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The Doctrine of Total Depravity

You might be surprised to find that Arminianism and Calvinism are in complete agreement on the doctrine of total depravity; I know that I was. For many years I operated under the thought that mankind was pretty bad. But we were not so bad that we could not choose to accept God’s offer of salvation. But that is really the heresy of semi-Pelagianism. Calvinists and Arminians alike agree that mankind is totally corrupt and unable of himself to accept the gospel.

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Alternatives to Total Depravity

Before looking at total depravity, let’s take a quick look at a couple of the alternatives; Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism.


Pelagius was a British monk from the 4th and 5th centuries who emphasized holy living. He did not believe that the consequences of Adam’s sin were passed down to his descendants. Instead, he held that everyone was born in a morally neutral state. Given the right teaching, a man was capable of living in a way that would be pleasing to God. Because of this, man has the choice to do either good or bad without any constraints from a natively sinful nature.

Pelagius and Augustine clashed over this in 418 A.D. and again in 431 A.D.. Pelagius’ teachings were declared heretical by the councils of Carthage and Ephesus. These same councils also supported the position of Augustine on total depravity. It is probably worth noting that it is entirely possible that Pelagius himself did not hold to all of the ideas attributed to him. But regardless he is credited with them.


Another monk, John Cassian, is credited with trying to find a middle ground between Pelagianism and Augustinianism. Cassian advocated that there is a spark of good in man. Enough to enable him to begin the journey, at which point God takes over and finishes the work. This position, which came to be known as semi-Pelagianism, was also labeled as heresy. Again, it is uncertain if Cassian actually believed what he was accused of. The emphasis of both Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism is on human free will; the ability of humanity to freely choose, without any help from God, to accept his offer of salvation.

Now if you find yourself in this camp you are neither a Calvinist nor an Arminian; you have fallen into the heresy of semi-Pelagianism. Regardless of what you may hear Calvinists proclaim, Arminianism is no different than Calvinism in regards to total depravity.

A Summary of the Doctrine of Total Depravity

So now let’s take a look at total depravity as taught by both John Calvin and Jacob Arminius. Total depravity teaches that humanity was created in the image of God and was holy. But humanity fell from its sinless state when they disobeyed God’s directive not to eat from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. When they did this they died spiritually, were separated from God, and fell into condemnation.

That humanity is totally depraved does not mean that they are as bad as they could possibly be. But it does mean that we have a natural inclination to sin and that our natural state is corrupt, unable to think, will, or do anything in ourselves that is good. This includes being able to earn any favor from God; do anything to save ourselves from the judgment of God; or even believe the gospel of Christ.

I cannot take the initiative in salvation. If God does not first do something to enable me to believe, then I never will. It is an act of grace on God’s part that enables me to believe. My will is not free to choose God. While there is some difference between Calvinists and the Arminians concerning free will, on this they are agreed; one does not naturally have free will in regard to choosing to believe.

Scriptural Reference for the Doctrine of Total Depravity

  • Humanity was created good but fell into sin through willful disobedience. – Genesis 1:26-28; 3:1-19
  • All humans are sinful and disobedient to God; we are dead in our sins. – Ephesians 2:1-3; Romans 3:23; Colossians 2:13
  • There is no one who does good. – Romans 3:9-18
  • In our natural sinful state, we are incapable of pleasing God. – Romans 8:7-8
  • No one can come to Christ unless the Father draws them – John 6:44

Quotes on the Arminian Doctrine of Total Depravity

Jacob Arminius

In this state, the free will of man towards the true good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost. And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace. For Christ has said, “Without me ye can do nothing.” St. Augustine, after having diligently meditated upon each word in this passage, speaks thus: “Christ does not say, without me ye can do but Little; neither does He say, without me ye can do any Arduous Thing, nor without me ye can do it with difficulty. But he says, without me ye can do Nothing! Nor does he say, without me ye cannot complete any thing; but without me ye can do Nothing.”  

Arminius, J., Complete Works of Arminius, Volume 1, Public Disputations of Arminius, Disputation 11 (On the Free Will of Man and its Powers)

The Remonstrants

That man has not saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free will, inasmuch as he, in the state of apostasy and sin, can of and by himself neither think, will, nor do any thing that is truly good (such as saving faith eminently is); but that it is needful that he be born again of God in Christ, through his Holy Spirit, and renewed in understanding, inclination, or will, and all his powers, in order that he may rightly understand, think, will, and effect what is truly good, according to the Word of Christ, John 15:5, “Without me ye can do nothing.”

– Article 3 of the Five Articles of the Remonstrance (https://www.theopedia.com/five-articles-of-remonstrance)

John Wesley

John Wesley was in complete agreement with John Calvin and Martin Luther in his understanding of original sin. Wesley taught that as a result of the Fall the moral image of God (holiness, righteousness, love, and connection or relationship to God) is completely destroyed in humanity. Human beings in their natural state are spiritually dead to God, thoroughly sinful, helpless to change themselves, and incapable of even being aware of their state. If human beings are going to be saved God is the One who must take the initiative. If human beings are to be awakened, convicted of their sin, exercise faith to appropriate the new birth, then God must do the work, because humanity has no internal resources from which to draw to move themselves toward God and progress in the way of salvation.

– John Wesley, Contemporary Wesleyanism and the Reformed Tradition

For additional quotations concerning this doctrine see the article “Do Arminians Believe in Total Depravity?” on the Society of Evangelical Arminians website.

