Total depravity does not mean, however, that people are as evil as possible. Rather, it means that even the good which a person may intend is faulty in its premise, false in its motive, and weak in its implementation; and there is no mere refinement of natural capacities that can correct this condition. Thus, even acts of generosity and altruism are in fact egoist acts in disguise.
Nonetheless, the doctrine teaches optimism concerning God's love for what he has made and God's ability to accomplish the ultimate good that he intends for his creation. In particular, in the process of salvation, God overcomes man's inability with his divine grace and enables men and women to choose to follow him, though the precise means of this overcoming varies between the theological systems. The differences between the solutions to the problem of total depravity revolve around the relation between divine grace and human free will – namely, whether it is efficacious grace that human free will cannot resist, as in Augustinism, or sufficient or prevenient grace enabling the human will to choose to follow God, as in Molinism and Arminianism.
Writing against the monk Pelagius, who argued that man's nature was unaffected by the Fall and that he was free to follow after God apart from divine intervention, Augustine developed the doctrine of original sin and, Protestants contend, the doctrine of total inability. Augustine's views prevailed in the controversy, and Pelagius' teaching was condemned as heretical at the Council of Ephesus (431) and again condemned in the moderated form known as semi-Pelagianism at the second Council of Orange (529). Augustine's idea of "original" (or inherited) guilt was not shared by all of his contemporaries in the Greek-speaking part of the church and is still not shared in Eastern Orthodoxy. Also, some modern day Protestants who generally accept the teaching of the early ecumenical councils (for instance, followers of Charles Finney) nevertheless align themselves more with Pelagius than with Augustine regarding man's fallen nature.
Catholicism registers a complaint against the Protestant interpretation of Augustine and judgements of the Council of Orange, and they claim that they alone have been faithful to the principles taught by Augustine against the Pelagians and Semipelagians, though they freely admit to some "gradual mitigation of the force of his teaching. Their doctrine, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is that "By our first parents' sin, the devil has acquired a certain domination over man, even though man remains free. At the Council of Trent they condemn "any one [who] saith, that, since Adam's sin, the free will of man is lost and extinguished; or, that it is a thing with only a name. Thus, in the Catholic view, man is not totally unable to follow God apart from divine influence. The Jansenist movement within Catholicism held a very similar interpretation of Augustine compared to the Protestants, and the Jansenist view of man's inability, the necessity and efficacy of divine grace ("efficacious grace"), and election was quite close to that of Augustinism but was condemned as heretical by the Church.
The doctrine of total depravity was affirmed by the Five articles of Remonstrance and by Jacobus Arminius himself, and John Wesley, who strongly identified with Arminius through publication of his periodical The Arminian, also advocated a strong doctrine of inability. The term Arminianism has also come to include some who hold the Semipelagian doctrine of limited depravity, which allows for an "island of righteousness" in human hearts that is uncorrupted by sin and able to accept God's offer of salvation without a special dispensation of grace. Although Arminius and Wesley both vehemently rejected this view, it has sometimes inaccurately been lumped together with theirs (particularly by Calvinists) because of other similarities in their respective systems such as conditional election, unlimited atonement, and prevenient grace.
Some oppose the doctrine because they believe it implicitly rejects either God's love or omnipotence. That is, it is posited that if God is loving and omnipotent, then either he would not have allowed mankind to become totally corrupt or he would have immediately restored humanity to its original state. Thus, the argument goes, if the doctrine of total inability is correct, God must either be not loving or not omnipotent. Advocates of total depravity offer a variety of responses to this line of argumentation. Wesleyans suggest that God endowed man with the free will that allowed humanity to become depraved and he also provided a means of escape from the depravity. Calvinists note that the argument assumes that either God's love is necessarily incompatible with corruption or that God is constrained to follow the path that some men see as best, whereas they believe God's plans are not fully known to man and God's reasons are his own and not for man to question (compare Rom. 9:18-24; Job 38:1-42:6). Some particularly dislike the Calvinist response because it leaves the matter of God's motives and means largely unresolved, but the Calvinist sees it merely as following Calvin's famous dictum that "whenever the Lord shuts his sacred mouth, [the student of the Bible] also desists from inquiry.