by Jeff Hagan
(Tacoma, WA, USA)

Non-denominational Reformed

Total Depravity is a term used to summarize what Scripture teaches regarding the spiritual condition of fallen humanity. It is the “T” in the acronym TULIP, which is commonly used to explain the five points of Calvinism (each point represented by a letter), Calvin's teachings are also referred to as the Doctrines of Grace. Since the term “total depravity” can generate wrong ideas about what is meant, some people prefer to use other terms like, “total inability,” righteous incapability,” “radical corruption,” and a couple of others. But the importance is not in the name given to the doctrine, but how accurately the doctrine expresses what the Scriptures teach about the spiritual condition of fallen humanity. No matter which label you use to refer to “total depravity” the fact remains that when correctly understood it accurately describes what the Scriptures do teach on this important topic.

The doctrine of total depravity is a recognition that the Scriptures teach that as a result of the fall of Adam (Genesis 3:6) every part of humanity – mind, will, emotions and flesh – have been corrupted by sin. Put another way, sin affects all areas of our being which includes who we are and what we do. It penetrates deeply into the very core of our being so that everything is polluted by sin and “...all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” before a pure and holy God (Isaiah 64:6, NIV). It recognizes that Scripture teaches that we sin because we are sinners by nature. Or, as Jesus says, “Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:17-18).

The total depravity of humanity is seen throughout the Scriptures. Our hearts are “deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jeremiah 17:9, NIV), and the thoughts of our hearts are “only evil all of the time” (Genesis 6:5, NIV). Scriptures also teach us that humanity is born dead in transgression and sin (Psalms 51:5; 58:3; Ephesians 2:1-5). Scriptures teach that because the unregenerate are “dead in transgressions” (Ephesians 2:5, NIV), we are held captive by a love for sin (John 3:19; 8:34) so that we will not seek God (Romans 3:10-11) because we love the darkness (John 3:19) and do not understand the things of God (1 Corinthians 2:14). Therefore, we suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18) and continue to choose to live in sin. Because we are totally depraved, this sinful lifestyle seems right to us (Proverbs 14:12) so we reject the good news of Jesus Christ as foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:18) and our mind is “hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so” (Romans 8:7, NIV).

The Apostle Paul gives us a summary of the total depravity of humanity in Romans 3:9-18. He starts the passage by saying that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin. Or in other words, humanity is under the control of sin or is controlled by our sin nature (our natural tendency to sin). The fact that unregenerate people are controlled by their selfish, sinful desires should come as no surprise to anyone who is a parent or childcare provider. No parent or guardian has to teach a child to be selfish, to want what someone else has, or to lie. Those things come naturally out of the child's sin nature. Instead, the adult must commit a lot of time teaching the child the importance of telling the truth, of sharing instead of being selfish, and obeying instead of being defiant, etc.

Then, in the rest of this passage Paul goes on to quote from the Old Testament as he explains how sinful humanity really is. For example, we are shown that (1) no one is without sin, (2) no one seeks after God, (3) there is no one who is good, (4) their speech is corrupted by sin, (5) their actions are corrupted by sin, and (6) they have no fear of God. So, when one reflects on just these verses alone, there are many others, it becomes rather clear Scriptures do teach that fallen humanity is “totally depraved,” because sin affects all of our being including our mind, will and emotions so that “there is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:12, NIV).

There is a common misunderstanding in regards to total depravity. Total depravity does not mean that humanity is as evil or sinful as we could be, nor does it mean that we do not have a conscience or any sense of right or wrong. Neither does it mean that we do not or cannot do things that appear to be good when looked at from a human perspective or measured against human standards. It does not even mean that we cannot do things that seem to line up outwardly to God's law. What the Scriptures do teach, and what total depravity does recognize, is that even the “good” things we do are polluted by sin because they are not done for God's glory or out of faith in Him (Romans 14:23; Hebrews 11:6). While humanity looks at outward actions and judges them as good, God looks not only at the outward actions but also on the internal motives that lurk behind them, and because they come from a heart that is in rebellion to Him and they are not done for His glory, even these seemingly “good” deeds are like “filthy rages” in His sight. In other words, fallen humanity's good deeds are not motivated by a desire to please God but by our own self-interest and are therefore corrupted to the point where God declares there is “no one who does good, not even one.”

Scripture is very clear that all of humanity is affected by sin, even to the degree that “no one seeks after God,” so then how can anyone possible be saved? How can they become a Christ-follower, a Christian? The answer is that God must overcome our depravity in such a way that we are able to recognize our spiritual state and our hopeless condition apart from the grace of God. Our spiritually blind eyes must be open by God and the bondage of sin that keeps us hopelessly trapped must be broken so that we can respond in faith to the redemptive message and the atoning work of Christ on the cross. Some Christians believe that God does this work through some kind of universal grace where God brings humanity to a condition where they have the ability to choose or reject Him. Others believe that for a human who is “dead in trespasses and sins” to be able to understand and respond to the good news of Jesus Christ in faith, they must first be born again (regenerated) by the Holy Spirit (John 3:3). It is only after God infuses spiritual life into a dead sinner that they can “see the kingdom of God.” Those that hold this position see this as being a sovereign act of God, where humanity is born again “...not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's man's will, but born of God” (John 1:12-13).

However, even when the doctrine of total depravity is correctly understood, many people still reject the teaching, but that really should not surprise us, since the world generally thinks of humanity as being basically good. Therefore, the idea that humans are by nature depraved sinners is opposite to most modern religious, psychological and philosophical views regarding the basic nature of humanity. But the truth is Scripture does teach the depravity of the human heart, and the root cause of our problem is not the environment we are raised in but our evil and selfish heart. Correctly understood, the doctrine of total depravity will destroy the hopes of any who place their faith in any kind of works-based method of salvation and will recognize that God's sovereign grace is our only hope. While the doctrine of total depravity destroys our self-righteousness and any misconceptions about our ability to be save by our own free will, it does leave us asking the same question the disciples asked Jesus in Matthew 19:25-26, “Who then can be saved” (NIV)? And of course, the answer is the same today as it was back then, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:25-26, NIV).

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