The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins, in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience
What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ.
Total depravity is the ‘T’ in the TULIP acronym, and is logically the first doctrine of the 5 Points. This tenet teaches that the natural state of humanity, apart from God’s grace to either restrain or transform him, is totally corrupted from the Fall. Our inherent sinfulness is permeated so deep into our being that we are morally incapable of refraining from evil or pleasing God.
Now what do we mean by the adjective ‘total’ in the term ‘total depravity’? This is where we need to refine the doctrine further for clarity’s sake:
1. Every faculty of the human is affected by sin in its totality. This corruption of sin extends to every part of our human nature, affecting the body, mind and soul; the will, the intellect and the affections. Every thought, word or deed is tainted in sin, and so it cannot meet God’s approval when it comes to meriting His salvific love.
2. Every person’s moral inability to submit to God is total. This corruption affects every person from every nation, whether you are a Jew or a Gentile. We cannot please God, and indeed doesn’t want to please Him either. Pleasing God is never on the agenda in the minds of the totally depraved. In fact, we are hostile towards Him out of our free choice (Rom 8:5-9).
3. By consequence, every person is totally deserving of divine punishment. We have all incurred God’s wrath for violating His righteous law, thereby condemning us to be ‘children of wrath’ (Eph 2:3), to which eternal punishment is judicated from the Judge. What is most notable about our imposed penalty is that we have freely decided to sin, as such that we have imposed this punishment on ourselves. Though we know what we ought to do by our governing moral consciences, we not only continue to persist in our rebellion against God, but we also encourage others to join in our perversion (Rom 1:32). How totally deserving we are, then, of eternal death!
Now it is also important to know what ‘total’ doesn’t mean in total depravity:
1. Every person isn’t totally unable to display virtuous character and actions to others. We are still able to outwardly conform to God’s law through our works of civil righteousness; charitable works that pursue the betterment of our earthly neighbours. Evil people still know how to give pleasant gifts to their children (Matt 7:11). So our altruistic works can be perceived as good in relation to humanity, but when we consider these works in relation to God, they are absolutely defective. Works that are not motivated out of a glad submission to God are by nature sinful and therefore do not honour or please God (Rom 14:23; Heb 11:6).
2. Every person doesn’t totally commit as much evil as they possibly can. We don’t commit as much evil as we can, often because (a) outwardly submitting to God’s law serves our own self-interests in mind. We are not enticed to murder people, because murder doesn’t reward us. We also don’t do as much evil because (b) God’s common grace often restrains us from breaking out with all sorts of wickedness, as found in the example of King Abimelek when God prevented him from sleeping with Abraham’s wife, Sarah (Gen 20:1-7).
3. Every person hasn’t totally lost their will to choose. We have not lost our liberty to make choices. We have the freedom to make choices that correspond to our spiritual disposition and tendencies (Luke 6:45). Sin has not obliterated all our faculties: we are still able to reason, able to display affections, and able to make choices. However, since sin has polluted our faculties, the choices we make are devoid of a love for the things of God. So in that sense, we have lost the will to choose what is righteously good.
Many evangelicals stumble upon this pessimistic view of the human will with stark opposition. They insist that although we might possess a sinful nature, they can nevertheless still will themselves in do good that is pleasing to God. They would get us to imagine that we were drowning in the sea of sin. We have grasped the horrid predicament we are in. We call and wave for help to be saved. God sits eagerly on the edge of His boat, waiting for those who respond to Him by catching the lifebuoy He threw!
But this is not the illustration we see in Scripture. We have already drowned in sin (Eph 2:1-3). We are totally blind to our spiritual predicament, because we are dead (John 12:39-40). And dead people do not call and wave.
We mustn’t delude ourselves into thinking we innately desire to be with God but find ourselves needing divine assistance. In reality, we naturally hate God and we do it willingly and freely. We cannot save ourselves and we don’t want to save ourselves. Is not this true upon further reflection of ourselves in all that we think, say or do? Time and time again, our minds are occupied entirely with ourselves, our flaming tongues pierce others with curses and complaints, and we drift in and out of our adulterated love for sin.
So how do the implications of this doctrine shape our view of:
a) God? We must revere God for who He is, holy and righteous in all that He is. He cannot and does not sweep under the rug any committed sin against Him and He simply cannot overlook the defiance of sinful creatures who profane His Majestic character and His creation. God will make absolutely sure He vindicates Himself by imposing true justice on all evildoers, and we are totally incapable of escaping it.
b) Ourselves? We mustn’t be overly surprised at the immense amounts of evil committed around the world, and even within our churches today. As long as they live in this present age, even Christians who possess a supernatural devotion to God, are still bound by the lingering influences of the flesh and will continue to sin to varying degrees (Rom 7:14-25). Our understanding of the corrupted condition of humanity should encourage us to be fast in exercising patience and forgiveness, and slow to anger and judgment, with all people around us.
c) Salvation? We must be humble to see ourselves as utterly broken people who need a Saviour. We need a Guide who will help us finish the race, someone who won’t just assist us through 20% of the way, but will carry us through the whole way. We are completely dependent on Him and His grace for our forgiveness and our sanctification till the very end.
d) Worship? We mustn’t be deluded to think our outward displays of religious worship could produce a pleasing aroma to God. Worship doesn’t just entail what we do with our hands, but with our minds and hearts also! Worship requires the entirety of the person to praise God in all that He is. If our works of civil righteousness (hands) do not coincide with a robust theology of God (mind) and with true God-loving affections that desires to please Him (heart), our offerings to Him fall short of true worship.
e) Mission? We mustn’t assume our evangelistic efforts, with the use of the best rational and evidential arguments, will bring about conversions for the Kingdom. Morally depraved people are naturally hostile to God, and so unless God breaks their hard-heartedness, they will never respond to the gospel message. This does lighten up our burdens with evangelism, for conversions do not depend on our competencies. But we should pray earnestly for God to do His work of smashing rock-hard hearts, for there is no hope for these rebels unless He does so.
Click here to read the next doctrine of grace: Unconditional Election