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Total Depravity: A Brief Orientation

We are on a quest for identity. Marketers who prey on the weak know this, and they sell us their products and services through this idea: you are not at your best yet; buy my product, and you will be. At least until we convince you that you are not, again, in our next ad, and we repeat the cycle endlessly.

total depravity

Everyone has a practical and theological anthropology regardless of whether we claim to be Christians or atheists or profess any other religion. We have our own answers to questions such as Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we headed?  

One of the doctrines of grace comes under fire as it challenges everyone’s anthropology that no matter what, at the core, (and apart from Jesus Christ) we are good people. We have excuses ready to prove that no matter what we have done wrong, it was not our fault. Perhaps in our days of canceling others, this doctrine might even be misused to justify the lack of redemption we offer to others who have sinned.

This is the doctrine of total depravity.

In this article, I will define this doctrine and give some historical context. Total depravity is an important component of a biblically-sound anthropology, yet, it is only one component. With a broader understanding of total depravity, we will be able to avoid unhelpful caricatures and horrifying abuses of this precious doctrine.

Total Depravity: A Definition

Defining this doctrine requires us to explain a part of who we are after the fall. John Piper provides a succinct explanation in Five Points: Towards a Deeper Experience of God’s GracePiper says, “Our sinful corruption is so deep and so strong as to make us slaves of sin and morally unable to overcome our own rebellion and blindness. This inability to save ourselves from ourselves is total. We are utterly dependent on God’s grace to overcome our rebellion, give us eyes to see,  and effectively draw us to the Savior” (15).

Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology writes, “This total lack of spiritual good and inability to do good before God has traditionally been called ‘total depravity,’ but I will not use the phrase here because it is easily subject to misunderstanding. It can give the impression that no good in any sense can be done by unbelievers, a meaning that is certainly not intended by that term or by this doctrine” (627).

Michael Horton in The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way notes  that “one of the interesting paradoxes of Calvin’s thought is that he simultaneously affirmed the  total integrity of humanity as created and the total depravity of humanity as fallen[…] The biblical view is constantly challenging our attempts to exonerate ourselves by fixing the blame on something outside of ourselves” (432).

Horton explains that “what is meant by ‘total’ is that the whole nature of humanity, not only the body and its desires but the soul, mind, heart, and soul, is corrupt” echoing Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology. Berkhof says that inherited pollution or total depravity is not “that every man is as thoroughly depraved as he can possibly become,” or “has no innate knowledge of the will of God, nor a conscience that discriminates between good and evil,” or “that sinful man does not often admire virtuous character and actions in others, or is incapable of disinterested affections and actions in his relations with his fellow-men,” or “that every unregenerate man will, in virtue of his inherent sinfulness, indulge in every form of sin” (246-247).

Matthew Barrett shows in chapter two of Salvation by Grace: The Case for Effectual Calling and Regeneration in detail and also in chapter 13 of  Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary, that “depravity was not total in intensiveness but total in extensiveness” (490).

In Romans 3:11-18, Paul says:

“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.”
“Their throat is an open grave;
    they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
in their paths are ruin and misery,
 and the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Such is the extensiveness of our depravity. At the root of who we are after the Fall is sin.

Some History 

It is false that total depravity is Calvin’s invention, something out of his theological system. The formal articulation of the doctrine in the Canons of Dort came as a response to the doctrine of Jacob Arminius and the Arminian Remonstrants. Yet, both sides of the theological dispute affirmed the doctrine of total depravity. In some sense and in some ways, Calvinists and Arminians actually agree on this doctrine.  Matthew Barrett shows in The Grace of Godliness: An Introduction to Doctrine and Piety in the Canons of Dort, in the Arminian Remonstrants’ own words, that they affirmed man’s “need of divine grace if he is to be lifted out of this state of inability” (79).

The difference is with the doctrine of effectual grace. The grace that the Remonstrants identified as necessary was prevenient or cooperating, elevating the role of man in contributing to or thwarting God’s saving purposes. For now, suffice it to say that the biblical background affirms total depravity. What the two groups could not affirm together is how man is saved from his depravity.

