Total Depravity (Radical Corruption)

R.C. Sproul

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.”

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.

We are all sinful. But how sinful are we? Other than our shortened life-spans and bad habits, what real effect did the Fall have on the average everyday sinner? What effect does sin have on our decision making process? With what power did you use to choose the gospel? Dr. Sproul takes us to the Scriptures to find out what Jesus has to say about our ability to choose as he continues to look at “Total Depravity.”

When we get to the doctrine of total depravity, or the T in TULIP, invariably we are catapulted into the arena of the debate over free will. In fact, the historic controversy over the degree of original sin that infects us focuses on the question of free will. You can’t have a five-minute conversation on the doctrines of grace or the doctrine of election without somebody raising the question, “What about free will?”

Often, the discussion over free will is placed in two different frameworks. On the one hand, the question of human freedom is struggled with vis-à-vis the relationship between God’s sovereignty, our responsibility, and our power to act as volitional creatures. The other way in which the discussion of free will is framed has to do with the question of the relationship between the fall, original sin, and the power of human freedom.

A Power Lost

Let me take a moment to read a confessional summary of this dispute about human freedom as we find it in the Westminster Confession of Faith, the seventeenth-century British statement of Reformation theology. There, we read these words: “Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able by his own strength to convert himself or to prepare himself thereunto” (WCF 9.3).

This confession points to the radical character of total depravity. It affirms that man’s freedom in a certain area has been wholly or completely lost by the fall. It is not that man has completely lost his power of choosing or making decisions, but his moral power to do certain things has been completely lost; namely, man has lost the ability to convert himself or to will any spiritual good on his own steam. Therein is the crux of the matter of the doctrine of total depravity. It translates into the doctrine of what is called “moral inability.” I want to take a little time to explain this concept.

The Fallen Will

Let’s go back to Augustine’s view of the inherited corruption. Pelagius disagreed with Augustine and said that Adam’s fall affected only Adam—there was no consequence to future generations. The seed of Adam sin only by imitation, not because of some transmitted fallen human condition.

After Pelagius was condemned by the church, a moderate position emerged called “semi-Pelagianism.” It taught that there was a fall, that the whole human race has been affected by Adam’s sin, and that we all are born with a corrupt nature. That corrupt nature, however, leaves a kind of island of righteousness by which there still remains a vestigial remnant of the original righteousness. Though this person needs the help of divine grace in order to be saved and made holy, nevertheless there remains a power within the will of the creature that can cooperate with the grace of God or reject the grace of God. In the final analysis, the reason why some persons will come to Christ and be redeemed but others will not and will be lost is rooted ultimately in human decision—in that power that remains in the will after the fall.

Now, Pelagius said that a person can live a perfect life without grace. He said that grace facilitates redemption, but it’s not necessary. Pelagius argued that people can be perfect and that some have, in fact, achieved perfection without any assistance from God.

The semi-Pelagians differ with Pelagius at this point by saying that grace is absolutely necessary; it’s a pre-condition for anyone to be redeemed. You can’t be saved without grace. However, grace is not alone. It is grace plus something else. It is grace plus the exertions of the human will in the strength that remains intact after the fall.

Augustine was one of the principal architects of the idea that was recovered in one of solas of the sixteenth-century Reformation, the idea of sola gratia, by grace alone. Augustine said that the fall was so profound, and the power of sin is so strong in the human heart, that only God, by His grace and by His grace alone, can change the disposition of the human soul to bring that person to faith.

At issue here is whether fallen man has intact the ability, the moral power, to incline himself to, or to embrace in his own strength, the offers of help and assistance that come to us from God. Or, is it necessary for God to do the initial work of re-creation in the soul before the fallen person has the moral power to say “yes” to the gospel?

The Divine Initiative

We are talking about what is called the “divine initiative.” Augustine would say that, before a person comes to Christ, God works unilaterally, monergistically, independently, and sovereignly by changing the soul of the sinner. He rescues that sinner from the prison-house of moral bondage by which he is, by nature, dead in sin and trespasses. In that state of spiritual death, he is morally unable to resurrect himself. God has to come and breathe new spiritual life and power into the soul of that person. God has to quicken him from a state of spiritual death and produce faith in his heart before that person has the power to come to Christ.

Now, those people do come to Christ, and they do choose Christ. They come willingly and cheerfully, but not until God does His work of sovereign grace in bringing that person from spiritual death to spiritual life. We call that “monergistic” rebirth or “monergistic” regeneration—it is the work of God alone. Since there is nothing I can do to earn it, deserve it, merit it, or provoke it, I must rest my case ultimately on the grace of God and on the grace of God alone.

The Flesh Profits Nothing

One of the important biblical texts that speaks to this is found in the gospel of John, in which Jesus makes this somewhat astonishing statement: “‘It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who would betray Him. And He said, ‘Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been given to him by My Father’” (John 6:63–65).

We remember earlier, in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, that Jesus talked about the necessity of a person’s being reborn before they could even see the kingdom of God, not to mention enter the kingdom of God (John 3:1–8). In that discussion with Nicodemus, Jesus said to him, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6).

Just as Jesus makes that strong contrast between flesh and spirit, so the Apostle Paul does the same thing when he talks in the metaphor of the warfare that goes on between the flesh and the spirit in the person who has been converted. Even when you are born of the Spirit, the flesh is not completely annihilated, so there’s an ongoing struggle. But until the Holy Spirit changes your life, all you are is flesh. This is what Jesus is saying to Nicodemus.

