Why I Don’t Believe in Total Depravity

To begin with, I believe human beings are horrendously depraved and prone to all manner of evil.  I agree with these words from St. Paul with every fiber of my being:

“all men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written:  ‘None is righteous , no not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one.’  ‘Their throat is an open grave, they use their tongues to deceive.’  The venom of asps is under their lips.’  ‘Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.’  ‘Their feet are swift to shed blood, in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they do not know.’  ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes’ . . . all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  (Romans 3:9-18, 23)

I believe all of creation is in bondage to sin, and is experiencing corruption, decay and death, as a result of the Fall.  (Gen. 3, Rom. 8:19-23)  It is my contention that, from conception, man is born into sin (Psalm 51:5); he is deeply influenced by the sins of his parents, by a world system opposed to God’s will, and manipulated by evil spirits; he is subjected to spiritual corruption and decay, and suffers from various biological and physical effects of sin as well; he is born in the image of fallen Adam (Gen. 5:3) and is estranged from God (essentially, suffering the consequences of being expelled from Eden).

Having said all of this, you are probably wondering how it is that I reject the Reformed Doctrine of Total Depravity.  After all, the bleak picture of human existence I just painted sounds . . . well, totally depraved.  Allow me to explain this apparent contradiction.

The Doctrine of Total Depravity teaches that there was an ontological shift in the nature of humanity as a result of the Fall.  According to this view, man is now, by nature, a sinner.  In other words, sin is an essential part of what it means to be a human being.  Naturally, the idea that man has a sin nature is notoriously difficult to reconcile with the Bible’s teaching that man is made in the image and likeness of God.  While traditional Reformed theology has never denied the image of God in man (in an abstract theological way), there is a strong tendency among Reformed thinkers to downplay the image of God or even disregarded it.

A prime example of this is when Martin Luther compared humanity to a pile of dung.  According to him, the Fall had so corrupted and distorted man that he was no better than a heap of steaming animal droppings.  When I was in Seminary I had several Reformed friends who held this belief.  In my ethics class I remember one of them making the bold assertion that human beings were utterly worthless and were no better than a heap of garbage.  To this I replied:  “So, you’re arguing that the Father loves worthless piles of garbage?  He sent His Son to become a worthless pile of garbage, and to die for worthless piles of garbage?”

As these examples demonstrate, the doctrine of total depravity, which depicts man as a worthless pile of dung or a trash heap, construes a picture of reality in which the image of God in man seems entirely snuffed out; which logically leads to the conclusion that there is no intrinsic value or worth to man because of his sin nature.  If this view is correct, if man is totally depraved, if man is utterly worthless and valueless, and incapable of doing anything good, it is hard to understand why God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.  What exactly does God love about the world?

This brings me to my first problem with the doctrine of total depravity:

(1) If man is by nature a sinner, then God wouldn’t love him?

A creature who is totally depraved, who is a sinner by nature, who can’t help but sin, who always chooses sin, who has no intrinsic value or worth, who is essentially a piece of worthless garbage is not lovable.  The Psalmist declares:  “For thou art not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not sojourn with thee.” (Psalm 5:4)  St. John affirms that, “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.” (I John 1:5).  Over and over the Scriptures attest that God is Holy and Righteous; that God detests evil and darkness; that God is pure and has nothing to do with wickedness; that God abhors injustice and the shedding of innocent blood.  How, then, could God love a creature whose very nature was wickedness, darkness, and evil.  How could a Holy God truly love a creature that was totally depraved?

The answer, of course, is that He couldn’t.  Therefore, if we are to take the numerous passages of Scripture seriously, which teach us that God loves the world, and that He especially loves man, we must reject the notion that man is totally depraved.  There is something lovable about human beings.  After Moses’ first account of the creation of man he says this: “God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good.”  Human beings are good because they are made in the image of God–no matter how twisted and warped they become because of sin.  Even the most depraved man reflects, however poorly, the image of his creator.

The other two problems I have with total depravity are as follows:

(2) If man is by nature a sinner then Jesus, who was without sin, was not really a man.  

This problem is rather significant.  Orthodox Christianity teaches that Christ is one person with two natures; that Jesus is both fully God and fully man.  This point was vigorously defended by both the Apostles and the Early Church Father’s and its truth is of primary importance.  Who we understand Christ to be has a drastic impact on everything we believe and do.  My aim, however, is not to explain the importance of the incarnation or to lay out the ramifications of denying the full humanity of Christ (I have written on this elsewhere if you are interested).  The point is, if you are an orthodox Christian, no matter what tradition you are coming from, the full humanity of Christ is of crucial importance.