A Note on Being an Arminian

A Calvinist is one who follows the teachings of John Calvin. An Arminian is one who follows the teachings of Jacob Arminius. Can someone who does not follow the teachings of John Calvin rightly be considered a Calvinist? Or can someone who does not follow the teachings of Jacob Arminius be rightly considered an Arminian?

For this series of posts, Arminianism, or Classic Arminianism, will be defined based on the teachings of Jacob Arminius and the Remonstrants, his earliest followers. There have admittedly been many who called themselves Arminian who believed and taught things that Arminius did not agree with. That is unfortunate, but it is true for Calvinists as well.

Total depravity is an area where some who call themselves Arminians have ventured into semi-Pelagianism. But that is not Arminianism, which holds strongly to the doctrine of total depravity.

17 thoughts on “The Doctrine of Total Depravity”

  1. “If human beings are going to be saved God is the One who must take the initiative.” I would agree with this, but would not agree with most Calvinist who say we inherited the guild of the sin of Adam (The soul who sins is the one who will die Ezekiel 18:20). We inherited the nature of Adam, not the guild of Adam. We are judged for our own sins. Another point I don’t agree is that unbeliever are unable to do anything good. I don’t think that’s what you are saying, but maybe worth clarifying. I read John Piper 5 point book and he argues that an unbeliever who does a good action is considered a Sin before G-d (Isa. 5:20 would contradict that). The bible clearly teaches that we cannot and will not seek G-d, and that our sins have separated us from Him. In that sense, we are dead in trespasses, but I would not agree with the fact that unbeliever are only doing evil at all times and unable to do good actions. G-d judges the bad actions that they do and we will be condemned for plenty of bad actions that we do (and we all do bad ones, so all (literally means all, not some) have sinned); of course unless we repent and believe in the Lamb of G-d. For that reason, I usually say to Calvinist that I don’t believe in the “total Depravity” of Calvinism. Also, they use total depravity as a proof that we are unable to accept the salvation of God through the work of the Holy Spirit. Yes we are unable to come, but if someone read the Bible (he power of God for salvation), this is the work of the Holy Spirit in our Hearts because G-d does not want anybody to perish, but all to come to repentance.

    • First, I do not hold to Calvinist soteriology. Total Depravity is also an element of Arminian soteriology, which I do hold to.

      The doctrine of Original Sin is older than Calvinism. It comes from Augustine, who was a significant theological source for Calvin. I do agree with you, though, that it is my own sin that I am held accountable for, not Adam’s.

      And Total Depravity, at least the Arminian version, does not say that a person is as bad as they could be. People can do some truly good things. Total Depravity says that there is nothing in us that would enable us to seek God. It the Holy Spirit does not first enable us, we would never seek God or believe in him.

      • Hi Ed, I understand you are Arminian, which I would also consider myself. I hold to “total depravity” in the sense that the unbeliever will not seek G-d, but G-d needs to seek us first in order for us to accept the Gospel. G-d works in our Heart through the Word of G-d and His conviction of the Holy Spirit, otherwise we won’t seek Him. And we are separated from G-d because of our Sin. In a way, I only wanted to confirm this is what the Arminian believe. Sorry, I am more knowledgeable on the wrong Calvinist view of Total Depravity as I currently go to a Reform (Calvinist) Church.

        • I have never attended a church that was overtly Calvinistic. But have been a part of churches with no formal position, but containing many Calvinists. It was not always a pleasant experience. We are members of a Church of the Nazarene church now. Explicitly Arminian/Wesleyan in soteriology.

          • Great to hear. I started attending that Church during COVID as it was the only that did not enforce public health orders and as my wife is Calvinist. Now, it would cause too much of an issue to change, but I as you say, it’s not a pleasant experience and I’m grieve to see that they deny the Blood of Jesus for so many.

          • I would encourage you to be a part of a church where you can learn, grow, and serve. It is important for your development as a believer.

          • Yes Ed I agree, but it causes too much conflict at the current time. Even if I am the spiritual leader, she considers Arminianism as a false teaching. She is a big fan of MacArthur, Sproul, etc and has not been willing to hear anything that could diminish G-d’s sovereignty. My “denial” of G-d sovereignty has been hard on my family lately, so I won’t argue anymore about it. I’m the black sheep from that Church, maybe G-d has me there for a purpose…

          • FWIW, I believe that the Arminian view of God’s sovereignty is greater than that of the Calvinist. The Calvinist holds that God is only sovereign if he controls everything. The Arminian view is that God can allow human free will, while at the same time being sovereign and accomplishing his purpose in creation.

    • Once I unknowingly ran a red light. I got sent a ticket. My children and parents didn’t. That’s what Ezekiel 18 is talking about, and that is way different from me receiving my sin nature through my parents, and my children receiving theirs through me.

  2. “It is probably worth noting that it is entirely possible that Pelagius himself did not hold to all of the ideas attributed to him. But regardless he is credited with them.”

    I’d start there

  3. Question: Once God frees the will by by grace that enables one to choose to believe towards salvation, would you say that the sinner makes the choice on his own, that is, in the strength he possesses by virtue of being freed to will, his power of choice being restored (at least, until he makes a choice one way or the other)?

    P.S. I am a member of SEA

    • I believe that is the case, although it is often said that I have the choice to resist the Spirit’s call and reject salvation. God does everything needed to bring me into relationship with him, but allows me the option to refuse. If I do not have the final choice in accepting or rejecting, then I don’t really have ultimate responsibility for my action either.


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