Total Hereditary Depravity
by Gene Taylor
As with the other four doctrines of Calvinism, the doctrine of Total Hereditary Depravity, also known as the doctrine of "original sin," is taught by a large number of denominations. The phrase, "Total Hereditary Depravity," implies three things which Calvinists believe about the nature of all humans at birth.
- They are depraved. They are caught up in and guilty of sin.
- They are wholly or totally depraved. Nothing about them is good.
- The sinful condition, depravity, in which they are born is hereditary -- it comes to them from their parents.
This article will examine this doctrine by looking at how it is expressed by denominations and individuals who teach it and the basic meaning of the terms used to express it; the proof texts used by its proponents to defend it; its consequences if it were true; and some Scriptural objections to it.
Total Hereditary Depravity Expressed
The Westminster Confession of Faith states, "They (Adam and Eve, GT) being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed, and the same death in sin and corrupted nature conveyed to all their posterity, descending from them by ordinary generation. From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions." (Chapter VI)
The Philadelphia Confession of Faith, the first creed adopted by the Baptist churches in the United States, says,
- "Our first parents by the sin, fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and we in them, whereby death came upon all; all becoming dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all faculties, and parts of soul, and body." (p. 24)
- "They being the root, and by God's appointment, standing in the room, and stead of all mankind, the guilt of their sin was imputed, and corrupted nature conveyed, to all their posterity, descending from them by ordinary generation, being now conceived in sin, and by nature children of wrath, the servants of sin, the subjects of death and all other miseries, spiritual, temporal, and eternal, unless the Lord Jesus sets them free." (p. 24)
- "From this original corruption whereby all are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions." (p. 24)
The Augsburg Confession of Faith was presented June 25, 1530, it contains the 28 articles which constitute the basic confession of the Lutheran churches. It relates, "…That since the fall of Adam, all men…are born with sin, that is without fear of God…and this disease or vice of origin is truly sin even now in condemning and bringing eternal death upon those not born again… "
John Wesley, 1703-1791, was "a leader of the Evangelical Revival and founder of the Methodist Church in Great Britain and America..." (The World Book Encyclopedia, Vol. 21, p. 352) In regard to the doctrine of Total Hereditary Depravity, he said, "We are condemned before we have done good or evil, under the curse before we know what it is." (Sermons on Original Sin, p. 340)
Proof Texts Used to Support Total Hereditary Depravity
Genesis 6:5. The argument based on this text is that every intent of man's heart was evil continually, therefore, all men were born totally depraved. In the context, Noah was a "just man, perfect in his generations." (v. 9) The text states that "all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth" (v.12), not that they were born corrupt. If this verse depicts Total Hereditary Depravity, then why was it not the same in the generations before that of Noah? Why did not God destroy mankind sooner? How is it, if all men were depraved, that in Genesis 4:26, "men began to call on the name of the Lord?"
Psalm 51:1-5. The argument from this passage says that David, being conceived in sin and born in iniquity, was a sinner at birth. Nothing in the text or context says David was born a sinner. David asks God to forgive his sin not his mother's sin. His mother could have conceived in sin but it does not logically follow, neither does it state, that the child inherits that sin. David's parents were simply like all other men and women -- sinners themselves who lived in a world of sin.
Psalm 53:1-3. The argument from this text states that if no one does good, we must be born sinners. The context states otherwise.
- Why corrupt? They "have done abominable iniquity." (v. 1)
- Is it speaking of babies? A baby cannot "seek God." (v. 2)
- These have "turned aside" to sin (v. 3). They were not born in it.
- These have "become corrupt" (v. 3). They were not born that way.
Psalm 58:3. This argument says, "The wicked are estranged (from God) from the womb." Note the use of the phrase "go astray." They are not born wicked. Babies are not under consideration in this passage. "Speaking lies" indicates age. They stop their ears. (vv. 4-5) They are old enough to understand. Babies are not born with teeth. (v. 6)
Romans 3:19. The argument Calvinists used from this passage is that all the world is guilty of sin before God because they are born in sin. Adam's sin or inherited depravity are not even mentioned. The passage is simply stating that both Jews and Gentiles are guilty of sinning against God. Note verse 12:"They have all turned aside." One cannot turn aside from that which he was not on in the first place.
