Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
June 9, 1955

Inherited Total Depravity

Thomas Allen Robertson, San Bernardino, California

So far as history is concerned the doctrine of "hereditary total depravity" appears to have originated about the fourth century this side of Christ. Its greatest exponent and advocate was a man who later came to be designated as "Saint" Augustine. The doctrine was borrowed from heathen philosophy, and has been transmitted from century to century until today it is firmly entrenched as one of the fundamental teachings of nearly all the so-called "orthodox" creeds.

Simply stated, the doctrine is that all men are born in sin because of Adam's sin. Adam's guilt is transmitted to all his posterity. When Adam sinned he lost his original righteousness; this brought about a corruption of his entire nature, and thus, all who partake of Adam partake of his nature and come into the world "positively" averse to all good and inclined to all evil. By birth one possesses not only the guilt of Adam's sin, but also a corrupted nature which makes it impossible for him to do good or think good until this inherited corruption is removed.

Hereditary sin is distinguished from "actual sin." The former is inherited, while the latter is that which one commits himself. It should be sufficient answer to these wild speculations to note that the Bible makes no such distinction, knows nothing of "inherited" sin, and is as silent as the tomb on all such philosophical meanderings.

Arguments To Support

Wild and incredible misapplications of scripture are often used to support this theory. For example, Proverbs 23:7 is copied with Genesis 6:5 as follows: "For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he." And "God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." By joining these two verses, an effort is made to show that man's life is based on the way he thinks in this heart, and since all his thoughts are only evil continually, he is consequently totally depraved.

To answer this misapplication, one need only look at the passage in Genesis 6:5, and consider to whom it referred. The reference there is to the wicked antediluvians, who had refused to follow the way of God and had multiplied iniquity. "And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him a his heart." But even then the Lord found one man who was not wicked, but who walked before God as a perfect man. That was Noah. Furthermore, God pleaded with the rest of the race through the preaching of Noah to turn from their evil ways. Their wickedness was such that they could turn from it and renounce it; their evil ways could have turned to righteous ways. A man's course is determined by his thinking, to be sure, but he has the power to determine what his thinking shall be.

Another passage often used to support the theory is Ecclesiastes 8:11, where it is stated that "the heart of he sons of men is fully set in them to do evil." It is argued that this passage shows it is impossible for men to do good; their hearts are "set" to do evil. Therefore, man is totally depraved.

But let us consider the verse. The word "set" shows that this condition is a result of man's own choice. Man himself has "set" his heart to do evil. Furthermore, a reading of the passage will show exactly why it was that this "set" had taken place — "Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil." The writer is not talking about the condition of men's hearts at birth; mankind is not born with a heart fully set to do evil. But as he grows up, and begins to realize that he can sin and not be immediately punished for it, his heart becomes hardened, and he "sets" his heart to do evil.

Study in connection with this the words used to describe the attitude of Ezra. "For Ezra had set his heart to seek the law of Jehovah, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and ordinances." (Ezra 7:10). Ezra had "set" his heart in one direction, just as others had "set" their hearts in an opposite direction. Neither was born with his "set"; but each developed it himself.

Another favorite passage of those teaching inherited depravity is Job 25:4. "How can he be clean that is born of woman?" But they do not read with understanding. For if they did, they would realize that these are the words of Bildad, who is described for us as a forger of lies! To take the language of one who is a forger of lies and try to make his words set forth the truth of God is certainly going a long way to prove a point. Bildad also asks, "How then can a man be justified with God?" Are we to suppose from that question that no man can be justified with God? If we answer that a man can be justified, then we can also answer that one can be clean who is "born of woman."

The doctrine of inherited total depravity is not true. It is a deception of Satan, a working of error. Men need to study the Bible that they may know the truth, render obedience to it, and be saved from the guilt of their own sins — not from some inherited taint from Adam.

A study of God's word will reveal that for a man to be saved from the guilt of sin, he must have faith in his heart (Rom. 10:9-10); repentance from past sins. (Acts 2:38; 17:30); make the good confession with his lips (Matt. 10:32-32; Rom. 10:10); and be buried through baptism into the death of Christ (Rom. 6:1-4). If one does these things, he has the promise of God that all his sins are forgiven, all guilt removed, and that he is a child of God. If then one will live as a faithful, consecrated member of the family of God, the promise of God is certain and sure: heaven will be the home eternal of such a person. Will you not do that which God commands, that you may live forever with him?