Original Sin, Total Depravity, and Free Will

by Mike Ratliff

8 If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us. 1 John 1:8-10 (NASB) 

Sacred Scripture’s diagnosis of sin is as a universal deformity of human nature found at every point in every person (1 Kings 8:46; Romans 3:9-23; 7:18; 1 John 1:8-10 see above). Both the Old Testament and the New Testament describe sin as rebellion against God’s rule, missing the mark God set for us to aim at, transgressing God’s law, offending God’s purity by defiling oneself, and incurring guilt before God the Judge. The moral deformity is dynamic: sin is an energy of irrational, negative, and rebellious reaction to God. It is a spirit of fighting God in order to play god. The root of sin is pride and enmity against God, the spirit seen in Adam’s first transgression, and sinful acts always have behind them thoughts and desires that one way or another express the willful opposition of the fallen heart to God’s claims on our lives. 

I know from experience and if any of you have done any discernment work or work in the area of apologetics dealing with those who attack God’s truth, his doctrines of the Church, or the Church itself, then you know as well how those who claim to be Christians, but hate the truth are willfully blind and, in their sin, have an irrational sense about them that refuses to even consider the truth. As I have said to some of my friends about this, it is as if these people have lost the ability to reason. They are enslaved to their sin, which is that energy of irrational, negative, and rebellious reaction to God. However, once we realize that this is who we are dealing with, then we will always have the upper hand because we have the wisdom of God, his peace and joy, and the mind of Christ.

Sin may be defined as breaking the law of God, or failing to conform to it, in any aspect of life, whether thought, word, or deed. Scriptures illustrating different aspects of sin include Jeremiah 17:9; Matthew 12:30-37; Mark 7:20-23; Romans 1:18-3:20; 7:7-25; 8:5-8; 14:23 (Luther said that Paul wrote Romans to “magnify sin); Galatians 5:16-21; Ephesians 2:1-3; 4:17-19; Hebrews 3:12; James 2:10-11; 1 John 3:4; 5:17.

“Original sin,” meaning sin derived from our origin, is not a biblical phrase (it comes from Augustine), but it does bring into focus the reality of sin in our spiritual system. Original Sin does not mean that sin belongs to human nature as such; “God made man upright” (Ecclesiastes 7:29). Nor does it mean that the processes of reproduction and birth are sinful; the uncleanness associated with sexuality in Law (Leviticus 12; 15) was typical and ceremonial, not moral. Rather “original sin” means that sinfulness marks everyone from birth, in the form of a heart inclined toward sin, prior to any actual sins; this inner sinfulness is the root and source of all actual sins; it is transmitted to us from Adam, our first representative before God. The doctrine of original sin makes the point that we are not sinners because we sin, but we sin because we are sinners, born with a nature enslaved to sin.

The phrase “total depravity” is commonly used to make explicit the implications of original sin. It signifies a corruption of our moral and spiritual nature that is total in principle, although not in degree (for no one is as bad as he or she might be). No part of us is untouched by sin, and no action of ours is as good as it should be. Consequently, nothing we do is ever meritorious in God’s eyes. We cannot earn God’s favor, no matter what we do; unless grace saves us, we are lost.

Total depravity includes total inability, that is, being without power to believe in God or his word (John 6:44; Romans 8:7, 8). Paul calls this universal unresponsiveness a form of death; the fallen heart is “dead” (Ephesians 2:1, 5; Colossians 2:13).

The Westminster Confession of Faith 

Chapter IX

Of Free Will 

III. Man, by his fall into a state of sin, has wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.

To this darkness the word of God alone brings light.

27 But He said, “The things that are impossible with people are possible with God.” Luke 18:27 (NASB) 

6 For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. 2 Corinthians 4:6 (NASB) 

Soli Deo Gloria!

2 thoughts on “Original Sin, Total Depravity, and Free Will

  1. I find it helpful to bear in mind Gen 5:3 wherein Seth (the godly line) is said to have been made in Adam’s image. This communicates the notion that Adam’s sin was passed onto his children and onto us. We see elsewhere where all men are made in God’s image, yet is was tarnished and broken by sin.

    We fail to see the serious implications of “original sin” but it is critical to our understanding of who we are as human beings.


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