Romans 5:12-21. This passage is used to argue that the guilt of the sin of Adam, and thus depravity, has been passed unto all people. While this is a difficult passage, there are two important things to remember which help us understand this text in its context. (1) "All sinned." (v. 12; cf. Rom. 3:23) People are subject to death because of their own sin. (2) "Life through the One, Jesus Christ." (v. 17) Verse 17 teaches that both life and death are conditional. If we say that Adam's sin brings automatic spiritual death, we must also say that Christ's life brings automatic spiritual life. It was the sentence of "death," not sin, which spread to all men.
Romans 8:6, 7. The argument here is that the "carnal mind" (v. 7), refers to the unconverted. Verses four and five show that the ones with carnal minds "walk according to the flesh." It does not state that they are born in sin.
1 Corinthians 2:14. Their argument based on this passages is that the natural (sinful) man cannot understand and does not accept the things of God because he is inherently sinful. The "natural man" does not refer to a sinful, depraved person who has inherited his parents' sins. It has reference to one who is concerned only about material, temporal things and who neglects spiritual responsibilities. Such a one seeks earthly wisdom, not spiritual. (1 Cor. 1:18-25) He is contrasted in verse 14 with the spiritually-oriented person of verse 15.
1 Corinthians 15:22. The argument is that Adam brought physical death upon all people and every person who dies bears the guilt and penalty of Adam's sin. Does it not stand to reason, if all lost spiritual life in Adam, would not this passage also require that all people will have spiritual life in Jesus -- that all will be saved? (cf. Matt. 7:13-14) The penalty is inherent, not the guilt.
2 Corinthians 7:1. The argument is that both flesh and spirit are defiled. They fail to understand that the text is addressingChristians telling them to cleanse themselves of all defilements of both flesh and spirit -- giving, by the way, the Calvinist doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints great difficulty.
Consequences of the Doctrine of Total Hereditary Depravity
No unregenerate person can do good. Every act of a non-Christian is sinful. Even if a non-Christian helps an accident victim or the needy, he still sins, Calvinists say, because he does it with the wrong motive. It is impossible for him to have any right motives because he is totally depraved.
An individual's salvation lies entirely at the discretion of God. Nothing a person does affects his salvation.
God must take direct miraculous action to save a person's soul. Thus, the false concept of the direct operation of the Holy Spirit in the conversion of the sinner necessarily arises from the principle of Total Hereditary Depravity.
Scriptural Objections to Total Hereditary Depravity
Exodus 32:31-33. Moses asked God to let him receive the punishment for the people's sins so that they could be spared. In His answer, God lets all know that it is the ones who sin, not the ones born in sin, whose names are removed from the book of life.
Deuteronomy 1:34-39. The Israelites could not enter the promised land because of sin but their children could.
Ecclesiastes 7:29. God made man upright. He is not depraved when born. Rather, he is without sin.
Isaiah 59:1-8. Your sins and iniquities, not someone else's, separate you from God. Verses three through eight list some specific sins -- murder, lying, acting violently, running toward evil, etc. Could a newborn baby have done these things?
Ezekiel 18:5-20. A righteous son is not guilty of his wicked father's sins and a righteous father is not guilty of the sins of his wicked son. The conclusion in verse 20 is too obvious to miss: "The soul who sins shall die."
Matthew 18:1-5. If we are to be as little children and if Total Hereditary Depravity is true, we need to be more like sinners. Total Hereditary Depravity is inconsistent with the teaching of Jesus about the nature of children. If one believes the Calvinist and his denominational creeds, when Jesus demands people to become as little children, they must be: "Wholly defiled in all the faculties of soul and body" and "By nature children of wrath."
Romans 7:9-11. Rather than being born spiritually dead, the apostle Paul was born spiritually alive. We become spiritually dead because of our own sins not sins we inherit from our ancestors. Death came to all because all sinned. (Rom. 5:12) You become "dead through your trespasses." (Col. 2:13)
1 Corinthians 14:20. "In malice be babes." If babes are totally depraved, why would the apostle Paul encourage anyone to be like them?
1 John 3:4. Those who believe in inherited sin do not even understand the very nature of sin. One is a sinner because he commits sin by violating the standard of conduct God has given to guide him.
The basis of Calvinism originated, not in the mind of God, but in the mind of a mistaken theologian. A person becomes a sinner when he violates God's law not when he is born. We do not inherit the sin of our parents, Adam or anyone else.
- Calvinism 1: Total Hereditary Depravity
- Calvinism 2: Unconditional Election
- Calvinism 3: Limited Atonement
- Calvinism 4: Irresistible Grace
- Calvinism 5: Perseverance of the Saints