In your natural birth, in your natural state, you were born in the state of sarx (the biblical concept of “flesh”). You were in this fallen condition where the desires of your heart were only wicked continuously. The Apostle says that you walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, and that you were dead in your sin (Eph. 2:1–2). That’s the condition of the flesh. And Jesus says, “The flesh profits nothing” (John 6:63).

“Nothing” Is Not “A Little Something”

In his debate with Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, Luther, in his perhaps most famous work, On the Bondage of the Will, labored his exposition of this biblical text in John 6. He kept jibbing at Erasmus for having the flesh do something in the process of salvation that is not only significant, but pivotal. For Erasmus, not only does the flesh profit something; it profits everything. This is because, in the final analysis, if we rest upon this innate moral power within us that is not touched or incarcerated by the fall, and the power of the flesh enables one to incline oneself to spiritual good, and one exercises the proper inclination, what that profits him is eternal life.

Luther, never tiring of debating with Erasmus, said, “That ‘nothing’ is not ‘a little something.’” He said that Jesus is serious when He says, “The flesh profits nothing” (John 6:63).

A Key Text: John 6:65

Jesus goes on to make this statement: “No man can come to Me unless it is given to him by the Father” (John 6:65).

A Universal Negative

That text is very important because it begins with the statement, “No man.” If you are a student of the grammar stage of logic, you will recognize that statement, “No man,” as what is called a “universal negative proposition.” It describes something negative of everybody in the class “man.”

Now, I would like to be able to say that this is used in a gender-specific way and only refers to the inherent moral inability of males. Unfortunately, the usage here in Greek is shorthand for “mankind.” Jesus is saying, “No human person”—He’s saying something negative about everybody.

No Power to Come

The next word is crucial: “No man can.” It is not, “No man may.” You know the difference between may and can.

I remember when I was in grade school and I asked the teacher, “Can I go sharpen my pencil?” She said, “I’m sure that you can, but you mean, ‘May I go sharpen my pencil?’” As I have since discovered, that teacher got around. In fact, she was ubiquitous—everybody I’ve ever met had the same teacher at some time in their lives. That teacher says: “I’m sure you can. But the question is, ‘May I?’”

We’re not talking here about permission. The word can describes ability or power—posse. Jesus is saying that no human being has the power or the ability to do something. These are strong words coming from the lips of our Lord. This isn’t Augustine or Calvin or Luther—this is Christ Himself saying something about man’s ability. And He says: “No man is able. No man has the power to come to Me.” There is an inherent lack of ability of some kind for human beings to come to Jesus in some way.

A Necessary Condition

When Jesus says, “Come to Me,” He’s not talking spatially or geographically. Obviously, none of us have the ability to come to Him in His earthly presence in Palestine because He’s not there anymore. He wasn’t saying that no man could come and find out where He was living. The coming to Him is the way in which He calls people to embrace Him in faith for their salvation. I don’t think there’s any biblical scholar who would dispute that that’s what Jesus is talking about with respect to coming to Him.

“No man can come to Me unless”—“unless” indicates a necessary condition that has to be met before a desired consequence can possibly follow. That “unless” points to some sine-qua-non, some absolutely essential thing that has to take place before a person can come to Jesus. What is it? He simply says, “No one can come to Me unless it is given to him by the Father.”

The Enabling Power of God

Earlier in the text, He says that no one can come to Him unless the Father “woos” him, or “lures” him (John 6:44). The word that is used here is the word that most dictionaries translate by the English word compel. It is not just an external enticement of trying to lure people to come to Him. The idea is that God has to do something at this point—God has to enable a person to come.

The Essence of Freedom

The key point is that, according to the doctrine of total depravity, we have lost our natural human ability to come to Jesus. We still make choices, but we make our choices according to our desires. That’s the essence of freedom—to be able to choose according to your own desires or inclination. But it’s a double-edged sword. Not only are we free in the sense that we choose according to our desires, but we cannot not be free at that point. We not only may choose what we want, but the only kind of a choice that is a real choice is the choice that is made according to what we want.

So, we are all still free people in the sense that we can do what we want, but that’s not the royal liberty of which the New Testament speaks. It doesn’t address the problem of moral bondage.

Slaves to Our Own Desires

Original sin, in the doctrine of moral inability found under the rubric of total depravity, means that we are slaves to our own desires and that by nature we have no desire for Christ or for the things of God. So, we freely reject Him insofar as we choose what we want, and what we don’t want is Him—unless God changes the desire of the heart.

That’s why it’s not called natural inability. It’s called moral inability. We don’t have the power or the ability to love the good. For that to happen, we have to be changed. God has to intervene. In His grace, He must rescue us from spiritual death and spiritual bondage. He has to give us the gift of faith by creating a spiritual resurrection in the heart and in the soul.

So, that’s the first point of the acrostic: total depravity. It refers to the degree of corruption that is so severe that there is no island free from the bondage of corruption found within the deep recesses of the human soul. Until we’re born of the Spirit, we are flesh. The only way we can ever come to faith is if God, in His grace and His grace alone, liberates us by causing us to be born a second time by the creative power of the Holy Ghost.