Do These Passages Teach Total Depravity?
Our lesson this morning deals with the Calvinist doctrine of “total inherited depravity,” known more commonly as “original sin.” We do not have time in the sermon (or one article) to deal with all of the passages that are often used to support this doctrine, but we will deal with some of them below. According to Calvinists, these are three of the strongest and clearest passages which teach total depravity.
Before we begin, consider this prudent observation: “If the doctrine of hereditary total depravity is not presupposed when such passages are studied, they are subject to alternate explanations which fall short of the Calvinistic position” (Melvin Curry, “An Examination of Old Testament Proof Texts,” Truth Magazine XXXI: 1, January 1, 1987, pp. 29-30). In other words, it’s easy to see these passages teaching original sin if we assume beforehand it’s the only interpretation (as many do); otherwise, they teach nothing like total depravity. We must take care, for Calvinism has trained folks to see certain phrases (like “born in sin” in Ps. 51:5) and verses in one light only.
Psalm 51:5. According to the Psalm’s heading, David wrote these words after his sin with Bathsheba. John Calvin used this passage to support the idea that “we were born in sin, and that it exists within us as a disease fixed in our nature.” Yet David takes full responsibility for his action, without blaming it on his inherent nature as if in bondage to sin and powerless to overcome temptation. Notice his recognition of his personal accountability in the first four verses: “my transgression” (v. 1), “my iniquity” (v. 2), “my sin” (v. 3), “I have sinned” (v. 4). Nor is David blaming his mother for transferring her sinfulness to himself. This is figurative language in which David expresses his remorse and confesses his utter sinfulness. Compare Psalm 58:3, also penned by David; taken literally, this verse would mean infants are born speaking lies. In addition, Jesus lifted up a child as a model of innocence, honesty, and humility: “unless you are converted and become like children you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:1-6). Elsewhere in the Bible, children are spoken of as the innocent (Jer. 19:4-5). We are born pure and sinless—it is by our choice that we become sinful.
Ephesians 2:3. The word “nature” here sometimes refers to a genetic condition inherited from ancestors (for example, in Gal. 2:15). Yet, the word can also be used to mean a behavior so habitual it becomes second nature, or something developed after birth by social influences and culture. Paul used the same word in Romans 2:14 to describe how “instinctively” the Gentiles kept portions of the Law without even having the Law given them; yet, how could they do so, if by the same hereditary nature they were sinners by birth whose will is so corrupt they can do no good? In saying we were dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1-3) Paul speaks of a choice we make to act against God’s will and character. Again, it is our free choice that is to blame, not our sinful nature to which we are helplessly enslaved.
Romans 5:12. The overall point of Romans 5:12-21 is that Jesus (by His work on the cross) undoes all the damage Adam did in bringing sin into the world. Original sin must be assumed beforehand if verse 12 teaches we all sinned “in Adam.” Paul says no such thing, only that through Adam sin entered the picture, death came as a result, and all men suffer the same consequence because all sinned. “All” in the context convicts Jews and Gentiles without distinction (compare Rom. 3:9, 22-23); infants and children are not under consideration. Consider also the parallel in verses 18 and 19: if Adam’s sin makes all men sinners unconditionally, Jesus’ death on the cross makes all men saved unconditionally. Is the Calvinist willing to go this far? Bottom line, Paul says we suffer the consequences of sin because of our choice: “death spread to all men, because all sinned.”
We do not deny that man is inclined to sin because the Bible clearly teaches that (Gen. 6:5; Jer. 17:9). Yet, this is so not because we inherit the guilt and corruption of Adam but because—by choice—we follow in his footsteps in rebelling against God. No one can take the blame for what we do—not even Adam.