total. They claim that a man may be totally depraved and still become more crooked. According to James White: “When we speak of total depravity, we are not in any way asserting that man is as evil as he could possibly be … Total depravity speaks to the condition and nature of man. Basically, this doctrine teaches that all aspects of mankind’s character has been touched by sin – no part of man’s nature has escaped the pollution of sin. Man’s mind, man’s heart, his emotions, our will … every part has been altered, changed or damaged by sin. The effect of sin’s curse is total.” (The Sovereign Grace of God, 47-48). So total does not refer to the degree of depravity, but to “all the aspects of man character;” man has some depravity scattered all through him, but he can get worse – he is not “as evil as he could possibly be.” This might do well as an explanation were it not for some explanatory terms used in the London Confession of Faith, such as “utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil.” (Chap VI, Art. 4) Certainly a sinner may go on sinning, but can he grow any worse than he is here pictured?
C. It is based upon the false doctrine that the sins of the father can be passed on to his sons.
God gave a command that Adam and his wife not eat “from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” (Genesis 2:17) But they did eat and their rebellious act fits well the biblical definition of sin: “sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4; “transgression of the law”, KJV). The scriptures never define sin as anything but a transgression of the law. It is never viewed as a weakness or a hereditament and the Spirit never calls temptation a sin. If it were, Jesus would be a sinner, for he “has been tempted in all things as we are” (Hebrew 4:15).
When Adam and Eve transgressed the law of God the guilt was imputed to them – they died spiritually! Those who believe that more than this happened – that the guilt of this transgression was also imputed to their children, “and the same death in sin … conveyed to all their posterity” (WCF, chap VI, Art. 3) are obliged to prove it. We are confident they will fail. For the scriptures teach: “The person who sins (does lawlessness, KM) will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity … the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself. (Ezekiel 18:20) Though men often suffer as a consequence of their father’s sins (cf. Exodus 34:6-7), no man has or will ever be punished because of his father’s sin. Each man spiritually dies for his own sins alone (cf. Ephesians 2:1; Colossians 2:13), Calvinism notwithstanding.
D. It paints a picture of children that is contrary to the word of God.
Calvinists tell us that man is conceived and then “utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil.” (Your nature cannot become worse than this!) But how does this doctrine square with what the Lord and his apostles teach about children?
Jesus taught that unless you “are converted and become like children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:1-4) If the nature of a child is “utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil” what, pray, is in the child’s nature worthy of emulation? It is clear that the Lord was not a Calvinist. Paul wasn’t either. In his letter to the Corinthians he taught them not to be like children in their thinking (immature) but in regard to evil “be like babes.” (1 Corinthians 14:20) This is interesting. I wonder what it means if it does not mean that in regard to evil, babes are innocent?
E. It teaches that since the fall of Adam all men are born dead in sin.
In contrast, Paul wrote: “And I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive, and I died; and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; for sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, deceived me, and through it killed me.” (Romans 7:9-11) This verse is nonsensical if Calvinism is true. Men are not born dead in sin, but alive, children are not born guilty of sin, but in a state of innocence. It is after they are born that they are killed through the commandment.
F. It teaches that men are so depraved at birth they are unable to choose right.
In as much as man was formed of dust from the ground (Genesis 2:7), to that extent he has been placed within the natural order. But man is more than flesh and blood, more than a beast of the field. He is created in the “image (tselem) and likeness (demuth)” of his Creator. (Gen 1:26) Though both terms are often used with reference to external similarities, it was man’s spirit, not his body, that was made in God’s image. For God is spirit (John 4:24) and has no body. (Luke 24:39)
Man has many attributes distinguishing him from the rest of creation; demonstrating that he is in the image of God. Among these attributes is his freedom of choice. God told Adam: “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17) Man possessed the freedom of will to obey and live or to disobey and die.
Calvinism says that in Adam this freedom to choose God was lost. But we ask: Are not men still made in God’s image? (Genesis 9:6; James 3:9-10) Calvinists say: “Yes, but it has been corrupted through Adam’s sin.” But how can that be? For Adam is only the father of our flesh. While we inherit our flesh from him, our spirits come immediately to us from God. He “is the Father of spirits” (Hebrews 12:9); He “forms the spirit of man within him” (Zechariah 12:1) and at death the spirit of each of us returns to Him who gave it (Ecclesiastes 12:7). If it is true, as Calvinists teach, that each is born with a totally depraved spirit, then they came that way directly from God.
The assumption underlying every command from God (beginning with Gen 2:16-17), every appeal to righteous living and every promise of judgment is that man is free in his will and able to respond to God. The prophet Ezekiel appealed to the sinner to “turn from his ways and live” (Ezek. 18:23). Moses set before Israel the alternatives of life and death, and called on them to “choose life in order that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:15f). Jesus invited “all who are weary and heavy-laden” (Matt 11:28f) to come to him for rest. Each of these invitations pre-supposes that men are free in their will to either obey or disobey.
Even today man enters the world in the image of God. He does not come from God totally depraved, but without evil and remains this way until sin defaces him. Left to ourselves, we are without hope! This is why both Jews and Greeks are in such desperate need for the gospel; and this is why Paul was so anxious to publish it throughout the world: “… for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes….” (Romans 1:16; cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18-21) And here is one final reason why we object to the doctrine of total depravity: It limits the power of God. It has the sinner so depraved and so dead that God could not make a gospel sufficient to offset the work of Satan. Calvinism notwithstanding, the gospel – the word of God – is sufficiently powerful to save all who have “a good and honest heart.” (Luke 8:15; cf. 1 Peter 1:22-23; James 1:18)