With this in mind, it is terribly disturbing that total depravity is at odds with the Doctrine of the Incarnation.  According to the Scriptures, the eternal Word of God took on the full nature of man and lived and dwelled among us.  The Bible also teaches that Jesus never sinned and that he never gave into temptation.  But, if sin is a part of what it means to be human, if we are by nature sinners, if sin is an essential part of our being, as the Doctrine of Total Depravity teaches, then we are forced to draw one of two conclusions: (1) Jesus did not take on the full nature of man (i.e. he was not fully human), or (2) Jesus was not sinless.  Both of these conclusions are unacceptable.  Hence, it cannot be true that sin is a part of the nature of man.

(3) If man is by nature a sinner, then sin is a virtue and to sin is to align oneself with the Good.

This problem is significant as well.  The Good of something is directly tied to its nature and purpose; its telos.  For example, the purpose of a butter knife is to slice and spread butter.  It is not intended for or designed for cutting metal or cleaning your ears.  One could attempt to use a butter knife for these tasks, but would find it extremely difficult and inadequate.  The Good of a butter knife is to slice and spread butter; hence, a butter knife is only functioning properly, i.e. acting in accordance with its nature, when it is being used for this specific task.

The same is true for people.  If we believe that human beings are made in the Image of God; then we believe that man’s nature and purpose is to be like God; and that the Good of man is to conform himself to God’s image; to be in good fellowship with the One who created all things.  If, however, the image of God has been entirely snuffed out, if man is totally depraved and sin is an essential part of his nature, then we have major problems.  Suddenly, to sin is simply to act in accordance with one’s nature.  In other words, sin is the Good.  A totally depraved human being who sins is simply acting in accordance with his nature and is, therefore, functioning properly and achieving his purpose.  Strangely, sin, for the totally depraved human being, becomes a virtue!

If this were true, how could God ask His creatures to do anything but sin?  And why would God be upset with His creatures for acting in accordance with their nature—for functioning properly?

From this standpoint, the idea that human beings are totally depraved is terribly disturbing and, obviously, at odds with Scripture, which teaches that man is made in God’s image and likeness, that man is to be Holy as God is Holy, and that man is to conform himself to God’s will.

While I accept that we live in a desperately fallen world, that man is estranged from God, that men have a strong propensity to sin, and that all men do, in fact, choose to sin, I do not accept the doctrine of total depravity. I do not believe man has a sin nature; rather, I believe sin is completely at odds with man’s nature being made in the image of God; and that when man sins he misses the mark.  Sin is a corruption of and degradation of man; it is a lack of Good; it twists the image of God into something ugly and dysfunctional; it leads to death or non-Being.  Sin goes against God’s intentions and purposes.  It comes about when man, by his own free will, turns from the Good (God) and fails to live in accordance with his own nature.  For this reason sin is abhorrent, destructive, and leads to death.

Click here for the next article: Further Reflections on Total Depravity.


22 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Believe in Total Depravity

  1. Great post Josh. I do have one question though.

    Though you know I’m not reformed, nor do I accept Total Depravity, I’m wondering if it’s necessarily true that one must accept that our nature is depraved in order to believe in TD.

    For instance, could one believe that our wills are totally depraved, proving us incapable of accept Christ of our own volition?

    Not that I’ve heard anyone make that argument, but could that be a possible way around the issue? (Although I would contend such an explanation does bring up further problems…)

    1. Thanks Joel! To answer your question: only if one wants to maintain the traditional notion of total depravity (which is what I had in mind when I wrote my essay). Obviously, someone could redefine what total depravity means to exclude the idea that our nature is depraved; in which case, my arguments wouldn’t apply. If someone took that approach the conversation would quickly drift into matters of free will vs. determinism and other related arguments.

  2. In thinking about a response to your first grievance with TD, I thought that perhaps the person may appeal to God’s desire for His own glory, which is usually the go-to-guy for God’s purposes for reformed theologians. In this appeal, the proponent of TD would claim that in the love of His glory lies the impetus for God’s redemption of man and, in this way, God might, in a very indirect way, display “love” for human persons. But this seems to completely devalue human persons, making them no different or more valuable than a number to the an eternal, necessary being. Furthermore, this makes the whole of history completely superfluous as God’s attributes, and, therefore, His glory, were wholly manifest ontologically prior to creation. The whole salvation project becomes a fairly gruesome endeavor as sentient beings are mere instruments for a roundabout, terribly wasteful, divine masturbation of sorts. Moreover, this would certainly render redemption an ingenuous act of love since love appears to be self-sacrificing and this account provides only self-concerned love. All this hardly seems congruent with the concept of God and his attributes. Unfortunately, it also seems to me that this position is one that would logically result from many of the positions I have encountered in discussions with people holding the same sorts of positions as those you have encountered.

