Are People Born Basically Good or Basically Bad?

Tulip Tuesdays: Calvinism, Part 1, the “T” in TULIP

I’ve had a few questions from friends about my beliefs in Calvinism and what it means to call myself a five-point Calvinist. I’ve decided to devote Tuesdays to exploring my beliefs, outlining them for you here.

Simply, Calvinism can be explained using the acronym, TULIP. Persons who affirm
all five of the points of the acronym, are called “five-point Calvinists.”

Today I begin with the first point: the “T” in TULIP, which stands for “total depravity.”


I’m sure you’ve heard many people say they think people are basically good. They may say they have “great faith in the goodness of mankind” and believe that the majority of human beings will typically choose kindness and generosity.

You may be stunned, then, to hear me say that people are–at their core–basically bad. They aren’t as bad as they could be because of God’s intervening common grace to all of creation. But, humans are born sinful– totally depraved (marked by corruption or evil).

Scripture describes totally depraved human beings in two ways: enemies of God and dead in sin.

Enemies of God
What is an enemy? A rival. Someone at cross-purposes. Someone who is opposed to your success. An enemy doesn’t love you or cheer you or have your best interests at heart.

We human beings are born as enemies of God.

Dead in Sin
We are also dead in sin. A dead person is without life. A dead person is incapable of calling out, looking for, or moving toward anything. A dead person does NOT seek God.

So you may be wondering at this point, why should I care? All that stuff sounds like negative, depressing theological mumbo-jumbo. I mean, I live a good life. I’m a good mom and a good wife. I’ve never cheated on my husband or cheated on my taxes. I think I’m doing OK. I’ve definitely done enough good things to outweigh the bad things.

Hmmm. Well, it doesn’t really work like that.

And that’s why the doctrine of humanity’s total depravity is so important. You AREN’T as bad as you could be. But you are still born sinful. You are still NOT God, and God is still God. And God’s requirements for holiness have never changed but they are something neither I nor you can EVER attain.

Understanding my true nature is one of the most humbling experiences I’ve ever been through. I grew up a “really good girl”–and I haven’t cheated on my husband or my taxes, either. But I was born dead in sin, just the same. It wasn’t until I studied Calvinism (and Reformed Theology) that I grasped the gravity of my sin nature (just simply because I’m an imperfect human compared to a perfectly holy God).

The cool thing, though? The darker my sin surrounded me, the brighter God’s grace overtook me!

Why? Why are humans depraved? Well, the Bible says that the first humans were born holy and happy but when they disobeyed God, all of their ancestors would inherit their sin nature. Why did they disobey? No one knows.

God, however, did not leave his creation without a remedy. He sent his Son to obey perfectly and then to receive the punishment that all of those sins deserve.

We’ll talk more about that next week, with the “U” in TULIP, which stands for “Unconditional Election.”


Recommended reading:
Putting Amazing Back Into Grace by Michael Horton

Chosen by God by R.C. Sproul


What do you think? Are people born basically bad or basically good?

If you grew up attending church, what were you taught about this?

Do you see any aspects of your own behavior or attitudes that would support that people are born basically good or people are born basically bad?

I’d love to hear your thoughts below.