Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
December 20, 1951

Answering The "Total Depravity" Arguments

Franklin T. Puckett, Calico Rock, Arkansas

Those who claim that man is born totally depraved, that he comes into the world a child of the devil, and that his very nature is one of complete depravity, are fond of quoting Ephesians 2:3 in support of their doctrine. They lay particular emphasis on the clause, "and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest." But let us examine the context. "And you did he make alive, when ye were dead through your trespasses and sins." Why were they dead? Because they had been born so? Of course not. They were dead through their own trespasses and sins. They had trespassed against God, sinning in his sight. That's why they were dead. "Wherein ye once walked"—walked in what? Why, in trespasses and sins. "According to the course of this world." What was the course of their journey? It was not in the ways of righteousness and the paths of faithful devotion to God; on the contrary, they were walking the course of this world, "according to the prince of the powers of the air, of the spirit that now worketh in the sons of disobedience." How were they walking? In disobedience. That's what the text says. "Among whom we also all once lived in the lusts of our flesh, doing the desires of the flesh and of the mind."

It is perfectly evident that those to whom Paul wrote were people who had been practicing fleshly things, performing the works of the flesh. And what those works were, Paul lists in Galatians 5: "Now the uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, immulations, wrath, strife, seditious, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like." These were the things of which they had been guilty. And because of such behavior, Paul said they were "by nature children of wrath, even as the rest." These people had practiced sin until they were utterly steeped in it; and that practice brought on them the consequences of God's wrath and condemnation. They were condemned because they walked according to the course of this world, not because they had been born into that course. They were the children of the wrath of God because of their spirit of disobedience. Paul is here making no reference at all to human nature, but is talking about that which had become their common and accustomed practice. And that's a definition; one of the definitions of the term that is here translated "nature."

To those who talk about the "nature" of man being depraved, we issue this challenge: name one single innate or inherent passion of man that is corrupt. It can't be done. Where is the quality or desire or passion that is corrupt in and of itself? Will one say that "wrath" is sinful? The wrath of God is poured out upon the ungodly? Will one say that it is a sin to hate? There are some things which the Lord hates, and teaches us to hate. "Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good." Love is a virtue only when it is rightfully used; it may be so abused as to become a sin. One may love the wrong thing or person. Hate is not sin because it is hate, but only becomes sin when hatred is directed against the wrong object. Only when something is wrongfully used does it become sinful. Self-preservation is an example. It is natural on the part of man to defend or protect himself. Such is necessary to the maintenance of the race. Only when the instinct to self-preservation leads to aggressive and violent expression does it become wrong. The sex urge is not sinful in itself; it is necessary to the propagation of the race. But when this good and righteous natural endowment is misused and wrongfully exploited it becomes sinful.

Did you ever notice that Paul charged the Gentiles (Romans 1) of behaving unnaturally in some of the sins they committed? Their actions (sins) were unnatural, against nature, contrary to nature. How then can it be argued that it is natural for man to sin?

Psalm 58:3-4

Another passage often used (misused) in defense of the idea of inherited total depravity is the one in which the Psalmist says, "The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies." (Psalm 68:3) Joining Acts 3:2 with this, they argue that "from the womb" means simply from birth; hence the contention is that from birth itself the "wicked" are astray. But take a look at that passage again. The text says they "go" astray—not that they are born astray. Hence, those wicked ones have to be old enough to "speak lies." Further, in the very same passage, God is exhorted to "Break their teeth." Do infants have teeth? The same reply made to this argument is applicable to what is usually contended from Isa. 48:8, in which Isaiah speaks of "a transgressor from the womb." This clearly does not and cannot, mean a transgressor from the moment of birth. It might be further noted that Isaiah is speaking of Israel, not of some individual man, nor yet of the human family as a whole.

Psalm 51:5

One of the favorite passages of those who teach inherited total depravity is found in David's lament, "I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me." (Psalm 51:5) This is a far cry from saying that the child is born a sinner. They fail to distinguish between the thing born and the conditions surrounding the birth. David does not say, I was born a sinner; neither does he say, I was born in sin. Even if he had said, I was born in sin, it would not necessarily mean that he was born having inherited total depravity from his mother. The fact that we are born IN something does not mean that we are THAT thing. On the day of Pentecost the people cried out, "How hear we every man in our own tongue wherein we were born"? They were born in a tongue—but they were not "tongues" themselves! Jesus Christ was born in a stable; but he wasn't a stable. He was cradled in a manger; but that didn't mean he was a bale of hay. The place of one's birth does not determine what one is.

David is not talking about the thing born, but rather about the conditions surrounding his birth. "I was shapen in sin, and in iniquity did my mother conceive me." This is the Psalmist's description of the circumstances of his birth; it has nothing at all to do with the nature with which he came into the world. Even if his mother had been the vilest of sinners, her sin would have had nothing to do with the character or inherited guilt of her child.