  3. “as a result of the Fall”

    Of course the problem is that theology has no relationship to reality. There was no Adam or Eve or Fall. So it’s nonsense all the way down.

    “the doctrine of total depravity … construes a picture of reality”

    There you go again with that theology nonsense.

    “that man is made in God’s image and likeness”

    Hilarious nonsense.

    1. Simply allowing this through to make this point – trolling is not allowed. Further posts like this one on any topic (other than the PZ Myers posts, where trolling is expected) will result in the comment being deleted and the poster being banned. Please read our commenting policy.

  4. Interesting points. I’m not necessarily a reformed thinker (although I admittedly lean that direction), but I went to a predominantly reformed school which taught predominantly reformed theology, and I just have a few questions and points I am hoping you could clarify.

    1. Couldn’t a reformed thinker respond by pointing out that as we are conformed to the likeness of Christ, that God is thereby redeeming and restoring the image of God in us? After all, most of the reformed thinkers I’ve encountered don’t seem to believe the image of God was snuffed out or destroyed, but rather it was significantly tainted at the Fall, and that God has since been at work to restore His image in mankind.

    2. If sin is an “outside source” imposing “itself” onto humans (rather than something that saturates our entire being), then theoretically speaking, it would be entirely POSSIBLE for a person to be unaffected by sin, thereby seemingly eliminating the need for a savior. Certainly a person could experience all the physical effects of sin and yet do so without sinning (just as Jesus did). If a person does not inherently possess a sinful nature, then what is it that compels EVERY human to sin?

    3. Considering your first objection to TD, I find it interesting that you chose a pre-Fall passage of Scripture in which God exclaims that man is a good creation. As I said before, many of the reformed thinkers I have conversed with would argue that the image of God in man was tainted and distorted at the fall, so that man still carries the image of God, but also that having a sinful nature and bearing the image of God are not incompatible.

    4. If there isn’t a sinful nature combating the image of God, then it would be more natural to please God. However, as we all know, it is quite the opposite – pleasing the flesh is more natural to humans than pleasing God.

    5. How can all people be affected by sin through one man if sin is not something inherent within our nature, but rather an invasive power on our lives?

    These are just some thoughts and questions that I had while reading this post. It is a great post with some excellent arguments (particularly on the nature of Christ and TD’s effect on it).

    1. Jon,

      In some of the early Church writers they pointed to man’s will being pointed away from God as a result of the fall. So while we weren’t guilty of Adam’s sin (which is a repudiation of Original Sin) we did suffer the effects of Adam’s sin. Furthermore, they taught that we were good by nature, but made ourselves morally evil. In making ourselves morally evil we brought death upon ourselves and the world.

      Now, if you combine all of that, what do we get? Well, if our natures can’t change and if man was “very good” prior to the fall, then it follows that we’re “very good” today. To say that evil can permeate the nature of something so much as to make it evil by nature is simply Gnostic and not consistent with Scripture, mostly with the Incarnation. If humans aren’t good by nature, if we are evil by nature, then Jesus necessarily was evil by nature or necessarily wasn’t a human. We can’t have it both ways where He is good by nature and a human being if humans are supposedly evil by nature. Therefore, we are good by nature, but sin hides this goodness.

      Secondly, our wills are directed against (or away from) God from birth. This means that we will choose to sin, but can still choose good actions as well. It would show that within humans isn’t some rational system that we can explain, where we are either wholly good or wholly depraved, but rather that humans are contradictions. Our nature pulls us towards what is good, but with our wills we choose what is evil. And therein lies the problem with total depravity is that it doesn’t really leave open the door for explaining why we choose the good.

      That we seem to sin more than we choose good may be true, but this has far more to do with our wills than anything in our nature. What this means in salvation is that once we have accepted Christ, the purpose of sanctification (being made new) is that our wills are to align with God’s will. We are to see the world and act in the world as God would have us act in the world. This is why Paul put such an emphasis on the renewal of our minds, which is essentially what a “new creation” is (at least pre-resurrection). To say that our essential natures have changed, however, is simply an impossibility.

    2. Jon, thanks for the great comments. Sadly, I don’t have time to address all of them. That being said, I would like to comment, briefly, on number 2. I don’t believe sin is an “outside force” imposing itself on man. Rather, I believe sin is rooted in our will. Man chooses to act in a way which is not in accordance with his nature when he chooses to turn away from God and worship the creation rather than the Creator. So, we are not victims of some substantiated force; rather, we choose to turn away from the Good which ultimately leads to death.

