Know Thyself. These are the words painted across my high school emblem. In many ways it was a valuable motto; after all, knowing who you are is important. It shapes your identity, purpose, morality, and how you live. Yet in our society our self-knowledge is often informed by genetics, biology, sociology, anthropology, and psychology. While these disciplines can be useful and informative they fail to explain the world in which we live, much less who we are. The Bible speaks of humanity as God’s image-bearers created to glorify Him in all that we do. But our first parents – Adam and Eve – chose to rebel against God in the Garden and in that moment the entire universe fractured. The perfect harmony of creation was shattered. Sin and death entered the world. Humanity was severed from God. The moral and spiritual condition of mankind was profoundly tarnished. If we are to gain a deeper understanding of God’s actions in salvation we need to come to terms with our state as humanity; we need to know ourselves.
Defining Total Depravity
The doctrine of Total Depravity (also known as Radical Corruption) is the Bible’s description of humanity’s fallen state. Protestant Reformers such as John Calvin strongly asserted the gravity and pervasiveness of the effect of original sin on fallen human nature, “Everything which is in man, from the intellect to the will, from the soul even to the flesh, has been defiled and crammed with this concupiscence.” The effect of original sin is universal in its reach. There are all but four chapters in the entire Bible where our sin does not figure predominantly. This leads the apostle Paul to conclude in Romans 1-3 that all of humanity – both Jew and Gentile – are under sin, falling short of the glory of God, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”
Total depravity is the unwillingness and inability of humans from birth to love or please God because sin corrupts every part of our being and everything that we do.
Another biblical grounding for the doctrine of total depravity is found in Ephesians 2:1-3:
“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.”
Two observations can be made here:
1. Humanity is dead and enslaved
The Bible’s diagnosis of fallen humanity in fallen society is that we are spiritually dead. We are by our nature unwilling to love or please God because we are enslaved to the ways of this world, the work of Satan and our own sinful nature. We are in spiritual bondage. We think that we control sin but the truth is that sin controls us. Sin not only controls us but it also corrupts every part our being. In the words of Romans 3:10-18, our sin affects our “throats”, “tongues”, “lips”, “mouth”, “feet” and “eyes”. Our minds, our intellect, our will, our affections, our desires, our morality – every part of us is affected. This means that no one desires to seek God. And in our natural state we willingly submit to this master. We do not try and fight it. We let our passions and desires dictate what we do.
2. Humanity is powerless
Fallen humanity is not only unwilling to love or please God but also unable to do so. It is more than just a problem with desires; it is a problem with ability. In our modern age, we live in a culture of self-help: I can fix myself, my problems, my life. I can work harder, dream bigger, think smarter, become better. Our culture says, “You have the power to within yourself to change yourself.” Ephesians 2 says the exact opposite. We are born dead. We are utterly powerless. We are not only spiritually dead but justly condemned; for as Paul concludes, “Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.” We are not the solution to our deepest problem. No amount of positive thinking, no amount of cultural unity, no amount of social reform, no amount of generational education, no amount of moral-self-improvement can or will save humanity from its hopeless state. We were entirely unwilling, completely powerless; altogether unable to escape our condition. Moreover, all our good deeds and decisions are unable to please God or merit His favour. They are like filthy rags in His sight. We cannot do anything to earn or contribute to our salvation.
Misconceiving Total Depravity
The Bible presents a shocking picture of our sinful and corrupted nature that is both solemn and depressing. Yet, total depravity does not mean that humanity is as bad as it could possibly be. Part of God’s common grace to this world is that He restrains evil so that for example, all humans still have a conscience and knowledge of a glorious Creator-God, though we suppress this truth. Additionally, God continues to use and enable people to do ‘good’ acts of benevolence, though such acts ultimately cannot be seen as truly righteous in God’s sight, as they neither proceed from faith nor are done for His glory.
Total depravity also does not mean that there is nothing good about humanity. We continue to bear the image of God. While this image has been shattered it has not been destroyed.
Even the most depraved person still enjoys the dignity of God’s original glorious creation of mankind. The doctrine of total depravity does not contend that humanity is now completely worthless; as Francis Schaeffer argued, “Though the Bible says men are lost, it does not say we are nothing.”
A Doctrine of Grace?
In some ways it may be difficult to understand why total depravity is a doctrine of ‘grace’. After all, it is a doctrine that depresses and deflates our egos and cuts us down to our true size. Where is the grace in that you may ask? In many ways the doctrine of total depravity is not one that is often taught clearly and extensively in churches today. For one thing it rubs fervently against the grain of our middle-class niceties. There is a temptation to soften or shy away from the bad news of our depraved nature in an attempt to minimise the offence of the gospel. But the sad irony is that by doing so we inescapably diminish the cross. The only way to grasp the greatness of the gospel is to see the depravity of our condition. Through the lens of a Biblical understanding of ourselves we come to more truly appreciate the God’s radical grace in Christ.
Therefore, the doctrine of total depravity needs to be preached, not just presupposed. Where we think little of our sin we will think little of our Saviour.
Instead, as Richard D. Phillips writes, “It is from the pit of our lost condition that we gaze up towards a God so high and perfect in His holiness. But from that vantage point we come to see fully at least one of these four dimensions of the cross that Paul would long to have us know: its height. The cross of Christ then rises up to span the full and cast distance that marks how far short we are of the glory of God, and that cross becomes exceedingly precious in our eyes.” Why is total depravity a doctrine of grace? Because when we view the ugly stain of our wretchedness against the absolute holiness of God, we see more clearly the gospel in all its glory. We cherish more deeply the cross of Christ where the sinfulness of man and the love of God meet. We believe more sincerely like Paul that, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst.” And in order for us to understand the rest of the Doctrines of Grace it is important that we be real and understand who it is who is being shown grace. It is us, fallen humanity, and unless we understand how big the divide is between us and the one true God we will be unable to see why it truly is amazing grace that God has shown to us.
original footnotes omitted for readability.
Originally written for the LAS Article Series (September 2013) - Doctrines of Grace