Thursday, July 21, 2022

Total Depravity: Can’t We Come Up With A New Term?

I was talking with an ardent Calvinist about this article. He is firmly committed to “total depravity” as meaning that human beings are black, wicked and “dead” so far as God is concerned, devoid of any kind of goodness, light or value: utterly deplorable and despicable. I understand the misguided humility that drives him, but I don’t buy his argument, and I don’t like the term “total depravity”. I think it’s misleading. This is what I wrote to him:

The Meaning of “Death”

One of the things you said you believed, Sam, is that because the Bible calls us “dead in trespasses and sins”, that must mean that we are totally valueless, like a corpse, before God saves us; and that like a corpse, we are incapable of response before God regenerates us. As you said to me, “Dead means dead.”

I’ve had time to think about this, and I think you’re only partly right. Literal death means one thing. Metaphorical death, well, that means something a little different. But it’s really important that we establish which is meant when the Bible speaks this way: does it mean that our state IS death, or that it is metaphorically COMPARABLE TO death. It really makes quite a difference.

So let’s look at some relevant examples. Before Adam sinned, God said that in the day he did he would “surely die”. But in a sense, an observer could argue that wasn’t true. Adam kept walking, continued to “live” after a fashion, and even had children after that — all of which a corpse clearly cannot do.

Likewise, we read in Ephesians, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked …”

Dead Men Walking

These “dead” people were walking. They also “worked” and “lived”, according to Paul, in the very same passage. How strange for dead people!

So I would suggest this: whatever God was promising by “die”, or whatever Paul meant by “dead”, it would have to be a spiritual thing, not a physical thing. I would suggest that when we read in the Bible that people are spiritually “dead”, we have a good, scriptural reason to ask In what sense, and to what extent?

I think you can see that that’s not a rude question, or a non-literalist one; it’s one that the scriptures themselves require us to ask.

In contrast, physical death is a universal reality for everyone barring the Rapture; but it’s one that comes even to people who are said in scripture to be spiritually “alive”, such as the “dead in Christ”.

The upshot of this, I would suggest, is that we have sound biblical reasons to be thoughtful about what is entailed by “death”. My thought would be that to interpret spiritual death as exactly the same as physical death, or even to draw too close a comparison between them, would not be what the Bible itself teaches us to do.

The Meaning of “Total Depravity”

Now, another thing you said you believed was that mankind is “depraved”. You said that this word doesn’t just mean “very bad in action”, nor even just “very bad in character”, but actually a kind of “mentally-ill”, in which a person could not even know anything about God.

Nevertheless, I think we have good reason to doubt the line of thought that might lead us to conclude that “total depravity” (not itself a scriptural term) should be taken to imply “devoid of any good feature”. Human beings, even unsaved ones, are not devils (which are always kept distinct from the unsaved in scripture) nor are they zombies (which, of course, is also an unscriptural idea). They are something else: something fallen, to be sure; but something that was created originally by God and called by him “good”, but that has become corrupted through sin. Thus it would not surprise me at all to find out that such people had vestiges of leftover elements of their origin (God does not do bad work, of course), even though their employment of their potential is stained with sin.

“General Grace” vs. “Saving Grace”

A third thing you said, Sam, was that salvation was by grace, not works. I would agree with that. But you then concluded that if human beings were in any way less than “totally depraved”, or “dead”, as you called it, then the Bible wouldn’t say that salvation was by grace. Okay, let’s look at that too.

Theologians distinguish between “general grace” and “saving grace”. Saving grace is what only the saved have or can have. But general grace is the kindness of God who not only holds off on wrath, “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance”, but also “sends his rain on the just and on the unjust”, and thus gives benefits and advantages that even the wicked enjoy — at the present time — though they do not recognize him as God nor give thanks, as Romans tells us. I would suggest that God also gives graciously not just rain, but that he equips all men with good abilities and potentials, if only they will use them as they are intended.

If so, it’s right to say that unbelievers even experience the graciousness of God’s giving, though they do not, of course, enjoy “saving grace”. They have creative and inventive powers, powers of scientific discovery and mathematical reasoning, powers to build and to organize, and so on; and all of these, I would suggest, are “graces” from God to undeserving and unappreciative men. And if these lesser graces are gifts of God, then they are “good”, for he is the giver of good gifts. So it would not be wrong to call these gracious benefits “good”; in fact, to fail to do so would be unthankful, denying God the credit for giving the goods he has bestowed on all men.

Yet in no way do these “goods” contribute to salvation, for that requires “saving grace”, not merely “general grace”.

A Few Wrong Conclusions

Sam, I think you’ve gone to some wrong conclusions there. I see why you have done that, and I know who you’ve been listening to and watching on the internet, who have led you to follow this particular line of reasoning. I know it’s not your own, but rather a worn path of mistaken doctrine that is being advocated with renewed enthusiasm lately.

But if you step back and analyze from scripture what is actually being said, I think you’ll see that these new voices you’re hearing have gone off the deep end with this idea of “total depravity”. And unfortunately, it has become the keystone for a whole package of errant doctrine that follows from it. Having believed that first step, I understand why it seems necessary to you that other errant doctrines follow, such as the belief in a limited atonement and regeneration even before any salvation. However, I think that first well-intended but mistaken step is at the root of the problem.

You’re smart and sincere, and I believe you’re genuinely saved and have the Spirit of God to teach you; so I’m confident that’s something you can do. I’m hoping, then, that you can see your way clear to rethinking this idea of “total depravity”.

The Term “Total Depravity” Needs Revisiting

In short, I would drop the word “total”, because although it’s fine if we limit it to mean “across all categories in some measure”, it’s probably misleading if we take it to suggest “in all categories and in all ways”, or to suggest human beings are ever “utterly devoid of evidence of the workmanship or God”. There are gracious powers bestowed by God to all mankind, regardless of their salvation state.

Then I would drop “depravity” because it describes only a mental state, whereas the problem of sin is that it stains all our activities and motives, not just our intellect.

I think we need a new term. “Total depravity” is a poor coinage, and terribly misleading, I think. I would opt for a biblical term instead. However, “dead” won’t do, unless we keep remembering that it’s a metaphor, not a total reality. The danger is that we will take that metaphor farther than the Bible takes it — which is an error comparable to adding or subtracting from scripture.

As I say, Sam, I have confidence in you. I will be praying for you as you continue to work through this issue. And in matters where you feel I’ve failed to take anything into account, please continue to feel welcome to discuss it with me. We’re both on a journey here.

Your friend,



  1. I believe that the Total Depravity term is to be interpreted as the extent rather than degree of human failure and sinfulness. It does not mean men are 100% devilish with out Christ. Rather it means, that every part of our being has been tainted with sin.

    1. I believe, Russ, that most people will not grasp your distinction between "extent" and "degree". They will think "extent" means "degree", as the fellow at the start of the post does. That's all too common an error.

      I believe we're far better to completely dump a term that:

      a) was never accurate in the first place ("total" being ambiguous) and

      b) was never Scriptural in any way, and

      c) nowadays makes people opt for wrong anthropology and errant theology.

      Honestly, I can't think of one good reason for keeping such an unhelpful and misleading thing around, no matter how many people may like it.

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  4. My apologies for the accidental deletion of the last six reader comments on the original post, which created a fatal HTML error when I moved it. Just so everyone knows, the problem was technical, not theological. Mea culpa.