Lecture 7, Total Depravity (Part 1):

Original sin has marred our nature. We are depraved. But how depraved are we? Are we simply less than perfect? What kind of improvements can we make within ourselves to change sin’s effect? In this message, Dr. Sproul looks at the distinctive doctrine of Reformed theology that is often misunderstood—”Total Depravity.”

Message Transcript

As we continue now with our study of the core ideas that make up Reformed theology, I think of an event that took place in history just a couple of years before the Pilgrims landed on the shores of New England in the Mayflower, a controversy that spread throughout Europe and then around the world that had its roots in the Netherlands.

The Tulip Controversy

The controversy began within the theological faculty of a Dutch institution that was committed to Calvinistic theology. Some of the professors began to have second thoughts about issues relating to the doctrine of election, predestination, and so on. This theological controversy erupted. As it spread across the country, it upset the church and the theologians of the day until finally a synod was convened. Issues were squared away and certain people’s views were rejected, among whom was a man by the name of Arminius.

Those in the group that led this movement against orthodox Reformed theology were called the Remonstrants. They were called the Remonstrants because they were remonstrating, or protesting, against certain doctrines within their own theological heritage.

There were basically five doctrines at the core of the controversy. As a result of this debate, these five core theological issues became known in subsequent generations as the so-called “five points of Calvinism.” They are known by the popular acrostic TULIP, which is a clever way to sum up the five articles that were in such dispute.

I mention that historical event for this reason: it would be a serious mistake to understand the essence of Reformed theology simply in light of these five doctrines. The Reformed faith involves many other elements of theological and ecclesiastical confession. But these are the five controversial points of Reformed theology, and they are the ones that are popularly seen as distinctive to this particular confession.

The Five Points of Calvinism

We are going to spend some time looking at the five points of Calvinism as they are spelled out in this acrostic, TULIP, which uses the first letter of five different doctrines. The first is “total depravity,” hence the T. The second is “unconditional election,” hence the U. The L stands for “limited atonement,” the I for “irresistible grace,” and the P for “perseverance of the saints.”

When I have lectured on these doctrines in the past, I have stated one or more objections to these subheadings defining the doctrines because many of them, if not all of them, are somewhat misleading. But they fit so nicely into this acrostic that people insist on using these abbreviations to define the five points.

So, we’re going to begin with a brief overview of the T of TULIP, which stands for “total depravity.”

Do Not Erase

Many years ago, I was teaching a course in theology at a college. The students who were enrolled in this college did not come from a Reformed background by any means. We were working through various doctrines and came to the doctrine of total depravity.

I gave an exposition of total depravity that went for about a week of classes. At the end of that time I asked the students if they were persuaded that this was the biblical view of human sinfulness. Everybody in the class raised their hand and indicated that yes, they were convinced this was the correct biblical view. I said, “Are you sure?” And they said, “Yes, we’re absolutely sure.”

So, I went to the blackboard on the top left-hand side and wrote a number there corresponding to the number of the students, about twenty-eight. I put it in a box and wrote next to it for the janitor, “Please do not erase.” I did that for a reason—they were all committed.

The next week, we started in on the U of unconditional election and there were howls of protest from the students who rebelled against that doctrine. When I began to press them on the doctrine, I said, “Now, are you sure you still want to subscribe to total depravity as you did last week?” And one by one I had to erase the names up there in the left-hand corner of the blackboard.

I say this because there’s a sense in which, if a person really embraces the doctrine of total depravity, the other four points in this five-point system more or less fall in line. They become corollaries of this first point.

“Grant What Thou Dost Command”

The historical situation in which the doctrine of total depravity first became a matter of great import and controversy was early on in church history, during the teaching ministry of St. Augustine.

You might have heard about the Pelagian controversy of the latter part of the fourth century and into the fifth century. It began when a British monk named Pelagius protested against a statement in one of the written prayers of Augustine. In this prayer, Augustine said before God, “God, command what Thou wouldst, and grant what Thou dost command.” Of course, Pelagius had apoplexy over this prayer.

The reason for his displeasure was not the first part of the prayer wherein Augustine said, “Oh God, command whatever you want to command.” Pelagius, being a pious monk, certainly agreed with Augustine that God had every right to exercise His authority over His creatures and to command what was deemed pleasing to Him. But what exercised Pelagius was the second part of the prayer, when Augustine asked God to grant what He commands. Pelagius said that this assumes the creature is morally unable to do the will of God.

All of this created a lengthy controversy which goes on even to this day. We continue to have discussions about Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, Augustinianism, and so on. But by way of introduction, the issue has to do with the question of original sin. The doctrine of total depravity reflects the Reformed viewpoint of original sin.

“In Sin Did My Mother Conceive Me”

The term original sin is often misunderstood in the popular arena. Some people assume that the term original sin must refer to the first sin of Adam and Eve—the original that we’ve all copied in many different ways in our own lives. But that’s not what the doctrine of original sin has referred to historically in the church. Rather, the doctrine of original sin defines the consequences of that first sin to the human race.

Historically, virtually every church that has a creed or a confession has agreed that something very serious happened to the human race as a result of the first sin—the first sin produced original sin. That is, as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve, the entire human race fell so that our nature as human beings since the fall has been influenced by the power of evil.