Total Depravity and the Image of God

Having established that man is corrupt to the core and utterly unable to save himself from this bondage, we must have in mind the entire canon of Scripture. That man in his fallen state is totally, radically deprived is one part of anthropology but not the whole thing. Man was created by God in his likeness and image (Gen 1:26-27).

Man is made in the image of God, and that image, though distorted and marred by sin, is still present. In the words of the Gettys in their song, My Worth Is Not In What I Own, “Two wonders  here that I confess/My worth and my unworthiness/My value fixed—my ransom paid/At the  cross.” Every human being is infinitely valuable because he is made in the image of God. Yet, as the effects, penalties, and consequences of sin weigh us down, our inability to choose God on our own becomes clear.

Jesus Christ came into the world and became a man, as we are in every way except for sin, to live the perfect life we could never live and to nail all our sins to His cross once and for all, so that as He rose again, we can have true hope of eternal restoration and renewal in glorified bodies that will no longer be subject to the groans of life in the fallen world, of disease and sorrow, pain and death. Jesus is making all things new.

Yes, the Puritans are right to sing of us as worms sometimes (“A guilty, weak, and helpless worm, on Thy kind arms I fall,/Be Thou my strength and righteousness, my Jesus and my all”).

But only partly and sometimes.

We are not solely worms. We are also the creation of God. The beauty, intricacy, intelligence, emotions, and complexity of human beings are part of the testimony of natural revelation as to the existence of God. We cannot minimize the image of  God in human beings, including its implications related to race, equal worth, redemption, forgiveness, and hope.

Salvation

We need God for our salvation. We cannot save ourselves. Before regeneration, human beings are slaves to sin. The biblical testimony for that is clear: John 3:5-8, 8:34; Romans 3:10-18;  Ephesians 2:1-2; 1 Peter 1:3-5. No one can come to Jesus unless the Father draws him, Jesus said in John 6:44. The radically-depraved man has only one hope out of bondage. Otherwise, he is the living dead, to highlight Ephesians 2. We may think we are alive, but we aren’t. Apart from Jesus, we are dead in our trespasses and sins.

God must intervene. God must save us.

Only Jesus can rescue us. And He came into the world to do just that: to call us out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).

Sanctification

At salvation, a lifelong process of sanctification starts, the transformation of the individual into the image of Christ, one degree of glory to the next (2 Cor 3:18). The believer, the saint, is being sanctified (Hebrews 10:10, 14) and has the certainty that his glorification is sure (Romans  8:29-30).

This doesn’t mean that the saint lives a perfect life. Only Jesus did that.

Unfortunately, sometimes the believer is taught to overly doubt his heart. A reference to  Jeremiah 17:9 is made, the believer may end up doubting when he shouldn’t. Yes, the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick. But, for the believer, a twin reality is also true: the peace of Christ rules our hearts now through the Holy Spirit. The book of  Colossians speaks of the reality of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27, 3:15). So I must be wary of my heart, but I also have the Holy Spirit enlightening His Word, convicting my heart, and healing my soul.

Abuse of this doctrine is asking grace for ongoing, unrepentant sin. It is portrayed as, “We  know we are radically depraved, why don’t we give one another plenty of grace?” It sounds very Christ-like and polite. Except that Christ has called us to be holy as He is holy. He ascended to the heavens to intercede for us and to send the Holy Spirit to work out our sanctification into holiness. We cannot misuse radical depravity to cheapen grace and give free license for sin to rule.

Total Depravity and the Future

Where are we going? Every anthropology must end with the future. And our future will see the end of radical depravity. For the believer the picture is one of unbeatable hope:

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither  shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away”  (Revelation 21:3-4).

About Victor Chininin Buele

Victor Chininin Buele has been a pastor and is a software technical consultant and an MDiv student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He partners with missionaries and local churches to train pastors and leaders in Ecuador and the United States.