      I’m sure you still have many questions and objections to what I have said. Hopefully, this comment makes sense. 🙂

  5. I just a few responses/comments:

    1. First of all I believe the Imago Dei is one of the most important doctrines of Scripture for believers to know for many various reasons, which is not necessary to dive into in this post. But, Scripture does show WHY we are the crown and glory of his creation according to Psalm 8 (which is also quoted in Hebrews) as well as capital punishment which is laid out in Genesis 9 I believe.

    2. I believe two things in regards to the depravity of man. We HAVE the ability to follow the law whole heartedly and perfectly.

    Deut 30:11 ~ For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off.

    However, the issue is, though we have the ability to follow the Law perfectly, we never will. Hence the need for a Savior who is able to reconcile us back to YHWH.

    Deut 30:6 ~ And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.

    My belief of depravity is this, man in and of himself when left to his own devices and will, is naturally bent upon himself and is in enmity with God and a natural born enemy of God because of the sin within. The issue is not that Christ came to save us from what we DO but to save us from what we ARE. Hence why we need to circumcise our hearts of our fleshly desires because they are at war with the Spirit of God.

    Romans 8:5-9 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.

    There is an obvious pendalum swing that must occur in the heart of man to bring them into the act of holy goodness and righteousness … can man do it on his own? No Is the Image of God in man destroyed at the fall? No … I believe the image of God is still within man but that the nature of man is now intermingled with a dual war between good and evil.

  6. What is the distinction between “will” and “nature”? Without the definitions of the terms it would seem to me that the two would be strongly connected.

    1. Good question.

      Our nature is what makes us human, what makes us distinct from other species. For humans, our nature would be “rational animals.” This indicates that we are both material and immaterial (animals being physical and rationality being immaterial). We cannot say that humans have “two hands,” for other species have two hands, yet are not human. Likewise, other humans have one hand or no hands, but are still human.

      The will, however, is contained within our nature. In order to will something I an relying upon my rational side, but not always my animalistic side (though I can certainly be influenced by my bodily needs). So while my whole nature may not be corrupted, my will could be deformed without impacting my nature.

      In comparing this all to the Fall, we could easily say that while our nature is unaffected by sin, our wills are drastically affected by sin. Just as someone with a deformed leg isn’t less human than one with a perfect leg, someone with a deformed will isn’t any less human than one with a perfect will.

      Does that help make a little more sense? Sadly, a lot of this is diving into metaphysics, which is a complicated field of study in philosophy.

      1. Yes, I figured it wasn’t a simple distiction. It sounds like will is included in nature but is only a part of it, though it’s more complex that.

      2. Yeah, it really is. Someday I’ll do a series on Christian metaphysics in the modern age (drawing on Aristotle and Plato)…or I’ll write a book about it that 5 or 6 people will read. Until I become a professor and make my students read it that is.

  7. Jon writes:

    5. How can all people be affected by sin through one man if sin is not something inherent within our nature, but rather an invasive power on our lives?

    Answer: Nowhere in Genesis 3 does God say man’s will was affected in the ‘Fall’. Rather, it was a Climb in man’s knowledge. “The man,” said the Lord after Adam’s transgression, “has become as one of us, knowing good and evil.” The word “knowledge” in the phrase “The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” is actually an intensified form of the general word in Hebrew for “knowledge,” though translations don’t reflect this. For Adam from creation already had a form of general knowledge of good and evil (i.e. discernment), or else he would not have understood that it was wrong to partake of the forbidden fruit.

    Here, then, is the answer how all men are affected by sin, and do sin, though it be not “an invasive power on our lives”. It is because of a change in man’s form of knowledge, wherein he now finds it more difficult to focus on the good, because his mind is now capable of, and subjected to, more thoughts, including the receiving of thought-presentations from others, yet with less time to reflect upon them. The result (not an inevitable one) is a wandering of the mind more or less within itself, which diminishes outward reflection about one’s obligation to Neighborly good, and thus makes it more difficult to avoid selfishness, i.e., sin. Too often we end up ‘in our own world.’

    This present state of our form is because God allowed Adam’s choice to affect his posterity (i.e., his descendents, Christ excepted), as properly under Adam’s stewardship as the first man and the begetter of us all. Put another way, God made it so that Adam chose for all his descendents the form of knowledge they would have. Thus we are told that (1) Adam was made in God’s image, yet (2) Seth was made in Adam’s image, while yet (3) man is still stated as being made in the image of God, according to God’s statement to Noah. Therefore Seth bore both God’s image but also Adam’s, and so his form of knowledge is comprised not merely of that original capacity created by God, but also by Adam’s imprudent adding unto it, namely, the intensification of the form of knowledge.

