Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice…Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. (Psalm 51:5-8, 10)
“Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10)
In evangelical circles there are few, if any, who question whether mankind are depraved in their fallen state or whether inherited depravity remains in the life of a believer. The questions that do engender debate are these:
- “Can inherited depravity be cleansed while a believer lives?” and if it so,
- “What is the nature of this cleansing?”
The answer to these questions hinges, in part, upon how one defines inherited depravity.
In what follows, I offer a definition of inherited depravity, sketch my understanding of key elements of the image of God in mankind in relation to inherited depravity, and explain my understanding of God’s plan to remedy our inherited depravity and restore His image in us.
Definition of Inherited Depravity
Many have defined inherited depravity with such terms as rebellion, greed, pride, selfish ambition, self-sovereignty. The primary terms the Bible uses are “sin” (Rom. 7:8), the “law of sin” (Rom. 7:23), the “flesh” (Rom. 7:18; 8:1) and “fleshly-minded” (Rom. 8:6).
While the metaphorical language Scripture uses to describe inherited depravity may suggest substance models in which inherited depravity is viewed as a “thing,” that is, an addition to man, a second or additional “nature,” I believe such models are fatally flawed and should be rejected.
My best understanding of Scripture is that inherited depravity is the self-centeredness (“we have turned every one to his own way”—Isa. 53:6) that resulted when Adam severed his relationship with God and forfeited the sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit through willful sin. As a result of Adam’s sin, God ceased being the unifying center of his life.
As a result of Adam’s sin, God ceased being the unifying center of his life
Self took the place of God, and Adam became totally depraved—a condition of complete self-centeredness. I use the phrase “total depravity” in the sense that it affects every part of our being (spirit, soul, and body).
Because of God’s restraining and enabling grace, no one is born incapable of learning how to do good. Romans 3:10–18 is the classic passage that describes how wicked our inner corruption would make us if it were not for God’s restraining grace.
As a result of Adam’s sin, all his posterity inherited this depravity.
Mankind Before the Fall
Mankind was created in the image of the triune God (Gen.1:26–27). The Shemá of Deuteronomy 6:4 provides a clear starting point for understanding what it means to be in the image of God: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD, is one” (see also Isa. 44:6). Yet our one God exists in three distinct Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And because God reveals that He is holy and loving, we understand that the three persons relate to each other in holy love (Lev. 11:44; 1 John 4:8). The early church spoke of the triune relationship as a “perichoretic unity,” a relationship of mutual indwelling, mutual self-giving, others-oriented holy love.
God’s creation of a male and a female in a holy, loving relationship is one aspect of how He chose to reflect His triune image in mankind. Being in God’s image meant, among other things, that Adam and Eve related to God and to one another in mutual self-giving, other-oriented, holy love.
They had totally satisfying relationships—with God, with themselves (self image), with each other, and with their environment. One may assert that Adam and Eve enjoyed a holy relationship with God, for their lives were totally yielded to His control. As they obeyed God, their conduct was completely righteous. Their crowning privilege was intimate fellowship with Him.
And because John 17:3 says “eternal life is to know God,” they had eternal life. Their relationship with God brought with it an enlightened understanding of spiritual things, enkindled emotions of love and appreciation for God, and enabled wills that were wholly inclined to do His will.
They intuitively and intellectually knew truth and perceived the inherent rightness of the arrangement. Further, Adam and Eve enjoyed an integrated personality, feeling loved, accepted, and secure.
Their worldview was God-centered, and they were emotionally balanced because they lived without guilt. Adam and Eve also enjoyed their relationship with each other. Adam was a wise, holy, loving, thoughtful, kind, generous, and protecting leader and husband. Eve likewise was wise, holy, loving, thoughtful, kind, and a generous helper and wife.
All of this was enjoyed in a perfect and sinless environment with a perfect mind and a sinless body.
Mankind After the Fall
First, mankind’s holy relationship with God was severed. God’s sovereignty had been rejected, and self-sovereignty had usurped His place. Disobedience resulted in ungodly character and unrighteous behavior (Rom. 1:18).
