DEPRAVITY. Scripture uniformly traces voluntary transgression to its root cause in sinful human nature. Sinful acts are the fruit of a depraved nature (cf. Prov 4:23; Mark 7:20-23).
In Biblical history man’s depravity assumes particular prominence in the antediluvian period. The depravity of man is characterized by potency (“was great in the earth”), inwardness (“every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil”) and invariability (“evil continually”). The Flood which man’s depravity called forth swept away sinners, but it could not eradicate depravity (cf. Pss 14:1-4; 51:5; 58:3). When Jeremiah contended against an external observance of religion which did not arise from inward love of God he emphasized the fact of man’s depravity (Jer 17:9). In His conflict with the Pharisees our Lord drew attention to the innate perversity of man’s heart (Mark 7:20-23; John 3:6). According to the teaching of Paul (Rom 5:19) all men have depraved natures, for all men have imputed to them the sin of Adam which carries with it “involvement in the perversity apart from which Adam’s sin would be meaningless and its imputation an impossible abstraction” (J. Murray, NBD, p. 1191). With a chain of quotations from the Psalms Paul proves that depravity is a deep-seated and universal moral perversity (Rom 3:10-18).
Because he is depraved man turns aside from God (3:12). He is incapable of pleasing God, since even his “good” actions do not spring from the principle of love to God which finds expression in obedience to God’s law (8:7, 8). Depravity is not partial, extending to part of mankind only, or to only part of man’s nature. It is total. This description should not, however, be misunderstood. It does not mean that man is as thoroughly wicked as he could possibly become. Neither does it mean that the unregenerate sinner is lacking in an innate knowledge of God (1:19-21), or is without a conscience that distinguishes between good and evil (2:15, 16). Nor does it imply that the sinner does not, and cannot, approve of virtuous character, or that he is incapable of kindness toward his fellow men (Luke 11:13). Positively, it does mean that inherent corruption extends to every aspect of man’s nature. He is depraved in all the faculties and powers of his body and soul.
The implications of the Biblical doctrine of depravity are far-reaching. First, since man is incapable of spiritual good his salvation must be entirely of grace. In particular this means that he must be renewed in all his faculties by the Holy Spirit. Second, evangelism and apologetics should proceed on the assumption that man’s reason is as corrupted as his will and his affections. While the truth of the Gospel will be presented to the mind there will be the awareness that without the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit the sinner remains in darkness (1 Cor 2:14). Finally, in the realm of sanctification, true holiness will be defined not merely in terms of outward actions, but also in respect of the inward principles of positive desire for the glory of God and love of His commandments. See Sinner.
J. Murray, “Sin,” NBD, 1189-1193; W. Grundmann, TDNT, 267-316; J. Edwards, Works I (1834), 143-233; F. R. Tennant, The Concept of Sin (1912).