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THEOLOGY > Sin > Man's Disobedience > Depravity 


Depravity is the state of man in relationship to the holy God. Involved are questions of man’s ability and the extent of his sinfulness, but the essence of the matter focuses on what man has become in terms of who God is—man is evil, with the evil being made obvious and appalling when considered over against the God who is holy, holy, holy.

Throughout history even pagans have asserted that there is something evil within man that evokes the evil conduct of men. And individuals confirm to themselves by what they sense is within them that there is some evil propensity on the inside—man senses that he is the problem, even though he may not be able, apart from Revelation, to define it with specificity.

There is a pollution or corruption within him. Man has both a sinful nature and is guilty of sinful actions; his evil is twofold. Thus, man is sinful by nature—sinful by position—sinful because of what I am (Jer. 17:9; Eph. 2:3; 4:18); and sinful by actions—sinful by practice—sinful because of what I do (Rom. 3:9-18; Eph. 4:19). Man does what he does because man is what he is (Matt. 15:16-20; Mk. 7:20-23). Man sins because he is sinful; it is not that he becomes sinful when he sins. A state of depravity manifests itself in depraved living (see: Sinful State and Sinful Acts).

Source of Depravity

Depravity is the pollution or corruption that has come to all individuals from Adam; the word speaks of the spiritually dead nature that is true of every child who is conceived. And this nature is the inheritance of the race from Adam because of the identification of the race with Adam in his sin (see: The Principle of Identification and Representative).

Before Adam sinned he was characterized by righteousness (see: Morally Upright), but his righteousness was changeable; it could be lost (see: Mutable). Adam was good, but the goodness that was true of him in Eden was not irreversible. The state with which he was created was subject to the probation declared by God (see: Probation), and Adam’s future was determined by his action during the probation.

At some point in the period of his testing Adam sinned (see: Adam’s Rebellion). His sin was an act that resulted in a state becoming true for him that was not true of him before the act, that is, his sin in the garden brought a change in his nature. The nature he came to have was a state or nature devoid of the original righteousness or goodness with which he was endowed at his creation. And the absence of this original righteousness transformed him into one who was spiritually dead, depraved before God and utterly corrupt.

What instantly became true of Adam because of his sin in the garden was determined by God, through the sin of Adam, to be true of the race that would come from Adam. A sinful state or nature for each individual is the consequence of the sinful act of Adam (see: By One Man). Depravity is propagated from parent to child, because each child is identified with Adam in his disobedience. Adam got a son in his own likeness (Gen. 5:3), and that likeness has been passed down. Whatever is born of flesh is flesh (Jo. 3:6). The state of Adam after his sin and the state of every individual that is conceived is a state of sin; it is a sinful nature, a nature without righteousness (Gen. 6:5; 8:21; Isa. 53:6; Jer. 17:9; Rom. 7:18; Eph. 4:18; Tit. 1:15). It is a nature set in opposition to God.

Description of Depravity

The problem with man is not what is outside of him but what he is on the inside. Depravity means that man has an evil heart, a wicked nature, one that is not the result of the environment or training, or one’s position in life, or one’s opportunities. It is not the result of external circumstances; it is not a plague that comes upon a man from without but a malignancy that is inside of the man. Scripture affirms this inner state: man is sinful from birth (Ps. 51:5); men are “estranged from the womb,” and “they go astray as soon as they are born” (Ps. 58:3); Isa. 48:8 states that man is “called a transgressor from the womb” (ESV: “from before birth you were called a rebel”). Evil is real, and the reality does not arise from inequality among people and the depravation of some people; rather, it arises from the mind of man, the condition of man, the state of man. Every man is sinful in and of himself (see: Universality of Sin).

This sinful nature is total, that is, it extends to every aspect of man’s being; no part is immune and no area is excluded. All of Adam was affected by the state he came to have, and all of his children throughout history have the same state and are in the same condition. Before God man is condemned and suffering alienation; there is no spiritual life in him. Man is devoid of holiness, with no regard for God. And no aspect of man’s being is untouched by the contagion.

Total depravity does not imply that man is as bad as he can be but that man is as bad-off as he can be; he could be more vile in his actions but his standing before God could not be more dreadful. In other words, man’s conduct could be more deplorable, but his condition could not be more calamitous. Before God man is spiritually dead, guilty, under condemnation, and facing wrath.

