Consequences Of Hereditary Total Depravity

By Mike Willis

When one accepts a proposition, there are certain logical consequences which follow. That is true when one accepts the proposition “There is no god” or “Man is the product of evolutionary development.” There are certain logical consequences which result from such an affirmation.

Similarly, if one accepts the doctrine of inherited total depravity, or some watered-down version of it, there are certain logical and doctrinal consequences which follow. Not everyone who accepts inherited total depravity is consistent in his reasoning; hence, many who accept the premises reject the conclusions (without giving logical reasons for rejecting them). We do not charge that everyone who believes man has an inherited corrupt nature teaches these consequences; rather, they are the logical consequences drawn from the premise.

Logical Consequences of Inherited Total Depravity

1. It makes man totally unable to will or do good. The Philadelphia Confession of Faith describes man’s condition after the fall:

From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions . . . . Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability to will any spiritual good accompanying salvation … The man who is born into the world cannot will or do any good.

2. It makes man without free will. Many who accept hereditary total depravity will deny that this conclusion follows from the premise. Aylett Raines summarized their teaching well when he wrote,

We know that the advocates for the confession tell us that man has a free will. They proceed on the presumption that man has a free will and acts freely, because, although he can do nothing but sin, and can will to do nothing else, yet he is free to do as he wills (A Refutation of Hereditary Total Depravity, p. 13).

Denial of free will stands in conflict with these passages which teach that man has the ability to choose between good and evil: John 5:40; 7:17; Revelation 22:17; Matthew 22:3; 23:37; Luke 7:30; Joshua 24:15; Psalm 119:130; Proverbs 1:29; Deuteronomy 30:11-14; Hosea 5:15; Genesis 4:7.

3. It releases man from moral responsibility. Each of us would admit that man is not responsible for doing what he cannot avoid doing (e.g., man is not morally reprehensible because he gets hungry or thirsty). According to hereditary total depravity, man cannot avoid sinning because of his corrupted nature. Man sins of necessity. How can man be held responsible for doing that which he could not avoid?

The doctrine of inherited total depravity provides for sinful man exactly what he wishes – an excuse for sinning. Why does man sin? Not because he willfully chooses to rebel against God, but because he cannot prevent sin in his life since he has inherited a sinful nature. Sinners like to hear that their sins are a result of a natural incapacity, rather than of any fault or neglect of their own. Then they can sin without remorse.

4. It makes God responsible for sin. According to the doctrine of inherited total depravity, God willed that Adam’s corrupted nature would be passed down to his descendants. Inheriting this corrupt nature, man can only will to do evil; from this corrupted nature all sins proceed. Hence, man sins because of God’s decree. Even Calvin was dismayed as he contemplated this decree of God. He wrote,

Again I ask: whence does it happen that Adam’s fall irremediably involved so many people, together with their infant offspring, in eternal death unless because it so pleased God? Here their tongues, otherwise so loquacious, must become mute. The decree is dreadful indeed, I confess (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Chap. XXIII, no. 7).

Those who teach that man has a sinful nature shift the blame for what he does from the sinner to the author of his nature!

Thus we see that this theory brings man into the world wholly defiled in all the faculties of soul and body, opposed to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, not even able to will any spiritual good accompanying salvation, until God converts and translates him into the state of grace, so as to free him from his natural bondage, and enable him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good, then, if God never converts him and he is finally lost, who is to blame for it? Surely, not man, for he could not even will or desire his own salvation, or prepare himself thereunto. Why did Christ command that the Gospel be preached among all nations, and to every creature, promising salvation to those who would believe and obey it, when He must have known, if this theory be true, that they could neither believe nor obey it? – nay, they could not even so much as will or desire their salvation, or any thing good connected therewith, to say nothing of doing anything to secure it. And why did He threaten them with damnation if they did not believe it, when, according to the theory, they would have no more power to believe it than they have to make a world? (The Gospel Plan of Salvation, p. 140)

6. It indicts the goodness of God. The theory teaches that God willed to pass a corrupted nature to Adam’s posterity with the result that man has no ability to obey the will of God; he can only will to do evil. Then, it teaches that God punishes man because he disobeys. The injustice in this would be comparable to a person punishing a newborn infant because he could not feed himself.

7. It makes the invitation to respond to the gospel ridiculous, if not altogether ugly. The gospel invitation is extended to every man (Matt. 11:28; Rev. 3:20; 22:17). The doctrine of inherited depravity states that man has wholly lost any ability to do any spiritual good; he has no ability to respond to the invitation until God sends His Spirit to enable Him to do so. Hence, preaching the gospel of Christ to a man who has an inherited sinful nature is merely tantalizing that man, like holding a cool cup of water in front of a man who is dying of thirst and who has no ability to obtain the water. We are cruelly deluded by the Lord, when He declares that His loving kindness depends upon our will, if the will is not able to respond to His offer of grace. The offer of grace is plain mockery of man.

8. It makes exhortations to righteous living and rebukes of sin meaningless. Why exhort a man to do what he cannot do – live righteously? Why condemn him for doing what he cannot avoid doing – sinning? Either God is mocking us when He enjoins holiness, piety, obedience, chastity, love, and gentleness and forbids uncleanness, idolatry, immodesty, anger, robbery, pride and the like or He requires only what is within our power to do. Inherited depravity would require us to believe that God is merely mocking us.