Because of Adam and Eve’s broken relationship with God, the supreme source of joy and satisfaction was missing from their lives. They had forfeited eternal life and were spiritually dead in trespasses and sin (Eph. 2:1).
Because of Adam and Eve’s broken relationship with God, the supreme source of joy and satisfaction was missing from their lives
The absence of God’s sanctifying presence resulted in the darkening of their understanding, the deadening of their emotions and the degrading of their wills (Eph. 4:17–18). Men and women no longer intuitively and intellectually knew truth. Thinking themselves to be wise they became fools (Romans 1:21–22).
Second, they no longer enjoyed an integrated personality. Making self the supreme source of reference, Adam and Eve felt self-conscious, unaccepted and insecure. Their worldview was distorted. Guilt and fear caused them to hide from the presence of God and expressed itself in self defensiveness (Gen. 3:8–10).
Third, their relationship with each other was warped. No longer reflecting the true image of God, Adam became an unwise, unholy, self-loving, self-protecting leader. Eve likewise became an unwise, ungodly, self loving companion who now desired to rule over her husband.1
This is mankind’s natural condition, although people can appear otherwise if it suits their self-centered interests.2
Fourth, Adam’s sin brought death into the world (Romans 5:12) and the whole created order was adversely affected (Romans 8:20–22).
Due to self-centeredness, mankind now futilely tried to find meaning and satisfaction in the individual components of life described in the Book of Ecclesiastes, not realizing that meaning and satisfaction can be found only in a personal relationship with the Creator (Ecc. 12:1).
The Transmission and Consequence of Inherited Depravity
According to the Psalmist, when children are conceived, they are conceived “in sin” (Psa. 51:5), meaning they too inherit depravity. “Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward and speak lies” (Psa. 58:3). Isaiah said, “All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him” (Isa. 53:6).
The reason we go astray is because we not only want “our own way,” but are driven by the desire to have it. Thus we are born spiritually dead and are by nature children of wrath (Eph. 2:1–3). We have neither the saving presence of God in our lives nor the knowledge of His ways.
As a result of our self-centeredness, we reject the One whose face we are supposed to seek and in whose light we are supposed to live. Martin Luther expressed the depraved condition of mankind in a very graphic way when he defined it as cor incurvatus ad se (the heart turned in upon itself).
Instead of turning to God from whom we came, we turn to ourselves in an effort to find what we need. Turning away from the Source of all that is good, we turn inward and try to live life out of our own resources and for ourselves. As a result, all types of evil become possible.3
Instead of turning to God from whom we came, we turn to ourselves in an effort to find what we need
Jesus said that from such a self centered heart proceeds “evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man” (Mark 7:21–23, NASB).
All of the natural propensities, needs, and potentialities of mankind are twisted in an egocentric and sinful direction. Paul frequently refers to this condition of self-centeredness as living “in the flesh.”
In contrast, He speaks of the Christian as living “in the Spirit.” He writes, “The flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another” (Gal. 5:17). They are in opposition because the Holy Spirit, like Jesus, will not operate independently of our heavenly Father, whereas the chief characteristic of the “flesh” is self-centered independence from God.
Paul further says that the person who has his mind set on the flesh cannot please God, is hostile toward God, and will experience spiritual death (Rom. 8:6–8). Jeremiah, using a slightly different metaphor, says that the very center of man’s depraved being, the heart, is “more deceitful than all else” and “desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9).
Apart from the grace of God, fallen men and women have no other choice than to find their identity in their self-centered existence and seek their purpose and meaning in life independent of God.
Originally published in God’s Revivalist. Used by permission.
- See the term “desire” in Genesis 3:16 and compare it to the same term in Genesis 4:7. I understand “desire” in these two contexts to mean “the desire to rule over” or “to exercise mastery over.”
- This is due to God’s grace which enables all people to do right if they desire to do so (Titus 2:11).
- Dennis Kinlaw, We Live as Christ (Nappanee, Indiana: Francis Asbury Press, 2001), 32.