Total Depravity and Business Ethics

July 14, 2010

This text was originally published in R. C. Chewning, ed., Christians in the Marketplace. Biblical Principles and Business: The Foundations (Colorado Springs: Naulress, 1989). 139-54; slightly revised and edited, 2010.


By Rev. Dr. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.

If the Bible teaches anything clearly, it is the reality of sin. That is the dark side of the clarity of Scripture, confessed by the Protestant Reformer's unsparing portrayal of human sinfulness. From beginning to end, Genesis 3 through Revelation 22, the Bible documents the full range of sin and its consequences.

Sin is rebellion against God.

(1) Specifically, human sin is lawlessness (see 1John 3:4) - violation of God's law; prideful disobedience of the revealed will of God, the Creator, on the part of the creature made in His image and for His service.
(2) Sin is universal ("There is no one righteous. not even one" and "all have sinned" [Rom. 3:10. 23 NIV; cf. 1:18-3: 10]); every human being is born a sinner ("Surely I was sinful at birth. sinful from the time my mother conceived me" [Ps. 51:5 NIV]).
(3) Sin is also intensive or integral, its corrupting impulse resident at the core of human personality ("For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander" [Matt. 15:19 NIV]).
(4) The character of sin as transgression involves guilt (e.g, Rom. 5: 12ff.) as well as corruption.
(5) The ultimate punishment on the condemnation sin deserves from God, in fidelity to His holiness and righteousness, is death - eternal death ("The wages of sin is death..." [Rom. 6:23 NIV]).

All the historic Christian traditions agree, more or less as stated here. with these points. To deny the reality of sin is to deprive Christianity of any real meaning. There are differences, however, and among these is perennial dispute about the third point above, the depravity or corruprion of sin. Briefly stated, the issue is this: Is human depravity total of partial? Is the corruption of human nature complete, or is it limited in some respect? Is there perhaps left in people a remnant unpolluted by sin, some capacity or potential that sin does not govern? I will seek:

(1) to show that the Bible, in fact, teaches that human depravity is radical and total and
(2) to answer, again on a biblical basis, certain apparently formidable objections to this teaching. That, in turn, will provide a necessary framework from which
(3) to draw some conclusions, necessarily brief and general, for ethics in business and economics.

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