Doctrinal Consequences Of Inherited Depravity

Several false doctrines have derived from the doctrine that man is born totally depraved. We need to be reminded that these false doctrines are connected to inherited depravity.

1. The doctrine of unconditional election and unconditional reprobation. Jack W. Cottrell wrote,

Why does the Calvinist continue to insist on unconditional predestination, even when sovereignty and grace arc not at stake? What is the imperative which necessitates it? The answer is the doctrine of total depravity, which in its essence means that all persons as the result of Adam’s sin are from birth unable to respond in any positive way to the gospel call. There is a total inability to come to the decision to put one’s trust in Christ. This point is truly the keystone in the Calvinistic system. This is what makes unconditional election logically and doctrinally necessary (“Conditional Election,” Grace Unlimited, Clark H. Pinnock, editor, p. 68).

Hence, the doctrine that God, from all eternity, predestined who would be saved and who would be lost is the doctrinal and logical consequence of inherited total depravity. The doctrines of unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints are logical sequences in the system.

2. Infant baptism. The modern practice of infant baptism is derived from inherited total depravity. John F. Rowe said,

Augustine is the originator of the doctrine of “original sin,” or “total hereditary depravity.” He flourished in the fourth century. His postulates from his reasoning process are these: The whole human family is totally depraved, by virtue of the first transgression. Infants are totally depraved because they are constituent parts of the human family. But, inasmuch as they can neither think, nor reason, nor believe, nor exercise any sort of freedom of will, something must be done to wipe out the stain of original sin. The act of baptism is the regenerating act, in his speculative theology, that removes from the soul of the infant the stain of original sin! (History of Reformatory Movements, p. 442)

3. Illumination. Those who believe that man has inherited a totally depraved nature also teach that the Holy Spirit must illumine the Scriptures in order for man to understand them. The Westminster Confession of Faith says,

Nevertheless we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the word. . . (Article I, No. 6).

4. Personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Those denominations which teach that man has inherited a totally depraved (sinful) nature from Adam are compelled to teach that the Holy Spirit must indwell the Christian in order for him to overcome his sinful nature. According to the Philadelphia Confession of Faith, this indwelling Spirit enables man to understand the Scriptures (Article 1, No. 6), to make him willing and able to believe (Article VII, Nos. 2-3), to strengthen him that he might resist sin’s temptation (Article XIII, Nos. 2-3), to make him conscious of his sin (Article XV, No. 3), and to enable him to do good works (Article XVI, No. 3). Without the assistance of the indwelling Spirit, man is unable to overcome his sinful nature.

5. Immaculate Conception. This doctrine teaches “that the Virgin Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin.” The doctrine was invented to prevent the conclusion that Jesus was born with the stain of original sin.

Practical Consequences of Inherited Total Depravity

Even as there are logical and doctrinal consequences of this false doctrine, there are also practical consequences. Here are a few of them:

1. A feeling of spiritual insecurity. If one holds the position that he has a sinful nature, he will have the concept that sin engulfs him like a cloud. Regardless of how devoted he is to God and to His service, he will always feel that there are sins in his life. If you were to ask such a person, “What sins have you committed?” he might not enumerate any. Nevertheless, he has a feeling of spiritual insecurity because he believes that he has a sinful nature.

Denominations which teach that man has inherited a sinful nature from Adam also teach a system whereby this defect in nature is overcome. The Calvinists teach that the perfect righteousness of Jesus is imputed to the believer so that God sees Jesus’ perfect obedience instead of the believer’s imperfections. The Wesleyans, teach that a second work of grace occurs whereby the believer is sanctified.

Those who accept that man has a sinful nature will continually be searching for a means to find security, whether it be in imputed righteousness, continuous cleansing, or some other means.

2. Passivity in obedience. Those who believe that man has a sinful nature sometimes reach the conclusion that man is passive in his salvation and sanctification (strict Calvinists take this position). After teaching such a person the way of salvation, he may reply, “I just do not feel like obeying the gospel yet.” He will await some mysterious working of the Holy Spirit before obeying the gospel. Until and unless he receives this miraculous operation of the Spirit, he will not obey the gospel. His condition is helpless and hopeless until the Spirit effects his salvation.


Some among us refer to their “sinfulness” in such a manner that the concept is practically equivalent to “sinful nature.” They do not mean by “sinfulness” a list of sins of which they are guilty. Rather, they mean their “tendency to sin.” I do not charge those who use this expression with believing the consequences enumerated in this article. However, if by “sinfulness” they mean “an innate sinful nature,” they have accepted the basic tenets of inherited total depravity, regardless of how watered-down and inconsistent their concept of it might be.

As one considers the consequences resulting from this false doctrine, he should understand why even the slightest indications that men believe in inherited depravity must be opposed. The doctrine of inherited total depravity undermines the power of the gospel to affect salvation in the life of man, destroys man’s ability to believe the gospel and live a sanctified life, and attacks the perfect purity of Jesus Christ or denies that He became like us. The doctrine of inherited depravity is not some unimportant theological doctrine without practical consequences. It is a doctrine which takes the heart out of the gospel message. As such, it must be resisted and opposed wherever it raises its ugly head.

Guardian of Truth XXXI: 1, pp. 2, 36-37
January 1, 1986