The doctrine of total hereditary depravity is a foundational tenet of Calvinism. John Calvin believed that all babies are born in sin and that their nature had to be changed. In his Institutes, he wrote that babies “bear with them an inborn corruption from their mother’s womb” (Institutes II, 1340). “Indeed, their whole nature is a seed of sin; hence it can only be hateful and abhorrent to God” (Institutes I, 251). Calvin stated that “they must be cleansed of it before they can be admitted into God’s kingdom, for nothing polluted or defiled may enter there” (Institutes II, 1340). He contended, “original sin, therefore, seems to be a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature” (Institutes I, 251).
Certain New Testament passages are used to justify this doctrine—which is held to by many mainline denominations. Romans 5:12 states, “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” While Paul says that “death passed upon all men,” he does not affirm that guilt and corruption did so. To affirm that all people are guilty of Adam’s sin or because he sinned is to affirm something that Paul does not teach.
Ephesians 2:3 is another “sugar stick” passage used by Calvinists. “And were by nature the children of wrath” is used to affirm that we are born with corruption. Yet Paul does not state that we are born “children of wrath.” The word “nature” indicates practice. Paul affirms in verse 1 that we are “dead in trespasses and sins.” We are not born in that state.
In light of what Calvin affirmed, he also said “when man has been taught that no good thing remains in his power, and that he is hedged about on all sides by most miserable necessity, in spite of this he should nevertheless be instructed to aspire to a good of which he is empty, to a freedom of which he has been deprived” (Institutes I, 255). One can see the problem with this—in light of his teaching on depravity. Since the “good of which he is empty” and the “freedom of which he is deprived” are both good, then it is good for man to “aspire” to it. Yet, if he is depraved, then how can he “aspire” to it?
Total hereditary depravity is false doctrine. It is clear from Scripture that children are born innocent and remain in that state during childhood. Jesus said, “of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:14). He also said, “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3-4).
While it is certain that all people received the penalty of death because of Adam’s transgression, according to Romans 5:12-21, it is equally certain that all people are included in the redemptive act of Jesus Christ—and that “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound” (Rom. 5:20).
Certain Old Testament passages affirm the innocence of babies and children. “Yea, they sacrificed their sons and their daughters unto demons, and shed innocent blood, even the blood of their sons and of their daughters, whom they sacrificed unto the idols of Canaan; and the land was polluted with blood” (Ps. 106:37-38). “Moreover your little ones, that ye said should be a prey, and your children, that this day have no knowledge of good or evil, they shall go in thither, and unto them will I give it, and they shall possess it” (Deut. 1:39). “Thou wast perfect in thy ways from the day that thou wast created, till unrighteousness was found in thee” (Eze. 28:15). “And should not I have regard for Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:11). “Before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land whose two kings thou abhorrest shall be forsaken” (Isa. 7:16).
Add to this what the New Testament affirms. “And I was alive apart from the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died” (Rom. 7:9). “For the children being not yet born, neither having done anything good or bad” (Rom. 9:11). It is abundantly clear that the Bible affirms the innocence of babies and children.
Scripture also clearly states that sin is not passed on from generation to generation. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die: the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him” (Eze. 18:20). “The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin” (Deut. 24:16).
The New Testament plainly teaches how sin develops. “But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death. Do not err, my beloved brethren” (Jas. 1:14-16). “Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law” (1 Jno. 3:4).
Calvinism is an insidious system that has subverted the souls of multiplied millions of people. The doctrine of total hereditary depravity is particularly abhorrent. When the Truth of God’s Word is utilized properly, it will always prevail. May God help all of us to clearly understand.