Total Depravity

By Rodney N. Kirby (about 1980)

And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually (Gen.6:5).

We have looked previously at one aspect of the Biblical teaching on “the nature of man”—the fact that man is made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). This month we look at another aspect of man’s nature —his sinfulness. When Adam sinned, his sin affected not only him, but the whole human race, of which he was the representative head. Every person born of Adam, then, inherits a sin nature—a natural bent and desire toward sin. This affects all of man’s capacities—his intellect (cf. II Cor. 10:5), his will, his desires, etc. Man, left to himself, naturally inclines toward evil and away from God and His Law-word.


There is much emphasis placed in modern education on creativity. The teacher is to give the child information, materials, etc., so he can express his imagination freely. This is seen in the fine arts, and in “creative writing.” Now, there is a place in the Christian school for creativity. However, our text gives us a warning in this area. It says that “every imagination. . . was evil.” We must not stop with enabling the child to express himself freely; he may (and, at first, most likely will) express a sinful imagination.

We must show him how his imagination is not in line with Scripture (say, a non-Christian thought being expressed through allegory), and how he can bring it in line with God’s revelation. One’s imagination is not neutral, and we must not say, ‘Oh, but you will suppress the child’s creativity if you, critique his work.” Paul tells us that we must bring every thought (including “creative” thoughts) into captivity to the obedience of Christ (II Cor. 10:5). Children must be taught how to express themselves creatively in submission to God’s Word.

In our economics and government classes, we must also remember the sinfulness of man. We cannot rely upon man to solve our economic or social problems; man is sinful, and will progressively move farther from God’s Law into apostasy. It is quite easy to point this out in liberalism —collective man (m the state or democracy) is looked to as the saviour from all our socio-economic ills. With the liberals in control, there is more and more oppression—of the rich, of the poor, of Christians, etc. But conservatism (as it is generally preached) has the same flaw. As this is being written, the Republican National Convention has just been held.

While we may agree with many of the positions taken, yet there is one basic flaw—it is all based, just as in liberalism, on man. To be sure, it is the individual man, rather than collective man. But Ronald Reagan’s words are still ringing we can “make American great again; we can re-establish respect for America among the other nations of the world; we can bring our productivity back up; etc. Only God can “make America great,” and we must be careful to make that fact clear to our students. The blessings of Deut. 28 do not come from a free market economy per se, but from a God who blesses faithfulness to His Law-word.


Since the child is sinful, we cannot depend on him to decide what he should learn, and when and how he should learn it. He will not choose what he needs (as defined by God’s Word), but will choose those things which least enable him to obey God and exercise dominion. However, those who advocate open classrooms either do not see this, or they deny it. Open classrooms are those in which the children, individually, decide which of several subjects they will study, how long they will study it, and how they will learn it (educational games, worksheets, books, etc.).

Maria Montessori was a prime advocate of this methodology. She believed in the natural goodness of the child; he would thus choose wisely what he needed and was ready for at the time. If he wanted to study math all day, he could —or art, or music, or for that matter, recess. The teacher was merely to provide him with the apparatus needed to do what he desired. However, if we, with Scripture, view the child as sinful, we cannot trust him to learn what he needs. The teacher (and administrator) must decide what the student will learn, and when.

There is a variation on the open classroom concept in vogue today in many Christian schools. This is the individualized course of study, best represented by Accelerated Christian Education (A.C.E.). While the student does not have complete freedom of choice as to subject matter, he does proceed through the booklet at his own pace. To be sure, the teacher does monitor his progress, and can detect any slothfulness. And, it is admitted, it is easy to understand the rationale for such a program as A.C.E.—a small school can offer all twelve grades, with only a few teachers. (The writer is using a similar curriculum in tutoring several Cambodian refugee children.) But it would seem that the A.C.E. and similar programs still have not considered sufficiently the sinful desire of the child not to work up to his capacity.


It is popular to submit rules for classroom behaviour to a vote—giving the children a chance to experience “participatory democracy.” Also, the children will more readily obey rules they themselves have drawn up, it is said. However, if the child has a sin nature, as Gen. 6:5 says, then he cannot be trusted to make his own laws. The child may make laws against every kind of wrong behaviour except his own.

Even Adam before the fall did not make his own laws; how much less would a fallen, depraved human being be capable of doing so! Such “democracy” is actually training in autonomy—when the child grown up, he will no more look to God’s Law than he does in school. He will be a thoroughly trained-autonomous humanist.

Since the child’s heart is sinful, Christian teachers cannot expect discipline (even Biblical discipline) in itself to have a lasting effect on the child. Only the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit can change the heart. We may, and must, make the child conform to Biblical Law; but we cannot change his heart to make him desire to obey that Law. The sinner’s problem is not just bad behaviour—it is a bad heart, which produces bad behaviour.

Thus, Christian discipline is distinguished from behaviour modification, which sees only the outward behaviour, and uses external means to change that behaviour. Gen. 6:5 tells us that the heart is wicked, and so it is the heart that must be changed. Christian teachers must pray for their students diligently, asking God to give the children a new heart, one on which His Law is written (Jer. 31:33). Only in this way will our discipline truly be effective.

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