Total depravity (also called total inability or total corruption) is a biblical doctrine closely linked with the doctrine of original sin as formalized by Augustine and advocated in many Protestant confessions of faith and catechisms, especially in Calvinism. The doctrine understands the Bible to teach that, as a consequence of the Fall of man, every person born into the world is morally corrupt, enslaved to sin and is, apart from the grace of God, utterly unable to choose to follow God or choose to turn to Christ in faith for salvation.
Total Depravity comes from the T in the Calvinist TULIP acronym, but the concept is accepted by both Calvinist as well as Arminians. While the name is somewhat misleading, it is basically the concept that man does not have the ability to begin to approach God based upon their own ability or goodness. We are totally dependant upon God for salvation.
Paul sums up the idea of the fallen nature of man in Romans 3:
What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Rom 3:9-18)
No one does good is part of the reason why many people reject the idea of total depravity. There are many people out there, saved and unsaved, who do acts that are seen as good and kind towards others. How can this be true if no one can do good according to Paul? That is part of the problem with using 16th century terminology.
corrupt, wicked, or perverted.
evil, sinful, debased, reprobate, degenerate; dissolute, profligate; licentious, lewd. See immoral.
And then to be totally corrupt, wicked, or perverted; that is a tough argument to make against a person when trying to tell them they need Jesus.
“You are totally depraved.”
“No I am not.”
“Yes you are.”
“I am not as depraved as Charles Manson, so I can’t be totally depraved. I can be a lot more depraved them I am, but I am not so I am not totally depraved.”
So the terminology really takes away with the state of being we are trying to communicate to people. Why not change it then? Because then they would have to find something to replace TULIP or reprint all of those TULIP cards and posters with Inability instead of Depravity and that is a lot of work.
Paul’s real argument can be simplified that due to the law, we are all found guilty of sin. No one is righteous or better stated as no one is innocent or absolutely holy. No one does good really be shown as no one is morally excellent. The standard that we use to determine good from wicked is not the same standard that God uses. We are judged based on His standard, so we all fall short of the mark. This is an argument that we can not deny. We all know we could do better. It doesn’t matter if we are better or at least on par with others, we fail to reach our best. When we are less than perfect, it is as if we are totally wicked and perverse in the sight of God. That is the point they were trying to make while showing people why the grace of God was needed. Without the sacrifice on the cross, we would never have the opportunity to escape the judgment of the law.