Depravity does not indicate that the natural man does not have an innate knowledge of God (see: Innate Knowledge) and does not possess some sense of morality (see: Morally Upright); he knows that he is not alone in the universe and that he is accountable. Even after Eden there is still the impress of God upon the soul (see: Status of the Image), and there is a consciousness of ethics coupled with a sense of responsibility to live according to some sort of standard. Relatively speaking, deeds of “goodness” are possible—common acts of kindness toward others can be performed—but there is no goodness in the deeds to merit favor with God. And these natural “deeds of goodness” are not done for the glory of God. Therefore, man’s life can never be described as good.

Depravity means that there is nothing good about man, and he can do no spiritually good deeds; all acts are selfish and are not for the glory of God. The creature is served at the expense of the Creator. In the words of Scripture: “there is no fear of God” within the life (Rom. 3:18; see: No Fear of God), and men are “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (II Tim. 2:4); it is the loss of goodness before God and the practice of that which is opposed to God.

Depravity means that there is nothing man can do to merit God’s favor; man is incapable of gaining God’s pleasure by these deeds of goodness that he may do; in this sense man has total inability. He lacks the good that establishes a standing before God, and he lacks the ability to do any good that will earn a standing before God. On his own, man is without hope. He has no righteousness.

To lose righteousness is to be engulfed by sin. It is for the passions and desires to pursue selfish and sinful gratification; it is to have a hunger for evil that becomes insatiable the more that it is fed. Rather than man being bent toward God he is bent toward evil and evil people. Men are not only sinful, but because they are sinful, they love sin. And the individual passion for sin reveals the magnitude of the sinfulness of each individual. The essence of sin is not an unintentional action, a simple mistake, but it is a deep-seated and an unrelenting hunger and thirst for evil. It is an appetite and affection for that which is contrary to God, and the two are never satisfied. Men not only do not love God, they hate Him. Depraved men love depravity!

Because of this pervasive individual depravity, the world and the world system are cursed. Man, who is sinful, is living in a sinful world and committing sinful deeds. What the individual does, families do, and nations do; the sins of nations are simply the sins of individuals multiplied many times. The earth is the City of Man and the City of Man is the City of Sin. The explanation for evil people and evil events in the world is the fact of sin—evil is explained not by external circumstances but by an internal state.

Scriptural Support for Depravity

In Scripture, this depravity is spoken of in a number of ways:

sin (Rom. 7:8, 11, 13);
flesh (Jo. 3:6; Gal. 5:17; Rom. 7:18, 25);
indwelling sin (Rom. 7:17, 20);
body of sin (Rom. 6:6; Col. 3:5);
law of sin (Rom. 5:21; 6:12; 7:23; 8:2);
old man (Rom. 6:6; Eph. 4:22);
lust (Rom. 7:7; Jas. 1:15; I Jo. 2:15).

Following is less than an exhaustive list of passages from the Old and New Testaments that teach depravity:

Gen. 6:5-6
Gen. 8:21
I Kin. 8:46
Ps. 14:1-3
Ps. 51:5
Ps. 58:3
Ps. 130:3
Ps. 143:2
Eccles. 7:20
Eccles. 9:3
Isa. 53:6
Isa. 64:6
Jer. 17:9
Matt. 15:18
Matt. 23:25-27
Lu 11:13
Jo. 5:42
Rom. 1:18-32
Rom. 3:9-23
Gal. 3:22
Gal. 5:19
Eph. 2:1-3
Eph. 4:17-19
I Jo. 1:8-10
I Jo. 5:19

Note: Original sin has usually referred not only to the sin of Adam but to the resulting state of every man because of his sin; man, after Adam, is not born in the same state in which Adam was created, but is born with a sinful state, a state that is inherited from Adam or attributed to every man because of Adam.

Consider the following statements by Calvin and Berkhof:

Original sin, therefore, seems to be a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which first makes us liable to God’s wrath, then also brings forth in us those works which Scripture calls “works of the flesh” (J. Calvin, Institutes, II, Ch. 1, 8).

But original sin is not merely negative; it is also an inherent positive disposition toward sin” (L. Berkhof, ST, 246).

Additional partial quotes by Calvin:

inherited corruption, which the church fathers termed "original sin," meaning by the word "sin" the depravation of a nature previously good and pure (Institutes, II, Ch. 1, 5);

Calvin asserted that we are not corrupted “by derived wickedness, but that we bear inborn defect from our mother’s womb” (Institutes, II, Ch. 1, 5);

“In fact, before we saw the light of this life we were soiled and spotted in God’s sight” (Institutes, II, Ch. 1, 5).

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