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Question #39

What is Total Hereditary Depravity?

Explain the theory of "Total Depravity." Who are they that teach this theory?

The Answer:

There is no short answer for this question. In fact, “total depravity” is used in two ways. It is used to refer to one of the doctrines of Calvinism, but it is also used to refer to the entire doctrine commonly referred to as Calvinism. Calvinism takes it name from John Calvin, a Sixteenth Century theologian. The chief doctrines that are most closely associated with Calvinism may be remembered by the acronym “Tulip”:

T-otal hereditary depravity;

U-nconditional election;

L-imited atonement;

I-rresistable grace; and

P-erseverance of the saints (once saved, always saved).

While these are the most publicly well known aspects of Calvinism, it really begins with Calvin’s doctrine of the sovereignty of God. There has been in recent years a running debate on the sovereignty of God between Calvinists and a doctrine referred to as Open Theism. Suffice it to say here that Calvinism stresses the sovereignty of God to the extent that nothing, absolutely nothing, happens that God not only permits but plans. This includes every evil that has ever occurred from the rape of a child to the Holocaust. The sovereignty of God is central to the five points usually associated with Calvinism.

Calvinism teaches that because of Adam’s sin, God ordained that every person born to Adam and his progeny until this day inherits that guilt (total hereditary depravity). Since it is inherited, it attaches at birth. Since man is inherently evil, he cannot do anything that pleases God. Further, he has no power to turn from his evil ways and turn to God. The only thing that can turn him to God is an act of God Himself. Since God has and does determine everything, Calvinism continues, then whether a man is lost or saved has been and is determined by God. Put differently, God has unconditionally elected certain individuals to be saved (the elect) and all others He has consigned to damnation. They cannot be saved and will not be saved. In fact, Calvinism teaches that no provision has been made in Christ for their salvation. Christ’s death provides only a limited atonement – it is limited to those whom God has elected to save. Since those who are saved can do nothing to turn to God on their own (they are totally and hereditarily depraved), God must act directly upon the elect to save them. Thus, Calvinism teaches that for man to be saved there must be a direct operation of the Holy Spirit upon the elect separate and apart from the word of God. Just as man can do nothing to turn to God, once the Holy Spirit has operated directly upon the individual, the individual has no choice but to turn to God. For the elect, God’s gracious direct act cannot be resisted (irresistable grace). Finally, if God has acted upon the individual to save him, Calvinism asserts that, if the individual were subsequently lost, there would be a failure on God’s part. Since God cannot fail, the perseverance of the saints is guaranteed. In common vernacular, once saved, always saved.

These five tenets stand or fall together. If one of them is not true, none of them is true. The fact is that each of them violates the teaching of scripture. Calvinism itself recognizes a problem with the doctrine in connection with the birth of Jesus. Since Jesus came in the flesh, and since all flesh is hereditarily depraved, it follows logically that Jesus is hereditarily depraved. To avoid this logical conclusion, Calvinists adopted the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. While many in the world believe that this applies to the virgin conception of Jesus, in fact it applies to the conception of Mary. Mary, we are told, was immaculately conceived and thus was not totally and hereditarily depraved. Therefore, she had no hereditary depravity to pass on to Jesus. Since Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, there was no depravity of an earthly father with whom to be concerned.

This doctrine, at least in part, is taught by many, if not most, denominations. There is no list of denominations that teach these doctrines. You must simply listen to what they say. For example, any denomination that teaches “once saved, always saved” would be on the list. The same is true for any group that teaches that all men are guilty of the sin of Adam. Such matters as the limited atonement are rarely stressed because it is so repulsive to most thinking people. The very idea that Jesus did not die for all men, but only for the elect just isn’t believed by most people who have even a reading knowledge of Scripture. (See, e.g., John 3:16.)

Demonstrating the contradictions between Calvinism and Scripture is beyond the scope of this answer, you will find numerous discussions of the falsity of Calvinism if you will read through the lessons on Ezekiel, Daniel, Romans (see especially the discussions of chapters 9-11), and the Church available on this web site.

God's Plan of Salvation

You must hear the gospel and then understand and recognize that you are lost without Jesus Christ no matter who you are and no matter what your background is. The Bible tells us that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Before you can be saved, you must understand that you are lost and that the only way to be saved is by obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1:8) Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6) “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) "So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." (Romans 10:17)

You must believe and have faith in God because “without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6) But neither belief alone nor faith alone is sufficient to save. (James 2:19; James 2:24; Matthew 7:21)

You must repent of your sins. (Acts 3:19) But repentance alone is not enough. The so-called “Sinner’s Prayer” that you hear so much about today from denominational preachers does not appear anywhere in the Bible. Indeed, nowhere in the Bible was anyone ever told to pray the “Sinner’s Prayer” to be saved. By contrast, there are numerous examples showing that prayer alone does not save. Saul, for example, prayed following his meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:11), but Saul was still in his sins when Ananias met him three days later (Acts 22:16). Cornelius prayed to God always, and yet there was something else he needed to do to be saved (Acts 10:2, 6, 33, 48). If prayer alone did not save Saul or Cornelius, prayer alone will not save you. You must obey the gospel. (2 Thess. 1:8)

You must confess that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. (Romans 10:9-10) Note that you do NOT need to make Jesus “Lord of your life.” Why? Because Jesus is already Lord of your life whether or not you have obeyed his gospel. Indeed, we obey him, not to make him Lord, but because he already is Lord. (Acts 2:36) Also, no one in the Bible was ever told to just “accept Jesus as your personal savior.” We must confess that Jesus is the Son of God, but, as with faith and repentance, confession alone does not save. (Matthew 7:21)

Having believed, repented, and confessed that Jesus is the Son of God, you must be baptized for the remission of your sins. (Acts 2:38) It is at this point (and not before) that your sins are forgiven. (Acts 22:16) It is impossible to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ without teaching the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation. (Acts 8:35-36; Romans 6:3-4; 1 Peter 3:21) Anyone who responds to the question in Acts 2:37 with an answer that contradicts Acts 2:38 is NOT proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ!

Once you are saved, God adds you to his church and writes your name in the Book of Life. (Acts 2:47; Philippians 4:3) To continue in God’s grace, you must continue to serve God faithfully until death. Unless they remain faithful, those who are in God’s grace will fall from grace, and those whose names are in the Book of Life will have their names blotted out of that book. (Revelation 2:10; Revelation 3:5; Galatians 5:4)