Church Education Trust

Christian Belief



The Nature of Inherited Depravity

Theoloians of most schools usually speak of inherited depravity as "a depravation arising from deprivation". Depravity is the result of the loss of the Holy Spirit, of the life of God and of original righteousness. Since God meant man to be dependent upon Him and created him for this purpose, this loss meant a disordered state of affairs at the very centre of man's being and also a positive inflow of evil.

Dr.Watson, in his "Theological Institutes" puts it this way, "For as the death of the body, the mere privation of the principles of life, produces inflexibility of the muscles, the extinction of heat, and sense and motion, and surrenders the body to an operation of an agency which life, as long as is continues, resisted, namely that of chemical decomposition; so from the loss of spiritual life, followed estrangement from God, moral inability, the dominion of irregular passions, and the rule of appetite; aversion, in consequence, to restraint; and enmity to God.

This accounts for the whole of man`s corruption. The spirit's influence in him did not prevent the possibility of his sinning though it afforded sufficient security to him as long as he looked up to that source of strength.

He did sin and the Spirit retired; and the tide of sin once turned in, the mound of resistance being removed, it overflowed his whole nature. In this state of alienation from God men are born, with all these tendencies to evil, because the only controlling and sanctifying power, the presence of the Spirit, is wanting, and is now given to man, not as when first brought into being, as a creature; but is secured to him by the mercy and grace of a now and different dispensation, under which the Spirit is administered in different degrees, times and modes, according to the wisdom of God, never on the ground of our being creatures, but as redeemed from the curse of the law by Him Who became a curse for us." (Theol. Inst. Vol.2 p.79 -8a, quoted from Wiley Vol.2 p.124).

One other point needs to be clarified. Some have asserted that by saying that human nature is depraved, we make God the author of evil in that He is the creator of human nature.Tho word."nature" however, can be used in two ways. It can mean the constituent elements of human nature which make a man what he is, a man. In this sense human nature is still what God made it and man is still man.

The word can also mean "the moral development of a being as a growth from within, apart from external influences". In this sense man`s nature is corrupt and is inherently so. Sin has become verily part of him. But in this sense God was not the cause of the condition of man`s nature.

The fault lay at man`s own door in that he disobeyed God and the Fall was the result. In the first sense, however, sin is not part of human nature; it is an accident, it is foreign to human nature. It has only become inherent because of the Fall. God, therefore, is in no sense the author of our present disposition except in so far as He made us with a free will.

(ii) The Meaning of Total Depravity.

It is necessary to clarify the extent to which human nature is depraved and what is meant by the expression "total depravity". The Scriptures clearly imply that the whole of man' s being is affected by sin an inherited depravity. It is a strong term and mist be used carefully and only in the sense given to it by careful theologians.

  1. It will be best first to point out what is meant by the term. Dr.A.A.Hodge sums it up well in his "Outlines of Theology". He states that it does not mean that,
    The depraved man has not a conscience. The virtuousness of an agent does not consist in his having a conscience, but in the conformity of the dispositions and the affections of his will to the law of which conscience is the organ.
  2. Unregenerate men, possessing a natural conscience, do not often admire virtuous character and actions in others.
  3. They are incapable of disinterested affections and actions in their various relations with their fellow men.
  4. Any man is as thoroughly depraved as it is possible for him to become, or that each man has a disposition inclined to every form of sin."

The term does mean that the evil principle has affected every part of human nature, that man is totally alienated in his governing disposition from God, and that there is therefore no part of human nature which can consistently perform righteous acts and consistently think righteous thoughts.

The term is used extensively rather than intensively. Depravity "vitiates every power and faculty of spirit, soul and body. The affections are alienated, the intellect darkened and the will perverted: 'the whole head is sick and the whole heart faint' (Isa.1:5)".

It also means that there is no positive good in man in the sense that there is no strong consistent purpose to do good. The term, therefore, does not apply so much to the degree of evil in man as to the field of operation in him.

A good illustration is used by T.G.Hammond, " good illustration of the theological position is the difference between a straight and a crooked line. A line that is not the shortest distance between two points is crooked or depraved (i.e. turned aside). If it cannot straighten itself, it is totally depraved, whether it is an inch or a mile out of plumb." This last sentence brings out the final point in the meaning of this term, i.e. that man is totally incapable of himself of altering the bias of his nature.

(iii) Man's Moral Condition at Birth.

At the risk of repetition it is well to sum up again the position we hold in this connection. Man is born into the world possessing the depraved nature as described above, a nature which is very far gone from original righteousness, is averse to God and inclined to evil. He is not of himself responsible for this and is not therefore guilty in the sense of personal blame worthiness.

He has no power of his own to alter this evil nature but the grace of God through the atoning death of our Lord operates immediately in that the work of Christ avails for him prior to his reaching years of responsibility.

The Holy Spirit also begins His work of giving the man than natural ability, in other words the gracious ability, to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ unto salvation, man has, however, power to resist this working of the Holy Spirit.

(f.) The Freedom of the Will.

Another problem faces us. If man is depraved as described above, surely man`s  will is not free and God therefore is unjust to condemn him for his sin. The subject of the freedom of the will is a difficult one.

There are several subjects and problems outside the strict realms of theology which need to be studied and given serious thought before reaching final and settled opinions. It is wise not to make hasty generalizations.

It is impossible to investigate the subject thoroughly in this course, but if the following points are kept in mind, it will help us in our understanding of the scriptural and christian side of the question.

  1. First, it must be remembered that the word "freedom"is used in many different ways and we must be clear as to what we mean by it. It often has the sense merely to act without external constraint. Obviously no maan is completely free in every direction. In saying the will is free we do not mean that freedom is unconditional; there are conditions which affect the will`s freedom.
  2. This leads us to the second point, that man cannot isolate himself from his past or his environment. Surroundings and race affect him; habits build up over a period.
  3. But thirdly, the choice which led to the habit belonged to the individual at the start and was easier to make or resist then; also it is always possible to rise above or go against environment.
  4. Fourthly, the Scriptures clearly speak to man as a free agent, responsible; for his actions and able to choose between right and wrong.
  5. Fifthly, we know within ourselves that the will is free; we know that, however much habit and environment may urge us in one direction, we have the ability to choose the other if we really want to; it is at this point of desire and fascination that sin has its tightest grip.
  6. Lastly, to sum up, no act can be isolated from its history and made voluntary in the sense of being unrelated to any previous condition. What then does it mean to say that we have free will, and that an action is voluntary?

In the words again of T.C.Hamraond, "The answer must be that voluntary means the free expression of an individual at any moment, his nature and history entering as free elements into his choice, which is free but not unconditioned." (In Understanding be men, old edition p.98). In addition to these remarks it must always be borne in mind that the power of the Holy Spirit is available for every man who will put his trust in the Lord and thus he can be enabled to make the right decision.

(g) Depravity and Infirmity.

Separation from God and the reign of sin have affected the physical nature as well as his spiritual nature. Disease and infirmity have afflicted man`s physical make up. While we are promised that sin can he dealt with in this life through the atoning work of Christ, the redemption of the body is not promised until the resurrection?

It is simple enough, in a general way, to distinguish between body and soul, but the fine line of demarcation between the physical and the spiritual is not always easy to discover. It is not always easy to decide what is carnal and what is purely physical. Physical diseases and defects can have strange effects on the nervous and mental make up. There is neen to exercise charity in our judgementof others and to hace Holy Spirit`s illumination and understanding ourselves.



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