    But it is the form, not content, of knowledge that has been affected. Thus sin is never necessitated, though often chosen, since our present form of knowledge is an obstacle to willing the good. But it is only that—an obstacle; it is never at any time an impenetrable barrier. Anyway, we in this present form of knowledge often react with laziness toward this overload of thoughts, rather than focus on the good. And so we tend to wander off the path, like sheep. Yet the problem of man’s straying is not that he does not seek God whatsoever; rather, it is that he does not seek Him diligently. For the verb in Greek in Rom. 3:11a is ekzetein, not simply zetien—a searching out (Gr. ek=out), as opposed to a simple searching. We exhibit interest in God all right, but it is erratic. And so we are left weak. Even as Christ told his disciples, “The flesh is weak.” The word literally means “without strength.” But note that to be “without strength” is not to be “without power whatsoever.” Rather, it means to be without strong power. This is why Christ did not say to his disciples in Gethsemane, “Well, naturally you would fall asleep, since you are powerless to do otherwise.” No, he told them to “watch and pray, lest you enter temptation.” This was their responsibility and choice. Watchfulness and prayerfulness was the antidote to their weakness. And so, too, are these the antidote for us today. Therefore in this response of Christ is nothing found even hinting at the kind of Total Depravity taught by Reformed theology. Rather, sin—the Choice of selfishness—comes from us ex nihilio and unnecessitated.

    Finally, we are more subject to Satan’s attack because of Adam’s choice, and this compounds the problem. God, it seems, has honored (not agreed with) Adam’s choice for his posterity. That is, God has given weight to Adam’s choice via the stewardship God wished him to have. Also, we are without the physical presence of Christ, which in the future will enable the believer to know, even as he is known, though doubtless it will even then come at a more acceptable pace according to God’s design.

    And so the Christian awaits the time when his corruption must put on incorruption, and when he will see Christ face to face. And thus we will be restored to the original design of form God always intended for us. That is our desire. It is God’s desire, too.

    1. I disagree with some of what you’re saying, but lack the time to go through everything. Instead, I’d rather like to thank you for a very well thought out response. Hopefully Josh can get to it (as this is more his area of specialty).

    2. Daniel, thank you for your comment. Like Joel, I don’t agree with everything you have said; however, I think some of it is right on the mark. Sadly, I don’t have the time to enter into a lengthy discussion right now. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts!

  8. I really appreciate this post; I’ve not sat down and worked through this issue, but I’ve had issues with the Reformed notion of Total Depravity, and have wrestled some with Luther (who I think has a slightly different take than the Reformed).

    Luther, at least, discovered the reality of God’s love for us, which as you point out means there is something lovable about our pre-redeemed selves. This contrasts with the Reformed notion that God is mostly concerned with his glory and with justice, which doesn’t necessarily require love.

    But, I also struggle with the concept that man has the ability to choose good, without God’s assistance.

    I don’t know that I see “will” as something separate from nature; I think more so it is sin that is separate from man’s nature (not something he is, but something he is afflicted with). I have begun to see man’s problem as not being total refuse, but being created with God-like potential and imprisoned by sin. I think I agree with Luther here that man must be made free – through grace – in order to escape this bondage.

    In any event, thanks for this post. It gives me more to think about.

    1. Alden,

      Perhaps a compromise on us choosing good is that ultimately we choose good because God has implanted His image within us. Thus, when we choose good it’s still because we seek after the good only because of what He has done in our lives.

      I like how you term sin, saying that it’s something we’re “afflicted” with. I think my argument of the will still works (only if I provide more nuance to it), but it needs to be framed the way you’ve described sin, which is as a prison or a disease.

    2. Also, I looked at your website and saw that you’re an “Episcipo-Lutheran.” You might as well convert to Eastern Orthodox, it’s what all the cool Episcopalians are doing now. (Kidding of course, though as a Baptist I’ve been incredibly intrigued by the Eastern church…to the point I consider myself somewhere between Protestant and Orthodox, or somewhere between Nashville, TN and Byzantium).

      1. There’s a lot to appreciate about the EO, that’s for sure. I don’t think I could make the full jump to Orthodoxy yet, although I do refrain from saying “and the Son” when I say the Nicene Creed… 😉

    3. Alden, thank you for your comments. I’m glad this post was helpful to you! God bless!

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