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A Brief Overview of Depravity

Depravity is a word used in theological studies to describe the spiritual condition of man following the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Inasmuch as depravity signifies moral corruption, the epithet appears to be appropriate. The word itself—like sovereignty and Trinity—is never used in scripture, but can serve as a useful label if we rely upon biblical contexts to ascertain its true meaning.

The very last resource a believer should consult in his or her quest to formulate a sound theological system is books on systematic theology. While many of these volumes represent the efforts of good and godly men to paint a bull’s eye on various aspects of the truth, they are not inspired. Nor can it be assumed that decades of study in the original languages (Hebrew and Greek), ancillary languages (Latin, German, and French), and other theological works give the learned Ph.D. an edge over the average Joe in arriving at a biblical view of depravity. Adjectives like “total” and “radical” as applied to man’s depraved condition have probably done more to obfuscate than illuminate the issue.

The evidences and attributes of depravity can be readily extracted from the English version of Genesis, Chapters 3-4, in your standard King James Bible. According to scripture, the fall of mankind into a depraved state through the sin of Adam (Rom. 5:12) was concurrent with these four words: “and he did eat” (Gen. 3:6). Knowing that Adam and his descendants died spiritually in that moment of time (2:17), we therefore conclude that spiritual death is the sine qua non—the essential element—of depravity. Jesus confirmed that essence by affirming that believers are “passed from death unto life” (Jn. 5:24). Paul likewise confirmed it by instructing believers at Ephesus: “And you hath God quickened [brought back to spiritual life], who were dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). It is the spiritually dead, both small and great, that shall one day stand before God at his great white throne (Rev. 20:11-12). If a man or woman is spiritually dead, he or she is depraved!

The events that transpired immediately after the fall, which include the interaction between the Lord God and the depraved first couple, are very instructive. They identify for us both the trademarks of depravity and the capacities that depravity leaves in tact. The picture painted by the scriptures can differ significantly from what one might find in a theological volume on the subject, especially a Calvinistic one.

The first trademark of depravity is an aversion for God’s presence (Gen. 3:8). Adam and Eve “hid themselves from the presence of God amongst the trees of the garden” upon hearing his voice—a voice that was once the harbinger of intimate fellowship. A second trademark of depravity (and closely akin to the first) inherent in this aversion is fear. When the Lord God confronted Adam, he acknowledged: “I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself” (3:10). This self-awareness or “open-eyed” condition represents the introduction of conscience—the innate ability to discern good from evil. Adam is now suffering from the pangs of conscience. He may have marveled how just one act of disobedience could have so radically altered his perception of God and the manner in which he now chose to respond to his Maker. In popular parlance, perhaps he felt like he had been run over by a Mack truck. In a sense he was—and worse! Such is the nature of sin and the depravity that’s left in its wake!

A third trademark of depravity is the tendency to assign at least partial blame for one’s sin to another. In this case, Adam blames Eve for procuring and offering the forbidden fruit. Eve in turn blames the serpent for an act of beguilement that led her astray. None of this accusatory rhetoric, however, was able to deliver either of them from the consequences of their sinful actions. Nor will excuses avail at the great white throne.

It should be noted that the plummet of Adam and Eve into spiritual death and depravity left certain capacities in tact. First, these two spiritually dead individuals retained the ability to hear God’s voice and communicate with him. There is no evidence that God performed an act of “sovereign grace” in regenerating Adam and Eve before being able to conduct a meaningful dialogue with them. In fact, it can be argued that a God whose hands are so tied is less than sovereign. I have no doubt that Adam and Eve left the garden with spiritual life restored, but not until they received from God’s hand the coats of skins from the substitutes that died in their stead. Secondly, they did not lose the ability to speak the truth. Adam may have hid himself initially, but told it like it was when confronted. Eve likewise gave testimony in the divine presence that was consistent with the facts. Yes, depraved men and women tell lies, but depravity, in and of itself, does not guarantee that they will.

The salient point of any discussion on depravity is that the depraved must be evangelized if they are to be saved. They are first and foremost spiritually dead. The gospel of Jesus Christ—the story of God incarnate who died for their sins and rose from the dead the third day—is the antidote that can restore them to spiritual life and a relationship with God if it is heard and believed. But they cannot hear without a preacher!


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