As David declared in the Old Testament, “I was born in sin, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5). He was not saying that it was a sinful thing for his mother and father to have borne children, nor was he saying that he had done something evil by being born. Rather, he was acknowledging the human condition of fallenness, which was part of the experience of his parents and with which he himself came into this world.

So, original sin has to do with the fallen nature of mankind. The idea is that we are not sinners because we sin, but that we sin because we are sinners. We are, by nature, sinners. We’ve all heard the axiom that nobody’s perfect. We might improve upon that a little by saying that, not only is no one perfect, but no one’s even close to perfection.

The doctrine of total depravity describes and defines a particular view of original sin that has its roots in the teaching of St. Augustine. Augustine was the patron saint of the monastery where Martin Luther was reared in the faith and where he taught at Wittenberg—Luther was an Augustinian monk. Augustine was also the most revered mentor of John Calvin, so the thinking of Augustine had an enormous influence in shaping the doctrine of the Protestant Reformation.

The Depravity of the Whole Person

Now, what total depravity does not mean in the Reformed tradition is what we call “utter depravity.” We often use the term total as a synonym for utter or completely, so the notion of total depravity conjures up the idea that every human being is as bad as they could possibly be. You might think of some archfiends of history like Adolf Hitler and say that there was absolutely no redeeming virtue in that man. But I suspect that he had some affection for his mother, and, as wicked as Adolf Hitler was, we can still conceive of his being even more wicked than he actually was.

So, the idea of total depravity doesn’t mean that every human being is as wicked as they could possibly be. Rather, it means that the fall is so serious that it affects the whole person. Our fallenness captures and grips our human nature and affects our bodies—that’s why we become ill and die. It affects our minds and our thinking. We still have the capacity to think, but the Bible speaks about the way in which the mind has become darkened and weakened (Rom. 1:21). The will of man is no longer in its pristine state of moral power. According to the New Testament, the will is now in bondage. We are enslaved to the evil impulses and desires of our hearts (John 8:34).

A Question of Degree

The mind, the will, the spirit—the whole person has been infected by the power of sin. Now, if that’s as far as we would go with the definition of total depravity, most Christian communions would say, “Yea and amen.” Most would agree that we’re fallen, that the fall is a serious thing, and that the human nature we bring into this world has been so influenced by sin that it touches every part of our nature. Most catholic, or universal, creeds of Christendom would grant that much.

The debate, then, becomes about a question of degree: How far have we fallen? What is the degree of human corruption?

Radical Corruption

I like to replace the term total depravity with my favorite designation, which is radical corruption. It’s a concept that my friends find very easy to remember as they make their own acrostic for it—they just abbreviate radical corruption by the initials R.C. They take great delight in the ease with which this facilitates their memory, as they have a living model before them of radical corruption.

I remember when a gym teacher I had in the seventh grade called the roll for the first day. He called my name, R.C., as that’s what I was called in grade school, and he said, “Rotten crabapple.” In that instant I had a new nickname that I probably should not have mentioned, because I’ll probably hear it again now.

The reason I prefer the phrase radical corruption is because of the term radical—although it completely ruins our flower garden since TULIP now becomes RULIP, and nobody’s going to remember that. Radical is another one of those words that we use in various ways in our culture, particularly in the political arena where we say somebody is on the “radical left” or on the “radical right” or so on. But the word radical, ironically, has its roots in the Latin word rodex, which can be translated as “root” or “core.”

The idea of the term radical is something that permeates to the core of a thing. It’s not something that is tangential or superficial. It’s not lying on the surface. Rather, it penetrates into the core of the thing.

A Cue from Culture

In a recent poll of professing evangelicals, the overwhelming majority of people who answered particular questions in this poll indicated that they agreed with the statement that man is basically good.

Usually that phrase “basically good” means that the basis or essence of humanity, the core of a person, is good. Though we recognize that no one’s perfect, that all are sinners, and that we all are marred and blemished by various imperfections, the problem with the idea that man is basically good is that sin is seen as peripheral to human nature.

This was part of the optimistic view of mankind that is essential to historic humanism. The humanist acknowledges that there are problems but says, basically, that we need more education and more government help—then we’ll get better, and better, and better, and erase those blemishes on the surface that produce crime and other forms of wickedness.

It seemed to me when I heard about that poll that perhaps those professing evangelicals were taking their cue for the basic nature of fallen humanity from the culture rather than from the historic biblical view.

The Reformed view says that the fall penetrates to the core. The word that is used for “core” is actually a translation from the Latin word core, which means “heart.” The idea is that our sin is something that comes from our hearts. In biblical terms, that means from the core or the very center of our existence.

The Escape from Radical Corruption

What is required for us to be conformed to the image of Christ is not simply some small adjustments or behavioral modifications. It is nothing less than renovation from the inside, nothing less than regeneration, being made over again, being quickened by the power of the Spirit.

So, we see that the only way in which a person can escape this radical situation is when the Holy Spirit changes the core, the heart. And even that change does not instantly vanquish sin. The complete elimination of sin awaits our glorification in heaven.

In our next session, we’ll look at some more aspects of the doctrine of total depravity.


This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.