What is total depravity and is it biblical?

Total Depravity, sometimes called "total inability," is one of the five points of Calvinism, and is the "T" in the acronym TULIP1. Total Depravity states that each and every person (except Jesus, 1 Peter 2:22) is completely touched by sin in all that he is and does whether it's heart, soul, mind, body, thought, or deed. However, this does not mean that all people are equally bad or that all people are as bad as they can be. Not all are murderers. Not all are adulterers. Not all cheat. 

  • "By total depravity, is not meant that all men are equally wicked; nor that any man is as thoroughly corrupt as it is possible for a man to be; nor that men are destitute of all moral virtues. The Scriptures recognize the fact, which experience abundantly confirms, that men, to a greater or less degree, are honest in dealings, kind in their feelings, and beneficent in their conduct. Even the heathen, the Apostle teaches us, do by nature the things of the law. They are more or less under the dominion of conscience, which approves or disapproves their moral conduct. All this is perfectly consistent with the Scriptural doctrine of total depravity, which includes the entire absence of holiness; the want of due apprehensions of the divine perfections, and of our relation to God as our Creator, Preserver, Benefactor, Governor, and Redeemer," 2
  • "Total Depravity, The view, characteristic in Reformed theology, that sinfulness pervades all areas of life or the totality of human existence. This belief was one of the five canons of the Calvinistic Synod of Dort (1618– 19) and part of TULIP,"3

Can unbelievers do anything good at all?

The doctrine of Total Depravity does not state that unbelievers do not do good in any sense. We know that non-Christians can be morally upright in that some do not lie, do not steal, do not murder, etc. This is because the Scriptures teach that the Law is written on their hearts.

  • "For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, 15 in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, 16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus," (Romans 2:14-16).

So, again, Total Depravity does not mean that a person is as bad as he can be. It means that he is completely touched by sin in all that he is and does.

Effect of Total Depravity

The effect of Total Depravity on a person is his total inability to freely choose to come to Christ, trust in his Lordship, and be delivered from his sins. The unregenerate person is free to choose to do whatever he desires to do, but he will choose to act in a manner that is consistent with his sinful, fallen nature. In other words, no unbeliever left to his sinful free will, will ever choose to become a Christian. This is why there are verses in the Bible that state it is God who appoints people to believe (Acts 13:48), chooses who is to be holy and blameless (Eph. 1:4), calls according to His purpose (2 Tim. 1:9), chooses us for salvation (2 Thess. 2:13-14), grants the act of believing (Phil. 1:29), grants repentance (2 Tim. 2:24-26), causes us to be born again (1 Pet. 1:3), draws people to Himself (John 6:44,65), predestines us to salvation (Rom. 8:29-30) and adoption (Eph. 1:5) according to His purpose (Eph. 1:11), makes us born again not by our will but by His will (John 1:12-13), and works faith in the believer (John 6:28-29).

Verses used to support Total Depravity

There are numerous Scriptures used by Calvinists to support the doctrine of Total Depravity. Following are some of them.

  • Jeremiah 17:9, "The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick. Who can understand it?
  • Mark 7:21-23, "For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, 22 deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. 23 All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man."
  • John 3:19, "This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil."
  • Romans 3:10-12, "as it is written, “There is none righteous, not even one; 11 There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; 12 All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one."
  • Romans 5:6, "For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly."
  • Romans 6:16-20, "Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. 19 I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification. 20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.
  • Ephesians 2:1, "And you were dead in your trespasses and sins."
  • Ephesians 2:3, "Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest."
  • 1 Corinthians 2:14, "But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised."

We can see from these verses that the heart is wicked and full of evil, that people do not understand and do no good, are helpless slaves of sin, dead in their sins, by nature children of wrath, and cannot receive spiritual things. Therefore, the unbeliever will freely choose to do what is consistent with his sinful nature. He will choose to behave in a sinful manner.




  • 1. Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance of the Saints
  • 2. Hodge, Charles (2011-10-20). Systematic Theology, Complete; Vol. 1: Introduction, Vol. 2: Part 1, Theology Proper; Part 2, Anthropology; Part 3, Soteriology; Vol. 3: Part 4, Eschatology (With Active Table of Contents) (Kindle Locations 18784-18790).
  • 3. McKim, Donald K. (2014-04-21). The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, Second Edition: Revised and Expanded (Kindle Locations 14342-14344). Westminster John Knox Press.

About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.